Whether as landmarks or material for comedy, garbage is really useful.

When I was in college, I moved into a PG in South Delhi. When I started making a few friends in college, it was easy to give them clear, fool proof directions to my place. ‘Turn left, walk straight, cross an open dumpster and there you are.’ There was one clueless girl who once asked me what I’d do if they cleaned up the garbage. But it was our first year; we were confused, nervous little things. Sometimes we said things we wouldn’t have in our more level-headed moments. It wouldn’t have been fair to laugh at her innocent, albeit misplaced, query. I answered her question seriously instead. I told her they wouldn’t. They didn’t. And recently, passing the old PG on my way home, I saw that they haven’t.

Over the years, the count of houses in my life that are identified by their proximity to open dumpsters has gone up. It’s really the most convenient thing, and I’m not complaining. The alternatives aren’t as reliable. Billboard landmarks? They might change. Tell me to look out for a green building, and they might turn blue. But the garbage, that stays. Where will it go, anyway?

It’s a strange thing to teach ourselves to live with. A bit like living with the certain knowledge that paan stains mark a much-frequented roadside eatery. A little like casually sidestepping the neighbour’s dog’s offerings outside your home. I once, very foolishly, suggested to a dog lover that she might consider, maybe, on the off chance, picking up after her little Dachshund (I was grossly influenced by my diet of western television shows, of course). The way that conversation turned out, I started wondering if I had somehow advised her to dance at a funeral. I was ashamed, I tell you, ashamed.

We’ve got a lot going on in the way of dodgy public hygiene practices though, haven’t we? You aren’t really a stand-up comedian worth your salt if your material includes India and leaves out the tried and tested jokes on this unappetising aspect of our existence. You go up on stage, pull out your Indian accent and then you don’t talk about the smelly public places and spit stains and makeshift street-side toilets? You are either very original or need to find a day job, immediately.

The thing is, we aren’t a dirty people. Not really. We just have a very, well, clear sense of inside, and outside, private and public. In our heads, we’ve decided that while the responsibility of the inside, the personal place that we inhabit is ours to scrub and wash and clean, the outside doesn’t really belong to anyone. At least, it doesn’t belong to us.

If you take a little walk down a residential street early morning, there is frantic, emphatic cleaning going on inside most homes, big or small, posh or not. You can see little dust puffs rising out of windows. The floors are swept and washed and then, a bucket full of the dirty water, muddy with the floating remnants of last days muck, is thrown out onto the street. It trickles down the road, creating little pools of slush that indicate that the inside of the house is actually spotlessly clean. Sometimes, it splashes on you and you glare at the defiant looking home-cleaner. But you are at a disadvantage. You were walking down no man’s land and every man’s trash can.

The streets are pretty much orphaned at birth in India. A road is built, spruced up, and then abandoned. Sometimes, a lone sweeper will listlessly tend to its basic needs so it stays alive, and once in a random while, there is a group of people who will adopt it and care for it temporarily. But usually, all it sees is windows rolling down and empty bottles and packets and half smoked cigarettes hurtling out. They see men relieving themselves in the corners with not a care in the world. They see people automatically lift their hands to cover their noses as they walk past, blind to what’s actually causing the stench, but quite competent when it comes to ignoring it.

We are all a little bit guilty. Once in your life, if not repeatedly, you’ve finished a packet of chips or biscuits or something, looked around for a a non-existent bin, and then surreptitiously if you care and openly if you don’t, thrown it on the road where, let’s face it, there was quite a lot of rubbish already. It’s as good as a bin, you’ve told yourself. Someone will come clean it up later. When it comes to the outside, there is always someone else who might pick up after us, who will flush when we don’t, who will wipe the things that we spill, clean the mess that we made. That’s a very hygienic Santa Claus that we’ve made up.

We don’t mind living with foul smells and overflowing bins and open drains and buzzing flies. We are pleasantly surprised when a public toilet is clean, but not terribly put off or shocked when it isn’t. We avert our eyes mechanically when we see a man facing the wall, but we forget about him till another one reappears 500m down the road. We laugh at all the jokes about our country’s sights and smells and sounds, because thankfully, we are learning to laugh at ourselves. But we are also learning to live on our clean island-like homes in the middle of a filthy sea.

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