All that Matters

(Written for Times of India  on July 31, 2016)

For Swachh Bharat, we must teach our kids to pack light, flush right


Dear Mr Modi, I admire the Swachh Bharat campaign. I’m trying to see if we can have a conversation about it — about how we define sanitation, for instance, or what warrants cleaning. I examined ideas of cleanliness, and conduct, on recent travels because travel isolates people and allows us to observe them in conditions outside natal environment.

It starts at the airport: our brethren will run down old people to make top of the queue, pack excess baggage and then haggle with counter staff to have the extra kilos go. A frequent sight: bags flung open, discounted underwear and pickle jars spilling out. These travellers are hauling out heavy items to carry by hand, often clutching large plastic bags — to the uninitiated this can summon images of wartime, of someone packing up, fleeing for life. Of course these are only our passengers, going Delhi to Bengaluru for a long weekend.

If you fly international, which I did this year for work, conditions are embarrassing. Flight crew will tell you the problem is at the level of the toilet. (I’m not referring to the poor, without access to toilets, who are simply not part of this discussion). Rolls of toilet paper are strewn around. Washbasins and toilet seats are seldom left clean. And there is that Horror Film Smell, best left without elaboration.

Recently, on a train from Lucerne to Zurich, eight Indians boarded. They appeared part of our emerging middle class, middle-aged, well attired. Carrying 12 pieces of baggage, they wanted to fit it all in the same luggage hold. But why, I thought, when you can easily divide this between two compartments? A thoughtful ticket operator allotted them room between four seats for luggage. Within minutes I was back in India as suitcases piled over each other and loud calls ensued, possibly alarming local passengers into thinking, ‘This is how terrorists attacks begin!’

“Usko chadha do,” one man in cargo pants shouted, “Pappi ke bag ke upar.” A lady in this retinue plonked next to me, impaling my toe with her heel.

The entourage refused to divide their luggage between two compartments as they wanted to sit together and do gupshup — there were rowdy peals of laughter, the men were slapping palms, cracking the sort of jokes forwarded on WhatsApp with bikini emoticons. They were having fun, I told myself, which is a lot more than what I could say about the dismal-faced westerners on the train to Zurich. And yet, when one of the Indians spoke to me in Hindi — telling me to mind their luggage as they wanted to move to the upper deck — I looked him square in the eye and pretended I did not understand.

You might think: he’s such a snob, he’s so difficult, I hope I don’t ever end up with this khadoos on any compartment. Why couldn’t he just watch over the luggage of these lovely people, who were probably taxpaying doctors from Noida?

To be honest, Mr Modi, I was terrified. I was terrified by how brash they were, by their feudal aura of entitlement — that I’d been sent to earth to mind their luggage. I was terrified by their notion that the world was not their oyster, it was their toilet.