Monday, January 7, 2013

India Gate, or "When the cold sets in"

You could taste the juniper on your tongue, as well as the burning trash. While at once nostalgic of camping in the the lower Sierras, the smoke that filled the cold streets on Delhi in a thick haze was also pungent and choking. Three days ago this street was full of Indians protesting the failure of Delhi authorities to prosecute six men who had raped and killed a young women on a bus. The protesting had escalated to mobs and even conflict as police in military-style riot gear descended upon the crowd in an effort to clear them from the India Gate monument area.

Today the park was empty except for the police buses and about 50 guards spread around the south entrance, and the smoke. This week marked the coldest day in New Delhi in nearly 44 years, at 1.9*C. Sam and I had left Washington in 1*C weather only a few days earlier as the Midwest was preparing for more snow, and so I understand when Americans ask why this is a big deal. But consider that for most of the year this region is nearly tropical, and that central heating is almost totally absent. More than 40 people died from exposure in Delhi yesterday.

As we drove around the city today from one meeting to another, I noticed scores of people wrapped in layers of shawls walking along congested (but somehow still flowing) roadways carrying stacks of freshly cut branches and children carrying sacks of leaves they had collected. Later on in the day these lines of travelers turned into groups of people standing around open fires in trashcans or even simply in the dirt near the street, in front of tall tents and gerry-rigged tarp and metal huts. Despite the government's large subsidies for kerosene during the colder winter months, many still can't afford to spend limited cooking fuel on heating an open space.

So now as we walked along India Gate, through the streets full of tuk-tuks and buses and cars that all rushed by in some chaotic yet purposeful swarm, the fog descended over Central Delhi and mixed with the smoke of juniper and trash and dung fires into a rich, bitter mist. The police brigades wrapped their faces in scarves, played cards and shared cigarettes, and smiled at us with shaking heads each time we approached the barricades. The protesters had moved closer to the parliament buildings these days, and except for the hum of the never-ending stream of autos the area was almost silent. And in a bustling city of 250,000 it was strange, and exciting.

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