Dirt and Devotion

I’d noticed the rusting carcass of a scooter in the road outside my Delhi flat even during the moving-in process last year. But as it was tucked away it barely registered with me as now into my third year in the country, I have begun of necessity to assimilate Indian ways of thinking about rubbish and dirt.

Over time I watched with amusement as the scooter wreck moved from place to place seemingly of its own volition as I never saw anyone touch it. Then finally to my annoyance and incredulity it moved inside the entrance yard to my block and it dawned on me that it must belong to my landlord who owned the building. But why was something so unsightly and worthless worthy of keeping I wondered?  I began asking politely if he would mind disposing of the eyesore and he always said it would be done ‘this week’ but weeks passed with no change.

The scooter had by now fallen in half and lay in two rusting chunks. My mild annoyance turned to fury and moral outrage when Shanti, my lovely kabari (rubbish) lady sliced her forearm open from wrist to elbow on a ragged edge while sweeping the yard. Shanti who must be in her 70’s bled profusely from this nasty injury, nearly fainted and required multiple stitches at a local hospital and it was all so preventable I ranted at the landlord, now would he see sense and dispose of it this rubbish please!  He seemed unconcerned about Shanti’s injury and the ex-scooter remained.

Days later I remembered an article from The Times of India on Indian attitudes to rubbish and dirt.  Anthropologist Mary Douglas famously clarified that dirt was simply ‘matter out of place’. So food on the plate is fine but it becomes dirt when it lands on the floor. Shoes on the feet are OK but not on the table. Nobody can deny that Indians are themselves fastidiously clean so how does the paradox arise that India as a country is so incredibly dirty? In fact two of its metropolises,  Delhi and Mumbai,  even made it onto a recent Forbes list of the 25 dirtiest cities in the world. Wild horses might be needed to drag an Indian away from bathing every morning but just outside Indian homes rubbish accumulates and multiplies like a force of nature.

The much touted (and erroneous) Hindu ‘other-worldliness’ cannot account for this duality as Hindu’s cannot best Buddhists in this regard and yet Thailand, Burma and Cambodia are nowhere near as dirt-happy. Nor can poverty explain things as many other poor neighbourhoods of the world look positively pristine by comparison. It is rather a case of how Indians define dirt, or ‘matter out of place’.

Hindu conceptions of dirt are based on deeply ingrained notions of caste. According to caste principal all routine substances that come out of ones body are polluting even to oneself. Even hair is polluting which is why a ritually correct tonsure is a shaved head. Traditional roles have been established in the forms of barber, washerman and scavenger to dispose of various pollutants so that members of the upper castes could remain ‘clean’. And whatever can be expelled from the body must be and this is behind the Indian dawn chorus of gagging and retching noises that accompany the process of clearing sinuses and bronchial passages across the nation. It is also unthinkable for a non-westernised Hindu to to use a handkerchief to blow his nose into and then pocket it as this would be recycling pollution and would cause ritual self-harm.

The Hindu home then can be considered analogous to the Hindu body in that once substances or items are out of the home they are quite in place, no longer dirt and can be skirted around and blissfuly ignored. Feeling slightly smug and clever I thought I now understood. But a chance conversation with one of my neighbours revealed a more human explanation for my landlords stubbornness and devotion to the scooter remains, – it belonged to his recently deceased father and he cannot yet bear to let it go. For my part I no longer mention it to him and Shanti no longer sweeps the yard.

(With due acknowledgement to an article in The Times of India by Dipankar Gupta, Professor of Sociology at JNU.)


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