City Life – Pollution Postcard, 2023 Delhi
Prose and poem on the Delhi smog.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The mourning (sorry, morning!) sky is sandstorm yellow, so is the earth and everything between the sky and earth, though no storm is brewing. The distant trees lurk like djinns in black robes, here near Noida Mor. In such a hazardous setting, a cyclist has parked his cycle by the deserted roadside. His hands are tucked within the pants pockets. His head is bend sideward, as he stands statue-still amid the extraordinary smog engulfing Delhi. The scene is surreal. See photo.
The previous evening, designer Payal Singh was celebrating her birthday at her sixth floor apartment in Ghaziabad when she received a desperate WhatsApp message from her sister in Mumbai: “Anand Vihar AQI is 999 today—that’s max that the machine can read. Please do not go out. If you have to, then wear an N95 mask please!” Earlier in the afternoon in Old Delhi, Sabiha Jhinjhanvi and her husband offered namaz while wearing masks, though they were in their second floor drawing room. “Gandi hawa (filthy air) has entered the house! Eyes are burning!” Sabiha exclaimed. The following evening in her south Delhi pad, poet Jonaki Ray, author of Firefly Memories, tried to make sense of the dystopia in the only way she knows. She wrote a poem.
Who does this air belong to?
The border between Delhi and
Noida, and Gurugram and Faridabad, for once, has
smoothened, with blinking vehicles’ lights leading a procession
to the entire Delhi-NCR turned-into-a-Nigambodh-like ghat.
This is a world where the highway signs, the towers,
the sabzi mandis, the metro coaches and its tracks
— are all reduced to playground toys, uniformly glazed
with an ochre shade that integrates the Yamuna into the sky.
Who does this air belong to?
a cry scrambles to the sky, silencing the birds,
as the world seems to be ending, the city’s children
are choking, despairing, their lungs charcoaling.
Thousands of years ago, a Roman emperor
had once declared: “Three things belong to everyone
—air, running water, and the sea.” Back then, the world
was deemed to end where the horizon straightened.
Today, the world seems to be ending as the
air keeps getting indexed, the numbers keep measuring visibility,
the news keeps anthemizing particulates and NO2, comparing
warring skies and the children dying there to this city and its sky.
As if that makes the world seeming to end anywhere palatable.
On the Delhi roads, the houses, offices, animals, trees,
traffic, people are all disappearing into a haze,
one-by-one. Everything has flamed and reduced
to rubble and ruins, and now, only ash remains,
clogging our throats, our lungs, our bones, and their marrow,
squeezing life out, slowly, while children keep getting strangled.
Yet, no one answers, who does this air belong to?