The seat belt sign is on, and the air crew have been told to buckle up for landing. As the plane descends through cloud, I am looking through the windows to see my first glimpse of Delhi, India covered until now by thick cloud. I search for a glimpse of the city before we land, hoping for an over-arching view before the detail overwhelms me. I expect the detail will – very much – overwhelm me. As I hear the landing gear come down, I wait for that glimpse in vain, faced with only a grey cloud-wall out the window.
Suddenly, the plane gives a massive jolt and I believe we must be at the point of death – in cloud, still high above our destination. Never having seen Delhi, I am about to die above it, my remains and the remains of those imprisoned here with me to be scattered across the city and into the four winds, taking an unknown number of the unfortunates below us, with us. That moment of doomed acquiescence is replaced by a microsecond of pure serenity – I am about to die, I am happy with my life, and even if I was not, there is no longer anything I can do about it. Nothing matters, nothing ever mattered.
And then the engines start to roar as they are thrown into a reverse thrust, and the plane starts to decelerate. We’ve landed, we’re fine, in one piece. Out the window, I am still faced with that impenetrable cloud-wall, unable to see the ends of the wings. It’s as if a ‘London particular’ – the smog long since banished from the city from which I have come – has travelled across time and place to this distant jewel of the former British Empire. Unbelievably, we’ve landed in fog which would have surely crippled air transport anywhere else in the world.
As we disembark, the fog seems to slip into the aircraft itself, and up the air-bridge tunnel. I can see it swirling outside the window – not a uniform haze, but literally a cloud sitting on the ground. It is disturbed as people and vehicles on the tarmac move through it, and it rushes to occupy the space they have just passed through. Tendrils of it attach themselves to these moving objects, straining to keep them within the grasp of the miasma. Objects are at first sensed rather than seen as they move through it, a shadow, then they become real and identifiable as they get closer. And there is a smell, perhaps of charcoal, but also decaying vegetation on the air.
Outside the airport terminal, the world and it’s sound have been dulled, as if you are listening to it through headphones, the harshest aspects of it turned down by a sound engineer. It is purified sound, but muffled, the bass notes, the high notes dampened. I am not entering the place yet though, as I head to the Delhi metro – underground, below even the fog. As the train moves out of a tunnel into the open air, I hope again that the city will begin to reveal itself to me – but again grey as I can only see to the edges of the railway tracks. There are brief moments as a shape reveals itself, and then gone again, swept away into the gloom.
Only as I come away from the metro station at Paharganj does the life borne at street-level begin to reveal itself, a line of tuk-tuks waiting to whisk passengers into the gloom. Drivers are huddled around small fires they have built on the pavement, they and the street dogs vie for primacy close to the heat thrown off. The grey monochrome is starting to give way to some colour now – the fog not lifting yet, but the variety and insistence of daily life now showing itself.
The individual effect is that you are travelling around this country of over a billion people, alone. Step more than 20 feet from people, and they are gone, a spindrift murmur their only evidence. You are travelling in a cloud-bank-wall, always in the clear eye of it, only aware of that outside other world when it deigns to cross your path. I remember an old TV episode, The Twilight Zone I think, which was built around the idea that our world only exists, is only constructed as we move through it. The creators of this small, momentarily fabricated world sometimes make an error, which is why your car keys might not be where you know you placed them. Some days in the Indian fog I find it difficult to escape this solipsistic, somnambulistic construct, even when the sun comes out – the fog wall has been allowed to define my mood for the day, despite its disappearance by 10am. Other days, I can see it for the filter, the lens that it is – the foggy morning allows me to awake, unfurl and protects me from the crowded, noisy outside. And by the time that exterior reveals itself to me I am able to deal with it for a few hours, until the fog rolls back in, in the late afternoon.
It is through this fog-haze that I come to know the country a little, as it reveals itself to me each morning. Starting out early on a car trip means that much of the country passes by unseen, as we crawl through it at about 15 or 20 miles an hour, barely able to see beyond the car hood. The pillion passengers on the motorbikes are wrapped in blankets covering head and upper body, head resting on the drivers back, trying to find a little bit of shelter from the piercing early morning cold. You can only see their eyes, and these stare off to a fixed point, as the cold and tiredness of the early morning dulls senses and physical movement. As the fog burns off and the sun shines on their backs, they wake and orient themselves to it. The great palette of the place becomes apparent – a brightly coloured turban, an overpowering advertising sign, fortresses, palaces and peaks rearing up to meet the azure sky, entire towns known by a colour – the Pink City, the Blue City. I have some few hours to view this new place, to see it fully, before the blanket starts to form again – the sun dissolves, it’s remaining light cold.
As darkness descends once more, once more prematurely, I find myself alone, enveloped.