Thursday, September 28, 2017

Capital Shit

I was brought up short the other day at the entrance to the housing complex where I live. There was a fat little cake of slowly dessicating shit. It had already been there a few days.

I see open gutters everyday. Before or during the monsoon months, they are cleaned out. There are little piles of filth decorating the length of the street for days; perhaps the somebody who was paid to clean the gutter has not been paid to carry away the filth. When it does get carried away, it must go... where? A dumpyard? A river?

All calls for a clean India have thus far been focussed on littering, sweeping of the streets and open defecation by human citizens. What doesn't often get mentioned is open defecation by stray animals, including cows, bulls, dogs and rats.

Now the thing is, we aren't going to be able to get animals to use a commode, not that I can foresee. And our dear leaders have been enthusiastically pointing out the great benefits of animal potty, especially bovine – that it makes for great fertilizer, that it can be turned into cooking fuel or mixed with building material and so on.

I have no argument with that. True, potty does make for great organic fertilisers. However, could it not be that fresh bovine potty also exposes humans – or other animals? – to infection just the same as human potty left lying on the streets, on beaches, and in the pretty fields of sugarcane? Conversely, is it not true that human beings are capable of generating a fair bit of fertilizer themselves?

I am not an expert in faecal matter, nor agriculture. But it does seem to me that human beings are far too squeamish about properly addressing their own excrement. There was a time, scholars say, when a 'crock of shit' was a valuable commodity. Centuries ago, people in Asia were trading in human waste. Someone was collecting human exrement by the bucketful and selling it to farmers as manure. Europe had its nightsoil collectors too. Then came the era of modern indoor toilets and the flush system, and all potential manure went into the nearest river, which sadly was the population's main water supply.

That's something to think about, isn't it? If there's one thing our country doesn't lack, it is human excrement. Should we really be in such a hurry to flush it down a drain at a time when we know that it is likely to add to water pollution? Shouldn't we also be trying to figure out alternatives that don't involve large scale piped sewage transportation?

Currently, most – over 70 percent – of India's sewage goes untreated. Besides, there are several leaks in pipes. The recent horror of toxic froth engulfing parts of Bangalore is also linked to the problem of millions of tonnes of sewage going into the lakes.

There is so much talk of 'filth' and its impact on public health. Municipalities that are quite well funded, as Mumbai is, display filth and faeces in every suburb. But 'open' defecation is not the only problem. The bigger problem is that much of the waste goes into the sea, or into one of the half dozen rivers that have since ceased to flow.

Would it not make more sense for us to make good on all that human shit? If there was gold in it once, there will be gold in it again. Surely, we just have to invest a tiny bit in making technology work for us rather than just replicating technologies fixated on the flush?

On the season of raunak

There are days, running into weeks, when the city dresses up. In a general way, of course, you could say that big cities are always dressed up and showing off. Bright lights and neon define the modern urban experience and separate it from life in small towns and villages.

Here, most streets are lit through the night. Here, there are billboards of the glowy sort and shiny names scratched onto the skyline. Here, glassfronted stores show off their wares long past our bedtimes. Step out after sunset and the whole city appears to be floating in a dozen shades of light. It is this that brings “raunaq” to cities, or at least the illusion of it. Raunaq literally means lustre or brightness but it implies more – beauty, grace, freshness, an indication of well-being.

We grow immured to this everyday raunaq. So, come dress up season, we must find fresh uses and hangings for light. My favourite decorations are the canopies of lights that follow you down the length of the street. At such times, I brush away the guilt of too much electricity wasted and allow myself to grow warmed by the idea that the city is collectively celebrating, and that even those who are not celebrating and who may not be able to afford such lighting for their own homes can enjoy the beauty and symmetry of the lighting.

The season usually begins before Diwali and goes on until Christmas and then the end of the year celebrations. Some streets will be capped and strung with lights but there will also be lights outside shops, malls, draped around trees and the balconies of apartments. You don't have to celebrate any of these festivals or go to any parties. Just take a walk outside and you may find yourself sucked into a sense of joy, or at least the calm self-assurance associated with the rhythm of ritual. Turn your head this way and that and in every other window, there are tiny, colourful fairy lights blinking right into your eyes. It is hard not to be moved a tiny bit. If not joy, you could at least nudged towards wistfulness and a sudden longing to call friends.

In Mumbai, though, the festivities begin earlier in the year. There are the ten days of Navratri and Dussera. Many suburbs are lit up all then days and a few will keep the decorations going until Diwali. Even before Navrati, there is Ganeshotsav, or just 'Ganpati' as many people here refer to the ten day festivities. There will not be as many streets lit up. But there are pandals on every corner, and sometimes even two or three on every street, with lighting, bhajans, flowers, incense, the clash of manjiras. Sweet shops appear to swell and spill onto the pavements with displays on tables and not one shop seems to lack for customers. This is a different sort of raunaq.

From August to December, it is almost as if the city skips from celebration to celebration. Barely have the drums and aartis for Ganeshotsav faded out that the lights for Navratri start to go up. Children and teenagers have barely stopped swinging the garba sticks covered in shiny paper when all the streetside shops start to sell kandeels (lamps) made of paper and embroidered cloth. And even though you do not need any more lamps, and even though this may not be your way of celebrating, the raunaq will rub off on your clothes and hair. As long as there is no rancour of exclusion, as long as cities and celebrattions hold open their arms to all, we can all be brushed with the grace and brightness of the season.

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