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     Volume 4 Issue 34 | February 18, 2005 |

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Long Live the Spittoon!

Azfar Aziz

The Past
The man is lanky, ash-grey in colour. Clad only in a tattered loincloth, he walks down a cobbled city street sounding a pair of clappers with his right hand like a leper ringing a bell on entering a medieval European town. In his other hand he holds a small earthen pot. As schools of fry diverge in haste on a shark's approach, so do pedestrians and loiterers on the road, hearing the nearing claps. Clearly, he does not belong to the scene, nor is he a stranger. He is a Chandala, baser than the basest, below the lowest rung of the four-tier Aryan society some 300 years after Jesus.

The street scene was not unique in a Gupta town, though was seldom seen. Untouchables like Chandalas, Kaibartas and Doms, though serving the Aryans in the most menial and dirtiest tasks, were completely excluded from their social order. They were not allowed to live in the towns and villages where the Aryan castes dwelled. In one of the history's earliest apartheid, the aboriginal peoples turned into pariahs were confined to special quarters outside even the fringes of their conquerors' habitats.

If extreme necessity or emergency forced any of these Australoid men to go to a settlement of their fair-skinned masters, he could do so only by observing certain diktats. One of those required him to strike wooden clappers while entering the place and to keep on clapping until his departure. The ordinance was meant to alert the locals of an outcaste's presence, so that they could take precaution to avoid any 'defiling' contact [not with his body, which was unthinkable, but for example] with his shadow or any other thing befouled by his 'impure' touch.

Another obligation was to carry a pot, a spittoon, to spit in. For, he was prohibited to spit anywhere else. Does the custom seem cruel or unjust to you? It probably does, but would not if you looked at it from a different angle. What was for the Chandalas a racist humiliation could, on the other hand, be a reasonable disease prevention measure to safeguard the conquering race. They might have learned through bitter experiences that physical contact with the more primitive peoples often resulted in new diseases finding way into their breed. Diseases they never knew previously. So, the apparent apartheid might have been a permanent quarantine necessitated by the realities.

The Present
Whatever the case might have been in the past, the spittoon and the clappers have not lost their appeal, as the realities too have not changed to me over this nearly two millennia. A majority of the population of this land still seems to be comprised of Chandalas, their descendants and inheritors, if not by blood, of course by virtue of uncouth culture and behaviour. Consider the following incidents and facts.

The other day, I boarded a bus and sat by a window near the door. After a few minutes, the conductor spat through that door and wind blew some globs of viscous mucous right on my face. I felt like what anyone would feel in such a case. In a deliberately cold voice, I told the tough-looking young fellow to take care when and where he spits. But he did not seem to be perturbed at all or to give a damn and continued to spit away every few minutes throughout the ride.

People here really take it to be a sort of right -- a holy right to spit, and in public too. Once upon a time, I had to share my workplace with a colleague, who was very protective of this right and a true spitting activist. After suffering his activism for a while, I lost my patience and protested, demanding an end to exercising his right in our common space. In response, he seemed outraged, turned violet in rage, and then doubled up the frequency of spitting, with an expression of righteous anger on his monkey-like face. (Sorry for the derogatory comparison, I cannot help it.) I took the issue to our the then boss, and he made this diplomatic statement, "Yes, I understand your disgust. I sympathise. But, what can you do? Everyone spits."

On an afternoon in the near past, my wife returned home from the kitchen market she frequents in a truly dark mood, with a six-inch-radius blood-red smear on her shirtfront. According to her flaming narration (delivered in a way that made me feel like the target rather than the audience of her venom), on her way back in a rickshaw, a man going the opposite way in another rickshaw spat that smudge of betel juice, most probably intentionally, accurately aiming at her chest. The pân-chewing punk might have thought he was really doing a favour to the woman by adding some red to the dull green of her shirt to match our national flag. She might have been victim of an accident, too. In either case, it definitely was a civic nuisance.

And the nuisance is perpetuated by a majority of people in this land. Leave alone spitting, hawking, urinating and defecating -- all sorts of physical excretion -- are frequently done in public and on public ground. I have seen a good many villages that are nothing but extended latrines, with nauseating stench pervading the air. The situation in the cities is not any better. It is impossible to keep the soles of one's shoes unspoiled by human excreta and walk more than a hundred metres on many of the footpaths even in the capital. Here roads, walkways, footpaths, carriages, buildings all are being continuously bombarded by compulsive spitters. The vice peaks to a mass frenzy in the month of Ramadan. Almost all Bangladeshi Muslims, who fast, spit incessantly and, what is most amazing, consider it to be an act of holiness. Frankly, I have rarely seen a more unholy holiness.

A Reformed Future
Here is the punch line: Comparing the past with the present, I realise that habits of some people of this land are obstinate enough to remain unchanged for 2000 years, and probably to never change. So, I propose we reinstate the ancient Aryan ways and go for a legislation making it obligatory for spitting right activists to carry a spittoon, and perhaps a bell or a badge to identify their (un)holiness, when they are out of their homes. For, what they do at home -- spit or shit -- is none of our business. But, in public let them have their old pots back to spit in at will.



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