"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Excremental India

When I lived in India in the early 70s, there were a number of things that struck all foreigners.  It was a kind of narrowcast or special screening.  We all saw the same things, talked about them in the same ways, looked at them in admiration, frustration, or disgust.  They may have affected us in different ways, and our reactions may have varied from person to person, but every day, they were there.

The first was the heat.  In the summer it was brutal, unremitting, and unforgiving.  There were few escapes.  There was little air conditioning and government buildings were cooled only by desert coolers – straw ticks hung from ceiling to floor soaked with water behind which was an industrial strength fan blowing at full strength.  These offices smelled like a barnyard and sounded like a WWII airplane hangar.  The ceiling fans spun at high speed like helicopter rotors, and every bit of official paper had to be held down with glass paperweights.  Doing business was like playing speed checkers – up with the paperweight, out with the paper, down with the paperweight in less than a few seconds, an inky scrawl of a signature banged with an official seal, the now official document handed to a waiting, bedraggled peon, and the next banging of the paperweights begun.

The temperature of the office was much cooler than the 110F outside, for adding humidity to the extremely dry air provided some respite; but after a half-hour in these darkened sepulchral, noisy, and foul-smelling rooms, one’s only thought was out.

Even a flicker of shade from the few leaves remaining on trimmed or desiccated trees was a draw for waiting taxis, but after only a few minutes the inside temperature was over 150F, unbearable, and even though the breeze from driving cooled the cab down by a few degrees, the hot, dusty wind from the street burned the eyes and hurt the ears.

For foreigners, water as off-limits, and the days of bottled water were decades away.  Tea, cokes, and warm beer were the only ways to quench a burning thirst, and these sweet drinks or pesticide-adulterated beer would never do the trick.  The Cokes simply coated the mouth with a sweet coating, and each swallow went down with more difficulty.  The carbonation prevented fast swigging, and the whole process was slow, frustrating, painful, and unsatisfying.

Walking in the heat was only possible in cities like Bombay and Calcutta whose temperatures rarely got above the high 90s because of the saturated, humid air; but after only a half-hour in the packed Crawford Market or Chor Bazaar was draining, exhausting, debilitating.  Every smell seemed to be more pungent and powerful in the hot, thick air.  Every few steps was a new assault – gaggingly sweet incense, putrid piles of rotting garbage, fresh cow dung, vomit, shit, and truck fumes.

The second reel of the special film for foreigners was about traffic – a congested chaos of unregulated, undisciplined, weaving, darting, aggressive driving.  The streets were clogged with everything that could move.  Scooters jockeyed for position among the cows.  Cars intimidated the scooters.  Busses dented, banged, and clanging from innumerable collisions, intimidated the cars.  And mammoth, overloaded trucks were the behemoths of the road, the Tyrannosaurus of the highway, immoveable, unstoppable, and frightening.

I was once driving with a colleague of mine in Hyderabad.  Roy was one of the most centered, calm, and unruffled people I had ever met.  He lived a Spartan life with no furniture, slept on the water tank, ate simple dishes of rice and dhal, and took everything in stride.  He, however, had been in India for over 5 years without a break.  All of a sudden, a scooter carrying an entire family cut him off, forcing him to brake suddenly.  He cracked.  The years of stolid reserve crumbled. His legendary patience and sang froid  disappeared.  He said nothing, but his face twitched and became distorted.  He went after the scooter, scattering animals, pedestrians, and vehicles with a maniacal speed.  He wanted to kill them all.  India’s driving had finally gotten to him as it did to all of us.  Shortly after that incident, he left Hyderabad, went back to Minnesota and was never heard from again.

The third reel is on the crowds – the insistent, ever-present, hot, pressing masses of people that were always there.  Even in what seemed to be the remotest part of rural India, a quiet patch of peaceful fields, people would appear, would press in, would gawk, and without saying a word would intrude.  One was never alone.  A picnic or uninterrupted walk was never possible.  Nothing was easy – train stations were jammed in inefficient lines for bookings, ticketing, seat reservations, payments; airports were chaotic and aggressive.  There was no refuge, no place to hide. 

I found only two places in India, both hotels.  The Grand Hotel in Calcutta was on one of the busiest streets of the city, a street like most others in India cluttered with snarling scooters, dented and banged-up busses belching diesel, pedestrians, animals, squatters, and mess. But inside it was cool British perfection – marble floors, polished brass planters, mahogany staircases, liveried servants, softly twirling ceiling fans, murmured conversation.  I would often walk the streets of Calcutta knowing that at the end of my excursion was the Grand.  It made Calcutta possible.

The other place of refuge was the Oberoi Hotel in Delhi which, even in 1968 when I first stayed there was chilled frigid.  The air inside was breathtakingly cold and, like the Grand, was polished and perfect.

The fourth and final reel was about shit.  Shit was everywhere, and people defecated under flyovers and bridges, from sidewalk curbs, on beaches, in parks, on residential streets, in empty fields.  Babies were held outside open windows on trains to squirt their diarrhea out and beyond, and all the downwind windows were streaked yellow with baby shit.  Piles of shit blocked every path and walkway.  Vehicle tires were embedded with it.  The air was filled with shit smell, dogs licked and lapped at loose movements, and snuffled at stray pieces of corn in the mess.

One of the worst jobs I have ever had was to institute programs of Low Cost Sanitation through which traditional latrines would be replaced by modern, fly- and smell-free modern ones.  In order to understand the market for these new toilets, I had to inspect the old.  The most common in small cities of North India were no more than holes in floor of the second story into which people shat.  The excrement dropped down to a cement floor where it would be scraped into woven baskets and carried off in head loads by ‘sweepers’ – Untouchables, dalits, harijans, children of God, all names for those who had the worst job on earth.

Things have apparently not changed.  Malise Ruthven wrote in the New York Review of Books in May, 2010 http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/may/13/excremental-india/ about her travels to India:

India is about the only country in the world where you actually see human adults defecating. When traveling by road or rail you can be struck by the image of men squatting openly, impervious to the public gaze. The UN estimates that 638 million people—or 55 percent of the Indian population—still defecate out of doors. The practice is clearly born of necessity in a crowded country where the development of public amenities has conspicuously failed to keep pace with economic and demographic growth.

Although the practice may be ‘clearly born of necessity’, it is still shocking to the foreigner; and after two years of inspecting these ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ latrines (a dry latrine is simply a dedicated corner of an open courtyard where people shit), I lost any and all pretense to a belief in cultural relativity.  It was simply gross, disgusting, lazy, anti-social, and inhuman to shit everywhere.  I understood the cultural explanation – Hindus believe that bodily pollution must be eliminated in order to ritually purify the body and prepare the soul for spiritual evolution.  In other words, get rid of your snot, shit, piss, and earwax and downstream be damned.  I also understood how migration from the open fields of rural India to crowded urban India would test traditional practices; but at the same time, I never accepted the fact that once in urban areas, the shitters never did anything about the excrement problem.

There have been innumerable attempts to address the problem, and as India quickly modernizes, the excrement problem will be removed.  It is hard to imagine the high-tech enclaves of Bangalore or Hyderabad shit-filled and reeking.  Meanwhile international organizations and private voluntary associations are doing their bit:

With no serviceable toilets available for pilgrims, the ground beneath the pillars of the overhead metro railway that is now under construction (causing a huge disruption to Delhi’s burgeoning traffic) has become an open latrine, a magnet for flies and disease. Now the Aga Khan Foundation, in partnership with other NGOs and agencies, is rehabilitating the area in a major initiative with the municipal corporation of Delhi. Measures include the organized collection of refuse, the provision of public toilets managed by the community, where users are charged a small fee for cleaning and supervision, and the rehousing of squatters who had constructed precarious additions to the fourteenth-century baoli, or stepwell—the water is reached by descending flights of steps—which is now being dredged and reconstituted using the latest radar technology.

I did my bit for four years with the World Bank.  The engineers who dominated the Low Cost Sanitation field were convinced that the Ventilated Improved Pit (VIP) Latrine was the perfect brick shithouse.  It operated by convection currents, and if you kept the cabin dark, the smell and the flies would be sucked up and out of the chimney.  People hated them because, irony of ironies, they couldn’t see their shit to tell how sick they were.  Also they were worried that small children would fall down in the shithole in the dark. Both reasonable concerns from a marketing, consumer perspective, but ignored by the engineers.

The Pour Flush latrine was even more elegant, said the engineers.  It was basically a Turkish toilet, with polyurethane pan and ceramic footsteps, and the shit fell down into one of two double pits.  When one pit was filled, the user closed it and opened the other.  By the time the second pit was full, the first had turned to usable, pathogen-free compost.  The problem was that these latrines had to be installed under the dwelling where the users lived.  The idea of two shit-filled pits under their house was more than even the least devout Hindus could abide.  The idea went nowhere.

Prior to working in latrines, I worked in nutrition and family planning; and I knew after my years of foul-smelling purgatory at the World Bank, the world of sex and food looked even more attractive than it did when I started my career.  The author concludes:

Living in London one takes the humble loo for granted. A fortnight in Delhi reveals its potential for kick-starting a social revolution.

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