On Delhi’s dirtiest air day – on a day when the Air Quality Index crossed 1,000 in the National Capital Region – I was out looking for hope in the smoke.
On either side of me, fumes dissolved into nothing – looking like the world had ended in a crash and a ball of gas. I was standing on an embankment, and falling away from the bund’s steep sides was a wetland on the left, and old paddy crops on the right. Though the sun had not sunk yet, my car’s headlights were on; it was impossible to see where the road ended through the gloom that is the onset of winter in the world’s most polluted place.
Being in Najafgarh jheel, on the border of Delhi and Haryana, is the past and present coming together in a flurry of disappointment. What is known as Najafgarh nallah today is actually the Sahibi river. In the curve of the same river/drain, lies the ancient, forgotten Najafgarh jheel.
We squint through the distance, looking for birds. My eyes scout for white and pinks over the grey water. Najafgarh is one of the two places in Delhi that has Greater Flamingos.
Flamingos like shallow water, using their hook-shaped beaks in an upside-down motion to pick off tiny algae or insects. I want to tell you that seeing flamingos in Delhi is like a dream. Only that it is, and it isn’t. The air pollution robs the lovely birds – a fresh, baby pink, and a glowing, pearly white – of their pure hues. And I also know the birds are standing in dirty water, blooming with sewage and the invasive plant, water hyacinth. Dirt around their feet, breathing a toxic mash of poisons – I can’t imagine that what comes as relief to my eyes is good for the birds.
Yet, I look for the flamingos. Seeing a beautiful bird in North India’s thick, brown air is a kind of testimony that life staggers on – and that natural beauty defies man-made toxins. In the muddy waters, laden with drain discharge, another long-legged bird looks for food. This is the Black-winged stilt. It has thin, dainty legs, and a long, probing beak. Near the stilts, a pair of ducks swim serenely by. These are resident ducks that live here, carrying a dainty pattern, each with a yellow spot at the end of their beaks. Spot-billed ducks. They look like jewels that have been dulled over the lake. I keep searching. If I don’t see the flamingos, I will feel the pollution has won. The fields on the right look like they have been covered in charcoal brush strokes. The lights of my car are a sickly yellow, like an anaerobic creature that should not be there, weakly mimicking the pale, smeared sun in the sky.
Finally, I see them. There is an entire flock of flamingos quietly feeding in the water. They look like a photograph, not a live video. Their colours are muted and they are too far away to be heard. Yet, they are there. Like a promise made to a school friend, one you are scared you will forget, but you nervously keep anyway. At the feet of the flamingos is another beautiful bird. This is the Spoonbill. As its name suggests, the spoonbill has a beak that ends in the shape of a spoon- a charming piece of ‘cutlery’ that the bird uses to dredge the shore for snacks.
The sun does not emerge. The air remains smudged. I feel like I’m on a different planet, existing in a different medium. Just a few weeks ago, we were celebrating the brilliant blue skies of the lockdown. Blue like cornflowers. So ephemeral for Delhi that we all took pictures like the world would end the next day. I think about what the birds endure – a polluted world gift wrapped in our platitudes for saving the earth, delivered every October on National Wildlife Week.
Just then, a small Indian mongoose crosses me. It has a sharp, alert gaze. Its beetle-like eyes twinkle, cutting like a knife through my dark thoughts. Mongoose are small, but fearsome predators. Yet, these fearless animals are slaughtered for their hair – to be illegally turned to paint brushes. But this mongoose that looks at me knows none of that.
It only knows this one moment, this one moment of living its life, fully aware, senses still un-dulled.
Meanwhile, in the water, the birds are walking through ripples with more grace than our toxins deserve.
I am filled with resolve. We must clean the waters, we must clean our air. We must not leave the earth dirtier than we found it.
The next day, the wind speed picks up. The smoke disperses somewhat, and Delhi’s pollution improves to the ‘very poor’ category. I imagine the flamingo would lift its perfect neck and be able to look further over the water. That the mongoose would have less pollution to sniff, as it frolicked in the thorns of undergrowth.
The wind is the weather’s gift, but it’s time for us to take the matter of air pollution into our own hands. Solar power, not thermal. Rationed number of cars per family. Checking of construction and road dust. No leaf burning. An individual and collective responsibility.
At the edge of the city, apart from a whole generation of people, a flock of flamingos and a solitary mongoose await a better fate.
Photos: Neha Sinha
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