October 22, 2001

godliness: er… before cleanliness?

in india, it is not unusual to find people scratching and spitting at all possible corners.

it is also not unusual, to find them attaching divinity to anything that is close to any of the thousands of gods worshipped exclusively in india. strangely, these two facts work best when together. here’s an example…

my friend jayashree once told me of a certain prank that was played on an entire community in thane. the ‘community’ here comprised educated middle-class individuals living in an area that was called bhaskar colony. this was also where jayashree lived all her single life. the prank, jayashree said, was planned by a few clever youngsters living in the same area, who wanted to simply “keep their surroundings clean”.

like most lazy lanes in thane then, bhaskar colony housed over 30 to 40 buildings and apart from these, mountains of garbage piling around trees and on municipal garbage bins that the government forgot to clean up — until the stench of a dead animal forced someone to shoot off a letter to the area authorities. the prime reason for the increasing garbage problem being residents of the colony themselves, the youngsters one day decided to clean it up themselves. they decided to start from the trees, and waited till the thane municipality took the first initiative…

once the municipal van cleared up the entire area, they took a large oval-shaped stone, painted it bright orange, and placed it carelessly against a tree. two days later, the area surrounding the tree was still clean. the experiment had worked! residents believed the stone to be some sort of deity that sprang out from nowhere, and would not dare to anger the unknown. to push their luck a little further, the youngsters decided to play a prank. they placed a single white flower in front of their new ‘deity’. since then, apart from the stories woven around the ‘holy’ tree, today you’ll find multi-coloured sacred threads, flowers, coconut-oil diyas and sweets or prasad made as humble offerings to the new god. an occasional auspicious tuesday turns very lucky to at least a hundred street urchins and the old, as one or two grateful businessmen decide to feed the homeless to earn their part of the punya (good) on earth. as for the other residents of bhaskar colony, they all lead a stench-free and more pious existence.

i did not believe jayashree when we laughed over this story just a few months ago. but my pottery class at vasant vihar today made me realise she was not joking. it’s like using a fire to kill fire. simple.

watch the activity on any street or multi-storeyed building. three of every seven people walking past will suddenly turn their head to the left or right; before you blink your eye, they’d have spat generously on the road. white and freshly painted corners are especially a favourite with betel-nut-chewing kadias or plumbers, or the typical pot-bellied businessman returning home from his jewellery-store for a late siesta after lunch.

at the two-storey shopping complex where i attend classes, i noticed the corners near the stairs were exceptionally white (read, spotless). on my way back from class i remembered to look more carefully, and then i saw why. the clever builder had used three strips of ceramic tiles along either sides of both corners, right where a paan– or tobacco-chewer would aim!

(didn’t get it yet? here are a few pictures that were painted on the tiles 😉

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