Breathless in Delhi

‘Our work is out here’: Delhi’s night guards are outdoors when the air is most toxic

Few of the men who guard the Capital’s homes and official buildings actually wear pollution-control masks.

Raj Kumar Mishra can gauge how polluted the air is from the intensity of the burning in his eyes. By Saturday, they had burnt for the past three nights he had been on duty, guarding the gates of a residential colony in South Delhi.

“We had nights like these last year too,” he said. “Breathing was not difficult but my eyes were burning. Still, the fog was not so thick that we could not see cars coming.”

Mishra, 48, has spent most nights of the past decade outdoors, stationed at the gates of homes and banks. Many of those, like Tuesday night, were spent enveloped in a blanket of smog.

He left his wife and daughter at Bakheri village in Uttar Pradesh’s Basti district and moved to Delhi over 20 years ago to work in a Gurgaon factory, powder-coating metal light fixtures of cars. The factory closed within a few years and his nocturnal life as a night guard began. His daughter is now in college. “She is in her second-year of BA [Bachelor of Arts],” he said.

His team’s shift at the gate begins at 10 pm and ends at 6 am. The worst of the fog descends after 3.30 am, he has noticed, and rarely lifts before the shift ends. In that haze, they may fail to spot even a car turning the corner less than 50 metres from his chair.

None of them wear a mask.

Lack of protection

During stints at banks, Mishra realised masks were not for him. “I had used them for a few days years ago but they make me feel claustrophobic,” he said. “Last year, someone from the colony had brought around masks to distribute but I did not accept any.”

Health warnings from the government mean little. “We have heard schools have been shut for two-three days,” another guard, Shiv Charan Yadav, chimed in. “But that has nothing to do with us.” He joined just two months ago and admitted he had trouble breathing at some points over the last few nights.

But even in the poisonous air, they must do their job – note down registration numbers of cars entering or leaving the colony after 11 pm, and the addresses to which they are going. There is a guards’ cabin just big enough for three men to squeeze into, but is used only as a refuge from the rain. “Our work is out here,” added Kumar.

They wave about 200 cars through every night during the week and the number can go up to 400 during weekends. But they do not consider vehicular traffic as a part of the problem. “People say this fog is a result of farmers burning the stubble left on their fields after harvest,” said Yadav, with a shrug.

The trio of guards is more concerned about the onset of full winter. In the past, they used to burn leaves and twigs in metal troughs to keep warm. But last year, some colony residents protested, citing the Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000 and the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority, both of which prohibit the burning of leaves.

The guards are resentful about the complaints. “It gets very cold,” said Mishra. “At least we could warm our hands in the fire.”

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.