Tag Archives: stench

a zoning violation

The smell would appear suddenly every two to three weeks, billowing up the stairway from the basement of Jenny’s office building, each time making her think that something had gone terribly wrong and that evacuation of the office was imminent.

“Stench” is a better word than “smell”, Jenny tells me: these were terrible stenches for which Jenny had no frame of reference within an office environment. It wasn’t stagnant urine from improperly-plumbed urinals, as plagued my Gurgaon office’s stairwell; and it wasn’t rot from a refrigerator opened after weeks of forgotten festering lunches. It saturated all four floors of this nondescript four-story building; it crawled underneath her office door and stabbed at her nose while she worked.

But only Jenny seemed bothered. While she coughed and choked, everyone else went about their business.

One day, fed up from mouth breathing, Jenny made some enquiries. While the top four floors of her building were home to one of India’s best-known advertising agencies, the basement housed a distributor of raw and processed meat products. Among their clients, it was rumored, were many of the Subway franchises that had sprung up all around Delhi.

Which meant that the smell was meat-related. Whether it was meat being cooked, strips of flesh curing in the basement heat, or blood being burned off a killing floor, nobody knew; all anybody knew was that it was meat. Which made it all the more surprising that an office of vegetarian Hindus were so complacent about the awful airborne particles polluting their bodies by way of their nasal passages.

One day, on a day I happened to be with her, Jenny investigated. There was no smell this day, but she marched smartly down the stairs anyway, with me following mutely along. We entered into a small office area with a single desk, a solitary phone, and a man in a button-down shirt bent over some papers. Through a door on the right we saw a large room, a half-dozen workers sorting meat into plastic packages, a few red-stained rags on the ground, and a few cardboard boxes that were open to reveal more meat. One man was wiping at some red liquid pooled on the packages.

No refrigerators were in sight.

Jenny walked up to the man sitting at a desk: the one employee in the establishment not wearing meat-stained clothes. Behind us, the workers had noticed us, and had crowded around the doorway to watch.

“Hi!” Jenny said. “How are you! I work upstairs. I heard you sell meat. Do you sell meat?”

The man, who hadn’t seen her come in, looked up sharply. His mouth dropped open. This was a distribution point, obviously; customers were neither expected nor prepared for.

“I heard you sell meat to Subway,” Jenny continued. “Is that true?”

“Yes,” said the man. “No! I mean, can I help you?”

“Do you sell meat?” she paused. “Uh, I’m having a party.”

Behind us, somebody said something in Hindi, and a few guys laughed.

“Yes, chicken and pork products, ma’am. Salami. Pork chops. Sausages.”

“You sell to Subway?”

“I’m afraid I can’t discuss that.”

“Uh… do you deliver?”

“Yes.”

“OK! Thank you! I’ll let you know what we decide.”

“But – ” But Jenny was already leaving. I looked at her walking away, looked at the man staring after her, shrugged, and followed her upstairs into her company’s lobby—the owners of which, incidentally, were the one bribing the local authorities not to notice their four-story, fifty-employee violation of the local zoning laws.

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.