Living in Smoke

i.

I’m in a yoga class in India, learning to breathe. The teacher tells me to fold my hand like an origami crane and alternate closing the left nostril and then the right. Nadi Shodhan Pranayama. Air moving in and out of my lungs like it’s supposed to. The life force, the purifying breath.

The yoga centre is in the middle of a residential neighbourhood not far from our house. I’m on a mat on the floor, near framed pictures of gurus and bronze gods and goddesses. I’ve never been serious about yoga, despite having lived for a few years in Vancouver, yoga capital of Canada, and now here. But something had to be done — my neck and shoulders burn from too much time hunched at the computer.

Idols in our local Delhi park.

I’ve also been holding my breath. Not unintentionally, as is often the case with anxiety, but on purpose.

While not enough people were paying attention, Delhi’s air became the most polluted of any major city in the world — far worse than Beijing’s. Levels of dangerous particulate matter often soar past “very unhealthy” and into “hazardous,” a category familiar to only a few cities around the world. Nobody knows the full consequences of breathing this filthy air, but my body has always given me messages and these days, it says not to breathe.

The teacher tells me to recline into savasana. “Be relax,” he says, over and over, walking slowly around the room. His mispronunciation is sweet but a little distracting. Not relaxed but relax, with a hard “x” like a “k.” Be relack. I wonder what this is. Relack, like a slap, something forced.

ii.

Air pollution is an abstraction to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. It was to me, three years ago, when my partner had his second-to-last job interview from a friend’s house on Vancouver Island, where we were staying for the weekend while she was out of town. Cottagey house with a red door and perky flower beds. Although I rarely thought about it then, British Columbia has some of the cleanest air in the world.

Over video conferencing, his future boss said, “Are you sure you’re okay with moving to Delhi? The air’s gotten quite bad.”

He told me later, after the call. He was excited; finally, closing in on a job as a foreign correspondent. The dream! And I felt it then, didn’t I? Fear. Something compressing deep inside. A knot that would take years to loosen, but would never fully untie.

Restless and desperate for change, I tried to ignore it.

I said yes. I said okay. I said let’s go. I said get me out of my head and into the world.

And off we went.

iii.

Car exhaust. Coal plants. Construction.

Desert dust. Firecrackers. Waste on fire.

In the countryside, where it can be so difficult to make a living that sometimes farmers commit suicide, where the summer temperatures soar into the 40s and higher, where land plots are getting smaller while the cost of production soars, everything burns.

Fire is how the farmers in Northern India and Pakistan clear their crop residue, twice a year, so they can plant again. Fire, effective and cheap.

Smoke funnels into the cities, looms over the towns. It rubs against the windowpanes, creeping in under the doors. It settles deep in the lungs.

Inside air comes from outside, so unless you find a way to clean it, it’s no better.

Our housekeeper’s young niece is always sick. Coughing, sneezing, allergic to everything. Her doctor says she should leave Delhi, but home is here, with her extended family. Where would they go?

At a party, a writer tells me her mother recently died of lung cancer. Her mother who didn’t smoke. She convinced her to use an air purifier, but it was too late.

Whenever I leave the house, I get headaches.

In the winter months, when cooler temperatures hold the pollution close to the earth (science basics: hot air rises) the smog becomes so thick that drivers tailgate, unable to see the road ahead. They crash into each other, they miss their turns. They cough and cough.

The capital on a regular grey-sky day.

The UNICEF report is almost impossible to discuss. It’s upsetting to everyone who has children, who wants to have children, who knows people who have had children recently. It confirms my wildest fears. Of course air pollution impacts the development of a fetus. Of course it damages that thin, protective membrane, forever changing the brain.

iv.

The prime minister does not speak about the air. He says nothing while his capital chokes. The capital where he also lives, when he is not gallivanting around the world, championing India’s emerging economy and the benefits of yoga.

The prime minister who has no children.

China cleaned up its act by imposing a nationwide cap on coal use, by converting households to electricity and gas, sometimes leaving people without heat in the process. But this is a chaotic democracy, not a communist state. People must eat, must drive, must sell consumer goods wrapped in plastic, must burn coal, must burn crop residue. And there are oh so many people here.

Finally the prime minister says something about the farmers. He refers obliquely to “wrong customs” and says the government is providing financial assistance to help buy more modern equipment. Later they release an action plan with steps to curtail the smog. But critics say the plan lacks the cohesive framework needed for change. I’ve been here long enough to know the government often promises things it doesn’t have the resources to provide.

Those with money and education protect themselves, as I do, with air purifiers and industrial-strength masks. With adhesive nose filters and long, long trips out of town.

Everyone else chain smokes. They chain smoke while they move through the streets, while they study and work, while they learn to crawl and walk and run, while they sleep in their beds, chests rising and falling.

v.

This is a holy place. Home to Ayurvedic medicine and sun salutations. A piece of the Buddha’s bones sits in the National Museum. People come here from around the world to pray and meditate and connect with their bodies and souls.

Yet India is also deeply unhealthy. It has the largest number of malnourished children in the world, but also the second highest number of obese children. Diabetes is rampant. The middle class is largely sedentary. Each year the country becomes a little more crowded, the threat of mosquito-borne illness mounts, the landfill heaps grow ever-higher.

I get on a plane and fly to the Himalayas, to a Buddhist meditation centre recommended by a friend. The air is cleaner up here, and cooler. Cedar, pine and oak trees stretch to the sky. My complexion changes and my legs ache from walking and for four days I do not have a headache.

Prayer flags in the Himalayas.

In meditation class, I sit on a purple cushion and gaze up at the Buddha. Breathe normally, says the teacher, an Israeli Buddhist scholar in lightweight khakis and a cotton shirt. Observe your thoughts like you are sitting in a cafe, he says, watching people out the window. Let them come, let them go.

The meditation sessions are interspersed with lectures on Buddhist philosophy. I jot notes in a notebook. On the second day, I’m surprised to learn about my anger. I thought I was a gentle person, but emotions all too familiar to me — irritation, frustration, impatience, even that fiery form of disappointment — are actually anger, through and through.

With anger, he says, there are two questions to ask yourself. Is there something I can do about this problem? If yes, there is no point in getting angry. You can take action. If there’s nothing you can do, there’s no point in getting angry. There is nothing you can do.

I will carry this lesson on anger with me. It’s a tool I need to survive in a place that brings out my impatience and my fear. Yet part of me can’t help but wonder: is this why so many people I know are ignoring the air? Accepting it or denying it or minimizing it in their minds?

There is so little they can do.

vi.

I will leave India. I will leave and maybe I will never come back. This is privilege. Once invisible to me, soon to be less visible again.

But until the situation improves, or perhaps for the rest of my life, I’ll worry about the people I loved here. The people who will remain here, breathing smoke. My dear friends the writers, whose kindnesses changed my writing and soothed my homesick heart. My neighbours and landlords — effervescent seniors, generous beyond expectation or reason. Our housekeeper and her sisters and their children. Our driver, who coughed all winter. The man who delivered our groceries with the biggest smile; the man who came by the house every month to fix a broken light switch or a cupboard or a fan. The migrants workers who built the house across the street, their barefoot children playing too close to the balcony’s unfinished edge. How many breaths can their bodies withstand?

vii.

I know a place. A farm in Canada. The land flat as a kitchen table, the sky a shade of blue from a crayon box. Fields of corn, wheat and soybeans. Each blade of grass dancing with life. Sometimes deer. Sometimes wild rabbits. Sometimes herons or egrets. Sometimes my father weaving up and down the rows in a combine harvester, listening to the radio.

This place is home. How impossible it seems that I felt stifled there, in that land of clean air and open skies. Where I could step outside after dark to be humbled by the swaths of great white light. There were always more stars than seemed possible. All of the cities were so far away.