Darpana is one of the few places I feel I can safely breathe deeply: its an oasis of clean air, or at least it feels that way. Birds of stunning blue fly from tree to tree; a harem of pea hens strut about in the trees and on the sidewalks, occasionally and ungracefully flushed away by people and dogs. There are trees of all species, shades of green, and there is a garden which is tended by a small but lively man who happens to be the father of Vasant, my friend who lights most of the Darpana shows. But to someone like me, someone who spent a full year immersed in the disheartening work of understanding environmental pollution and how it is dealt with (or, more often, not dealt with), the world outside of this safe haven quickly becomes perilous. Burning piles of leaves and plastic wrappers dot the edge of the street every night and morning as I commute to work; at each intersection my rickshaw sits, and I uncomfortably in it, in a smoggy caucus of idling vehicles. Even now, in the library, I am looking out over the river, far away there is a smokestack unabashedly pouring black smoke into the air, making a cloud like a wispy bruise in the otherwise blue sky. A bird circles naively through it…
Because there are so many other aspects of India that can seem unpleasant to a foreigner, things that, truly, are just a matter of getting used to – the hole-in-the-floor toilets, the 24-hour chorus of horns, dogs everywhere, spicy food, what have you – I think that many people (especially me) are prone to seeing complaints from an outsider as just such: things that one has to open up to, to experience and be uncomfortable and understand. I felt strange today when I said I was uneasy with the idea of being pelted with toxic dyes during Holi (which once were natural dyes, and now, because of the cheapness of all things synthetic, are mostly chemical dyes and powders). I don’t want to exclude myself from these experiences, but I don’t want to lose my common sense either. There are many things that raise stunning (but naturally-dyed) red flags in my environmental-health-trained mind, in the mind and heart of someone for whom cancer isn’t just a distant possibility but an intimate reality. Is this asbestos in my apartment? Lead paint? When I went to Chhota Udepur, I saw hundreds of people working in dolomite and quartz-crushing plants without masks. Later I found a study that confirmed my suspicions: female stone grinders in Chhota Udepur suffer unimaginable rates of respiratory illness as a result of their work. (Of the women surveyed, 59 percent experience chest pain, 61 percent experienced breathlessness, and though the majority were only exposed for 1-3 years, 12 percent already already had signs of acute silicosis visible in a radiography. A quarter of the women surveyed were under 20 years old. 89 percent were illiterate. This a is heartbreaking study.)
India, you still have a long way to go. And I’m not saying that as an outsider, but merely as someone who lives here, who wants to experience your festivals, who wants to walk through your streets.