the stench of winter delhi

Just over a year ago, we spent our first night in Delhi in my company’s guest apartment at Hamilton Court, twenty-three stories above Gurgaon’s potholed streets. Of the three available bedrooms, our company allocated the biggest to Jenny and I. In an absurdly huge apartment, it was a comically big room, larger than our entire apartment back in Brooklyn.

But there was something wrong with it.

Exhausted from our flight, we’d gone to bed around eight o’clock. Some time before midnight, I shook Jenny awake in panic. “That smell! Do you smell it?!? I think there’s some sort of gas leak!” We were the first people ever to sleep in this brand-new bedroom, and I had visions of our Delhi struggle ending before it began, with the apartment’s live-in servant finding us choked to death from carbon monoxide leaking through the bedroom walls from some poorly-fitted exhaust pipe. What else could explain the thick, enveloping smell of rot and death that had woken me even in my exhausted state?

“We have to leave this room. There’s something wrong with it!” I forced Jenny up and out and into the smallest bedroom with the smallest window, where the stench was not quite as miserable. And that is where the live-in servant was surprised to find us the next morning — Jenny grumpy, but both of us alive.

As it turns out, there was nothing wrong with the bedroom. That egg-scented decay is merely what nights in Delhi smell like in the winter.

It comes on every year at this time, ushered in by Diwali fireworks that create a haze of smoke so thick that it choked to death all those disgusting little flies that plagued us throughout October. It’s the stench of coal-fired power plants, of the brick kilns that almost outnumber cows on the rural roads of Uttar Pradesh, of the dead leaves and plastic chai cups that tent-dwellers and security guards burn to keep warm, and of the hundreds of thousands of cars, trucks, and motorcycles that haven’t yet been converted to run on natural gas. It’s why I’m sick, why Jenny’s sick, and why my poor mom, here in India on holiday, has a voice like a choking victim.

The stench only attacks at night. Daytime is a respite; and as dusk comes, you begin to hope that maybe the weather has finally shifted and the smell has moved on to Haryana. But then the sun sets and the stench rises, permeating every corner of the city like those disgusting little flies; but unlike those disgusting little flies, the odor doesn’t die when you swat at it.

For a while, Delhi was winning the war on winter smog. In 2001, it forced buses, taxis, and auto rickshaws to run on clean-burning compressed natural gas. But the number of new vehicles added have completely offset those gains. Now even the UN is worried about us.

We’re fortunate in that we can escape the stench in our bedroom — which, with its small window, doesn’t circulate much air with the outside. But you step into the living room and it hits you. Did someone open a box of decomposing sewer rat hair? No, that’s just what Delhi smells like this time of year.


11 responses to “the stench of winter delhi

  1. I am sorry to read this, over the years on my visits to Delhi, the Smog level had reduced and it was wonderful, it seemed prosperity was helping make people more aware and friendly to the environment.

  2. This reads like a script from one of those horror films….you know, the ones where the terrified couple crouches in a corner of the log cabin, praying for the night to get over, because when morning comes, they can breathe easy again. Pun completely intended.


    Quirky Indian

  3. Don’t mind me telling you, but its apparent from the very title of your blog that you’re a little cynical about life in Delhi.

    That egg-scented decay is probably hydrogen sulphide vapors in the airMy part of Delhi smells just fine to me, actually.

    Sympathize with you and your experience but i kind of feel its just a one-off chance.

  4. Man – I can sympathise with the smell – it definitely descends on my house at night. However, yours sounds awful! Mine is just annoying really.

    Although, I will say that I can tell that my lungs are working harder at night. Would be nice to see Delhi less poluted – but that is going to take years. My experience has been that most of Delhi NCR has the smell of polution in the air, hardly isolated.

  5. delhi is much less polluted than it was a few years ago. and if this is a stench to yu (which I also must say sounds like a particular case, nto a generality) …have you been to bombay?

  6. it was really a tough to judge in the smell between fireworks and gas. You made a right decision to came out of the room because you cant take risk at that time. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Meanwhile, I have a similar tale to tell about my life in a small town in the US Midwest ( which shall remain unnamed).

    I had just relocated here from the South, and I was trying to get used to :

    1) The water is so hard, due to the contamination caused by the runoff of fertilizers from farms, that one simply cannot drink the water from the kitchen faucet. One has no choice but to order drinking water from the Culligan man.

    2) Showering with this hard water was starting to make me go bald !!!

    3) Come evening time, the whole city was overtaken by a ghastly stomach-churning stink. As the stink was everywhere in the town, there was no getting away from it !
    At first, I thought that there must have been an accident or something, but when this stink became a daily occurence, I made enquiries and was told that the stink emanated from a meat- rendering and processing plant, located a few miles outside the town. I just couldn’t believe it ! Was this really happening in the US of A ? Do they not have Zoning laws and stuff ? I was like : “And you townspeople are OK with this stink ? ” And the good townsfolk replied in unison ” Oh yeah”.

    Five years into that job and that Midwestern city, I still was not used to the evening-stink from the meat-processing-plant. Thankfully, I found a better job, and moved West.

    So, you see, India does not have the monopoly on stinks.

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