Delhi Ki Sardi: Breathing in an Open-Air Kingdom of Poison


Delhi Ki Sardi: Breathing in an Open-Air Kingdom of Poison

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

How would it feel to play football with masks? An element of deception is central to football but that does not extend to covering your face. Twenty-two men hurtling on the pitch with their mouths covered sounds like a ridiculous idea but it is not as far-fetched as it seems. Last October, footballer Gianni Zuiverloon used a mask while warming up for Delhi Dynamos’ Indian Super League encounter. And he was not the first one to do so in the Capital.

Over the past couple of years, winter has become the time of difficult breathing. One waits with bated breath, more in fear than anticipation, for a period when inhaling air is an act of self-harm. The throat itches, the eyes water, the nostrils hurt. Everyone at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Tuesday was breathing in a storm of dust and pollutants. Imagine playing football!

The unhealthy prognostications had begun to realise hours before play had even began in the late evening. As the day progressed, a familiar haze had descended upon the city. The sun hid behind the gauzy sky, maimed and shouting, “Get me out of here!” But there was to be no escape. It only got darker and greyer.

As I stood outside the stadium, my eyes caught an electronic board detailing the horror that engulfed us. On its digital screen one could learn about the abysmal air quality; a constant reminder of the public health tragedy flashed irritatingly. The word “hazardous” alerted you, just in case. Like many others, I merely walked past and entered the stadium. Work just had to be done.

In this context, the Supreme Court had asked a pertinent question: “Newspapers tell us not to go out for walks in the morning and evening. But if you take a walk in the evening to the Old Delhi railway station, you will see poor people on cycle rickshaws. They have no option but to work outside to earn a living. Hundreds of people are earning their livelihood outside… how do you tell them? Will you tell them to kill themselves by working in all this pollution?”

The possibility for other absurdities, though, will only grow over the next few days.

The state’s inaction runs deep and it gives birth to helplessness, if not suicidal feelings. “What can you do?” was uttered more than a few times by the coaches and players after the match. Like residents of the capital, they were just forced to carry on with their lives – even if it meant damaged lungs. But what of those who were there by choice?

The Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci once said, “Football is the open-air kingdom of loyalty.” On Tuesday, around 10,000 people found themselves in an open-air kingdom of poison. Their loyalty to football was exacting a heavy cost. Some of them wore masks, their chants muffled. They could be heard only faintly. Were they singing a song or was it a cry for help?

A crowd of similar size had gathered in Gurugram for a Bryan Adams concert last year. A photo he posted afterwards went viral for it showed the singer’s silhouetted figure made of dust and smoke. It was certainly a novel idea but the use of pollution for art may not be in public interest.

The possibility for other absurdities, though, will only grow over the next few days. The incongruity of organising outdoor sport or concerts in current conditions is nothing but a cruel joke on all of us. Former Indian cricket team physio John Gloster said it well a couple of years ago. “I’d have no problems telling my players, if they were in that situation, not to go out and play. And I’m betting a majority of the medical support staff would say the same.”

But medical opinion is disregarded daily. What of those who must step out to earn their wages, putting all the ominous signs away from their mind? What of those who have no choice but travel by public transport? And those who can’t afford air-purifiers and facemasks?

In times of disaster – and this is one, if only a slow-burning one – there are some who are keen to commend bravery in the face of adversity. The Spirit of Delhi moves on, embracing life as it is, they tell you. But that is rather unfair and patronising to those without a choice, the people whose lives are encumbered, whose voice is falling on the deaf ears of elected officials. Keep taking drags of this poison and somehow live, is all they hear.

And remember what we were always told about the winters in Delhi? It is a delightful time to go out and explore the city, to marvel at its architectural heritage, to steal a moment of refuge in its gorgeous parks and urban jungles, to just soak in the benign sun that that flips in mood for four precious months. You can do that still, but only if you want to learn where the pollution is worse. Ditch the plans for a picnic, sit in the open and test your lungs out. You will be bestowed with dust on your lips, and a sense that someone forced you to finish a pack of cigarettes.

Check who feels worse first. This could be a new sport, now that the usual ones are impossible to play.