Today at dawn, I woke up smelling smoke. Looking out of my bedroom window, I saw an old enemy and felt a stab of fear in my heart. I saw gouts of smoke rising up from the watchmen’s cabin of the building next to ours, spoiling the fresh morning air. The wind was blowing in the opposite direction, and the watchmen extinguished the fire soon afterwards. But that brief whiff of smoke brought back unpleasant memories.
My enmity with smoke began in December 2002, after dad came home with about 12 inches of stitches from his chest to abdomen after his cardiac bypass surgery. He had a nagging cough. His breastbone and stitches hurt when he coughed; it was painful to watch. Around midnight, I awoke to the sound of dad coughing uncontrollably. I too felt irritation in the throat.
Two watchmen in a neighboring building were burning scrap particle-board and plywood in a ghamela – a shallow metal pan. Burning is a well-accepted and widespread winter habit throughout India called taapdi – and maybe worldwide — and that made my task of resisting it very difficult.
I took a bucket of water and went downstairs. I explained my father’s condition to the watchmen, visually showed them how the breeze was blowing the smoke directly to my house, and pleaded with them to extinguish the fire at once. I explained that the smoke contained resins and chemicals that were toxic and irritating to the throat. I pointed out that they sat upwind of their fire, while we were downwind, and how unfair it was that they were hurting the health of the whole neighborhood.
The watchmen argued that the night was cold, and that as they were not my building watchmen, I had no right to tell them anything. Why I was the only one complaining? Why didn’t my other neighbors complain, they demanded. I replied that everybody else was in the habit of suffering in silence, whereas I had the bad habit of resisting. “This fresh air belongs to me, my parents and my children. It belongs to all of us in this neighborhood. Two of you sitting here cannot take it away from all of us,” I argued. But it was no use.
After ten minutes of futile reasoning, I firmly brushed past them, poured my bucket into their ghamela and returned home as they shouted at my back.
One hour later, the smoke started coming again. I dragged myself out of bed, and went back with another bucket. Again, reasoning was fruitless. In the end, I poured water over their ghamela and walked away.
In the coming days, weeks and months, I approached many managing committee members of three building complexes. They gave me a sympathetic hearing and said they would issue instructions, and the nuisance abated for some days or weeks.
At other times, I got the number of their security agency, and called them directly to complain about the nuisance.
On some nights, I carried a couple of blankets and offered it to them for the night.
All of this sometimes worked, and sometimes didn’t. When it didn’t work, I wordlessly poured my bucketful on their ghamela over the four-foot-high wall. If they saw me coming, they scrambled to protect the burning ghamela by dragging it away from the wall. By doing so, they risked getting splashed when I threw the water about 15 feet across. Sometimes, after such incidents, they yelled and called me a madman.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF TOLERATING SMOKE
There were also some nights when I lay in bed, afraid to go out and fight. After such nights, my family suffered for days with coughing and sore throats – and that was completely unacceptable to me.
In the first year, it was about protecting my father. Afterwards, it became about protecting my whole family and myself. My mother had been on asthma medication all her life, and I had seen how she suffered after smoke exposure. Some years, my wife and I were more susceptible to throat infections. In other years, it was my growing son and my daughter who had a nagging cough.
I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed garbage-burning and watchman’s smoke before 2002, but I have not been able to ignore it since. Closing the windows and curtains and staying in bed may have been an option earlier, but after 2002, it stopped being an option. Whenever I took this road, I despised myself the next day, and took action the following night.
CREATING ALTERNATIVES, BUILDING BRIDGES & MAKING FRIENDS
Over the years, I gave woolen shawls to some watchmen who said they needed the fire to stay warm. To others, I gave tubes of Odomos mosquito repellant. In some years, this meant an expenditure of Rs 500-800 every winter, but I felt OK with that. But it didn’t always work; some guys took the blanket and mosquito repellant, and still tried to light a fire at 3 a.m. when they thought I was too fast asleep to notice.
In later years, I started taking my dad with me if he was still awake. That was an option around midnight. His gentle presence prevented things from getting overheated. All of this worked has worked reasonably well.
I phoned the police a couple of times. I even went to the police station once after a member of the next building came down to the street and sided with the watchmen. The cops promised, but never really did anything; burning is such a widespread and unchallenged practice that it seems like a legitimate right.
In the end, effectiveness always boiled down to my willingness to take a bucket of water and solve the problem.
Occasionally during the day, nearby cottage industry-wallahs or slum-dwellers set fire to rubber tyres and plastic wastes. I went to the spot, requested a bucket and a rope from a nearby hutment and draw water from an open well. As I walked back and forth between the well and the burning heap, pouring water, I would explain in a friendly and (hopefully) non-preachy way about how burning rubber, plastic wrappers, thermocol etc. releases toxic chemicals into this air that is our main wealth. “Our every breath of polluted air becomes a lottery-ticket of cancer,” I said in a casual tone. “When you burn this stuff, all of us in the buildings will get one or two tickets in this lottery of cancer. Since you all are the ones closest to the fire, your wives and children, and you yourself may get 10 tickets each. Agar hamari lottery lag gayee, we and our families may spend the remaining months of our lives visiting Tata Memorial Hospital.”
Quite often, a few slum boys joined me in carrying buckets and extinguishing the last smoking remnants, and we shook hands and parted as friends.
Over the years, I have become convinced that the most frequent cause of our nose and throat “infections” is smoke from our own building watchmen or those of the neighboring compound. Doctors rarely ask whether we are sleeping downwind of a watchman’s taapdi. We all automatically attribute coughs and colds to viruses or generally polluted air. “What to do, doctor, there is so much polluted air nowadays. It can’t be avoided,” we say. We routinely ignore the fact the watchmen may be burning plywood, cardboard, plastic and rubber directly under our bedroom windows.
MY INNER CONFLICT: Seeing the smoke this morning filled me with anxiety and inner conflict. I am now wondering what to do. As the wind is not carrying the smoke towards my house, I am planning to ignore it. Yes, it hurts a lot of other people – people who are like my own family. But if someone among them does not rise to the defense of their family, what can I do?
What right do I have to argue for the rights of others, who may not even believe that it is their right?
(Krishnaraj Rao is a prominent Right-to-Information activist and journalist based in Mumbai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH’s editorial policy.