India is dirty. The black plaster on my feet, socks, trousers and lungs is carcinogenic proof of that. Litter is the streets. Litter, and whatever else anyone caught short might feel like leaving behind by the side of the road. The fog that hangs within Delhi is chokingly evident, the revolting stench of open sewer is unavoidably oppressive, and the
crap that lines the pavement, literally crap sometimes, is just there.
And always there.
It’s quite common to see someone relieving themselves, both numbers, by the side of the road or rail. Where else do you go? There are no public toilets and most of the households, including those stacked three high on top of each other, have no access to running water. The streets and railways are the public lavatory. It’s common knowledge and the subject of many an Indian travelogue, but it’s sometimes taken just a little too literally by over-enthusiastic travellers.
Initial disbelief or disgust eventually leads to an acceptance. It’s their country after all. But, as with anyone wanting to blend in, this can present you with a dilemma. Just where exactly do they draw the line? And what exactly is within those lines? And who exactly do you have to pay to get the lines drawn (but that’s another story altogether).
An Australian girl on our bus was unfortunate enough to have found herself with sporadically urgent stomach problems on a fourteen-hour journey. She, quite admirably, would get off at the various five-minute stops to settle whatever intestinal disagreement she had, in full view of the bus and anyone who cared, or dared to be watching. This went on throughout the night until we arrived at one of the customary twenty-minute service stops. Here, she proceeded to go through the usual, but desperate motions of finding a bush, manoeuvring herself into position and engaging in whatever comes next. It was only then that she realised, not only was there a perfectly acceptable, and surprisingly clean toilet facility in the service station only ten metres away, but that she had just soiled the entrance to the only house within visible distance. The once proud owners of the service station, with its impeccable washroom, and almost certainly adjoining house as well, watched in confused anguish as the flustered woman scurried back onto the bus.
More than just a metaphorical line was crossed that night. I’m not sure whether the poor house cleaner would have paused to reflect on this, as she cursed those filthy westerners with their filthy habits.
But India is full of contradictions. The shower is, according to Hussein – the mini Maharaja of Udaipur – an Indian invention. Back in the days of the Raj the British were still only having baths once a week, most likely depending
on how clean their underpants were at the time. Indians religiously, quite literally religiously, wash themselves every morning without fail and this habit passed on to the British. The shower has clearly evolved, an Indian shower is often a bucket, but the concept still stands. Indians were astonished at how the British could bear to consider themselves ‘washed’ in a tub of their own dirty water. Yet, every day I see Indians scrub themselves ‘clean’ in effluent from ten thousand tubs of dirty water.
The sandwich and chai vendors, soup and samosa sellers, along with many others on the trains, do very good business. From as early as politely possible until the last few passengers are nodding off, the stuttering call of “Chai CHAI chai Chai!!”, or the howling “SamooOOOOOSa!” ring out through the carriage. The food and drink supply is endless but there is not a single rubbish bin in sight. That is, if you haven’t yet realised that the ‘bin’ is in fact the endless expanse of railway track and adjoining countryside racing past. I learnt to appreciate the merits of this
facility, inexcusable as it really is, on one journey in particular.
I knew that everyone else simply dropped their plastic cups and plates out the window, without even a first thought, but I just couldn’t do it. I was determined to show the rest of my small section of the carriage how possible it was not to litter. So, morally smug, I left my cup on the fold-down table in front, glancing critically at anyone disposing of their’s in an inappropriate manner. Words can’t do justice to the speed at which the wind, the wind I really should have expected travelling in a train with the windows open, snatched up the feeble plastic cup and spread a surprisingly large amount, considering I’d thought it finished, of cold tea across the carriage. I was fortunate enough to take most of the hit myself but the fallout area was still quite a generous one. I slightly stained the beautiful white trousers of one unlucky Sikh but he smiled and accepted my apology. Or he accepted that the enormous brown stain on my trousers was punishment
enough for this filthy westerner.
The sign outside Delhi’s Simri park reads the usual – “No Dogs after 5.30,” “No loud music,” “No ball games,” “No sticking of biles.” Whilst ‘Biles’ should probably be ‘bills’, or ‘advertising’, the sign is really far more
relevant in its mispelt form. Bile is not an easy substance to regurgitate, let alone stick to anything, but they give it a good go. There’s absolutely nothing more common, and less appealing than the sound of someone’s healthy, phlegm-raking spit. And there are some fine examples, with distance covered, volume, impact and rebound, all being
Ali was our Agran rickshaw driver, who waited for us while we admired the Taj Mahal – that dazzlingly grand
world wonder. On our return, walking towards us, arms open in greeting, he produced such an incredibly impressive fountain of red betel-drenched saliva and spray (although it’s really much, much more than that), with such a magnificent, slow-motioned toss of the head, that the Taj visibly paled in comparison.
Indian dirt is too vast a topic to even touch on – Indians themselves don’t even sit down on the ground. They’ve developed a special do-it-anywhere squat that they’re capable of maintaining for hours as they work or wait, bottoms
hanging perilously close to a regurgitated dead rat or a suspiciously black stain of sorts.
It’s important to emphasise that India is very, very dirty, but Indians are not. In fact, Indians are some of the
best-groomed people I’ve ever seen, met or snuggled up to in a cold train carriage. No one smells. It may seem like a ridiculous comment to make, but it’s true. Out of interest, I’ve been almost predatory in my
search for an overly odorous Indian and I’ve yet to find one.
They on the other hand (the unclean one), have formed an entirely contrary opinion of me.