It has been a while since the last post, since then the summer has come by and gone, and with it, the last of the clear days. These days in Delhi, the fog becomes smog without warning and even the clear air is heavy with invisible particulate pollution. With the swift descent of cold winds from the north, life itself has become lazy. The prompt 7:00 am calls of street vendors are not heard until 11 in the morning, the grocery shops do not open till 10, e ven the chaiwala around the corner does not set up shop till 9 am, when most of the office going crowd has already trudged in to work. On the other hand, the sun in always in a hurry to wind up. Last week we had only about 68 hours of sunlight in the whole week compared to the solid 80+ hours we get in the summer. The sun gets busier, we get lazier and are driven indoors to escape the cold and the pollution.
Before I moved to Delhi, Winter used to be a pleasant time. Winter is when mumbaikars venture into the western ghats and call all the parking spots, mini-hill stations. Though there are very few share auto routes in Mumbai, when you are in one, you can be guaranteed that at no point there would be more than 4 passengers in the auto – three in the back and 2 on either side of the driver. This is not so in Delhi, where it is normal to carry 5 people – often 6 and sometimes even 7 passengers plus driver – in a normal bajaj auto. In summer Share autos are sweat pits rivaling a packed local train. In the rains, you are subjected to the sprays of water from all directions, from actual rain or passing vehicles, to the extent that you have to have an open umbrella (or better, a HAZMAT suit) inside the auto. The 15-30 days of (not) really low temperatures at night is undoubtedly the best time in Mumbai. The wind hitting you in the share auto is pleasantly chilly. The atmosphere is just right for an open air concert or a night of long rides on borrowed bikes. The people wearing shorts and half-shirts get looks of surprise and wonder from sweater and muffler clad vegetable cart vendors, school children and their parents. “This is nothing, in my hometown it snows in december” climbs to the top ten of “common phrases of mumbai list”. Winter is to Mumbai what summer is to Europe – a time when the people can step out without worrying about occasionally natural calamity level of seasonal precipitation – and that makes it beautiful.
Of course, the winter collection is out on all hoardings, google ADs and shopfront windows at malls but that is the same everywhere, not just in Mumbai or Delhi. Geography and demography have no role to play in a sales strategy. So during Halloween, Oktoberfest and St. Patricks day – festivals only a few Indians (by percentage, of course) know about – gaudy decorations come up at malls to sell more products to people who don’t need it – young people with a relationship to maintain and married people with each other plus one or more to maintain. The strategy works best in countries with a 2 or even 3 month long festive season but in India it is highly lucrative for sales teams, mall decorators and chanda collectors because the festive season in India starts in late september and NEVER ends. From Holi in Spring to Diwali/Eid in Autumn to Christmas in Winter, not counting the unbroken chain of major and minor festivals celebrating incarnations, harvests, relationships, ancient rulers, new rulers and more, we have few gaps in the year, which we have now filled with imported festivals with ready made stereotypes.
But I digress. Basically, winters of mumbai were passive aggressive compared to a stereotypical Delhi winter. Mumbai winter is to Delhi winter what Elsa’s Winter from FROZEN is to GRRM’s Winter from Game of Thrones. Delhi winter is here, serious and accompanied by dust, smog and long cold nights. There are winter collections not just in malls, but also on every street corner on carts because lack of winter wear on the streets can be fatal at night. Even street dogs and cows are provided winter wear by NGOs because if you are loyal and/or with a herd mentality, you are assured of protection by local authorities. Even with normal protection from the elements, dry winds slapping your face leave any unprotected area parched, numb and cracking, especially when travelling in a two wheeler or auto. This is the one time that the overpacking of share autos – sometimes carrying 8 people in a three seater auto – is life saving. Like male penguins braving the dark antarctic winter, 7 co-passengers silently trying to hang on and huddle together for warmth. Sometimes I think, the driver takes in the 7th person so he can huddle with someone on the drivers seat. Even then, every year, “Yaar, this year wasn’t that cold” climbs to the top ten of “common phrases of Delhi” list.
But this is a fact, that this year has been the most polluted Delhi winter on record. Caused by human apathy and amplified by a lot of factors like crop burning, wind conditions, lack of late showers of rain. If we do not set about this uphill task to clean our act now, the road will be all downhill now, for all cities, in all seasons. As a nation, we have developed the habit of selective sweeping of problems under the rug, because we have so many to keep track of and get about solving and the problems are kind of locked in vicious circles. The seasons are not one of them because we have been wondrously blessed in that aspect so far. But the way we are irreverently causing irrevocable harm to the environment and ourselves, we might have to surrender our choice to venture outside to breath fresh air. We will need concerted action from authorities, businesses, farmers and common people if we are to address this issue. I wish and hope we can have, at least in the next decade, a year in which the phrase, “yaar, this year wasn’t that polluted” climbs to the top ten of “common phrases of Delhi” list.