Friday, January 30, 2009

Stranger than fiction?

I’m talking Indian reality. The idea of pollution has forever been at the centre of it. Take Gandhi. He was always thinking and talking about purifying himself and others. His innumerable fasts and weekly days of silence and perennial enemas were for purification of the soul and of the body. Gandhi was not the only one obsessed with purity. Most Indians are in a lop-sided sort of way. They keep their homes scrupulously clean and yet don’t seem to mind, nay, even notice, if the neighbourhood is turning into a garbage dump. There are latter-day urban Indians who look upon a menstruating woman as a polluting influence in a home. I remember back in the late sixties or early seventies a young colleague of mine saying to me that he found it repugnant that women "bled every month". These were his exact words. I was taken aback and tongue-tied. I think I blurted out something about Nature and slunk away. What I did not then realise was that the young man, who by the way was not a Hindu, was merely parroting the deeply ingrained belief of his compatriots. To quote the JNU Professor, Dipankar Gupta: "According to the caste principle, all routine substances that come out of one's body, like perspiration, excreta, and menstrual blood are polluting even to oneself. By the same token, hair is also polluting which is why a ritually proper tonsure is a shaven head. The traditional roles of the barber, washerman and scavenger were precisely to absorb specific pollutants so that members of the upper castes could remain 'clean'." (Gupta earlier in the same article quotes the anthropologist Mary Douglas who once pointed out that "dirt was simply 'matter out of place'. Food on the plate is the way it should be everywhere, but becomes dirt when it is on the floor. Shoes on one's feet are fine, but if placed on the table then that's dirt." She also wrote the following: "Rules about eating and not eating certain foods, touching or not touching certain people (castes) or people at certain times (during menstruation, mourning, etc.) have nothing to do with 'primitive' ideas of hygiene." If all this makes sense, the Mangalore pub incidence is not Talibanisation of India. One of our long forgotten ancestors thought of it æons ago. Indian truth is stranger than fiction. Imagine in a land where more than half the population goes to sleep hungry, hunger strike is a powerful weapon of protest and political blackmail. What's more, it works.