Air Pollution: From Thrills to Chills
Content by: Jagruti Panchal, Blog Team-TOHRI
Edited by: Vidusshi Pathak, Intern-TOHRI
Saanjh never had problem in breathing. Why would he? He was a healthy boy of fifteen whom even the Delhi air couldn't take a toll on. Like many, he actually prided himself in this fact. And like any other fifteen year old boy in Delhi, firecrackers on Diwali weren't just a norm but a necessity for him. That year as well, when the unpredictable month of October approached, , Saanjh and hundreds of other kids of his age weren't concerned with anything but the festival of lights. Though, not as much with the festival as with the blasting fireworks anticipated with it. Numerous stalls exclusively meant for Diwali shopping erupted spontaneously around Saanjh's residence on the street side which was a cue for his mother to start a house cleaning regime and for him to start nagging his father for crackers enough to last him until after Diwali.
Last year his father gave him an allowance of a thousand rupees, but the amount of crackers and rockets he bought didn't fulfill his satisfaction. So this time, after many tantrums were thrown by him; Saanjh was allowed a sum of three thousand rupees for purchasing as much firecrackers as he desired. He bought cartons of them.
As Diwali grew closer, his anticipation heightened, with only a partial stopper in between when an awareness session regarding the harmful effects of burning crackers took place in his class. Why were adults so obnoxious and always managed to put a damper on fun? Alas! was beyond Saanjh's imagination. He would never stop anyone from lighting crackers, he knew what joy and rush that brought and who is he to someone from that enjoyment? He would rather teach his kids from an early age the tips and tricks of burning rockets and ‘Anar' bombs. The fact that a fun activity for him was life threatening to people whose hearts and lungs aren't as blessed as his, never registered in his brain for even a moment. He came back home, changed at the speed of lightening, and went out with a matchbox and a packet of ‘fusli' bombs meant especially to be exploded while waiting for the big day.
An old man in his early eighties lived a few blocks away from Saanjh's place. He was counted amongst those anti-social, reserved people who usually didn't interact much with any neighbour. Perhaps, he preferred solidarity over gossips (as is the trend). Although, he was living in the locality for years now, no one seemed to wonder where his family was. Not one soul paid visit to him, except for some delivery boys carrying medicines. He was a mystery unsolved yet undettered. Within the boundaries of his two-room habitat lay many secrets waiting to be discovered. Saanjh, like all his other friends did not dare to cross paths with this man owing to his weird and unwelcome nature. However, he always seemed to be curious about the world beyond that door.
This year, the park in which Saanjh carried out his cracker sessions was, unfortunately, adjacent to this man's home. As soon as Saanjh started burning crackers the old man would scold him "It isn't Diwali yet and you kids are all over the place with those explosives" bringing the boy's mood to a lowly state. However, that wouldn't stop him from exploding ‘fusli' bombs and in the end the old man would wheeze and cough and leave Saanjh alone in peace by shutting himself in the house.
On the day of Diwali, everything was happening excruciatingly slow for Saanjh, be it the decorations and rituals or the mandatory meetings and greetings. All Saanjh was waiting for was a green signal from his parents so that he could rush out with his friends and celebrate Diwali with fireworks. As soon as he was given the minutest affirmative, he was in the park with his friends showing off his collection of crackers, (which was still huge even when a considerable part was exhausted before Diwali itself). He saw a glimpse of the old man at the porch of his house and with an enthusiasm (which can only be due to the festive mood), ran up to him and wished him a happy Diwali. This was his only attempt to greet the grumpy-faced old man.
The old man gave him a sad yet resigned look, and then exhaled "Nothing much happy about it, boy". Saanjh was left flustered. He behaved like a good kid and he expected some smiles in return.
But in an attempt to maintain basic etiquettes, he said, "Why not, sir? It is such a lovely day…err…night." he stammered.
The man just looked at Saanjh for what seemed like an eternity before replying in almost a whisper "I am old and I have asthma. This festival isn't happy for me, it is rather frightening."
He looked down at Saanjh again with his blank eyes, he wasn't hoping for the young boy to relate to his condition, he knew the boy was the last person who would empathize with him.
"What do you mean, uncle?" Saanjh was now regretting coming to greet this creepy man at all, wasn't it impolite to respond with anything other than "Same to you" when someone wishes you a happy something?
"You won't understand" the old man dismissed him and went inside his house.
Saanjh heard the locks being bolted and then silence. He stood there for some time, his young ego bruised. He didn't want to understand anyway, whatever the old man was going through or whatever he said, did not bother Saanjh. He was a happy, healthy kid and he decided to stay in his little bubble of ignorance, it was there where he felt the safest.
Some days later, he found out that the old man died after an asthmatic attack caused due to worsened air quality in the city. The news of the death of a person who was almost a stranger to him surprisingly left him with a guilty conscience. He was well aware of what asthma was and what problems asthmatic people faced when projected to toxic air and fumes, but since he never went through it himself, he just didn't understand. Soon he forgot about the old man altogether and the next year Diwali was the same as any other. Crackers, crackers and more crackers. Years passed and yet every Diwali that came saw Saanjh even more indulged with firecrackers. Until one day, Saanjh's bubble of ignorance popped.
He couldn't have asked for a better life. He had a small happy family- his wife and a daughter who was eight years old, a satisfactory job and a secured career. From a healthy boy of fifteen he became a healthy man of thirty six. He still burned crackers every Diwali and still prided in the fact that he was someone surviving in the Delhi air. The year of 2017 though, put a permanent stopper to his infatuation with crackers. His little girl had been diagnosed with chronic bronchitis after she had an uncontrollable cough and breathlessness while she was in school.
"But she is just an eight year old! How can she have chronic bronchitis? It is supposed to be a long term effect of smoking, isn't it?" Saanjh was quivering inside but had to maintain a steady foothold in front of his clearly despaired wife.
"Breathing in the air of Delhi is equivalent to smoking almost forty cigarettes a day. It is the effect of environment. I would recommend you to take your daughter to some hill station for the time being, as Diwali is approaching" the doctor said with a sympathetic voice "this year Supreme Court has banned the purchase of crackers in the city but I don't think people will stop at that. There is going to be a huge degradation in the air quality this year and it can be fatal to people with respiratory disorders, including your daughter." Hearing this was enough to make Saanjh go numb to the core.
‘CRACKERS', ‘DIWALI', ‘FATAL', ‘RESPIRATORY DISORDERS', ‘IGNORANT', every word that the doctor spoke hit him like a boomerang coming back at him that he threw a while ago and forgot about. The guilty conscience which he felt when the old man in his neighborhood died, the old man to whom he had not given a single thought in decades, multiplied ten folds and made home in his heart. How couldn't he blame himself for everything happening to his daughter? If not the whole reason, he was at least a part of it, and for that he couldn't bring to forgive himself.
Days passed and he expected that year's Diwali to be a green one. He had hope that people will follow the ban on purchasing firecrackers. With the approval of his daughter's doctor, instead of retreating to a far off hill station, he bought an air purifier for his house and sealed it shut on the day of Diwali, hoping against hope that not a single cracker would go off. Of course he was disappointed; people were still ignorant towards the environment. He shouldn't have been surprised, but he was, what gave him thrills in his childhood now sent down chills in his spine whenever his daughter coughed or choked . Ashamed, since he was once acquainted with this ignorance himself, he went up to his daughter who was clearly uncomfortable while breathing even with the air purifier beside her.
"How are you feeling?" he asked her.
"Why aren't these people stopping with fireworks already, papa?" she asked meekly, inhaling heavily. He had no answer to that, so he questioned her again "How are you feeling, my little princess?"
She exhaled "You won't understand."
All that flashed across Saanjh's mind was the image of the old man, surprisingly vivid and detailed. Somewhere or the other Saanjh always remembered him, even if only subconsciously. His eyes tore up at those words. He wanted to tell his daughter that he did understand; he was feeling helpless and desperate. Not just because his inability to do something for her or what she was going through, but because he was a part of what messed her up in the first place. He no longer prided himself for surviving the Delhi air, he would rather have his girl survive it. He no longer lived in the bubble of ignorance, and only now he understood how suffocating it was without it. He wanted to tell her that he did understand, better than he did ever before. He was going through a permanent breathlessness of his own that was his guilt.