Delhi Smog: The Toxic Gift That Keeps India Laughing

Despite all the choking, an ongoing environmental tragedy somehow inspires comedic gold.

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Photo: Sumita Roy.

Ever since Jan Van Eyck decided to put a Brussels griffon between the Arnolfinis in their wedding portrait, humour has occupied a rather unique position in the arts. Indeed, as a way to express reality, humour is perhaps one of art’s most potent forms. In recent weeks here in New Delhi, the capital of India, we’ve seen this potency at work.

This is because Delhi has been shrouded in toxic fog — smog. To provide some perspective on this, the Air Quality Index (AQI) measures the level of pollution and the corresponding health risk. AQI between zero and 50 is considered good; 51 to 100 is considered moderate; anything between 151 and 200 is considered unhealthy. On Mon., Oct. 28, the AQI in Delhi touched 500. It is said that poet Emily Dickinson penned her famous line, “I must go in, for the fog is rising,” after she flew into Delhi. Coincidentally, they happened to be her last words.

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Amidst a mad scramble for gas masks, plus delayed flights, teary eyes and runny noses, the smog in Delhi has inspired a fount of gallows humour. Stand-up comedians are saying that circumstances haven’t been this bad since Tom Hardy played Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. People who have never cracked a joke in their lives — the “shy, quiet types” — are suddenly making witty puns on Twitter. The rest of the world uses Instagram filters; the Delhi population uses smog filters. The rest of the world has #NoShaveNovember; Delhi has #NoBreatheNovember. At stock photo houses, images of Delhi couples are being re-shot to show them wearing air masks. Parallels are even being drawn to the new season of the TV show Chernobyl. Here’s a select sample of Twitter wit:

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If the humour shown above is of a personal nature, can politics be far behind? Several of India’s political leaders are keenly adding and displaying their own brand of satire to the situation. Author and political figure Shashi Tharoor posted the gem below, which is a play on an ad for tourism to Delhi. Roughly translated, it reads, “How long will you cut your life short with cigarettes, bidis and cigar? If you really want to cut it short, come to Delhi NCR.”

But the crown jewel must go to the advice tweeted by a few of our other political leaders on how to cope with our AQI problem. With absolute seriousness and no hint of irony, their advice has ranged from eating more carrots to relocating to other states; from beginning one’s day by listening to classical Indian music to my personal favourite: conducting a ritual fire to please Lord Indra, the God of Rain, to set things right. As noted by Vice.com, while Delhi’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, blames stubble burning for the smog — setting fire to the straw that remains after paddy and wheat are harvested, which produces clouds of dust and particulate matter — other political figures, like Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, seem to forget this primary reason for our deplorable air. One would think that vast paddy fields across multiple states would be enough to draw Lord Indra’s attention in the first place, not a tiny ceremonial fire.

It is said that a thin line separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humour and hurt. While the lungs of Delhi are being choked, at least our throats are being filled with laughter.