Christmas Tree Whataboutery is the Stupidest Whataboutery

For the last few years, Delhi in Diwali seemed to be getting better and worse simultaneously. Better, because as the campaign against firecrackers in schools continued, and as the police started enforcing the midnight (was it 10 pm?) limit on bursting crackers, cracker use was dropping, and crackers themselves became less noisy. Worse, because despite dropping cracker use, Diwali getting more and more commercialised meant that traffic kept getting more nightmarish and costumes got more garish.

In the last two Diwalis, though, the shift away from crackers, which until now just had to overcome force of habit, ran up into sudden, vicious pushback of “How dare people tell us not to burn crackers! This is a threat to Hinduism!”

The idea that burning crackers is related to Hinduism on any level beyond sixty years of habit is stupid, but I won’t go into that right now.

The idea that Hinduism is under threat is even more stupid, but I won’t even go into that right now.

No, what I will write about in this post is one particular brand of whataboutery that is trotted out in dubious support of the original ‘threat to Hinduism’ argument. Because there are multiple whatabouteries which people are pushing in defence of crackers. Including:

  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using cars first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using air conditioners first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you fix crop burning first?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when millions of goats are slaughtered on Eid, huh?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when thousands of Christmas trees are chopped down on Christmas?

All of these except the crop burning one have nothing to do with firecracker pollution. Cars and air conditioners are admittedly greenhouse gas emitters, but don’t directly fill the air with unburnt sulphur and toxic gases. Neither does goat slaugher, and nor does chopping down Christmas trees.

But the Christmas tree whataboutery is such a special kind of stupid that I will now devote the rest of the post to debunking it. In a vast universe of stupid statements, this manages to be simultaneously ordinarily stupid, and, Pratchett-character-like, so stupid that it goes around into the other side to be sensible.

First, the ordinary stupidity. Worldwide, Christmas trees are not chopped down from virgin forests, you idiots! They are cultivated on farms and fresh ones are planted every year. Christmas tree decoration is not causing deforestation or denudation. Meanwhile, while they are growing, they are happily acting as carbon sinks.

Does that mean that they are completely environmentally benign? Probably not, because wherever they were planted was once a diverse forest or grassland rather than a single-species plantation. To that extent, a Christmas tree farm is a bad idea. But then, so is every other intensive farm on the planet, including wheat, rice, and marigold and chrysanthemum.

And on to the bit where the argument is so stupid and wrong, that it turns into something that actually makes sense.

Accusing Indians of choppping down trees for Christmas is stupid because most Christmas trees sold in India are not Christmas trees at all, but metal or plastic rods with green plastic leaves. So no actual trees are getting chopped down.

Why the argument still makes sense at some level despite being so wrong is because all that plastic is ultimately coming from petroleum or wood pulp extraction. If it’s from wood pulp, again, it would in all likelihood be coming from a managed forest and not from denudation; and if it’s coming from petroleum, that’s your carbon footprint right there.

Fortunately, there is a very simple, and environmentally friendly way to have a Christmas tree in India that involves neither plastic trees nor cutting down a tree from a forest, nor cutting down a tree at a tree farm. It was advised to me by Nilanjana Roy last year: get a potted plant, decorate it for Christmas, and then look after it for the rest of the year. Your garden gets an extra plant, and your Christmas decorations look all that nicer. So that is just what I did last Christmas.

 

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It was fantastic.

A Drop of Honey

There is a story in the Mahabharata which I am retelling below. I may have added some details, forgotten others, or even grievously changed yet others; but I trust that I will have reproduced the essence of the story.

Once, a man is being chased through the forest by hungry wild beasts who want to eat him. Fleeing in terror, he finds himself at the edge of a high cliff. He slides down, and finds a young tree growing out of the side of the cliff. He grabs at it desperately and arrests his fall.

Unluckily for the man, the tigers, lions, bears and/ or other carnivores who have been pursuing him are also at the edge of the cliff, and waiting for him to climb back up. If he goes up, he will be messily devoured. If he lets go of the young tree, he will plunge to his death.

In fact, letting go is not even a choice, because just his own weight is beginning to pull the tree out by its roots, and so he will have to fall soon.

Looking around desperately for some means to escape his predicament, the man realises that above him, on a higher branch of the tree, there is also a beehive.

At that instant, the man accepts his fate; and stops worrying about whether he will die by tiger or by impact. Instead, he stretches himself, and catches a drop of honey as it falls from the beehive onto his tongue.

The story ends there.

Today, Delhi finds itself in a situation similar to the man hanging from the tree.

The wild animals here are the venality, divisiveness, and the sheer contempt for the electorate prevalent in the Congress and the BJP.

The horrifying fall that awaits him is the inexperience, lack of fiscal rectitude, and Somnath Bharti’s racism and thuggish disrespect for due process that the AAP brings to Delhi.

But in all this, there is a drop of honey and the drop of honey is that Amit Shah is now looking like a complete idiot.

It will not last very long, and at some point we must undergo the fall.

But it is important to enjoy the drop of honey while it is there.

Rice Must Be Annihilated

When I moped last week about the dust and haze in Delhi, I forgot all about the reason it’s so particularly horrific at the beginning of the winter: because farmers all over Punjab and Haryana are burning rice straw to clear the fields; and the smoke from this is drifting over to Delhi. This means that you actually see the air getting darker and more horrifying as you leave the urban parts of Delhi and enter the rural parts towards Haryana (whether towards Gurgaon, where I bicycled yesterday, or towards Sonepat, where I drove on Thursday). The urban parts might be nastier in terms of automobile exhausts pumping the air full of nitrogen and sulphur oxides; but the outskirts just look horrible.

The Times of India had an oped last week about how air quality is not the only ecological disaster that rice cultivation causes. It’s also sucking up groundwater, turning land fallow, and runaway power consumption.

For one, withdrawal of groundwater substantially exceeds annual recharge, with the result that the water table falls continuously each year. As the water table falls, each additional kilolitre of water requires more power for its extraction than the last kilolitre. The subsidy on power thus increases continuously and is met from the state budget.

In many regions the water table, which was initially less than 10 metres, has already fallen below 500 metres, leading to a huge adverse impact on state finances.

(The Times of India)

All things being equal, this would have hit a limit when power tariffs (or diesel prices for gensets) kept rising to respond to the demand. Or, additional power would have been generated.

However, thanks to a combination of subsidised power tariffs for agricultural users, state owned utilities, and agricultural landlords’ grip over politics in Haryana and Punjab, it hasn’t happened. The state owned utilities are too broke to put up new power plants or buy more power for that matter. All that happens is status quo, and less and less power availability, so everyone just starts running their pumps or factories on diesel gensets.

All this limited electricity supply being used to help produce something that isn’t that tasty, and could make me diabetic; when it could instead be used to power my Haryana factories hurts me personally.

The oped also cribs about the part Minimum Support Prices and FCI procurement rules play:

Coupled with attractive minimum support prices (MSPs) and policy directives to FCI to procure the bulk of its rice supplies from these two states, an irresistible economic incentive is created for the farmer to grow rice, rather than the alternatives – maize, other grains, pulses, horticulture, that are more suited to the natural ecology of the region.

The writers suggest moving to average cost pricing for power, hiking MSP for rice, and getting the FCI to purchase rice from eastern India instead of Punjab and Haryana to fix this problem. All well and good, and I hope this happens. But this works either on the supply or the intermediary side, and doesn’t really fix the problem of demand. And the problem of demand is this: Indians are obsessed with eating rice. If nobody was eating rice in the first place, it wouldn’t be getting sold in the private sector, non-FCI market.

How do we get people to stop eating rice? One way is to appeal to their better sentiments and point out that they’re just bringing horrible air pollution upon themselves. But in a society where people refuse to stop bursting firecrackers, even though with firecrackers they suffer the pollution effects of their behaviour directly and immediately, I have my doubts about whether this will work. We will therefore have to resort to guile.

I think the best way to discourage rice eating is with a flanking attack of shame and aspiration. When rice eating is shown to be a matter of shame, people will feel embarrassed about doing so; but also ask ‘What shall we do instead?!’ When an alternative is presented that is actually better and more aspirational than rice eating itself, this objection will also crumble.

Fortunately, this alternative already exists. The keto and other low-carb or no-carb diets preclude rice eating altogether. And they lead to awesome fitness and good looks, as seen in low-carber Hariflute.

Look at that sexy beast. Just look at him. That’s what you become when you cut out rice and switch to ghee and bacon.

So that’s what people have to aspire to when they cut out rice. But how to shame them into considering giving it up in the first place? For that, I think the impetus has to come from another Twitter heartthrob – @majorlyprofound, who has for many years now mounted a campaign of scorn against short, dark, small hearted rice eaters who can’t become fast bowlers.

If Major’s rants are more widely spread across the world (or at any rate in India), people will begin to refrain from eating rice for fear of becoming short and dark. In North India, which is where the devastation caused by rice cultivation is the worst anyway, we could even accelerate this campaign of shame by pointing out that rice is for cowardly monkey-cap wearing Bangaalis and traitorous Madrasis who refuse to speak Hindi. Yes, this is a course of action that plays on lamentable stereotypes, but fuck it, those stereotypes are there anyway, and we might as well put them to good use in cleaning up Delhi and Haryana’s air.

The time has come for a Biryani and Basmati Boycott. Are you with me, comrades?!

What I Did On My Diwali Holiday

These are the lampshades in my parents’ drawing room:

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As you can see, they are shaped like pitchers. To put a light bulb in or take it out, you have to get a ladder, lean over the lampshade, and extract or insert the lighbulb from above.

Unfortunately, since the lampshades are open from above, this means that dust keeps falling into them. This is what the lightbulb looks like when you take it out:

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Look at the crust of dust on the base. Ew. And that’s just the bulb itself. The inside walls and bottom of the shade were even more gross. It doesn’t really come out clearly in photos just how disgusting they were, so I’ve not put any photos here. But it was awful. Some of the shades had a year’s worth of dead insects resting at the base – moths and honeybees that had flown too close to the light and had their wings singed. CFLs are better than incandescent bulbs, but still generate enough heat to knock out a small insect.

This called for a day of cleaning. These were my tools:

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Two toothbrushes, paper napkins (I really need to get a roll of kitchen towels for this house), and a bottle of Hawaiian white rum (made in Moradabad).

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I’m so posh that I only drink imported liquor, and use the Indian stuff only to clean things with. Jokes aside, this was a bottle that hadn’t been opened for about eight years, and when we did open it, we found it had gone bad. Since then I’ve been using it to clean bicycle gears, window panes, and on Diwali, lampshades. The dark part at the bit is sedimentary dirt.

After some trial and error, I found that the ideal way to clean the lampshades was to first brush inside with a dry toothbrush to dislodge the dirt, then dip the other toothbrush into the ‘rum’, and brush inside the lampshade again, and then to wipe the dirt off with a paper napkin. Since this was probably the first time the shades had been cleaned in a couple of years (if not more), this is what the napkin looked like at the end of cleaning two shades:

2014-10-23 14.07.13Eurgh.

I eventually finished cleaning lampshades for about half the house, which took at least ten tissues, and replacing blown out lightbulbs (where nobody had realised they were blown out) with new ones.

By the end of this, the combination of new lightbulbs and cleaner lampshades meant that my parents’ home was much better illuminated. Coincidentally, all this happened on Diwali, but I hadn’t planned it that way. It just happened to be the first holiday where I had free time at home since the time I bought a ladder to do carry out this exercise.

Anyway, the entire exercise taught me two things. The first is that some lampshade designs are far better than others. If the top is closed instead of the bottom, the lampshade stops being such a dust trap. For example, these lampshades in my parents’ living room turned out to be much easier to clean:

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Unfortunately, this design comes with problems of its own. Specifically, since you have to screw the bulb in from below instead of above, you can’t hold it from the base. So, if you’re doing this with an Osram CFL, you have to hold the bulb by the lamp instead of the base, and in this position you risk cracking the glass.

 

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This damn thing is flimsy as hell. Which is why I’ve now ordered thirty 7W Cool Daylight LED bulbs, which give even better illumination (particularly after the lampshades have been cleaned), for a third of the power consumption. The cost of the bulb is of course slightly alarming, but considering in Delhi I have to pay almost seven hundred and fifty rupees for a not even great cheeseburger, I can rationalise the purchase price to myself by not eating out for a few weeks. And, of course, for the next few days, until my Amazon delivery lands up, I can go around telling people ‘पूरे घर के बदल डालूँगा!’

The best design, of course, is the panel that goes into the false ceiling and then is protected from the elements. Which brings me to the second thing I learnt.

The second thing I learnt is that protecting your electrical fittings from the elements is particularly important in Delhi. To live in Delhi, is to wage a constant, losing war against dust.

Where does this dust come from? I’m not sure, but I’m guessing these are the most likely candidates:

  • The Thar desert, from where it’s blown all the way to Delhi because Delhi, Rajasthan, and Haryana have no forests to act as breaks. This is what I remember being taught in school. Perhaps it’s accelerated recently.
  • Unburnt particulate matter from all the cargo-three wheelers that I see making cargo deliveries in Delhi. Seriously, I see these only in Delhi. In TN, everyone uses the Tata Ace, which I think is far more reliable, even if not necessarily cleaner. I have no idea why the switch to Aces hasn’t happened in Delhi.
  • Or maybe it’s just all the clean car and truck engines, that despite emitting very little particulate individually, just overwhelm Delhi when all taken together,
  • Construction sites where sand hasn’t been properly secured. You see this all over Delhi. People by sand by the truckload, dump it on the road by the side of the construction, and then let wind blow it away. It’s horrible in Gurgaon, but Delhi is pretty bad too. Construction has skyrocketed in the past few years, thanks to Metro building, flyover building, and house reconstruction all over Delhi after building byelaws were changed to allow you to have four floors and parking instead of three floors. Anecdotally, the last type of construction is the most indisciplined when it it comes to just dumping stuff on public roads and not storing sand safely.

The battle you face in Delhi then, is only proximately against dust. It’s ultimately against widespread small-scale assholery committed by people not giving a shit about keeping their construction sites clean, picking up after themselves, or tuning their engines, because what the hell, it’s more of a problem for other people than themselves.

I fear that this (along with Delhi’s traffic, people bursting crackers, and people littering) are all prisoners’ dilemma problems, except with ten million prisoners instead of two. Which means that the best course of action is not to wait for a solution, but just get the hell out of Delhi (again).

Unfortunately, that may not be feasible in the short term. But then in the short term, I can keep on changing my home’s bulbs, fixtures, and lampshades. And maybe, just maybe, the extra cleanliness and reduced maintenance will give me the money and peace of mind to come up with a miracle solution to the problem of dust.

 

We’ll Cross That Bridge

My commute to the factory (about twice a week) usually takes the inner ring road (going clockwise), which means that I get to see the construction of the new Delhi Metro line as it happens. Last week, I saw that the Delhi Metro was getting ready to build one of the challenging parts: the viaduct would no longer just run along the road, but skirt a cloverleaf flyover, and this is the really good bit, go over another Delhi Metro viaduct (of the Airport Express line).

Delhi Metro themselves put out a press release about how challenging this is.

On Wednesday, I was in a rush to get to the factory and inspect conveyor belts, so I didn’t stop to take photos with my phone. But I really wanted to get photos, so today I cycled down to Dhaula Kuan with a proper camera to get some.

I skipped two possible vantage points (taking the Gurgaon exit, and then again pulling my cycle on to lawn that separates the Gurgaon exit and the Northbound carriageway, and then looped back southwards. I then pulled my cycle onto a bit of foliage-free sidewalk (which unfortunately had also been used by multiple people to relieve themselves), and took shots from there. From that vantage point, you can’t really see that the new viaduct has now completely crossed the old one, so if I wake up early tomorrow, maybe I’ll go try taking photos from other possible vantage points.

For now, here are the photos.

The Ring Road Line crosses the Airport Express Line. The Ring Road Line crosses the Airport Express Line. The launcher has now got the segments of the viaduct into place, and over the next few weeks, they’ll integrate them into a single span.

And here’s a closeup of the span segments hanging from the launcher.

A closeup of the Delhi Metro Ring Road Line viaduct, right as its being built over the Airport Express viaduct. Precast viaduct segments suspended from a launcher. Over the next few days, the construction contractor will join them together into a single span.

There are two more of these further along the ring road, which aren’t quite as ready yet. Cycling there will take significantly longer, so it’ll be more of a challenge to take photos there as and when the DMRC gets ready to cross.

Residence Proof

In recent weeks, at the Khanna family breakfast table, we have increasingly been discussing the desirability of breaking our house down and rebuilding it.

This is actually something we have been doing for the past ten years. It happens in cycles. Every now and then, we go through the summer exasperated at how much we’re spending on water; or through the monsoon exasperated at how much our pipes leak, or through the winter moaning about the lack of insulation or central heating. (The last, admittedly, is more a point of exasperation for me than for the rest of the family.) We resolve to knock the damn pile over and rebuild it from scratch in a way that will stop all our whining. Then one of two things happens.

Either we fall into a financial crisis as a family and shelve the idea of reconstruction for better days, or we call the architects with great enthusiasm. And once the architects are there to discuss what it is we want, we fight bitterly in front of the architects about what it is that we want, accuse each other of not listening, being idiots, or making preposterous demands, and generally leaving the architects gaping in amazement. Then we sulk, and drop the plan. Until the next time.

For despite this track record, we always come back to this idea. Particularly in the last few weeks, as I was saying. As a result of the enthusiasm for reconstruction waxing, my father was telling me and my brother at the breakfast table that there was a new advantage to staying in our current location (Safdarjung Enclave, that is) instead of moving out to rented accomodation elsewhere – that is, under Delhi’s new rules for admission to primary schools, our kids would have a super advantage in getting into DPS RK Puram, which came within the eight kilometre limit.

Unfortunately, as my brother pointed out, my father was mildly wrong in the details. DPS RK Puram does not have a primary school, only middle and senior schools. From nursery to Class V, a DPS student goes to either DPS Vasant Vihar or DPS East of Kailash.

Fortunately, Vasant Vihar manages to be within even the original six kilometre limit, but East of Kailash is a little iffy – Google Maps claims you can get there with a 7.9 Km route, but if you take outer ring road it’s ten kilometres. That makes me wonder how the eight kilometres are calculated, anyway. Is it by taking a compass and drawing a circle around the school, or by measuring driving distance?

It also made me think, at first, that rents in areas which were within six to eight kilometres of of multiple good schools would probably skyrocket. This is really bad news for anybody thinking of renting a flat in places like Safdarjung Enclave, or Green Park, or or such like.

I then also wondered how long residence actually had to last in such places. If all you had to do was be a resident for the duration of the kindergarten year, Safdarjung Enclave might turn into a vast neighbourhood of transient renters with five year olds, all moving in a month before school admission began, and then moving out a year later once their child got into Class 1, making way for a new round of families. For a while, my imagination turned to Vasant Vihar landlords evicting expats and diplomats, and rebuilding their homes as dharamshalas to house as many families with children, in as small a space, as possible.

Pleasing as that image was, I finally realised that this is India, and that nobody will bother with an actual change of residence, when all they have to do is somehow jugaad a proof of residence.

I predict Green Park and Vasant Vihar landlords will now start charging the posh buggers who live in Chhatarpur and Sainijk Farms a small fee to issue a rent agreement for the duration of such time as it takes to get an electricity bill or bank statement or suchlike and establish that they live in a place surrounded by good schools, while they actually go on living in their secluded mansions and sending the kids to school with a car and driver.

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether the best way to deal with this is strong regulations or a dharna by the Chief Minister.

The Garden of Five Senses

Yesterday, I cycled to the Garden of Five Senses, in Saiyad-ul-Ajaib, near Qila Rai Pithora. The Garden of Five Senses, for those who don’t know, is a Delhi park, run by the state government tourism ministry. It’s a public park, except one with an entry fee (20 rupees for adults, 10 rupees for children, 10 more rupees per person if you’re carrying in your own food, and something extra for cameras with zoom lenses. You get the idea.) This was my first visit to the Garden of Five Senses in four years, and quite possibly my first ever visit before dusk, which meant that I finally got to see and appreciate for myself how the park has been laid out – that is, quite delightfully.

Unlike the other Delhi parks with which I’m familiar: Nehru Park, Lodi Gardens, and the huge Deer Park/ Rose Garden/ Hauz Khas park complex that lies between Safdarjung Enclave and IIT Delhi, the Garden of Five Senses does not have lots of open lawns or jogging tracks. Instead, it has lots of winding paths, flanked by bushes and rock formations; and all sorts of amphitheatres and architectural and sculptural and landscape oddities. Here a Zen Garden, there an amphitheatre, elsewhere a maze, and yet elsewhere a sort of pavilion; all interspersed with sculpture or restaurants or demonstrations of muscle powered electricity generation (sadly defunct when I visited).

This does make the Garden of Five Senses much less boring than Nehru Park. Nehru Park is of course a fantastic concert venue when the concerts happen, possibly the only place in Delhi where you see dogs being walked by the owners instead of their domestic servants, full of hot expat runners, and a great place to go for a picnic, but I have always found it boring to just walk around in. Walking or running in Deer Park means lots of happiness from the trees (and if the weather and the time of day are right, the waterfowl), and in the Hauz Khas Park and in Lodi Gardens, provides lots of entertaining opportunities to people-watch and eavesdrop on conversations.

In the Garden of Five Senses, the pleasure of walking comes from being surprised every time the path turns by a new sort of sculpture. But there’s no running track (though they claim to be building a cycling track, which is what took me there in the first place), and as I said before, there is very limited open spaces for people to spread sheets and have a picnic, or to play football or frisbee or suchlike. What this means is that compared to the other parks I’ve mentioned above, the Garden of Five Senses has absolutely no runners. Even the small city forest about a kilometre away, which has only concrete paths, has runners. None here. It also has much fewer picnicing families than the other parks. And it had absolutely nobody playing football.

What it did have in spades were cuddling couples.

There were couples cuddling on benches, there were couples cuddling under rock outcrops, there were couples cuddling in the amphitheatre, and there were couples cuddling beneath the overhanging branches of ornamental trees that seemed to have been planted there for the purpose, by some sympathetic landscape gardener. The cuddling was going on right next to the path, and at considerable distances away from it, in locations that could only be reached by couples determined to exercise their ingenuity in the pursuit of snuggles.

But then, a park that is laid out as a winding path with lots of visual distractions and few open lawns is going to be full of semi-secluded spots. And it’s no surprise if people who greatly value seclusion and privacy make a beeline for said spots. As Fraa Jad says in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, “Topology is destiny.” Admittedly, he was talking about trousers or sweatpants or underpants or some sort of lower body garment that wasn’t a veshti, but the larger point holds. And if you want an explanation of why he was talking about lower body garments, I can only ask you to read it for yourself, and beg you to believe me when I say that nine hundred pages about monastically organised philosophers who react to first contact with an extra-terrestrial race by schisming over the nature of causation is totally worth it.

Anyway, all this sighting of amorous couples made me realise why the ticket office up at the front of the park had put up this sign:

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Once inside the park, there were also signs saying “Please maintain decency. You are under surveillance.”, which sounds fairly creepy when you consider, in light of the Delhi Metro leaked footage, that it pretty much translates to “Don’t blame us if you find your snuggling activities going viral.” It also raises questions of what exactly Delhi Tourism means when they say “Please maintain decency.” Do they mean that we shouldn’t cuddle? Or is it fine to cuddle, and is Delhi Tourism merely coyly suggesting that cuddling shouldn’t go any further, to the point where it scares the children and the camel. (The Garden of Five Senses has a camel. You can hire it for rides. One couple had done this while I was there. It was hilarious to watch.)

Ideally, of course, indecency would refer to the act of filming other people cuddle. But I am not sure Delhi has gotten there yet, considering two years ago we had people being outraged over other people almost hugging. The horror!

This episode also reminded me of what Jane Jacobs had to say about designing useful parks in The Life and Death of Great American Cities. I don’t have it with me right now, but if I remember right, she did mention that a successful park ought to have interesting things that broke monotony (which The Garden of Five Senses accomplishes), have something for all sorts of people who would come at different times of the day (can’t really say, but it seems to manage), and host a population throughout the day (again, can’t really say.)

Which in turn makes me wish that somebody would do a Jane Jacobs style human census of Delhi’s parks, and track the human presence inside them on different days of the week, at different times of the day, and in different seasons of the year, and answer important questions thereby. For example, why have couples disappeared from Deer Park, only to be replaced by white people? Have the white people been eating them? What are the factors that cause people to clean up their dogs’ poop? Do laughter clubs drive away or attract other sorts of visitors? And so forth.

It is high time such burning ethnographic questions were answered.