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Opinion I Notes to myself while breathing Delhi’s toxic air

  • Distract yourself with music, food, birdsong and falling autumn leaves
  • Find things that you care about, new things to be responsible about. Do things that involve creation

Being compelled to stay home revealed new ways of restoring ourselves. iStock Photo
Being compelled to stay home revealed new ways of restoring ourselves. iStock Photo

Let one thing distract you from another. When friends call to commiserate about the poisonous air quality that your family and you are breathing in the capital city of India, tell them that it is even worse in Kanpur. Everyone is talking about Delhi, but what about the tier-2 cities, small towns and villages where the smog is equally dense but there are no face masks, air purifiers, US space agency Nasa-approved indoor plants or state-mandated pollution holidays in school? Make them feel confused about why they called you in the first place.

Distract yourself with music, food, birdsong and falling autumn leaves. Take photographs of the early morning calm. Don’t ignore the nagging headache, it’s related to the poor quality of air you are breathing. Drink water.

Stay away from social media, where everyone is an environment warrior but there is no reassurance, only enhanced anxiety. You need to feel less helpless, not more.

You need to do things that console. Find things that you care about. Find new things to be responsible about. Do things that involve creation. That tire you out. Chop vegetables, spill out the 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle on the floor, change the curtains, clean out the bathroom shelves, send long-pending thank you notes, repair your bicycle. Staying home is a journey in itself. Sleep without your phone in the same room.

After a few years of avoiding the noise and pollution of Diwali in Delhi, this year we found ourselves choosing to stay at home. Inspired by the need to protect our asthmatic first-born, year after year we used to get away to the hills and return rejuvenated. This year we have new pets—a kitten and a puppy, both of whom are four months old. This year, my father-in-law, who is in his 90s, was coming over with others from his village home. We could not do a road trip with all these new family members, so we had to find a way to restore ourselves by staying at home.

If I think about it too much, it all feels very complicated. Papa is visiting so that he can meet all his doctors in the city, but the act of driving in the thick pollution is itself conducive to making him ill. The cat and the dog need to go out to the park to get the nature time they need, but the air outside is toxic. We have never appreciated the triangular patch of earth between the driveway and our living room more.

Staying home for the sake of the pets seems to be the holiday we didn’t know we needed. They have brought all of us out of our rooms and offices to a central space in the home where we are together in caring for and playing with them. Invisible partitions between spaces have collapsed and hierarchies of age seem to have reversed. The animals tire us out with their restlessness; they also rejuvenate us with the peace they exude. Their rhythm moderates our energies too.

I find my consolation in cooking for our new pets. I want to know who they are, I want to give them back the nurturance their presence offers me.

“You can write in your memoirs that your mother, who meticulously steamed and blended fresh vegetables, dal, chicken and rice for her beloved dog, couldn’t be bothered to cook for human children and just ordered burgers for you instead," I say to my children with a tinge of guilt.

“We don’t mind at all!" they chorus together.

On another day, we drive with my father-in-law to Dr Dolkar’s Clinic to meet our Tibetan physician, Tsewang Dolkar Khangkar, and find it overflowing with patients. Some people look visibly affected by the pollution, most are wearing masks and almost all are staring at the wall-mounted television screen where a celebrity comedy show is being telecast. Thankfully, someone has intervened and put the TV on mute. “My daughters are trying to convince me to get out of here and join them in Canada," Dr Dolkar tells Papa, “but I tell them that this city with its vagaries is my karm-bhoomi now. My patients have learnt to find me here."

The thought crosses my mind that Sahar, our oldest daughter, no longer needs to come with us to this clinic. We had come here with her as a sick, wheezing eight-year-old diagnosed with juvenile asthma. After years of having medicines four times a day, this is the first year she is self-managing her breathing issues with home remedies that restore her wellness.

As much as the state of the world seems to worsen with each passing year, there is also renewal, rejuvenation and rebirth all around us. A surprise milestone arrived in my journey as a parent when our children bought me a book they wanted me to read. After years of being the adult trying to inspire children to read good books, I became the recipient of a return gift.

Art Matters—Because Your Imagination Can Change The World is a slim book of mini essays by Neil Gaiman. The entire book is written in all-caps and illustrated with line drawings by Chris Riddell. I open random pages and find whatever I need for the moment I am in. I am picking it up right now to share what I find: “If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet."

Hope follows from action. Disappointment is a short-term guest. Everyday we wake up again is another day of possibilities. The smog will clear when we care enough to clean up. Both inside and outside.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment.


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