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Nazifa Rafa

Year-Prize: The 12th Eco-generation Environmental Essay Competition     Item: Beat Air Pollution

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The Generation of Gas Masks

Nazifa Rafa (Bangladesh)
Honorable Mentions


Mama changed the IV as my legs impatiently tapped on the floor. As if sensing my restlessness, her warm, muffled voice called out, “Not yet. You hardly touched your lunch.”
I let out an exasperated sigh, throwing my head back on my shoulder. I really wanted to hear another one of my grandmama’s stories from when she was a child before she dozed off back to sleep, but the sternness in my mother’s almost inaudible voice made me stay rooted in my position. While I waited for the IV that mama called “dinner” to drain out, I saw my mama busying herself with her own meal. It was a syringe filled with a peach liquid, and I wondered what the constituents were.
I felt really bad for her.
The government would only offer IV bags for the children of people who worked for the government, but that too until they are nineteen. After that, they have to feed as adults do- using syringes.
I dread the day when I have to switch to them. The needles of the syringe look really sharp, but I can never truly estimate how much they sting. The gas masks make it difficult to make out the expression of mama and papa when they’re taking their own meals.
The gas masks... I abhor them. They seem to taunt me with their obnoxious way of shielding people’s faces. I am riddled with the helplessness of having stripped off of the ability to be able to read the emotions of my loved ones.
After I was born, my gas mask was put on a few seconds too late, which resulted in me being admitted to the intensive care unit for the first seven months of my life. The room I was kept in, named “GoodAir”, cost my family a fortune but my parents and grandmama were adamant to get me through. I did, but I was to permanently carry a pair of weak lungs for the rest of my life.
Still, I shouldn’t hate the people who made us wear the gas masks too much, my grandmama told me, unlike my teachers at school.
My teachers who taught “The History of Air” would utter the contents with enthusiastic loathing. I was not entirely sure whether it was just towards the subject or the incidences that the syllabus talked about. I realized after some time that their favorite chapters were those that recited happenings of the 1990s.
“As the 2000s emerged, most of the countries were juggling with issues of population explosion. The people displayed resistance to the ideas of family planning, you see. Also, around that time, many of the economies were also booming. So, that was greed multiplied by millions. More and more people wanted the “hot” goods, like cars, to prove their worth to the next-door neighbors who could not care less. Producing and operating those goods also necessitated the use of large amounts of energy. Mr. Hale, do you know what the most commonly used source of energy was at that time?” one of Mr. Robin’s introductory lecture had gone.
Hale had timidly replied, “Fossil fuels?” uncertainty coloring his voice.
“That’s correct. Now, these bad boys were notorious for releasing pollutants like sulfur dioxides and several other oxides of nitrogen when burnt. People knew, and fossil fuels were also about to run out, but they had to be rich. Fast.”
And so they did.
But only a few of them did. Soon, the casualties caught up with profits as a shroud of the translucent, grey sky fell over the Earth. Millions were dying from cardiovascular and lung diseases, and the babies that were born were too weak to live until their first birthdays. Even the animals and livestock suffered. It’s like the air was a silent assassin, taking lives with expert stealth and causing humanity to dangle at the brink of extinction.
The surviving world leaders fervently tried to save the population whose number had fallen as abruptly as they had risen, and as a result of the adoption of hastily constructed policies, the generation of gas masks was born.
I was never too certain who we were supposed to blame in particular. Generations that led up to my grandmama were all guilty of the Grey Sky. Even my beloved grandmama was guilty.
She would recite stories of how she would go on road trips with her own papa and mama on the front seats and her brother with her on the back in their musty Toyota Corolla. Hours would pass by as they joked, hummed, and squabbled, the greenery flaunting by the window at the corner of their eyes. The trips that she liked the best were after it rained, grandmama had said once. She said that she used to love the smell that the raindrops left on the trees and shrubs. It made her feel like she was levitating an inch off the ground every time she took a lungful of breath. Occasionally, I would pretend that I could smell it too.
My grandmama’s stories of her youth took me to a world that is so different than our own, so much more beautiful than our own, that it made me wonder whether it even existed. Real or not, talking with my grandmama was the only way that gave me the feeling that I lived in it, even if temporarily. So by the time I had rushed to her room after finishing my dinner, I was dejected to see that grandmama was already fast asleep. I could hear her mask emit a hushed snore that mimicked the machines that papa has at his workplace as I grumbled out of the room.



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