KOLHAPUR–I made it back to my hotel, just, stomach churning from the hotel’s plain omelet this morning, I think. The kitchen is mediocre at best, but I haven’t had a problem before with an omelet. Today, I could take only a couple of bites. It was rancid.
Whatever. Maybe it was one of a hundred other things, or just a malevolent stray bacterium adhering to something I touched–a tea cup rim, or the silverware lying flat on the omelet, placed there neatly by the unsoaped, sweet-acting waiter, a wall outside, a public monument.
I am fond of India, but it is overly mild to call it exasperating.
I had taken a tuk-tuk (which this miserable uninstructable auto-correct always wants to turn into yuk-yuk) west to the celebrated Gandhi Maidan, a dusty open area just east of Lake Rankala. The lake is a a 400-acre waist-deep body of water presented on maps as blue, though it is a stew of sewage and trash. But, legs crossed and breathing shallowly, I made it back, and safe at last, relieved, I was soon sitting as usual after an excursion on the plastic stool in the shower, scrubbing my feet.
I lather them with soap and wash carefully between my toes with my indispensable fingernail brush. The bottoms are more difficult, and though I do this at least twice a day and scrub my sandals, also with bar soap, or laundry detergent or shampoo, my heels remain nearly black, even after the fingernail brush. When I rinse the suds off, the water runs dark to the drain.
I wear sandals instead of shoes because I can kind of clean the sandals. The shoes, after my months of walking in Indian cities, down slum lanes and the much dirtier main streets, would be poisonous by now. I keep them in my pack, all clean, and I’d turn to my flip-flops before lacing them up.
I make these notes because in a few months, back home, I will have forgotten how dirty it is here. It may seem unnecessary to mention, comparable to pointing out that Saudi Arabia is intolerant or that the dog pound at Cleveland games lacks a sense of fair play. But the filth is deep and pervasive and Indians are oblivious to it. That’s interesting.
I’ve seen squalor in many places, including individual apartments in our inner-city slums, or in the Middle East, where trash and garbage is pitched over the wall and forgotten. In Kuwait, the rats scurried in the piles at night, but the Kuwaitis hired workers from Bangladesh and Yemen and Egypt to pick it all up. Here, it just moulders where it falls.
The trash–the plastic bags and sugar cane stalks and wires and discarded flip-flops, more plastic, snack packaging, broken machines–is everywhere. It fills the parks and the sewage trenches, blows across the maidan, and rims the lake, which has crumbling pavilions and battered fences suggesting a cleaner past; and grotesque as it is, the trash is the most bearable of the dirt.
The streets are uncleaned, except with whisks, and the sidewalks, the public walls, every empty lot. I don’t mention this just to be an impolite visitor but to highlight the self-imposed degradation to which humans can become accustomed. As I sit in my hotel room now, writing, the room smells of burning garbage from the lot next door.
An image I can’t push out of my mind is from relatively clean Baramati, Swiss-like in comparison to Bombay or Pune or most of Tamil Nadu. I stayed in the plush Baramati Club in a wealthy neighborhood. It was about a half mile on narrow streets past new apartment buildings to the main road, where I could catch a tuk-tuk into town. Returning one afternoon, I saw two professional men standing on an apartment balcony, talking. One finished a Pepsi, and without looking or pausing in conversation, he pitched it to his left down into the empty lot next door. I glanced over the wall. He had done it before, often. He was a pudgy man who apparently drank a lot of soft drinks and ate chips and other snacks, and the rest of the building’s garbage was there as well, a corner of it smoldering, a nasty smell that even beyond the urine smell from convenient walls and alleys across the country is the most familiar smell of India. India is burning garbage, urine, and fumes from millions of scooters and cycles and tuk-tuks and fuming buses with slick tires, spit, uncleaned public toilets, raw sewage. Pigs were rooting in the Pepsi drinker’s heap.
But it is the surfaces that are unavoidable, caked with decades of dirt, embedded grime, never washed–the streets, the buses, the walls, the rubbly roadsides.
It’s fair to generalize about such things. The cleaning, in the hotels where I stay, on the streets, in the parks, in every public place, is done by the very poor. They usually have nothing but a whisk. They seldom have soap or other equipment. They have no training, and no supervision. If they’re workers on city property, they’re often hired by private contractors who take the contract money, kick back some to the corrupt officials who awarded the contract, and then cheat the workers of a portion of their tiny wages. The workers go through the motions, but they spend much of their time sitting, having by their presence relieved other Indians of a need to look at what they’re walking in.
Most surfaces here, even in my cleanish hotel room, are infectious. I bought a couple of cleaning rags when I arrived and scrub as well as I can when I arrive in a new room. I do it daily, obsessed I suppose it might seem to the unexposed like a latter day Howard Hughes, and I use a sanitizing hand cleaner from Kroger and otherwise wash my hands again and again. My sanitizer is supposed to have a citrus scent, but when I put it on it outside it has a smell of urine.
I watched poor women this morning, all of them barefoot, wash clothes in the lake, just beside the happily gurgling water buffalo who were being scrubbed by their tender. I wash my own clothes here by hand, and I have a routine. I put my underwear and T-shirt from the day before, shorts if needed, in the five gallon bucket which is in every hotel bathroom. I add a small packed of Tide or Surf and suds it up for a minute, then go to breakfast. When I come back, after an hour, I slush for another two minutes in the suds, pour out the brown water and rinse for several more minutes under the running water. It works. I can do the same to myself.
The women arrive with a large basin of clothes (never any bedsheets or towels). They wet them in the basin, and some add soap such as I use, but they can’t take the time to soak. They would be there all day. They smack the shirts or pants or once-bright sari cloth on the rocks, or twist them up and rub them hard on the rocks, then rinse in the lake water. They work at it, but the clothes are never cleaned, and on the streets most people look dingy.
Because they have no space at home, the women often dry the clothes by stretching them out flat on the trash-covered, pissed-upon dirt by the lake, or, in other towns, on the river bank.
Another image, and a fair one, I think, is from Phaltan, a town of Dickensian grimness south of Baramati. Adjacent the pleasant Hotel Jeet Paradise in a relatively prosperous neighborhood, the kids play cricket on a rutted empty lot ringed with trash and piles of burning garbage. It doesn’t occur to anyone, the proprietors of the hotel, the fathers who take their children there to play, to clean it up, and so a boy running after the bouncing ball jumps without thought over piles of trash and skirts rubble and avoids as he can the piles left by the neighborhood cows.
And, interestingly, on Indian television, the streets are alway clean and the peasants newly washed, just as, I suppose, our commercial images–perky, bright acting employees of Wal-Mart or Burger King–depict what we want to be true.
I think it’s related, or it seems so from my perspective: In today’s Indian Express and Times of India, which often print the same stories, a small article mentioned that 80 percent of the graduates of India’s thousands of engineering schools are unemployable, because they have no useful skills. That’s deplorable, of course, and the papers clucked disapprovingly today–standards must be raised! They have the same tone when, as today, “a shocking incident,” arises, they conclude, from the stress of failed exams or college debt (three female students at the Yoga and Naturopathy college at Chinna Salem in Tamil Nadu, despairing at their inability to pay “exorbitant fees,” jumped into a well yesterday and died). Tomorrow another two or three engineering schools will open, and more students or debt-ridden farmers will commit suicide.
Filth and and public graft are flip sides of the same coin (e.g., Flint, Michigan).
One must acknowledge that the same conditions exist at our own proliferating diploma mills, which hand out worthless degrees in return for a quick buck, though our diminished sense of public honor may lead less often to suicide.