India

Of air and lies

November 2011

The invisible visible air of New Delhi

How do you know your plane has started descent towards The New Delhi International Airport? When you begin to smell car exhaust inside the plane’s cockpit. Inside the terminal the smell persists and as you step outside, an acrid, sour, burning smoke assails your eyes and nose. On the way to the guest house you keep the taxi windows closed and try to breathe into your hankie to protect yourself from the nauseating effects of the blue cloud through which your taxi is moving.

At the guest-house you are welcomed by the charming, helpful and efficient hostess who yet manages to surprise you with an oddity: “What’s with the air?” you ask her (meaning: “Has something happened? Was there an explosion? A fire downtown?”) and thinking that, surely, the sheer scale of the disaster would have been first page news. But it hasn’t been: the hostess is nonplussed. “The air? Oh, in the winter it always gets foggy here, and then the dust blows in from the desert.” When you tell her that you have spent several winters in Delhi in the past and that the blue color of the air outside, its acrid smell of combustion, and the huge dust particles that palpably bounce off your face are like nothing you have ever seen before, she is surprised.

You then realize that your hostess is somewhat in the old line of pucca (“proper”) ladies and lives in a kind of purdah (“seclusion”), hardly ever going outside; and that remaining all days indoors has protected her in part from the worst of the pollution outside. Plus, the change in the quality of air must have been to some extent gradual, and therefore people living in Delhi without interruption may have been less aware of it. Still, there must be another cognitive mechanism at work here: the difference between Delhi air in November 2011 and November 2006, the time of my last visit, is so stark that no one with any sense can possibly have failed to notice it – unless they do not want to. And the truth is that most Delhites are trapped in the city and have nowhere to flee to; all they can do is pretend that things aren’t really as bad as they are and hope it will pass.

It will not. In the last decade, the city has moved most public transport to greener liquified natural gas and built a metro to try to ease the traffic congestion; yet the rise in motor vehicles has continued unabated, turning Delhi roads into one huge snarling traffic jam; and the construction of a whole new city of Gurgaon, just south of Delhi, though it has sucked out some old Delhites, has done nothing to abate the relentless population growth as more people move in from everywhere to take advantage of Delhi’s higher wages. Delhi air, never especially good, is far worse today than it was ten or even five years ago and for some, like myself, is simply unbearable.

Although statistics are not easy to come by – government’s annual surveys of Delhi air quality have not been published since 2009 (having been suppressed, some say, for the sake of not scaring off the Commonwealth Games in 2010) – reports circulate that two in five Delhites suffer from respiratory ailments. Certainly all of the city’s professional drivers hack and retch; the pollution has performed a public health miracle: unable to breathe, most seem to have quit smoking.

By miracle of evolution, we’re each a little different, and some of us are better equipped to handle the pollution: I find one of my fellow guests at the guesthouse – a North European – is actually sunning himself on the open-air terrace the next morning. Yet, even he’s not blind: yeah, he admits, the air is bad – better taken in through a cigarette filter, he quips – but at least it is better than last time I came through, a week ago. “Now, that really was bad.” I shudder and thank God I was not in Delhi a week ago; but do recall reading Delhi’s weather forecast at that time: “dry, it said, high 30 degrees centigrade, smokey”. Even Yahoo Weather noticed something was up with the air.

Originally, I had booked my Delhi room for two weeks: the plan was to spend part of the season in the city to catch as much classical music and dance as I could – in quickly “modernizing” India her classical performing arts are progressively more difficult to see; but after just three days, during which I did manage to catch one very good vocal concert (well attended but by an audience of whom none – except myself – was less than fifty), I realized I would have to leave Delhi if I wanted to live: I was choking on the air, feeling physically sick. A friend offered his house in the hills and a spare servant. “Go up there, he said, the air is good, the views are astounding, the walks invigorating.” I had missed the hills almost as much as I had missed India’s classical arts, so instead of rescheduling my flight and advancing my departure from India, I headed for the hills. Ten days is a short time for a Himalayan trip – it takes so long to get there – but that seemed a better idea than to leave India defeated, after mere three days, probably never to come back.

Two days later, about seven in the morning my car came into the full view of the Dhauladar Range. It looked, as always, magnificent; but looking down a bit, around the mountains’ midriff, I suddenly spotted clearly against her snow… clouds of brown smoke meandering in the upper air. Smog!

Around noon, the host took me up to see a property he’s contemplating buying (in order to escape Delhi air). He had selected a beautiful site: within easy access from the State Highway, yet screened from her noise by a low, but steep hill, it sits across the top of a mild hillock, with views in all directions: the Himalayas in the back, the plains in front. On a good day, he says, you can see all the way to Chandigarh; I follow his gesture but all I can make out is milky-white haze of sunlight scattered in the fine dust suspended in the air. “A bit of a fog today”, says my friend, though the temperature is in mid 20s, it has not rained in three months and the air is bone dry; “but look at the mountains, aren’t they magnificent?” They are; though a bit hard to see, veiled as they now are by a purplish-brownish haze. Suddenly I remember: The Asian Brown Cloud. I had never seen it before: and here it was, visible from ground level, with the naked eye.

My friend does not notice. “And the air, he says, ah, the air, isn’t it wonderful? That’s why I want to move here!” Actually, the air is not wonderful. It does not have the acrid smell of smoke which it has in Delhi, but it has none of the bracing freshness of mountain air which I remember from previous visits. I now recognize the phenomenon: I have seen it before.

Pattern recognition

I have of course seen it before – in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which, when I first came to live there in 2001, had mostly manageable air, little traffic, and beautiful views of Doi Suthep, a mountain which towers above it. When I arrived there, the city had a small expatriate population; over the next decade agreeable climate, low prices, favorable tax treatment and a good standard of living have caused the expatriate population to rapidly expand. By 2006 major international magazines declared Chiang Mai to be one of the best places to live in the world, throwing expatriate immigration into overdrive. Ironically, the 2006 positive publicity for the city, and what seemed like a quantum jump in new expat arrivals, coincided with the city’s first environmental disaster. Pro-growth policies of the government of Thaksin Sinawatra in part aimed at decongesting the country’s capital, Bangkok, have caused the city’s population to explode from 250,000 in 2000 to more than 2 million in 2011. Policies designed to capture car assembly business have expanded the number of cars on Thai roads even faster. As has been the case with Delhi, infrastructure development did not keep pace. In February 2006 Chiang Mai experienced its first smokey weather.

Both Chiang Mai and North India lie in the subtropical monsoon zone, at the foot of the Himalayas. The monsoon climate means between four and six months of daily rain which washes the air somewhat and six (or more) months of rainless weather, when dust, once kicked up into the air, does not get washed out from the atmosphere and stays airborn indefinitely – until the rains break again. The solid wall of mountains to the north means that the prevailing Southwest winds concentrate air pollution in the foothills – they effectively sweep garbage from the whole plain south of it and dump it overhead.

I first noticed that something was amiss with Chiang Mai air in December 2006, from my motorcycle, on one of my usual trips into the surrounding hills: a stretch of the road which runs along the top of a ridge used to afford wonderful views over successive mountain ranges fading into the distance towards Burms, each bluer and fainter than the one before. But riding along the same road in now I realized suddenly that one simply could not see the mountains: the view had completely disappeared into a kind of milky haze. Unlike my Delhi friend, I realized immediately that the haze was… no mist.

By late January, Doi Suthep – 1600 m mountain at the edge of the city – traffic-willing the top of the mountain is only 20 minutes away – has disappeared from view; by early February, Chiang Mai experienced its first “blue days” – blue clouds of exhaust hanging over its streets, an acrid burning stink of exhaust, palpable dust in the air, brushing one’s face as one rode through the streets.

Traditionally, the tourist season begins in Chiang Mai with the onset of the dry weather, sometime in late October; this is also when most new expatriate immigrants arrive. In 2006, when the first Blue Days arrived, the largest contingent yet has just bought their properties or signed their leases; people were just settling into their furniture when the pollution struck.

Their reaction to the disaster was much like that of my Delhi hostess: they chose not to notice. They had simply invested too much in their move to Thailand to allow themselves to realize that they have made a mistake.  With time, the expats began to complain about the air (though usually pretending that there are only a couple bad weeks in the winter).  Finally, this year (2012) the penny began to drop (see this discussion) though not before the Thai government began to wonder in public whether it should just evacuate the entire population from the North of the country. And the expats are still blaming it on  Thais burning rice-fields in the winter.  Yet, the truth is that Thais have been burning rice fields for about 700 years, but the smog reached catastrophic proportions only now — a clear sign that something else is at fault.  What?  The Asian Brown Cloud emanating out of India and China. Last year there were reports of Chinese pollution causing smog in Western Japan.  This year — in Hawaii.

How bad is it?  Just look at the photos of Kangra Fort, in Kanga Valley, 550 km north of New Delhi.  What you are seeing is not mist. It is the Brown Cloud visible (and smellable) at ground level.

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That it is possible to write a decent novel and not understand what it is about

Ahmed Ali, Twilight in Delhi

The critical praise Twilight in Delhi has continued to receive is surely due to the description of Muslim life in Old Delhi before the Partition; the patterns of speech (with flowery formulas, pious quotations and love poems), hobbies (kite flying, dove-keeping, poetry meetings), magical medical practices, fable-telling, clothing, housing, the marriage customs and wedding ceremonies, the funeral practices – they are all attractive aspects of a way of life now, as the expression has it, “mostly lost”. I say “mostly” because they are not entirely gone — similar practices still survive in some parts of North India – even some parts of Delhi; they are much rarer now than they used to be; coming upon them is a matter of exotic delight; but they were clearly already threatened when the book was written – in 1939. Reading the novel one cannot help feeling that the author foresaw and rued their passing – the way a Japanese poet might preciously rue — on a balmy August afternoon — the imminent (to him) passing of the summer. And this is pretty: regret for things past is a touching sentiment, especially when it is, as it is in this novel, unstated, only implied, and when it comes from the pen of a a 29-year-old (as Ahmed Ali was at the time of writing).

Hostility towards the English and constant bewailing of the fall of the Mughal Empire – it sounds so familiar to Polish ears – are in a way part of this way of life. Remembering valiant deeds of 1857 and offering occasional charity to beggar descendants of royal blood seem customary – meaning, perfunctory — like the embroidered cap or the praising the prophet – it is all part of the formula, it need not be taken seriously: after all, despite the horrors of 1857 — mass expropriations, exiles, and executions – the old way of life still continued fifty years later (the novel is set in 1910-18) pretty much the way it had been before the conquest. The real change – and the real loss of 1857 – took place only at the top of the social hierarchy to which none of the book’s heroes has ever belonged anyhow.  The ruing of the Empire’s loss is aesthetic.

But human beings mistake formulas for content and Ahmed Ali’s introduction to the book (written in 1993) makes it plain he does: there is a lot more there about colonialism – complete with the inevitable quotation from Edward Said. This subtracts from the novel: it interprets it in a tired nationalistic light, and in a suddenly florid prose — the sort Indians fall into whenever they speak of The Nation — and with the familiar old moralism of the defeated. Of course, the defeated invariably find moral fault with the victor – yet, what right had the Mughals had to conquer and rule India that the British did not?

The moralizing of the defeated is a powerful emotional cocktail and Ahmed Ali fell for it himself: in time, he came to believe his novel was about colonialism, when in fact, it is about the disappearance of a certain way of life. Yet, that way of life has not disappeared because of the British but because of – demography. By the end of the nineteenth century the poor stopped dying in the usually atrocious numbers meaning that their numerical advantage over the middle-class suddenly increased many-fold; by the beginning of the twentieth, they began to get access to information, meaning that they began to realize their strength; finally, in the course of the wars of the first half of the twentieth century, governments put guns in their hands. In one half of the world, the poor used those guns to kill the rich; in the other, to tax them. Everywhere, the old way of life came to an end.

A way of life is a form of art. Like any art, it can be more or less artful. What we call the “old ways” often seem more artful than the new ways because they were the ways of a kind of social class which has ceased to exist today: a smaller (and therefore more interconnected), richer, and far less busy middle class. Given time and resources, humans engage in art – in the broad sense of the word, meaning any beautiful skill, including mastering the smoking of the hookah. And so the heroes of Twilight in Delhi do: they pursue artful hobbies, which include poetry, alchemy, embroidery, singing and dancing, elaborate family rituals. Today, the socialist great leveler has eradicated that class — we moderns either have time or money; and while in the West there has been an offsetting gain — the life of the very poor improved as a result of transfer taxation – it is hard not to look at the life of those of our grandparents and great-grandparents who had been of the better sort with a kind of nostalgia. It was so obviously prettier than any life we live today. (This realization has driven a lot of the best art of the modern age from The Leopard, to The Buddenbrooks, to Fanny and Alexander).

Reflecting along those lines, it sometimes becomes hard not to doubt the utilitarian principle: does the greatest good of the greatest number justify destruction of goods (in this case the good is a way of life) just because they cannot be universally held? Perhaps there is something to be said for the Borges formula – that of Babylonian Lottery – let there be injustice in the world, some very rich and some very poor, but assign who gets what totally randomly — and to assure cooperation, reassign it frequently.

The characters of Twlight in Delhi provide a strong argument for the Lottery concept. Although Ahmed Ali presents them with charity; and they earn our sympathy by the sadness of their fates – all life is fundamentally tragic because it ends in disease and death; there does not seem to exist any apparent reason why this particular lot, and not their water-carrier, say — should enjoy rents on a few houses and some agricultural land. They are neither especially kind, nor gentle, nor wise; they manage their private lives with the same mixture of thoughtlessness and fumbling the rest of humanity do; and for all the artful beauty of their lives they manage to make themselves and each other seriously unhappy.

This also presents in a stark light the main problem with all novel writing:  human lives — which are by necessity any novel’s main subject — are not particularly worth knowing about, and therefore reading about, and therefore, it would seem, writing about. Perhaps, like a certain other descendant of Polish nobility (see footnote 1), I am too smart, too well-read, and too philosophically inclined to find anything of interest in a novel about people

Are there any novels about penguins, I wonder?

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(1) One Nitecki, of course: cf. the famous chapters of Ecce Homo with titles like “Why I am so wise”, etc.  As the Italians say, beh!  


Interlude — some recent Indian miniatures for Sir C

It’s all copies, of course; but it really isn’t bad at all. Besides, the Old Masters did a lot of copying — indeed, they mostly copied. (This is why Rembrandt got sent to Madrid in the first place). One copied and copied and copied and then, eventually, one painted something original, once, for kicks.  And only then, if it worked, one tried more.

Sir G paid well over market price for these (300-400 euros) — but figured he was encouraging the men to stick with their job. Glad to report, it worked: both were still at it two years later and one even had a (part time) apprentice.

For your enjoyment, copies after:  Mughal, Kangra, and Kotah schools.  Enjoy.


Filigree and granulation lady’s choker, Indian, ca. 2002

Filigree — use of very fine wire, as thin as 0.2 mm, often used twisted or braided, since single such thin wire would break too easily — and granulation — use of tiny rolled balls, less than 0.5 mm in diameter, and in the case of so called “dust granulation”, less than 0.1 mm — are two metal working jewelry techniques which have been developed and lost several times throughout human history.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to know that we’re in the process of losing it again. 

As of 2002, Aleppo, Syria, once famous for filigree work, was no longer producing any; but Delhi still was; which is when I bought this lady’s choker, from Mehrason’s in Greater Kailash, chosing it from among three dozen others on sale.  On a visit to the same Mehrason’s last November, the only filigree/granulation work still available for sale were five very large pieces (each weighing more than 15 oz. of gold) — which, on account of their gold content/price, have been in the store for years.  All smaller (and therefore faster moving) pieces were infinitely cruder, using mainly diamond cut — a rough technique consisting of cutting several sharp-edged surfaces into thicker gold wire to give it glitter.  It looks well at three feet and absolutely god-awful at one.  It also takes less skill and time to make.

Oporto in Protugal, once famous for its filigree silver (sometimes gilt), is said to still produce it — at any rate, Oporto filigree is still on sale.  But who knows for how much longer — better secure your own now.


Alarming trends in Asian cousine


The Old Workhorse — Padthai Kung — now increasingly an endangered species:
flat rice-noodles stir fried with shrimp and crushed peanuts

The aesthetisist in me wants to understand just what is going on with Chiang Mai food. 

It has never been great — traditionally Chiang Mai-ites have been  gourmands (big eaters) rather than gourmets (epicures); but it has always been far better than almost anywhere else in Thailand.  Foreign food in Chiang Mai — including Chinese — has always ranged from bad to indifferent — reflecting perhaps the ignorance of the public — you can sell anything to the ignorant in small quantities;  but Thai food has always been at least adequate.  Yet, in the last two years I have repeatedly had what I have never had here in the preceding eight years:  bad Thai food.  And what is far, far worse:  all my favorite restaurants — all the places I used to eat in daily — are, one by one, going bad.

I really dread the approach of the lunch hour.  Where can I go to eat and not be disappointed?  I delay the decision and sometimes don’t dare make one at all:  skip lunch, eat fruit instead (pomello and mango are still good though prices have risen dramatically), or eat nothing.  More often than ever, if I do go out, I find myself poking at the animal feed I am presented instead of the food I ordered, and, unable to force myself to lift it to my lips, leave hungry and with the feeling of being undeservedly persecuted.

And one has begun to experience the heretofore unheard of:  the — occasional, so far, and mild, so far, but all the same — food poisoning.

One explanation must clearly lie in the ingredients:  there has been a marked decline in the quality and flavor of fruits, vegetables and meat, in a kind of variation of Gresham’s Law:  Chinese imports and new hybrid crops developed for crop yields and long shelf-lives rather than flavor and texture are taking over the market (“Americanization”); the recent run up in food prices (between 50% and 100%) has probably only accelerated the process:  unable to cope with the price hikes, people (and businesses) are going down the quality ladder. 

But this does not explain the sudden prevalence of bad cooking:  food that’s overcooked, or under-cooked, or over-spiced, or over-greasy.  Sometimes the failures are shocking:  how can one explain hard rice in a self-respecting (supposedly) restaurant in a nation of rice-eaters?  Perhaps, in an environment of rapidly rising wages, restaurants are having hard time holding on to their kitchen staff and are forced to replace them with the ever-less skilled; but the consumers share large part of the guilt:  they fail to drive home the market message that bad food is not acceptable:  the quality-wise declining restaurants are as full as they were in their better-cooking days.

How is that possible? 

The only explanation I can think of is that the current customers are not the old customers.  In a city whose population has grown ten fold in ten years, this is not surprising:  90% of the eaters are people raised on the less-good food common in other parts of Thailand.  Indeed, many immigrants are from the country-side where poor ingredients and total absence of fancy foods have been the norm — even in the villages near Mae Rim — a mere 30 minute drive out of town, only low quality ingredients can be had at the market, the farmers habitually selling all their “premium” products into the city.  These immigrants are therefore, literally, food-wise speaking, know-nothings. 

This no doubt accounts for the proliferation of “fancy restaurants”, with glass, black decor, halogen spot lights, pointy logos — and bad food.  Their customers — and they have plenty of them — are not there to enjoy the food:  they want to experience the atmosphere, the decor and the service — feel rich, modern, and fashionable — and could not anyhow tell a good dish (from a bad one) if it hit them in the face.  It explains the rise in tipping, too:  traditionally, one has not tipped in Thailand, as one does not generally throughout the Far East — Asia uses a different economic model for restaurants, one in which the boss pays his workers; but the hommes nouveaux only a few years out of the sticks, have never been served in their lives and, given their low self-esteem, being served makes them feel awkward; the only reason why anyone would ever serve them must surely be — money; and so they tip.

Come to think about it, one can clearly see the same phenomena — poorer ingredients, poorer cooking, less knowledgeable customers, decor-over-flavor, tipping — at work in the restaurant scene of New Delhi.