When I was a young girl growing up in boarding school, we had this little ritual we used to follow whenever there was a stink in the study hall. One of us would jump to her feet, point a finger at all of us, one by one, repeatedly, while chanting
Drat it, drat it, who farted?
Oh my God, Queen Vic-to-ri-a’s horse farted!
Whoever the finger was pointing at when the little ditty ended was judged to be the guilty party. It was an unscientific method, of course, but a hilarious one, and much fun was had by one and all as we went about ‘establishing’ the identity of the person who had introduced the foul… uh…. ‘emissions’ into the air.
A similarly inept investigation seems to be unfolding in Delhi at the moment. Even as the foul air swirls around the city, everybody is busy denying that they could be possibly be the cause of it. It’s the Delhiites burning Diwali fireworks, chorus the farmers. It’s the farmers burning crop stubble, rebutt the Dilii-wallahs. It’s the Punjabis, says the Delhi CM. It’s the UPites, say the Punjabis. It’s the Saudis and Pakistan and the rest of West Asia, says the government of India, seeking to blame everything on the convenient ‘Foreign Hand.’ And oh, it’s the weather too! Delhi is not to be blamed—we have weather like Zabol and Beijing—the cold air doesn’t rise, it just sits right there, with the pollutants in it. If a strong wind would blow, it would all be just swept away!
Basically, the foul miasma we’re engulfed under is nobody’s fault. Nobody did it. Or rather, anybody but me did it.
As everybody quibbles and buck-passes and waits for the smog to magically dissipate, the city has taken on a distinctly dystopian look. Small children come down to play in the park, with cricket bats in their hands, and filter masks over their faces, where their milk moustaches used to be. All the ancient monuments that give the city its unique character are barely visible. God only knows how old people, children, beggars, street dogs and cows are coping. The ‘slanting winter sunshine’ I stick into every book I write, making my editor roll her eyes and shake her head and delete vigorously, is conspicuous in its absence. There is no scent of harishringar, no heady raat-ki-raani, no strings of white jasmine selling at the red-lights. The little children who run up to your car when you stop have stopped selling nodding plastic flowers and plastic tricolours and started selling face masks. And I am heart-broken.
The most galling thing is that now Mumbaikars, of all people, are starting to give us the pitying, superior ones. They’ve started to talk, in increasingly confident voices, about their ‘crisp sea breeze’ and the efficiency of the BMC and how well they manage their rains. This is more than flesh and blood can handle. I’ve had to give them a sharp set-down or two, by snarling than yeah sure, maybe their fishy-smelling air is currently cleaner than ours, and maybe we are all smoking the equivalent of 48 cigarettes a day, but at least we’re smoking them in large, spacious houses and not in poky 1BHKs. Which of course made them say something rude about how rapists lurk in every corner of these large, open spaces of which I speak, and I, maybe, shouldn’t be so proud of them…
(Ah Delhi, oh Delhi, it makes you ill,
If the rapists don’t get you, the pollution will.)
Oh, the shame. It’s no use. I’m so depressed.
Fellow-Delhiites, we are all Queen Victoria’s horse. Please let’s not buck pass, or try to normalise this. I am having visions of the Republic Day parade happening with olive green masks over the face of every proud soldier. Let’s take responsibility, as citizens and as voters, and raise a sustained, constructive stink about the stink.
Chauhan is an author and advertiser.