“Spitting is our culture. It’s our national character.” A famous Indian writer trenchantly stated this a few years ago and there's no denying the fact that it's both our national character and a favorite hobby-horse. Every wall, nook, and cranny anywhere in India will underline and vindicate this observation, which is really embarrassing. In no other country barring India, does one come across so many happy-go-lucky practitioners of spitting whose only pastime, any religion, is to spit and “beautify” walls and corners and leave behind their “colourful” legacies. We Indians just cannot reconcile to the fact that in many countries, spitting is a punishable act and a degrading habit. Spit in Singapore and you'll find yourself cooling your heels in a prison. Even Dubai, which is often disparagingly called India's Extension, has a stern rule and people are penalised if caught spitting, let alone relieving themselves.
A sense of cleanliness comes from within. It cannot be taught. You cannot teach a person that spitting here and there after consuming obnoxious paan masala, gutka or such things is bad. One must realise on one's own that this creates a bad impression about the country and its people. Over-sensitive Indians feel bad when foreigners laugh and criticise the way Indians relieve themselves anywhere. But can we deny the fact that we are intrinsically lacking in basic social behaviour and civic sense?
A leading Australian broadsheet, The Age, reported that during a Test match between India and Australia at Adelaide in 1985, a young Indian casually spat in the stadium. The Oz police immediately arrested him. It later transpired that he was the son of a diplomat! The Australian police reprimanded the diplomat father for not inculcating cultured behaviour in his son. It's not for nothing that Indian students are often humiliated and assaulted Down Under (Australia). They (Indians) spit and desecrate at will as if they are still living in a small town in India! An Indian writer recently wrote that the level of personal hygiene and a basic sense of cleanliness among most of the Indian students studying in Australia and abroad is alarmingly low. The ever-irrepressible late Khushwant Singh, who called a spade a spade, wrote in his 'London Diary' that he saw many Indians spit on the streets of London and other cities of England. The very sight of an Indian spitting in public embarrassed him no end. Once he gave a dressing down to a middle-aged 'gentleman' from India for spitting on the road. That 'gentleman' turned out to be a senior engineer in India who came to visit London for the first time.
Spitting, relieving, desecrating places and monuments are all manifestations of social vandalism. Visit any monument in India and its deplorable upkeep will sadden you. Vandals haven't spared even Taj Mahal, the epitome of immortal love. Even Ajanta and Ellora, which figure on the world heritage list, bear the indelible marks and stains of spitting paan and its other equally nasty permutations. You can see and feel how brutally monuments of national and international importance are ravaged by the irresponsible people of India. We often observe that the seats of theatres are torn and dirty. No exaggeration or hyperbole, but yours truly has seen people carry blades and razors to theatres and they keep cutting the seats while watching a movie. This is just unthinkable. What sadistic pleasure they get is beyond anyone's ken. Washrooms of even starred hotels and swanky airports are not that clean. There are outright dirty lines, comments and sketches inscribed on the walls of public urinals. One wonders who are those sad souls who vent their frustration by delineating crude sketches on the walls and even scribble the mobile numbers of people they have to settle scores with. This is reprehensible and utterly uncouth. But then, only people are not always to be blamed. The entire system is such that there remain so many loopholes which are exploited by people on the prowl. Spitting has never been considered as a serious offence. So, there's no legal restriction on it. This has emboldened the votaries of spitting all the more. They never miss an opportunity to spit anywhere, and from anywhere. Even from running buses and cars, they display their magnificent skills by colouring bystanders' clothes. One should be very careful while walking in India. You never know who spits, or does something more than that(!) on you, from where.
VS Naipaul called it the Ingrained Desecration Syndrome, in his book India: A Wounded Civilization. Yes, despite being a very old civilisation, Indians have this peculiar habit of desecration which baffles all. Whether urinating on a flier on the flight or creating a ruckus in a public place, all these manifestations of undesirable behaviour stem from this Ingrained Desecration Syndrome. We love to create a nuisance because we tend to defy acceptable norms of social behaviour and etiquette. Now the million-dollar question is: Why do we love to defy norms and behave in an embarrassing manner in public spaces? Those who have lived abroad or travelled extensively to different countries will concur that Indians have this “anything-goes” attitude, and are seriously non-serious people. Besides, our sense of national pride and retention of the country’s image is also very poor. This is not condemnation. This is a fact — that we seldom care about creating an image of the country we're from. We talk about nationality and national pride but we ignore the simple aspects of it. Universally acceptable social behaviour comes only when we're fully aware of individual dignity and social decorum. Country may come later but the cardinal condition is to be culturally and socially responsible citizens. Are we?
Sumit Paul is a regular contributor to the world's premier publications and portals in several languages