Who’s dirt is it, anyway?

Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh had said several months ago that if there were a Nobel prize for dirtiness (or lack of hygiene), Indians would be toppers every year.

I agreed with him completely. But when Lalit Bhanot of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee implied that Indians had a different set of hygienic principles than the rest of the world, I was as outraged as the BJP’s Venkaiah Naidu: Indians may be among the dirtiest people in the world in terms of hygiene but by no means are all Indians unclean.

I have friends and relatives whose marriages have cracked up on just this one count alone. When my sister first tied the knot several years ago, she was shocked out of her wits and rather traumatised to discover that her Tam-Brahm in-laws (and I don’t mean to generalise) were so proud of their cleanliness that they did not have even one dustbin in their house.

So where did all their garbage go? Well, they piled the curry leaves, chilli pieces, chewed drumstick waste, etc on their dining table beside their plates. Then my sister’s mother-in-law collected them all and threw them out of the kitchen window on to the neighbour’s roof before rubbing her dining table shining clean.

My sister was also blown out of her mind to discover that they used only one bucket at home – to wash their utensils in, to bathe in, to swab their floor in. She threw a tantrum and had her husband bring her another bucket for her own use. When she went to work, her mother-in-law would polish that bucket clean and lock it away in the store room. “We have a perfectly good bucket, why do you want another one?’’ this grand lady would question as my sister threw tantrums each morning for its return. She would also pull up my sister for shampooing her hair every day. “Once a fortnight is more than enough,’’ was the stern instruction.

No wonder my sister could not live under those conditions for too long.

Then again we had/have a set of neighbours, North Indians this time (and no genralisation again), who were proud of the fact that they kept their bathrooms and toilets very, very clean – they just did not use them! Instead, the children were sent with lotas each morning to squat behind neighbours’ cars — until they were discovered by furious residents who had kept a vigil and stoned them every morning in the middle of their act, which finally drove them indoors. But that still did not prompt them to give up bathing in their corridor, adjacent to the kitchen, with all the dirty bath water flowing outside from under their main door and creating a mess for other residents who had to cross that door on their way to the stairs. Threat of a court-ordered eviction is what got them to finally use their bathrooms (and I don’t know how clean or not they might have been kept after that).

I had a friend who filed for divorce because nothing she did would get her husband to change his eating habits. He would spit the extras out beside the plate, chomp bones noisily and leave all the leftovers partly on the floor and partly on the table. And expect her to clean up after him every time. The courts accepted that as reasonable grounds for divorce on account of mental torture and she decided to live in with the next man she fell in love with to make sure of his hygiene before tying the knot in a lasting relationship.

Then there was another friend whose husband did not change his underwear for days (at least a week he would wear them) and when she objected that it was dirty, he argued, “Its my dirt!’’

“I puke every time he comes near me!’’ she would complain to us. Predictably, even that marriage ended in the divorce courts.

These are all Indians but those who were bothered by their lack of hygiene were also Indians, not some Brits and Australians whose standards of hygiene might be way above ours. So Bhanot is wrong to tar all of us with the same brush. He should wear that dirty hat if it fits him but leave the rest of his countrymen out of his generalisations.

Jairam Ramesh, though, is still right. We just don’t care about our surroundings. I used to live at the Maison de l’Inde (India House) during my Paris sojourn several years ago. A transiting Indian couple, unused to the dry toilet habits of the West, had brought their own little buckets and mugs. But they just would not wipe the toilet seats clean after them and water would be spilled all over the floor, sending up bellows of rage from subsequent users, not all of who were Indian. Finally, I had to knock at their door and express outrage. “The housekeeping provides us with toilet rolls. Use them to at least dry the seats and the floor,’’ I pleaded. The seats were still wet even the next day.

Then, again, at a park in Paris with a beautiful lake with swans and ducks, I and my friends caught a family picnicking and spitting out the wastes into the lush grass that had half submerged their plates and cups. As they rose, I saw the woman was wearing a sari and park attendants were forcing her to clean up.

“Bet she is Indian!’’ I remarked with the utmost contempt only to get a piercing glance from my Irish colleague who said with the utmost surprise, “Do you love your country?’’

Of course, I do!’’ I snapped back. “But that does not stop me from acknowledging we could be the dirtiest people on earth!’’

But how can you say she is Indian from this distance?’’ asked the Irish girl.

“From the sari.’’

Roisin didn’t buy the argument. “She could be a Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi, Pakistani or even Nepali. They all wear saris, too. And, after all, you are mistaken for a Sri Lankan all the time!’’

“Ok, lets find out,’’ I said, “I’ll eat my words and apologise to her if I am wrong.’’

We went close and at least I recognised the language she was speaking in to her children. But Roisin needed more convincing.

So I introduced myself to the strange lady. She was delighted.

I was right: she was, indeed, Indian.

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