Sweeping Air by Meera Subramanian
I think too much. For the men who attend, and the few women who venture out in the night (most women come in for the daylight aartis), it was just a few minutes of their time, a few coins from their pocket as offering. A moment of respite and reverie, god-love and grace in a messy world. But multiply the moments. The bills and coins, stacked into a roll and folded deftly into the waistline folds of the priest’s dhoti. The temple visit, every day or even more than once, the minutes turned hours turned days of devotion. Imagine that energy harvested and turned to cleaning up and transforming a nation, for ridding the waterways of the waste that causes 1600 people to die each day in India from simply having the shits .
Others are thinking along the same lines. India’s former environment minister Jairam Ramesh caused a stir recently when he complained there were more temples than toilets in India. The Hindu right raised their hackles, blaming the government for their failed job of helping alleviate the fact that two-thirds of India’s citizens defecate in the open, and there are only so many temples, they said defensively, because Hindus have used their own resources to build them. Both sides have a point. The government’s Total Sanitation Campaign aims to have 125 million toilets across the country by 2017. Thirteen years into the effort, recent accounting shows that at least 35 million toilets seem to have already gone missing. I see an image of rolled coins, disappearing into cloth.
So the government can be blamed, but what of the private energy of this predominantly Hindu country? The founding fathers had a different vision. Gandhi had a simple but contained toiletwith a septic tank that led to the fields. He cleaned it himself, defying caste boundaries that relegated such work to the lowest in society. ”Our Indian toilets bring our civilization into discredit,” he wrote in 1925, of the open defecation that was nearly as common then as it is today. “They violate the rules of hygiene.” Gandhi, I think, would have wanted more toilets than temples.
My days in Varanasi came at the end of a three-month breakdown in sanitation because of a contract dispute between the city and the private waste management company responsible for cleaning the streets. The settlement effect was immediate. One night, I stepped past the cow that stationed itself outside my guesthouse each night, and the piles of her once-chewed cud now turned into dung, over and through the layers of plastic bags, food peelings, and other debris of humanity. The next morning, the narrow Old City gali was swept clean, not just outside the guesthouse but everywhere I went. On the main roads and along the riverbanks, an army of workers gathered the detritus into piles. In the water, garbage seiners used wicker baskets to strain out the soggy garlands and aluminum bowls that carried glowing prayers through the holy and wholly polluted water the night before, looking so spectacular and romantic. The utter transformation made it evident what can be accomplished if given priority.
I was told there was a time when the entire community would come down to the riverbank for a two-day communal cleanup. Now, the duty falls to the government and when they contract out to companies who may or may not actually do the work, everything seems to break down in a corrupt quagmire.
Varanasi is a place of pilgrimage. India is a country of worship. And Varanasi, Banaras, is – in the words of scholar Diana Eck – a place where “the atmosphere of devotion is improbable in its strength.”