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Every time I come to India, I cannot help but think of V.S. Naipaul. Particularly when I tour the country, as I am doing now.
I am always prepared for the traffic, the noise, the pollution, and the airborne viruses in my native country. I can even tolerate the mosquitoes, the hard beds, the lack of privacy, and the religious fanaticism. But I am never ready for the filthy toilets. I cannot fathom why one of the most fundamental human needs is so very difficult to fulfill in India. Why a country that is obsessed with food cannot deal with its end products.
Mahatma Gandhi observed that Indians thought it was unclean to clean.
I think that was an understatement. Gandhi made a point of cleaning his own toilet but few Indians do that. In fact, Indians abhor going to the toilet. Therefore, they pay no attention to where they go or how they go. If, when desperate, they are forced to approach the facilities, they get into a trance that enables them not to notice the piles of human excrement in the stalls, or the lack of water or soap or cleanliness. They never see the rivers of urine flowing around them. Women draped in expensive saris and laden with kilos of gold screw up their faces, put their chiffons or silks to their noses, and after floating over urine and feces like swans floating on the surface of a pond, emerge out of the facilities smelling like roses.
How do they do it?
I, on the other hand, begin to fear that I have returned to my childhood. I am stuck in a nightmare in which I am running down a cobblestone alley covered in raw sewage, my sandaled toes barely missing the excrement, my feet crawling through the sludge.
As a child, I saw this daily. Even as a youngster of 5 or 6, I was conscious of the deprived lives of the children around me. Walking down the street, I used to see toddlers defecating by the roadside as they squabbled, and giggled, and threw rocks at one another, and I used to wonder, how did they do it? I, for one, could not.
I was hoping that things had changed. That now that India was such an economic powerhouse, it had figured out the most basic process of getting rid of human waste.
I was wrong.
Delhi was admittedly an improvement but, once I arrived in Pune, the situation seemed to deteriorate rapidly. Watching a play in the famous Balgandharva Ranga Mandir, it turned out, was hazardous to my health, for while the production was exquisite, the auditorium was barely inhabitable, and the bathrooms were designed to be used as a set for narak, the Hindu hell.
Alas, during a three-hour production, it was impossible to survive without using the ladies’ bathroom. One stall had piles of excrement, I discovered, another was flooded with urine and human waste. Of the other two barely usable stalls, one was a Western-style commode without a seat, the other was Indian style. Since Indian toilets NEVER have any toilet paper, and because it is impossible to use toilet paper with Indian toilets in any case—because of their inability to flush it—one had to wash oneself with one’s hand—only if the water was running of course. The problem was that the sinks outside were piled with God only knew what. And needless to say, there was no water in the taps or soap by the sink. Not even a bottle of hand sanitizer was available.
If this was the situation in a location that is supposedly the pinnacle of Pune’s intellectual snobbery, you can just envision the conditions in its bus depot or its railway station. I had the misfortune of witnessing them 25 years ago while traveling with my British husband. Nothing has changed in the intervening quarter century, I am told.
If this is the situation in one of India’s high-tech, educational and cultural centers, what are other towns and cities like, I wonder.
To say that I am disgusted with Indians’ disregard for hygiene would be an understatement. I am outraged. I am hysterical with disbelief. I am appalled. I want to puke. I want to go to the mayor of Pune and tell him that he should be fired.
When I complained to my friend about the conditions at the theater, she informed me that it is run by the Pune Corporation and therefore impossible to change. Being an activist, she has already tried. She has given interviews to newspapers. She is a BJP official, and she has talked to politicians. But the country’s apathy is so monumental, it is impossible to effect change.
So once again, I am left musing, why is it that even countries such as Guatemala, Bolivia, Thailand, and Indonesia have spotless toilets? Why is it that as a society, they can work together, but we cannot? Why is it that they can organize things but we prefer to live in chaos?
While traveling to Ajanta and Ellora, my cousin mentioned that many Hindus prefer not to visit a temple after going to the toilet. Indian toilets are so pathetic, I wanted to respond, that after visiting them, one is unable to contemplate a temple, or a meal, or, for that matter, life itself.
No wonder diseases such as amoebic dysentery and hepatitis are so common in India.
V.S. Naipaul was right when he labeled India an area of darkness. And the situation is only getting worse.
Of course Indians find easy excuses for their filth. Population is a popular culprit these days. Corruption is another excuse. Lack of money is also given as a reason.
But the real causes of India’s filth are much more endemic to its religion and culture. Brahmins traditionally used bhangis—the untouchable toilet cleaners—to do their dirty work. They never once touched a toilet themselves. And they still don’t.
Predictably, the people who traditionally performed such manual tasks felt so resentful that they purposefully left the waste behind. They still do.
Can you blame them?
How can we change things? Perhaps by starting a movement called “Let’s Hug the Toilets,” or something along those lines? A movement in which every day, battalions of citizens approach public toilets and perform seva, or service, until they are so clean, you can eat out of them.
Only then can India be called a civilized society. Or even a civilization. Until then India is a desert filled with human waste, a land of cancer, a blight on the human race.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com