Friday, February 27, 2009


PDA or Public Display of Affection is the latest fad being talked about these days. Indians are rising up to the occasion to hold hands, hug or kiss in public almost as second nature and not just do their thing behind the bushes or in old monuments anymore, with the ancient dead & buried royals for company. Whether it is fine or not and to what extent it is OK is the subject matter of another discourse.

But Indians have been exhibitionists of a different kind altogether for as long as one can remember. It’s been happening in my lifetime, my parent’s lifetime and perhaps in their parents’ lifetime and over. That is the Public Display of Defecation AND Public Display of Urination, which is rampant in almost every part of the country and makes for truly one of the most secular activities that we indulge in, that too openly and with gay abandon. This is one Indian trait that binds us into one homogeneous species like no other.

While the whys and wherefores of this natural act by all Indians - rich or poor, northern or southern, men or women (though more pronouncedly the former), young or old, educated or illiterate – is subject matter for yet another rant, I want to draw your attention to a serious issue within our living spaces, in our very own neighbourhood.

I am a complainer by nature and personality, particularly more for the social issues rather than my personal woes. Which means that I become the easy, more overt ogre going about raising my heckles for issues that bother me all the while and possibly many others around me, as those many others choose to remain silent in a state of chosen inertia. I end up raising my eyebrows and voice, often together, when somebody breaks a queue to break into it, when someone forgets the mobile etiquette in sensitive places like hospitals, theaters, restaurants and the like, when people push and shove you in probable places like Chandni Chowk and improbable ones like Khan Market or Greater Kailash, when people don’t mind their p’s and q’s and are hatefully rude and impolite, when people throw their personal garbage on the roads while walking or traveling in buses, autos, rickshaws, trains, cars – fancy or basic, shorn of frills.

So imagine my consternation, given this predisposition, when I catch people peeing in the lush parks that beautify our colony or against boundary walls or behind the flats in the supposedly less used pathways. More often than not, these people come from a certain strata – the drivers, guards, maids, domestic helps, courier boys – in short the very lifeline of our daily existence. I have pulled up people for committing this social sin on several occasions as I have caught them red-handed in the despicable act. What is even more exasperating is that they are seldom red-faced when caught. The reactions from the offenders have been checkered ranging from very rarely shame to a quick apology before they scamper about to confrontation – the last being more common, mostly in women. The confronting has made me seethe in rage as one half of the civilized me expects them to feel deeply ashamed and take an oath to never do it again. But these days, perhaps as a sign of maturity, I have begun to see the bleak, pitiable side of the entire scenario.

The offenders I am talking about come from the background where they have no toilets in the shanties they call their homes. Often, there are no public conveniences either. And if there are any then they are in a state of ‘throwing up’ squalor and filth, very slum doggish (to validate the new jargon, if you please). What such public conveniences go onto serve is not release or relief but dissemination of more germs and infections. Hence, the naturally familial and societal schooling is such that it is easier to relieve oneself in open spaces, unmindful of the fact that they are roadsides, backs of houses, lanes, colony parks or any other such public domain, in so doing, impinging on another person’s private or not so private space.

Secondly, if there are worthy-to-use shauchalayas, then they are hardly ever free and go about charging Re.1 for peeing and Re.2 for crapping, per use. For a set of people who go about making anywhere between Re. 50 to 100 per day (i.e. 0.99 to 1.98 USD a day), it is sacrilege to spend a sizeable percentage of their daily income on something that you pass out several times in a day, thereby increasing the spend by several times. The money could rather be used in buying food or clothing for self and the family. In such an abysmal state, spending to spend oneself out seems like the highest kind of wastefulness.

Thirdly, an average Indian of means lacks the intent or compassion for thinking about the guy next to him. The selfishness quotient is so high that it prohibits us from seeing beyond our noses. I am not talking socialism or altruism; we seem to even lack the basic sense of empathy or kindness that is an integral part of being ‘thinking-feeling’ humans. Perhaps this is why we waste food or allow our kids to enjoy their favourite ice cream or burger while the street urchin watches them with wide-eyed hunger; we stash our kitchen cabinets with the fanciest of ingredients – olives, caviar, pâté, asparagus, wines, exotic spices etc. etc. – while our help at home struggles to make ends meet; we spend thousands of rupees over a luxurious five-star meal in one sitting and refuse to donate a share of our income in selfless acts. The examples are many.

Besides, we Indians continue to be saddled with the deeply ingrained system of caste and class discrimination. We thrive on a retinue of servants to clean our dirt and muck but we cannot share our place with them. How many people have you seen hugging their servants in a display of emotion on a task done well or as an act of sympathy or out of affection? We get these very hands to do our chores but we are wary of holding them. With this mindset or value system, how many of us are advanced enough or kind to allow our servants to use our bathrooms? I haven’t heard of many cases, have you? When I was growing up in my parent’s sprawling bungalow in the verdant Doon valley, this was never an issue as the Bungalow boasted a nicely done-up servants’ living quarters with an adjoining bathroom. But once I moved out on my own in the big capital City and into a flat, this became part of the agenda that I brandished my cause-consciousness with. My sight and senses were rudely exposed to the harsh reality that people who came to work for you, passed out stuff out in the open. In this case, ignorance had definitely been bliss.

But how long can we shut our eye to a problem just to wish it away. We lament about the fact that these dirty, uneducated lot spoil our surroundings and make them unlivable when being under the uncontrollable urge of their bodily functions.

Ranting without reason, sordid complaining without solution, whining without duty-bound worrying is all pointless, meaningless and hollow. Therefore, I’d like to present some solutions for what seems to be an epidemic in India and endemic to Indians. The first solution rests on the State or the Government. It is a political issue and a policy matter. It is the right of citizens to demand clean sanitation and a duty of the Government to provide the basic necessities to the people of the country it governs. It is not a matter of choice or a point that remains un-ticked on the election mandate. Hence the Government needs to provide for conveniences such as Sulabh Shauchalays – free, accessible and clean - in healthy numbers that cater to the masses.

Close on the heels of the above, comes the duty to impart education which not only encompasses the three Rs but goes onto include aspects of health and hygiene, rights and duties, laws and lessons on civilized living et al. Again a matter of the State.

This brings us to the responsibility of the individual vs. the State. Each of us has a role to play, a duty to be bound by and socially relevant morals and laws to adhere to. We cannot simply turn a blind eye to that.

The math is simple and basic. Pay Re.1 X five times a day, roughly X 30 days for our domestic servants multiplied by the number of servants we have, either as part of the pay to our helps or to the management of the public toilets. Or else get our Residents’ Welfare Associations or Governing bodies to contract rates with the ‘Public Conveniences Board’ or whatever it is called for the Housing Societies or the commercial complexes.

Additionally, within the confines of our homes, we can take on the responsibility of educating these people on the basic aspects and not just be selfish about getting our work done. Is it too difficult to talk about the virtues of washing one’s hands, taking baths frequently, wearing clean clothes and the like instead of either thinking of it below one’s dignity to get into a conversation with the lowly lot or treat the maid as the local gossip who brings the spiciest neighbour-news to your doorstep?

The mantra I’d like to advocate for myself and those around me is simple – if something worries you then it should wake you up into taking positive action, if an issue bothers you then you should be ballsy enough to get bolstered into taking a concrete step towards righting the wrong. Otherwise stay in a suspended state of ennui and simply don’t bother, either with the stench or the sight.