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.