(Any opinions expressed here are the author’s own. They are not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)
My Indian friends and I joke around a lot about me as the typical white American guy visiting India. Cows! Con men! Colors! Most people I’ve met in India have restricted their reactions to my westerner-in-the-east experiences to gentle teasing. When I stuck a picture of a man urinating in public on my Facebook page, calling it one more picture of what you see everywhere you go in India, people weren’t as patient. What was I doing? Insulting the nation? Focusing on the ugly because it’s what all the westerners do when they visit India? Why does India provoke such visceral reactions in visitors?
Public urination, public defecation, dirt, garbage, filth, the poor living on the street — talking about these things, even acknowledging that they’re in front of your face, risks making your hosts unhappy, and possibly angry. It’s the third rail of India, and the voltage can be lethal. That’s why I was surprised when B.S. Raghavan decided to touch it with all 10 fingers.
Raghavan’s column in The Hindu Business Line newspaper begins with this headline: Are Indians by nature unhygienic?
Consider these excerpts:
From time to time, in their unguarded moments, highly placed persons in advanced industrial countries have burst out against Indians for being filthy and dirty in their ways of life. A majority of visitors to India from those countries complain of “Delhi belly” within a few hours of arrival, and some fall seriously ill.
There is no point in getting infuriated or defensive about this. The general lack of cleanliness and hygiene hits the eye wherever one goes in India — hotels, hospitals, households, work places, railway trains, airplanes and, yes, temples. Indians think nothing of spitting whenever they like and wherever they choose, and living in surroundings which they themselves make unliveable by their dirty habits. …
Open defecation has become so rooted in India that even when toilet facilities are provided, the spaces round temple complexes, temple tanks, beaches, parks, pavements, and indeed, any open area are covered with faecal matter. …
Even as Indians, we are forced to recoil with horror at the infinite tolerance of fellow Indians to pile-ups of garbage, overflowing sewage, open drains and generally foul-smelling environs.
There’s plenty more that you can read in that story, but I’ll direct you to the article. I’ll also ask you some questions:
- Some people say you shouldn’t point out these problems, and that every country has problems. Do you agree with this statement? Why?
- Does anyone disagree with Raghavan’s descriptions of these sights and smells?
- Is this even a problem? Or should people get used to it?
- Should visitors, especially ones from countries where people are generally wealthier, say nothing, and pretend that they don’t see unpleasant things?
As for me, I can say this: I got used to it, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t notice it. Indians notice it too. Otherwise, people wouldn’t suggest public shaming campaigns against people urinating in public, they wouldn’t threaten fines for doing it, and they wouldn’t respond with relief to plans to finally make sure that toilets on India’s trains don’t open directly onto the tracks. Of course, these are people in India. It’s a family, taking care of business the family way.
As for me, the message usually seems to be: “If you don’t love it, leave it.” It would be nice if there were some other answer. Acknowledging problems, even ones that are almost impossible to solve, makes them easier to confront.
(Photo: Robert MacMillan)
ZackNote: Post our conversation Iranian superiority complex vis a vis South Asians; there is a funny story of this Iranian lady (born & lived in Pakistan her whole life but to Iranians parents) visiting the homeland (Iran).
As she walked down the road where as she was staying Shiraz (Tehran, Yazd, Isfahan I forget where) she mindlessly spat on the street as one does. A couple of minutes later one of the neighbors came out with a broom and a pail and told her, “Khanum, now that you have dirtied this street now you must clean this street.” I have no idea whether it reflected a deeply Persian sense of hygiene or even of public humiliation but I always remember this little tale on Pakistani & Persian attitudes to civic cleanliness.
I agree with the Western author’s conclusion; it’s better to air out the problems rather than be sensitive about it. BP has certainly been chaotic these past few days with the comment boards flying across shouts of Muslim bigot, Hindutva or what not. However I think it’s good to talk and good to engage on the other side. To borrow from the editor of Iranian.com, “Nothing is Sacred.”