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Raising Kids in Delhi’s Worsening Air





Morning in Delhi, the world’s most polluted megacity: the alarm erupts, the coffee boils, and I look out the window. Ominous clouds of vapor have erased the lime and jamun trees in the park across the way. I can barely see across the street and, beyond the curb, the world vanishes into mist.

“The air is really, really horrible today,” I text my friend Medha, adding a frowning face. This is a tacit cancellation of our morning walk in Lodi Gardens.

“Are you sending the kids to school?” she replies.

Oh, really, it’s that bad? I go online to check the air-quality index. The latest U.S. Embassy measurement shows almost six hundred parts per million of the deadly particulate matter 2.5, which is tiny enough to enter the bloodstream through the lungs. The measurement is beyond the extremes of “hazardous,” the direst classification. “Good” air contains fifty parts per million or lower. A mere “unhealthy” is between a hundred and fifty-one and two hundred.

Air pollution throttles the Indian capital during the winter weeks between November and January. In this smoggy season, the air quality can fluctuate by the day and even by the hour; other times, the toxic haze sits stubbornly over the capital for days. The construction dust, industrial smog, and vehicle emissions are constant. But the air is also dramatically affected by wind speed and direction, temperature inversions, torrents of thick smoke from farmers burning fields because it’s the cheapest and fastest way to prepare the soil for planting, and fireworks unleashed to celebrate Diwali.

I peck a reply back to Medha: Yes, I’ll send our eldest son to school. There’s no point in keeping the six-year-old home. His school, which educates the children of wealthy Indians and foreigners from around the world, is one of only a handful in Delhi with built-in, industrial-grade air-filtration systems. His classroom contains some of the cleanest air in town.

Still, I know some of his friends will be absent. Raising children in poisonous air is crazy-making, and once you start worrying it’s hard to stop. What if the kids forget to close the classroom door? How about crossing the grounds to lunch, the sports hall, the auditorium? You start obsessing about every breath, and soon you find yourself imprisoning your child at home while praying for a good, strong wind.

There are few precedents for the dystopian days my family is about to have. Delhi’s recent pollution spikes recall the “Great Smog,” which is believed to have killed as many as twelve thousand people when it smothered London, in 1952. Since the nineteen-sixties, a series of Clean Air Acts has shielded Americans from heavy smog, although Donald Trump has pledged to revive the coal industry and roll back environmental regulation. Meanwhile, toxic air is a stubborn hardship of contemporary life in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, as an unprecedented global migration drains workers from impoverished agricultural lands into overcrowded and energy-famished cities. For many millions of people, breathing is a necessary hazard.

Here in Delhi, it’s a cliché of our coughing metropolis that smog is the great social leveller. The bad air affects rich and poor alike, the chattering class likes to claim at cocktail parties and in editorial headlines.

But it’s simply not true. This is the dirtiest secret about dirty air: the wealthy buy their way around it. Slowly, I’ve acclimated to the idea that a small handful of residents can breathe safely, and the rest cannot.

This segregated reality is woven through our family life. State-of-the-art Swedish purifiers churn around the clock in our rooms; a portable purifier cleans the air in our car. Air-filtering masks protect our lungs as we pass from building to car to building. A Tae Kwon Do instructor visits our living room so our children and their friends get some exercise without braving the outdoors.

Speaking of the kids, they’ll have to get up soon. Angie, our nanny, walks across the back yard from the “servants’ quarter” and lets herself into the living room, unwrapping a scarf from her head. In the kitchen, she slices apple and papaya while I scramble eggs.

Angie is distracted and upset. A guard she’d befriended at a previous household died the night before; his wife called Angie crying. The man had asthma, but his job kept him outside. He coughed and gasped for hours, and finally he died.

“He was a nice man,” Angie tells me. “I feel pity.”

I’m not sure what this story means in medical terms. He had a heart attack? His throat swelled to block his airways? Can that happen? People who downplay the harmful effects of pollution (including an outspoken member of the Trump E.P.A. transition team, who took to Twitter to taunt Indians for fussing over the smog) often claim that it doesn’t directly cause death—just lung damage and cancer and heart attacks. The Indian Supreme Court has said that three thousand people die every year from pollution in Delhi; environmental advocates place that figure as high as thirty thousand. These statistics float through the news cycles, alongside photographs of overcrowded emergency rooms and face masks; one study follows the next, and the numbers seldom match.

Now I’m prodding the eggs with a spatula, wondering whether my six-year-old’s soccer practice will be cancelled and whether it’s physically possible to cough to death. I make a mental note to ask the kids’ pediatrician next time I see him.

“Was it always like this?” I ask Angie.

“Always,” she says. “But we thought it was just fog.” Until recently, the smog was routinely dismissed as fog, and doctors advised patients to go outside and develop immunity.

My husband and kids get up and we eat a gloomy breakfast. Thick, charcoal-colored brume presses on the dining-room windows. One of our air purifiers— the one in the playroom—has stopped working. This is an ill-timed malfunction. I remember the difficulty of running down company representatives last year, when a similar pollution spike provoked a citywide run on masks and filters.

Our younger son’s preschool is a small, family-run operation. Its lone purifier is no match for these pollution levels, so the staff sends an e-mail cancelling school. Hearing the news, our son weeps bitterly. It was his turn for show-and-tell.

I flash back to the snow days of my own childhood, in Connecticut: news on the radio, drifting back to sleep, and waking to the rasp of metal shovels on ice, afternoons spent sledding down hills of pine. These memories strike me, now, with their unbelievable cleanliness. We slurped on fresh-fallen snow; drew hard, pure air like knives up our nostrils.

“I don’t want to wear the mask! I hate the mask!” my elder son hollers at the front door, dropping his backpack in protest.

“You have to wear the mask, or you can’t go to school.”

“Fine, then I don’t want to go to school,” he scowls, although he loves school.

“You have to go to school.”

His cause is lost from the start, but he protests until, at last, the straps have been carefully hooked over his ears.

I walk him to the car. I do not wear a mask. The pollution season crept up on us suddenly this year, and we only purchased the kids’ masks in advance. I remind myself to drop by the city’s trendiest market, where a new shop sells reusable, printed cotton masks for about thirty dollars each. In the driveway, I smell smoke and chemicals and shallow my breathing. I am sipping at the atmosphere, taking in minimum air. When I walk too fast or breathe too deeply I see stars, tiny chips of light that flash at the edges of my vision. I am careful to chat cheerfully with my son.

The driver has come to work early on his motor scooter to rinse the dust off our car and start the purifier wedged behind the gear shift. We slam the doors and set off through the streets in our steel bubble of clean air.

We drive past security guards, maids, and street sweepers, mingling along the roadsides. An old man sits among hundreds of pigeons, selling seed to commuters who believe feeding the birds will improve their luck. We pass schoolchildren, skinny boys with baggy trousers, girls with hair carefully braided and looped with ribbons; traffic cops; sidewalk salesmen; auto-rickshaw drivers. They rub at watering eyes, and snort and hock onto the pavement.

Poor people in Delhi can’t escape the haze; they are also, as often as not, blamed for it. On the coldest nights, Delhi’s street workers and pavement dwellers set fire to garbage to keep warm, and these fires are frequent talking points among Indians who seem to regard themselves as stranded between the great, ignorant unwashed on one side and the feckless and feuding city, state, and national governments on the other. Less discussed, of course, is how these families are expected to warm themselves if they can’t light fires.

The government has struggled, of late, to clean the air. Schools have been closed, construction banned, and private cars restricted from driving on certain days. The sale of fireworks was outlawed before Diwali, as well as the use of diesel generators. None of these sporadic measures has had dramatic effects, but they reveal a newfound willingness to try.

I drop my son at the school gate, worried he’ll snatch the mask off his face as soon as he slips out of my sight. But there is no way to know, so I turn away.

I meet friends in a café. The room is so hazy it’s as if we’ve fallen into an old sepia-toned movie. We rub our temples and lose our trains of thought.

These women are some of my closest friends in New Delhi. We met four years ago, when our sons started preschool together. That year, there was a pitched battle among parents over whether the school should take the children to the neighborhood park during what we all refer to as “bad pollution days.” Back then, we three agreed that it was better for the kids to stretch their legs, even if it meant taking in a little smog.

I was still in denial then; so was practically everyone I knew. Our family had recently moved from Beijing, congratulating ourselves on escaping the horrors of air pollution. Back then, Beijing was already known for its bad air, but Delhi’s smog problem hadn’t registered.

In my state of increasingly deliberate ignorance, I had great company. My friends would point out that they’d grown up in the winter haze of Delhi, and they were perfectly healthy.

But quietly, gradually, we bought masks for our children. We bought more air purifiers for our homes. We stopped protesting when the teachers cancelled the park outings.

To live in Delhi these past years has been to witness a city coming to the slow, sickening realization of a terrible crisis. When we moved here, four years ago, I sometimes heard the notion of air pollution derided as the imported idea of weak-livered foreigners, who were, once again, stereotyping India with race-tinged slurs of dirt and disease.

When, in 2015, an outgoing Times correspondent wrote an essay suggesting that foreign parents shouldn’t raise children in Delhi’s dirty air, the reaction I encountered—and, for months, the conversation felt inescapable—was a churn of defensiveness, anger, a hint of hurt feelings and just the slightest self-doubt. Many Indians either fumed at the perceived neocolonial tone of the author or, at a minimum, rolled their eyes at the histrionics of uprooting one’s family over a little smog. “Do you think it’s that bad?” I was inevitably asked.

This winter, the naysayers are fewer in number and less strident in tone. Delhi’s chief minister called the city a “gas chamber”; schools were closed; and doctors posed in newspaper spreads declaring the city unlivable. Two iconic snapshots taunted Indians. In one, the visiting Belgian king peers through mustard-colored murk outside the Presidential palace, gamely trying to inspect a hardly visible military guard. In another, a Sri Lankan bowler vomits on the cricket field during a match that was repeatedly paused as the visiting players reeled in the smog.

For my family, the pollution days are weird and depressing, but not exactly dire. We manage to shield ourselves and, most important, we will eventually leave. Neither my husband nor I is Indian, and if we absolutely had to, we could go tomorrow.

At the café, a friend whose husband works in finance tells us about the fabulous new air purifiers they’ve installed in their flat. They are massive—she holds up her hands to show us the size, wider than the café table—and they pull new air in from outside. In other words, she is breathing something akin to fresh air.

Fresh air! My throat clenches with jealousy. Our purifiers clean the air but do nothing about the sickening carbon dioxide that builds up when rooms are sealed off from the outside.

“I just bought what was supposed to be the top-of-the-line purifiers last year, so I don’t think—” another friend trails off, and laughs mirthlessly. I nod silently. The rest of us are probably not going to drop a few thousand dollars on yet more purifiers.

“The oxygen is amazing,” our friend continues. “You don’t realize what a difference it makes.”

She leans closer, as if what she’s about to say is a secret.

“We’re all dreaming again!”


“It’s true,” her eyes are round. “We hadn’t noticed, but we’d all stopped dreaming. With the oxygen, we’re dreaming again.”

By the time I get home, I’ve burned through half my workday and my brain is pulsing painfully in my skull. I walk the rooms, making sure the purifiers are cranked to their highest pitch.

At night, I toss fitfully in bed, listening to the ambient roar of the ceiling fan and the air purifier and the baby monitor. I remember my friend who once said to me plaintively, “But the answer can’t be that all the rich people leave. That can’t be the answer.” And I remember that I said nothing, because I was afraid that was, in fact, going to be the answer.

Just before sleep, my mind drifts back to the revelation that has bothered me all day: that even dreams, now, are a commodity that can be bought.

I close my eyes. I want the dreams, too.

[Courtesy: New York Times]
January 26, 2018

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