Our Spontaneous Shamelessness
The doors of the BMTC Volvo swish open right at my feet, the suspension decompresses (yeah, high tech buses indeed), and at the footboard, astride the black floor mat, appears the form of the conductor in his rumpled whites. But even as I attempt to nod and smile, he grabs the neck of a one-litre cold drink bottle tucked under his arm, unscrews the cap takes a swig of water from it, gargles violently and noisily and aims a jetstream of mouthwash, replete with just ingested idly-orange-sambar particulate, right at my feet. My adroitness at surviving our wild and anarchic ways takes over, by reflex, and I leap out of way just as the jet stream hits the mud creating a small puddle inches from me. My trousers receive some spray - but my feet are saved from direct hit. Conductor-avare does this a couple of times - standing right there at the entrance, nonchalantly tosses the bottle over to his driver pal and steps off ... right into his own puddle ... as the now wet-with-gargle mud, mixed with orange-particulate, glues itself to his sandals. He appears happy, his stomach taken care of and his mouth feels fresh, I suppose.
Human actions of consummate, shameless, uncaring spontaneity are deeply integrated into our behavior (and culture?) in a way like nowhere else. A long term, resident-in-India, northern European once commented to me, in his case with an air of liberation, that India is the only country where you can 'scratch your balls' in full public view without a hint of restraint or sense of awkwardness whatsoever. While it might be possible to apply sophistry in support of this particular freedom, there are innumerable other kinds of totally indefensible actions performed by us, in moments of utter spontaneity, which display zero sense of how gross or disrespectful it might be to the chap who is forced to co-exist a few centimeters away from us, in our overpopulated land.
Fingers deeply inserted in noses, or clenched against nostrils and blown into, are, with great rapidity, swiped against electricity poles where the surface friction is just appropriate to get the mucous separated from finger tip. With almost unconscious and in-built cussedness, this is done at exactly a height above the ground at which the chap behind you will lean in a few minutes, disengage your body fluid onto his own shirt and then further propagate on the packed BMTC bus. Seems like a particularly effective way to propagate some things of interest to epidemiologists - besides being gross, uncaring and shameless.
This is how we disengage from our plastics, CFL bulbs, diapers filled with poop, toxic batteries, used sanitary tissue and condoms; and less harmfully, but equally vexingly, this too is how we cavalierly wrist spin that banana skin right under the chappal of the chap behind us. There is good reason we make so many 'slip on banana skin' jokes as kids.
Of course, the most famous one is male urination. And lets not even attempt to get into socio-economic justifications of this one. We take issue here specifically with the perfectly well-off, middle-class, salaried and upper-class man who, with smartphone wedged between shoulder and ear, head tilted sharply to one side, motorcycle or car abandoned mid-street, obliviously blocking traffic, will hold his weenie and let go. He will even turn around to curiously examine the commotion, displaying his pubic parts while dribbling over his own fingers (and you know where that wetness will get transferred next) still bellowing loudly into his phone. Utter, contemptible shamelessness. Remember, these are guys with bathrooms of gold at home - so don't even get started on that excuse. And if other (more sensible) middle aged males can survive the city & its desperate lack of public bathrooms without such brazen displays of their maleness, then so can these highly entitled cowboys. And we won't even talk about bladder control and what women are forced to do about that.
The shame-free continuum extends into the bus where the chap next to you will howl abuse, over his phone, at his brother who is cheating him in the family business (while every personal detail of his is being publicly aired) even while the guy across the aisle is head banging to some grating Bollywood track on his loud-made-for-India speaker phone, oblivious to the chitrageethe that the bus conductor (of the cleansed mouth) wants to now inflict on everyone. You are left texting your collegue that you 'will talk later' as you are on a noisy bus, even as you frown at the well-heeled family nudging their child to jettison his food stained tissue on the floor of the AC bus (if it was non-AC, the two-wheeler chap riding alongside would have undoubtedly made a tryst with fast-food-soiled tissue).
There is something to be said for the Upanishadic atithi devo bhava idea and its influence upon us, though. The utterly uncaring, dismissive, sneering, disrespect that we have for each other in the anonymous public space is magically transmuted once a line of 'kinship' of some kind is mentally drawn. At the masala dosa counter in the popular darshini - where twenty of us middle-class/aged men are surreptitiously elbowing each other and stepping on each other's sandals, jostling for a position of advantage to grab one of the six hot-off-the-tava dosas that are tossed before us, at a time - if I so much as make eye contact with my competition and recognize him as Ramesh from the next street, or from the office, it is like magic dust has been sprinkled on both of us. Ramesh and I will leap back and offer to not only grab dosa for the other - but also buy a coffee and invite each other home while inquiring about wives and children and how the habba went. We have been instantaneously civilized for at least the next few moments. Meanwhile, in the sudden build-up of bonhomie, both of us have lost our dosas to the rest of the gladiatorial mass in the mosh-pit, who are unfettered by such social interconnectedness. (Dosa supply bottlenecking sort of matches what happens on our roads when ten feet of already scarce width suddenly disappear leaving traffic fighting to squeeze into the eight feet of potholed width that remain)
There are endless variations of this situation that we can draw from our lives - into the customer-hating public sector bank where service levels are instantaneously transformed from abysmal to incandescent, when the bank employee behind the counter 'recognizes' me; or into the government office where only a friend or neighbor can reveal to me the deliberately-mysterious 'real' procedure to get a job done or, as we like to say, 'put in a word' for me; or into our infamous traffic where I will cut that other m**** off until I recognize him as someone I know and am embarrassed to smithereens & endless damage-control thereafter.
Is there redemption for us from this 'kin' versus 'unknown, mortal enemy' dichotomy that imbues our psyche? Is this what makes us, as famously said, like the self-limiting crabs in the open box, from ever being able to cooperate and complement each others efforts?
Of course there is another way we have been expertly using to transcend this boundary, especially if you have no karmic (kinship) means to negotiate it. In the grand halls of government and big business, vast sums of money effectively establish gigantic, glowing, all embracing rings of a new kind of kinship and envelop you in a bear hug of lucrative contracts, profits and fraternal support. Perhaps money has that magic ability to break the hegemony of the mysterious, intangible, people-like-me (caste-community-neighbor-relative-friend) kinship - and replace it with another, equally insidious, and problematic one?