Squeamish about Squalor

I have been ‘lurking’ around-as the site administrators are wont to tell me-a travel site these past few days. The site is frequented by many foreigners who have either already travelled or are planning to travel to India . Those who have been here are invariably struck by the terrible filth and squalor that they see all around. They deal with it differently. One couple in Ajmer, when confronted with a smelly toilet, burnt a hundred boxes of incense sticks to overcome the stench. Others adopt less rigourous stratagems. Off course, after they overcome their initial shock, some of them do  enjoy their sojourn here. But the question which puzzles me is why  Indians are indifferent to the all  pervading squalor around them?

It is not that we do not know the virtues of cleanliness. Our scriptures extoll it as next only to Godliness. Hindus are, perhaps, one of the most ritually clean people in the world; having once taken the notions of ritual purity to  such absurd lengths as having an obligation to wash themselves  even if an unclean shadow were to fall on them. There are innumerable occasions for ritual bathing at rivers, ponds and the like in our religious calendar. Even the poorest take bath regularly. It is the same when it comes to our homes. Indian housewives are extremely house proud. The humblest of the huts are kept scrupulously clean, even if only by an application of a layer of cow dung. Take a look down from the ramparts of the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur and you will see most houses neatly painted in blue. But walk down to the same area and you would find it littered-literally.

I found an interesting explanation for this in a book-“The Heart of India” -by Nirad C. Chaudhary. He writes that it has to do with the inability of the early Aryans to deal with the climate of the Indo- Gangetic plains. It developed three mental attitudes in them; firstly an abnormal sensitivity which led to an anxiety or compulsive obsession for physical cleanliness, secondly philosophical and mystical indifference  and thirdly, neutrality or even an happy co-existence with material squalor.

But this does not explain why, while individually Indians are concerned about personal cleanliness, they are indifferent to the filth around them. Pavan K. Varma provides a clue in his book- “Being Indian”. Hindus, he says, being self -centred do not take note of any thing which does not have any direct bearing on their self-interest. This makes him insular, callous, indifferent and impervious to his environment.

Nirad Chaudhary said that squeamishness was out of place in India and he, personally, had put up with almost anything. He went so far to suggest that the necessity to be psychologically proof against filth was the first condition of understanding our life. Nevertheless, there is nothing virtuous in being indifferent to dirt, stench and ugliness. On the contrary, it is good to be squeamish about the degrading conditions of our civic life, if we are ever to change them. We must understand that it is in our self-interest to improve upon our surroundings.

Whether we will be able to climb out of the mounds of rubbish that we live on, may depend  on our ability to overcome the general indifference of our citizens to matters of public good-as opposed to narrow self-interest only.

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