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Contradictions in the Indian concept of hygiene

Contradictions in the Indian concept of hygiene
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First Published: Tue, Oct 14 2008. 12 53 AM IST

Updated: Tue, Oct 14 2008. 12 53 AM IST
For those of you old enough to remember the film, there is a telling piece of dialogue in Junoon, Shyam Benegal’s 1978 movie in which Nafisa Ali made her stunning debut. The plot is set in the background of the 1857 war of independence and Ali plays the role of a young English girl with whom Shashi Kapoor—a married Indian nationalist—becomes completely obsessed.
The line, which has stayed with me through these years, is spoken by Kapoor’s aunt, who disapproves of her nephew’s infatuation. It goes something like this: “These English! They use toilet paper.”
The wipers and the washers marked an ideological divide between the British and the Indians—with each side convinced of their own cultural superiority.
For the Indians, the wipers or the English, were the ultimate infidels, uncaring of personal hygiene. For the washers, cleanliness is next to godliness. No worship—Hindu or Muslim—begins without some form of ablution. And personal cleanliness is the key to salvation.
The dialogue from Junoon came back to me after reading Winifred Gallagher’s review of two books on personal hygiene—Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity by Virginia Smith (Oxford University Press) and The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History by Katherine Ashenburg (North Point Press) in the winter 2008 issue of The Wilson Quarterly.
The books document the West’s discovery of personal hygiene and the dark ages between the 16th and the 19th centuries when bathing was an anathema, with doctors declaring that it caused sickness and disease.
Even today, the French apparently continue to be careless about their daily bath—something that could explain the evolution of the country’s perfume industry.
As Indians, we are fond of talking about our cultural advancement by pointing to the Great Bath at Mohenjo-Daro as evidence. While our people were bathing and had evolved a sophisticated sanitation system in our earliest cities, Europeans were (and are) still to discover the rudiments of personal hygiene.
Yet, I can’t help but wonder at our laxity where public hygiene is concerned. We wash our hands before and after every meal.
We have concepts that are entirely alien to much of the world: concepts such as jootha, which cannot really be translated into English (when I drink water directly from a bottle, I make sure my lips don’t touch the rim, otherwise it will become jootha and no one else will be able to drink from the same bottle).
When we take off our slippers at the entrance to our homes, we do so out of a sense of not wanting to drag the dirt from the streets outside within the sanctum of our dwelling spaces.
But let’s face it, our streets are filthy. Over 40 years since V.S. Naipaul noted in An Area of Darkness that “Indians defecate everywhere”, little seems to have changed.
Part of the problem, of course, is that we simply don’t have enough toilets, despite Bindeshwar Pathak’s pioneering efforts with Sulabh Shauchalaya, whose mission is as much to provide public toilets as it is to liberate human “scavengers” from manually lifting and disposing of human excreta.
According to Sulabh’s own website, even today 110 million Indian houses have no toilets while another 10 million make do with bucket toilets that cause disease.
But that’s only half the story. You have only to visit a public toilet at one of our swanky new airports to see the whole picture.
We continue to squat on the floor, we forget to flush and the people employed to keep our loos clean are very often too busy chatting or taking a tea break instead of doing their job.
And it’s not just toilets. Is there any other nation that is as obsessed with spitting as ours? We step into the streets and are immediately racked with alarming coughs that seem to obligate us to immediately deposit our phlegm in public spaces.
I could go on. In Mumbai, our most cosmopolitan city, local millionaires appoint their homes with imported Italian marble, but wouldn’t dream of chipping in to get their grime-encrusted buildings a coat of fresh paint (that is the landlord’s job; but since many of the apartments are under rent control, can you seriously expect the landlord to bother about keeping his property ship-shape?).
The stairwells of our magnificent glass and steel office buildings are blotched with paan stains. And although we scrub our apartments clean before such major festivals as Diwali, we think nothing of throwing the dirty water and rubbish down into our neighbours’ homes.
In June this year, we saw a full-blown controversy erupt over the location of Gandhiji’s statue next to a dustbin at Madame Tussauds wax museum in London. But, for Gandhiji, public hygiene was inextricably linked to human dignity. Taking up sanitation works, including the cleaning of public toilets, was the key to a larger social revolution.
We talk of India as the next global superpower and we point to our sense of personal hygiene as evidence of our cultural superiority. But unless we are as fastidious about our sense of public hygiene, the wipers will continue to still steal a march over us.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to lookingglass@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Oct 14 2008. 12 53 AM IST