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Spit and unpolish

I grimaced across a hallway, dexterously trying to avoid the betel-stained walls. A friend said that in the past, it was a tradition in India to spit in the corner of the toilet before using it. As I looked cynically at her, she replied it was entirely scientific as the saliva attracted all the germs, viruses and bacteria, leaving the spitter protected from infections. I found this excuse for the Indian spitting habit immensely enjoyable and made a mental note of researching the topic.

It’s not that I was interested in spitting stories, but the moment I notice someone pausing during a conversation, craning the neck and rotating the skull towards the right, I can see what is coming. Spit in all shades and consistency. It is insulting and frustrating as I begin thinking of the innumerable feet and tyres trampling the spit and taking it home. It is this maddening realisation that made me ban footwear and carpets at home.

A far deadlier repercussion was that it is getting more challenging for me day by day to find a house help. I can see is a daily procession of some hundred or so maids, mouths bulging on one side with betel quids, ready to spit on the road or the bushes. I rush out and shout, "Hey can’t you keep your spit to yourself? You need to be fined." The fine never happened because, as I discovered, the maintenance in-charge of the building is fond of the habit and often gets rebuked by his wife for staining their bathroom walls. The only impact of my rebuke is that maids decided not to work for me and teach me a lesson.

In history

As I began typing "history of spitting", Google did not come up with its innumerable search cues as always and made it evident that I was treading on roads not frequently taken. I read that the Greeks were the first (they always are) in "ritual spitting", a term which denotes that spitting was carried out as a good omen and to ward off evil from infants and newly weds. One had to be spit thrice. Why thrice? Because odd numbers are considered lucky in most cultures, and three is the first odd number. I doubt seriously if the Greeks were alone in their glory, for Indian households too have a similar practice. In India, we carry out the ritual with the traditional "thoo-thoo" sound.

I am sure that the spitting is meant to be just symbolic and not actual saliva spluttering out, but many a time I have felt it land flat. I had to forgive those genuine well-wishers for taking the practice too seriously. In Kenya, the Maasai tribe greet customarily by spitting into their hands before shaking them as a way of greeting and showing respect to others.

The second type of spitting that I know of is the "therapeutic" spitting — a gentle reminder of our reaction upon receiving small cuts or bruises. We put the finger in our mouth, and for other organs, we apply saliva by hand, as it is known to have therapeutic qualities. Our children have learnt it from us, and interestingly, this is a trait we share with other mammals.

As I felt a tinge of panic that spitting might be branded a prerogative of the developing countries alone, I discovered that the U.S. was no different once. For a long time, the U.S. and Europe hardly questioned the existence of spitting in their lives and were proud owners of public spittoons. In 1882, the German bacteriologist Robert Koch identified the notorious germ: Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Campaigns were carried out, and after several courtroom battles, spitting or expectoration in public was made illegal.

Well, as I googled more, I revelled in the quirky "competitive" spitting competitions held in different parts of the world. A cherry-pit spitting competition in Michigan and cricket-spitting is part of the annual Bug Bowl at Purdue University in Indiana. An olive-pit spitting competition held in Israel hoped to break the world record of nearly 100 feet.

My interest in spitting doesn’t end with the limited research done. If we go by western and Indian cinematic overtures, spitting is a vital act and reveals much about the character that spits. Perhaps my next research paper shall explore spitting as an expression of human emotions and predicaments in literature. Hey! Do not plagiarise my idea, for I spat it out accidentally!

Making a statement

Art is an imitation of reality, and so we know that characters in real life too use spitting to make statements. It is considered a sign of masculinity. Spitting on the ground in front of someone is supposed to show disrespect, anger, rudeness, arrogance and even bullying. It can also show fearlessness, for if one is nervous, he is supposed to swallow the saliva, right? Spitting is used to look down upon someone and boosts the self-esteem of the spitter. A classy signature indeed.

For a country like ours, spitting is not just a style statement any more; it is the crudest and the most uncivilised message delivered free of cost every day to the world. It is an insult to every soul that treads upon it. Each year, nearing Gandhiji’s birth anniversary, we pick up the broom and force ourselves to imagine a cleaner and healthier India. Though government agendas have made hygiene and cleanliness their top picks, the people are yet to embrace it with panache. To make matters bright for spitters, they hardly pay the penalty. The only answer, perhaps, is to develop acute revulsion and intolerance in public for spitting and spitters. What if habitual spitters are offered an opportunity to spit in their water tanks and earthen pots for a change? The idea is offensive, yet isn’t it better to swallow our spit rather than devour our dignity?

alka28jain@gmail.com

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 3:41:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/spit-and-unpolish/article32820089.ece

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