It is that time of the year again. The day after Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights loudly celebrated with an army of firecrackers, Delhi residents wake up with something that is worse than a hangover: a cloud of toxic fumes stubbornly sitting on the face of the Indian capital, choking it to a slow death. In her book, Choked: Everything You Were Afraid to Know about Air Pollution, Indian writer Pallavi Aiyar dissects the airpocalypse that has spread to India’s major cities over the past few decades. Drawing on her experience living in Beijing and Delhi as a journalist, mother and citizen, Aiyar tells us a sad tale of two cities where she reckons people serve “a life sentence”, inhaling deadly PM2.5 particles on a daily basis.
Hypochondriacs, stay away. Aiyar airs her grievances listing an impressive collection of facts, figures and medical studies which sends whiffs of panic across one’s body. For people like me who have been calling Delhi home for the past few years, reading her essay triggers an almost physical discomfort that echoes the asphyxiation she denounces. With implacable bullet points she details the numerous ways air pollution will eventually lead unsuspecting inhabitants to an early grave. The tone is cold, ruthless; if she weeps for her city, it is only because of a pollution-triggered eye irritation. It is also pessimistic. She does not let herself see any silver lining in Delhi’s polluted clouds, and shares her doubts regarding India’s ability to clean up its act and skies. As she writes,
We accept the distasteful, unhealthy and even inhumane as part and parcel of the karma of having been born Indian. Our culture is more oriented towards bearing suffering with patience than striving to change our circumstances.
She does offer at the end a roadmap towards fresher pastures, but warns it will take decades for any improvement to be felt, and that is only if the government starts to take action now. As the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was yesterday; the second time is now. But judging from the rarity of people wearing face masks in the streets of Delhi compared to Beijing, it seems that it will take time before the city and its residents break free from the ambient “airpathy”.