Rosalyn D'Mello: The desolation of Smog

Nov 10, 2017, 06:17 IST | Rosalyn D'Mello

People shame and blame Delhi's residents for this disaster as if they were solely responsible, but like it or not, we're all in this together

I dared to venture out of my Delhi apartment for the first time on Wednesday evening, after landing in from Mumbai on Monday morning. I popped into a Fortis health store in Green Park, en route to a friend's house and decided to experiment with a RespoKare mask, which, at Rs 399, was among the most affordable and seemed like a good option for my maid and for the sabjiwalas and garbage collectors in my area who have been going about their daily routine unable to breathe, yet unarmed to deal with Delhi's alarming and continually rising pollution levels. I had to cast aside my anger at the callous use of plastic packaging for a pollution mask, surely there were more eco-friendly options. The chemist helped me open the packet so he could tell me about the white dot that had to be stuck to the mask's surface. When it turned brown, it meant it was time to change the mask. This was Wednesday, 8.30 pm. Not even 12 hours have passed and yet, that dot is already half brown after this morning's brief outdoor exposure. It looks as though I may have to buy a Vog mask after all, since it is more durable, albeit more expensive. It irks me that the people living in the basti neighbouring my colony can't, in all likelihood, afford to do the same, nor can they afford an air purifier.

A group of cleaners brave Delhi's toxic smog on Wednesday, without the protection of exorbitantly priced masks that citizens are now rushing to buy. Pic/AFP
A group of cleaners brave Delhi's toxic smog on Wednesday, without the protection of exorbitantly priced masks that citizens are now rushing to buy. Pic/AFP

What outright enrages me, though, is both the central and the state government's apathy to the severity of the problem. This is not anything unexpected. This could have been kept under check, it could have been controlled, prevented, but it wasn't.

And now we are all condemned to suffer, some more than others, depending on your net worth. It has been amusing, sometimes deeply unnerving, to read the kind of comments people are posting on social media that shame and blame Delhi's residents for this disaster as if they were solely responsible. It has made me think a lot about complicity, about how we will all be culpable for the impending apocalypse and the dystopia that invariably follows.

Growing up Catholic, I was encouraged to think a lot about the subject of sin, which was not simply a word, but a universe of morally compromising behaviour. Sins were categorised into mortal and venial. The former were those that jeopardised the fate of your soul, while the latter were relatively less damning. The Ten Commandments served as the general prescription for good behaviour, and I did know many self-righteous Catholics who were sure that since they weren't guilty of either having killed someone, or possessed their neighbour's goods, or committing adultery, they were in the clear. They would most likely land up in heaven.

I've been thinking about the afterlife a lot these last few days, because I've found myself somewhat hooked to the comedy, The Good Place, about a woman who, despite having been a terrible person on earth, dies and ends up not in hell, but in what is called the good place. She is fully conscious she doesn't belong there, but the bad place is so frightening, she pretends she is entitled to be in the good place and decides her best strategy is to earn her place there by trying to be good. She enlists her alleged soulmate, an ex-ethics professor, to school her in the philosophy of goodness.

I'm undecided on the notion of the afterlife. The finality of my death doesn't disturb me. But that doesn't mean I am not invested in the idea of salvation, or redemption, and I think that given the realities of the world we inhabit today, one that is characterised by capitalist greed and mindless corruption, we need to think harder about the boundaries of sins, and perhaps stop spending so much effort and energy thinking about morality. Instead, we need to consider a more egregious kind of inequity, the sins we commit against the environment, for which retribution will not be deferred to the afterlife but is already being meted out as we breathe.

I am not one to preach. My only big accomplishment this year was switching from sanitary napkins (a source of hazardous waste) to the menstrual cup (I cannot recommend it enough). But I am still struggling with eliminating plastic from my home, not using chemical-based detergents. I am yet to begin composting, yet to invest in a full-fledged kitchen garden, yet to curb my dependence on electronic goods so as to curb the waste it creates. But I am trying every day to think of the environmental consequence of every choice I make. I'm a long way off from redemption, though, because all our fates are intertwined by our collective eco sins. Like it or not, we're all in this together. And this is definitely not the good place.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx. Send your feedback to

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