What if We Stopped Complaining about Delhi’s Pollution & Fought It? I Decided to Cycle

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What if We Stopped Complaining about Delhi’s Pollution & Fought It? I Decided to Cycle

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The aroma of water and sand wafts through the breeze from the pretty lake nearby. It’s almost fall season in New York, so there is a nip in the air and a rich freshness too. I’ve been to the city before but it’s the first time I’m falling in love with it, as I cycle about the lanes of Manhattan. With the wind in my hair, I feel a lot like Anne Hathaway from Modern Love minus the great music and that overcoat from heaven. The freedom to discover the city – to slow down or veer off every time something catches my attention – a bookstore here, a coffee shop there is oddly refreshing. But above all, I sense great pride in being a part of the two-wheeled, non-carbon-emitting vehicle tribe. 

When you cycle, you realise that not only are you experiencing the very essence of a city, seeing its veinous structure up close, taking in the sights and sounds in the most “organic” way, but you also are being a bit of an eco-warrior. No wonder you end up riding with your nose in the air.

Maybe it is time to channel my inner Greta Thunberg, I tell myself. If that teenager could sail across the Atlantic Ocean, I could cycle – not only in New York but also in New Delhi, the gas chamber which I call home. I am thrilled with myself. Ready or not, here comes Delhi’s woke new cyclist.

A month later, I land in the capital, ready to be the change the city desperately needs. It’s easy to be deterred by the cars zipping past you, flouting traffic rules, but I am a woman on a mission. No honking or threats of “Jaanti hai mera baap kaun hai?”, were going to stop me now. 

I have big plans – to ride the cycle to work, to cycle to the sabzi mandi, to the metro station, to the park, to the Friday night house party. With my head held high, all dolled up in the latest winter accessory – by which I mean the face mask – I unlock my rented cycle. The building watchman looks at me the same way you look at someone who gifts you a box of soan papdi during Diwali for the fifth year in a row. He’s in shock. “Ma’am, you’re only going around the colony, right?” he asks, very concerned.

Maybe I’ll become the Afroz Shah of the cycling revolution in Delhi. I am turning over a new, environmentally friendly leaf.

I feel like Rambo at the start of an action sequence. I sling my bag over my shoulder and reply in my most take-no-prisoners voice, “No. I’m going to a park.” His head snaps back, his jaw drops. Sadly, I can’t film it for Instagram. And just like that, I am off!

I feel great as I cycle down the lanes of my housing colony toward the main road. Maybe Bunty next door will see me and get inspired. Maybe I’ll become the Afroz Shah of the cycling revolution in Delhi. I am turning over a new, environmentally friendly leaf. Travelling with zero-carbon emissions feels great. But all this optimism is short-lived, much like the city’s clean air. Riding in Delhi’s colonies is rather deceiving, like a politician’s election promise that gives you a false notion of a rosy future.

As soon as I reach the main road, the silence and memories of my dreamy New York cycle ride are shattered – first by a pothole (circa 2013, judging by the girth and the muck surrounding it) and then by blaring horns and screeching tyres. What hits me next is the oily, masala-infused smell from the nearby anda-pav stall. I try to shut my eyes and attempt to replace it with the aroma of freshly baked pastries wafting from pretty cafes, but I’m jolted to reality after I’m thrown up in the air by a speedbreaker the size of Qutub Minar. Whoever said you can’t make a mountain out of a molehill?

Just short of landing flat on my face, I somehow balance myself. But a little mishap isn’t going to run over my new-found “green” spirit. I pedal along until I reach a busy junction, my nose still up in the air, even as I pray fervently that the mask is doing its job. But I forget that this is Delhi – I have no business riding if I haven’t developed 360-degree vision already. 

On a Delhi road, a cyclist is an anomaly. This is true even though thousands of people cycle long distances to get to their workplaces – they are more or less invisible. I get the same look that a JNU student would at a BJP rally. Cars decide to speed past me, a bikewallah gives me “the cut”. Even a fellow cyclist – the doodhwala – is hostile. “Madam, yeh rasta hai, garden nahin,” he yells as he cycles past me. I’m desperate for some approval; I get none. 

I’m about to lose my cool, but I remind myself of the larger cause – sustainability, and what I need to desperately sustain was my cool.

City workers brushing pavements, impatiently gesture at me to move aside, pushing me toward the whirlpool of Delhi’s mean main road traffic. Banished from the curb I dearly cling to, I have to navigate through crowded lanes to make a right turn. The tinkling of my little cycle bell in the din of dozens of vehicles sounds like a panelist on an Arnab Goswani show – even I can barely hear it. As I make the turn, I almost crash into a bike coming toward me from the wrong end. The biker glares at me. What business do I have being an obstruction on the road? I’m about to lose my cool, but I remind myself of the larger cause – sustainability, and what I need to desperately sustain was my cool.

I somehow reach a traffic signal. It’s probably the best place to observe the one thing about the Delhi traffic culture that you wouldn’t find in most cities. The light turns green and the assault of the horn begins. Some beautifully crafted expletives, few of which I’ve never heard of, cut through the dusty morning din. Whoever passes me, scoffs. “Arré madam, rasta mat block karo,” is the upshot of most of these.

By the time I reach the park, my optimism has depleted like the city’s air quality. My eyes are watering, my throat is itchy, and though I haven’t cycled more than three kilometres, it feels like getting to the end of the fucking world.

Yet, I am not the one to give up. I do this over and over again. On most days, I come home defeated – sometimes because of the puncture caused by the pothole, sometimes because of the herd of cows who refuse to move, and sometimes with a racing heart after almost being run over by a DTC bus. But then there are a few good days. Now my building watchmen warns me of every new khadda that comes up outside the gate. The other day I overheard my neighbour – Pammi Aunty telling her daughter Bunty, “Tu bhi cycle-vicycle chala.” And five days ago, the doodhwala gave me an approving nod. 

I’m definitely not becoming Greta Thunberg or Afroz Shah of the Delhi cycling circuit. But maybe I’m ushering in a small change in my own life. I’ll find out when I step out. Right now I’m nursing my infected throat.

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