Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Skyless night

The layers of dirty brown air standing over Indian cities are visible anytime one takes a domestic flight, but what I witnessed yesterday was something absurd. Peering out of a window after the seat belt sign flashed on, I couldn’t see a thing, no Baha’i temple, no long canal, no fields or towers. It was the same minutes later, when, having brought the plane down a few thousand feet and aligned it with the runway, the captain asked flight attendants to take seats for landing. This was no billowy white fog, nor even the smog that is thick on the ground on winter mornings. It was just dirty air. I looked at my watch when I discerned a road, and the wheels touched ground exactly 75 seconds after that moment. Till then we’d been flying blind, aided solely by navigational instruments. I walked off the plane at 1pm; the day was warm, 30 degrees Celsius. Looking up, I thought of a question I’d struggled with as a child: What exactly is the sky? Most days, we see clouds streaking the blue, and the sun, millions of miles distant; and at night we look up at stars that are light years away. From the tarmac at Delhi airport, all I saw was an even brown diffusing the sun’s rays into a glare uncomfortable to the naked eye. The sun itself was entirely occluded. Whatever the sky might be, it isn’t what was visible over Delhi yesterday.
A skyless night followed the skyless day. The moon, needless to say, was invisible and ineffectual. The city's lights created what looked like a red dome above me, of a shade somewhere between rust and blood. Early for a dinner meeting, I walked around Hauz Khas village. A little way off the gentrified stretch, restaurants vanished and offices grew sparse. A cybercafé was followed by a broken-down general store. Then single-room tenements, old men sitting around in vests and pyjamas, children in rags playing hopscotch. Millionaire landlords in waiting.
Reversing course at a garbage tip, I moved upscale again. Tangled cables and crisscrossing electrical wires ran a few feet above head level, providing semi-legal power to semi-legal eateries where expats and affluent Indians hung out in equal numbers. I climbed up a dozen flights of narrow stairs to Bohème, and took in a marvellous view of the tank that Khilji built and Tughlak spruced up. It reminded me of a restaurant in Lahore called Cooco’s Den which overlooks the Badshahi mosque and is reached after huffing and puffing up about as many steps. Dishes on the Cooco’s menu are raised to the terrace in baskets from a ground floor kitchen. Nothing so quaint at Bohème, but I could sip on some semi-legal beer instead, which I thought a pretty good bargain. After a couple of drinks, we moved down to Gunpowder, lavishly praised by food critics, but, as it turned out, grossly over-rated. We had buffalo and goat that had been cooked so mercilessly they were impossible to tell apart. As for the appams, better crisp-fluffy ones are to be had at Culture Curry near my home in Shivaji Park.

It was cool this morning, and the sky was blue.

x

7 comments:

seana said...

That's a beautifully descriptive post, but I hope this isn't a common experience in that region.

Girish Shahane said...

Seana, in winter, the smog disrupts flights and trains virtually every day in north India. Changing crop patters apparently have something to do with it, but so does plain old industrial pollution, as also cooking fires that don't use clean-burning material.

Rukminee said...

This must have been the dust storm day. The city looked quite strange even at ground level. And yes, Hauz Khas Village is a bit of a nightmare. Nice post.

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks, Rukminee. I heard about the dust storm, but the strange thing is, there was no storm in Delhi, hardly even a light breeze, except at night on the terrace overlooking Hauz Khas.

DS said...

Lovely post. Of a strange day and night. Seems Bombay had something similar that day.

JKHoNa said...

Good one Girish. An amazing experience you had, while Mumbai was facing the dust storm. :)

Jabeen said...

The dust storm wasn't in India at all - apparently the cloud travelled across the Arabian Sea!

This picture is quite awesome:

http://www.rediff.com/news/slide-show/slide-show-1-pix-sandstorm-in-west-asia-leaves-mumbai-gujarat-in-dust/20120321.htm