Swans Commentary » swans.com May 17, 2010  



Excremental India


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - May 17, 2010)   Say India and the Westerner doesn't conjure up the world's eighth economic power. He jerks his mental knee and reaches for a polite way to say shit. The linking of concepts comes from on high, from Nobel heights. V.S Naipaul, as no one else, fixed a generation's view of the subcontinent. As a traveler there he wrote lapidary prose with one hand and held his Caribbean nose with the other. He reached a Churchillian pitch:

Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks. They defecate on the streets; they never look for cover. (1)

With Naipaul, these are not sidelong glances, but constitute a theme and a complete tour through the Inferno of random shitters:

Every open space was a latrine; and in one such space we came, suddenly, upon a hellish vision. Two starved Bombay street cows had been tethered there, churning up human excrement with their own; and now, out of this bog, they were being pulled away by two starved women, to neighbourhood shouts, the encouraging shouts of a crowd gathering around this scene of isolated, feeble frenzy, theatre in the round on an excremental stage, the frightened cows and frantic, starveling women (naked skin and bone below their disordered, tainted saris) sinking with every step and tug. (2)

No surprise that subsequent Western writers on India have followed in the Nobel laureate's besmirched footsteps. In 2008 Tim Parks pushed the fecal envelope farther along Indian byways. His novel Dreams of Rivers and Seas, set mainly in Delhi, has an expatriate widow making her way to the turd-strewn Yamuna River to sprinkle her husband's ashes. She's distracted by a monument to schoolchildren who perished there in an accident. On closer inspection she discovers that the structure has become a handy place to sit and shit.

Parks does more than run with the theme, he innovates. The acute awareness foreign visitors have of Indian defecation brings them down with sympathetic diarrhea. The widow's son from London finds himself caught short in a down-market teashop whose amenities are sinister:

The smell is coming from pitch blackness. There is not the faintest glimmer. Automatically, his hand reaches to the wall for a switch and amazingly finds it at once. But clicking brings no change. What if the blackness is simply a hole? Some kind of pit? It might be vast or tiny. He will fall into filth. Talk about catastrophe. But he has to shit now! There's no going back. He takes one step, gets behind the door and pulls it to. If there's a latch this side he doesn't bother with it. There's no time. The stench is overwhelming. Likewise the heat. There's a scuttling noise. His right hand feels at knee level for a seat. There's nothing. (3)

Thus suspense and riotous tourist bowels deepen the theme. Geoff Dyer's novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, of 2009, pursues the same path while also crossing the frontier from scatology to horror porno as it delves into Hindu practices of corpse disposal. (But that tidbit for another time.) In the main Jeff the journalist on assignment stays on subject:

[...] there was shit everywhere in the City of Light (as Varanesi had once been called). Every kind of shit: animal (monkey, goat, cow, buffalo, dog, bird, donkey, cat, goose), vegetable (the abandoned marigolds formed a stinking mush) and (last but not least) human. In certain auspicious places there was probably even god shit. Prahbu ghat, where the dhobis pounded their laundry into submission, also doubled as a default toilet ghat. It was horrible walking along there. The sight entered your eyeballs and the stench entered your nostrils. I felt like writing a sign next to the 'I LOVE MY INDIA' sign: 'If you love it so much, then don't shit all over it.' (4)

And Dyer develops the diarrheal subplot to epic proportions:

My body was engaged in such a frenzied attempt to get rid of whatever it was that had got inside it that it was in danger of tearing itself apart. I puked ten times in the course of the night and shat constantly. There was even shit on the bed sheets. It wasn't that I'd shat myself in the bed; my bowels had turned so watery that my asshole was not tight enough to seal it all in. I lay in my shit-spotted bed. Every hair on my head was a spike nailed into my skull. My stomach had a viper flexing around inside it. (5)

Indian authors keep off this befouled highway. You will scour in vain the pages of Arundhati Roy, a prolific social and politic critic of her homeland, for a word on toilet habits. V.S. Naipaul might attribute her silence to the Indian gift for not seeing the disagreeable under its nose. It's blindness or "a defect of vision" that he dwells on and sometimes even explains the existence of by an underfed national ego. (6) But Roy doesn't spare criticism of the real country around her, and she would probably reply that the ruling class had excellent eyesight but simply looked the other way not to see the ravages it wrought.

In fairness, however, Parks and Dyer ought not to be measured against social analysts, but against Indian novelists. Neel Mukherjee's A Life Apart, 2008, and Aatish Taseer's The Temple-goers, 2010, were both written in English. Their Indian narrators each look hard at the West as well as India.

The central character of A Life Apart looks back from Brixton in London at his Calcutta childhood. Family obligations and poverty result in his elderly father supporting ten people. There's a senile but malicious mother-in-law, her unmarried daughter, and her four work-shy adult sons. There's also the father's sadistic wife and their two sons, one of whom, the narrator, is having his psyche warped by his frustrated mother. The tribe lives in a three bedroom flat with tiny kitchen and bathroom. Though Mukherjee describes life there as "hell" tout court, he never gives us a trace of feces or urine. The Western reader is left on his own to imagine the logistics involved when ten people have to use a single toilet sustained by shaky plumbing and set in a clothes closet.

Taseer's narrator in The Temple-goers is rich and upper class. The story entangles him with a pushy young man from a poor background intent on joining the vaunted new Indian money elite. In the course of the unfolding plot the narrator visits the young man's family home in a raw Delhi satellite town. His affection for his friend makes him reflect for a moment on the hardship of living in such crowded quarters. (Let us pass for now on why the narrator never had such thoughts before in a country where a huge population beds down on the pavement nightly.)

A curtain marks off the visiting room from which the family flees en masse when the narrator arrives. He will be dismayed afterward to see that beyond the curtain there's only a dead-end corridor, a miniscule kitchen bursting with the activity of three women, and two bedrooms, one for a young couple and their child and another paved with mattresses for the rest of the family.

Nature calls and the narrator is let into the bathroom. He stands over the "stained ceramic basin and the squalid circle of water":

I knew now that I stood at the source of the smell that pervaded -- and always would, no matter what incense was lit or food cooked -- the air in the flat. (7)

Toying with the flush, he sees that the sill of the dirty window is thick with wax from candles used in the recurring blackouts. He's touched by the thought of his friend having to squat there after dark by candlelight. But we should note that the narrator is an honorary Westerner. He can spend four hundred dollars on a locksmith when he forgets the key to his Greenwich Village apartment and he lives for weeks in a luxury village for tourists in Spain. Still, he's Indian enough to ignore excrement except in any but its vaporized form as odor. Diarrhea doesn't soil his lifestyle.

We have to conclude that Indians generally pay little attention to matters that so aroused V.S. Naipaul and Western writers after him. When journalist Farrukh Dhondy proposed a column to salute the lavatorial revolution in New Delhi, he was asked, "Why would anyone want to read about public toilets?" (8) This undermined his civic sense, and he ended by parodying John Masefield's "I must go down to the seas again,":

I must go down to the Sulabh again

To the Sulabh Shaochalay!

A rupee a pee,

Two for a poo,

Everything short of a lay!


* * * * *


Time for me, as they say in the mother of Parliaments, to declare my interest. I read the books referred to during a recent month's ramble through Southern India. Like the authors, I kept my eyes open, but with the intent to trip them up.

Down on the Arabian Sea and the vast beaches of Kerala there appeared to be the same West/East or rich/poor divide. A young Englishman eager to bring in Western tourists told me the locals had never made good use of the seaside: "They only went there to shit." I pointed out that some fished for a living and that I'd just seen a Hindu religious ceremony taking place on the sands. "Well, yes," he said, "but this didn't help much to make the beach pay off as a resort." Further conversation revealed, however, that he'd become something of a local himself. He'd routinely piss on the cliff-side when out for a walk. He also decried the de facto segregation that was taking place up the coast. White tourists had their own beach from which the dark skinned native population, either from discretion or unspoken taboo, were excluded. However, the Indian entrepreneurial instinct was less standoffish and had begun to line the elite strip with food and souvenir shops.

My own explorations did reveal an occasional humanoid turd not far from the beating surf. But the discovery was less of a shock than the pages of Parks and Dyer. The relentless sun never stopped turning detritus, vegetable and animal, into good clean dirt. Besides, there were more interesting sights. On one beach used by the locals, swarthy males gathered to wash in a trickle of fresh water coming down the side of a cliff. But some adventurous white women had ignored local ways and proceeded to rinse the salt off themselves. They were northern Europeans, big and floppy, all but naked in their bikinis. I was shaken, not by an erotic tremor, but by the thought of what was going on in the heads of the startled little brown men. It recalled the words of a Parks character who wasn't much interested in plumbing but who saw India as "the point of greatest attrition between traditional and modern, the melt line [...]." (9)

With the miles, my attention to toilet manners slackened. Traveling on Lake Vembanad in a houseboat, I was intrigued by the granite slab in front of each waterside dwelling. Women slapped their washing on it. My question of whether there wasn't an easier way brought an emphatic "no." The houses had neither electricity nor running water. I didn't bother to ask if waste went directly into the lake. Above Fort Cochin I was surprised to run into rampant alcoholism. Bartenders told me it cut right across the community spectrum, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. Drinking took place in dreary basement halls kept dark out of guilt. Worse, nearby, a notch lower, there were always "toddy" drinking hangouts that looked like nests in rat alley. Toddy is concocted from a palm extract topped up with a variety of chemicals, one resembling Valium.

Crossing Tamil Nadu state in spurts by car, train, and auto rickshaw my mind remained on higher things, like possible death in traffic, street life generally -- which in the villages looked like all of life -- and keeping enough very small change in hand to extricate myself from swarms of the thousand million who took me for the Messiah. Hindu temple life brought back the sanitation issue on a loftier plane. Why were Brahmin priests so concerned with having the dust moved from one side to another of their establishments? Was it because they never wielded a broom themselves? Did the monkeys and goats harbored in the grounds of some temples have more fellow feeling for the priests or for the sweepers?

Pondicherry on the Bay of Bengal was Cartesian neat. Well-planned streets right out of the more dour French provinces stood on the right side of a putrid canal, with indigenous chaos on the other, wrong side. The bye-bye-imperialism joke -- very Indian -- was that the indigenes were now on both sides of the canal, but you paid more for everything where the streets had French names. Chennai (Madras) with Spencer's Department Store and Higginbotham's Bookshop would have made me blush had Indians meant the names seriously. But it was soon clear they did not.

The palace at Mysore continued the vein of postcolonial humor. Built for a quisling princeling, it was orientalist kitsch dreamt up on the Thames and heavy with iron girders brought from Glasgow. The Edwardian urinals spoke of a race of giants. The Indians had always thought the palace was cute and still admire its fairytale style. As for Bangalore, the city perfectly embodied its tag of globalization-made-flesh: a ring of shantytowns, poisonous traffic, sidewalk sleepers and a new airport that outshone anything in the West.

Mumbai (Bombay), accounting for 6% of India's economy, staggers like a drunken Gulliver whose pockets are stuffed with loot. The least concern of this brutal colossus is a bit of shit, more or less, on public thoroughfares. The grenade-scarred lobby of the Oberoi Hotel has been redone with milky-white marble from the Greek island of Thassos. A night's stay ranges from $560 to $6,714. I stood on a flyover looking down on a maze of vats where men stripped to the waist beat hotel linen clean for ten hours a day. I didn't interview them on the niceties of toilet etiquette. I'd had enough of the subject and thought about the 410 million Indians living below the UN set poverty line of $1.25 a day. That's 100 million more poor than in 2004.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne on Swans -- with bio.   (back)


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1.  An Area of Darkness, 1964, p.70  (back)

2.  India: A Wounded Civilization, 1977, p.68  (back)

3.  Dreams of Rivers and Seas, pp.291-2  (back)

4.  Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, pp.223-4  (back)

5.  Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, p.261  (back)

6.  India: A Wounded Civilization, pp.97-116  (back)

7.  The Temple-goers, p.79  (back)

8.  The Deccan Chronicle, March 20, 2010  (back)

9.  Dreams of Rivers and Seas, p. 50  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 17, 2010