I don’t know who the owner of the grey Mitsubishi Lancer with the number plate DL 9C C 1066 is, but the driver behind the wheel wasn’t making the case for Delhiites being a well-mannered lot any easier.
Home Sweet Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram being a migrant (of sorts), like almost 30 per cent of Indians, isn’t completely integrated with the ways of his ‘host’ state. Thus his neo-Orientalist remarks about the need for Delhi’s citizens to change their ‘aggressive’ habits if they were to have any hope of being considered as decent hosts to aliens next year for Her Incomparable Majesty’s Commonwealth Games.
But the man behind the steering wheel, waiting for the traffic light to change at the crossing on Bhagwan Dass Road next to the Supreme Court of India, had just let loose a streaming jet of paan ki peek.
This would have been immediately recognised by the Commonwealth Games inspectors, scurrying about town, as “masticated betel juice spat out by (mostly male) Delhiites; not to be confused with the act of public urination conducted by (only male) Delhiites and lions in the Serengeti Reserve Forest to mark their territories”. (Such information — and more —would have come to them via a specially prepared booklet published by the Delhi government.)
But looking at the paan-chewing driver at the crossing made me realise that this was only one cultural activity related to public hygiene and manners that may need tackling before cleaner foreigners descend on us next year and take us for dirty Indians.
But how do you tell a man who doesn’t think twice about barfing his mouth out girl-in-Exorcist-style on the streets, or doesn’t blink while unzipping and letting it flow against a wall, to change these ‘traditional’ habits? Would it amount to telling the Taliban to refrain from stoning adulterers to death? Or, more to the point, telling Indians that maybe it’s time that they stop using their hands while eating? Is throwing public cleanliness (literally) out of the window part of our culture? Or at least that of the can-do-no-wrong Real India, considering that one does find it easier to buy dustbin wraps if one can afford to buy dustbin wraps?
And I’m not the only Indian who thinks that we are, in general, a dirty lot. Next to the Mitsubishi Lancer, with Mr Oral Jackson Pollock driving, there was a billboard that had the following message: “Aap jo paani piye, jo khana khaye aur jis hawa mein saans le, wey saab bilkul saaf hona chahiye. Aap sirf apni niji safai se santosh na maney.” (‘The water you drink, the food you eat and the air you breathe, those should be absolutely clean. Don’t be satisfied with your own cleanliness.’) A pretty tame message from the Obsessive Compulsive Disordered Mahatma Gandhi if you ask me.
For a society whose cultures and religions are quite obsessive about personal hygiene — the Vishnu Purana and the Koran are two detailed manuals that will provide you with much information about cleanliness being the neighbour of godliness — the non-importance that we give to public cleanliness is quite a paradox.
One way, of course, to avoid embarrassing ourselves before the Commonwealth Games inspectors — and before all others who come to inspect our country anyway — is to have the text of Section 268 of the Indian Penal Code nailed, stapled or glued to every wall, post, placard and billboard: “A person is guilty of a public nuisance who... is guilty of an illegal emission, which causes any common injury, danger or annoyance to the public or to the people in general...” It’s another matter that the public or the people in general (what’s the difference?) clearly don’t get annoyed or injured by people like our Lancer driver who regularly use the finest, biggest spittoon of them all: India.