It’s a sunny day in Delhi, where part of Team iro iro is.
Well, relatively sunny. I can’t say Delhi has actually seen the sun these last few weeks. Every year now, as we move from the heat of the Delhi summer, which is at once sticky and dry, to the chai-and-razaai-fuelled winter (with the quantity of razaais required ever dwindling, courtesy global warming), there is a smoky interlude where all of this beautiful city, markets, monuments, metropolis- are blanketed by a hazy mesh of grey. I romanticise this grey smog out of habit, because once upon a time, I remember walking through the cold, silvery fog that rose into the air to engulf every university student on their walk around the University of Delhi. Today, that romantic fog has been overthrown by the grey smog which, every year for the last two years has held Delhi in a chokehold. Clearly, the problem is intense, because Delhi’s Smog is a topic of national discussion. The pollution that iro iro seeks to contain and prevent, rears its ugly head in other forms.
Agrasen ki Baoli in Connaught Place |Shivani Sharma|
But this isn’t just a ‘Delhi issue’. Geographically, I am told, the rest of North India has it just as bad, if not worse. Kanpur and Lucknow stay engulfed in the same sooty blanket. In Hisar, a town in Haryana, you can’t drive three feet without encountering a wall of smog as it rises from the burnt rice husk from the neighbouring fields.
The smog is a problem that is both preventable, as well as replicable. Today it is Delhi’s problem, elevated to a national scale because Delhi is a metropolis, a capital city, a featured city on the BBC’s Weather Forecast and therefore the world’s window into India. There is no saying how this problem may spread tomorrow, but we do know that unless we stop it, there is every guarantee that this will become bigger, and, pardon the grammatical inaccuracy here- badder.
India Gate disappears into the smog |Shivani Sharma|
There is an interesting phenomenon underfoot though. As the smog thickens, life in Delhi slows down, but does not stop. In an odd, synchronised event, all of Delhi packs away the summer clothes, stores away the pastel cottons, and brings out the browns and blacks and greys of winter. Is this camouflage? Is this a welcoming of winter? I’m not quite sure. This year, besides the black and grays, there are strips of colour, scarves, and handkerchiefs; but where once they were worn either around necks, or tucked away into pockets, today both items of clothing must protect our mouths and noses, and at least in theory, though not so much in practice, protect our respiratory systems from the toxins with the dull alpha-numeric names that no one bothers to remember. Oddly enough, this cloth and those masked faces tell you more about people than their faces ever could. In that sea of cloaked faces, there is a hierarchy. You spot the white-masked faces of the policemen and the Municipal officials- for even their masks are government-issue uniform. Blink, and you might notice faces that wear nothing more than a handkerchief for they are convinced that it shall protect them from the worst, and perhaps that is just as well, because buying a mask might mean sacrificing a metro ticket, or for some, even a meal.
Then, just to set off the white, for we are a country of diverse colours, and where white is the most solemn of colours, will be a crowd of green and black masked human beings- people who either managed to visit their nearest government dispensary or chemist while there was still stock, and stocked up on slightly sturdier masks. At this point, if you’re still with me, you should be able to spot a group of beings in neon gas-masks. They sport lighter versions of what an RAF officer probably considered part of his uniform back in 1945. Swap the khaki and dark shades of the World War equipment with the pinks and purples of today, and you’re essentially looking at the same product, in different colours. The gas masks show at once the severity of the problem. This is not a warzone, and in an ideal world, the presence of toxic gas should not count as a daily occurrence. It should invoke surprise, shame, anger, shock, fear; and yet here we are planning, and stocking up on gas masks, investing huge sums of money on them because we know, we anticipate that at some point in November every year, the air is going to become unbreathable. The cute pink skull-and-bones motif on your Japanese mask isn’t a fashion statement, it is a dire warning about the way things could be.
The precincts of the Qila-e-Mubarak, Delhi, on the first day of November.|Shivani Sharma|
Clothing has always offered commentary on socio-economic hierarchies. Fabrics, textures and motifs are all clues that help one discern another’s wealth, status, interests and abilities. Ironically enough, it is the same pattern that is replicated in the midst of Delhi’s air crisis. A look at a mask helps uncover the wearer’s identity in those terms. Delhi right now is like a macabre fashion show, where the avant-garde of the 21st century, elitist neon gas mask, is replicated en masse by the common man. Perhaps here too there will be a Swadeshi movement, an opportunity for khadi to replace the foreign-manufactured polyfibre that is currently coveted. But if the mask market is a runway, perhaps what we need is a more risqué show- one where your models walk nude-faced and maskless. Right now, the fashion statement we need is not the presence of the mask, but rather, the absence of it.