NOT cricket. Not Sachin Tendulkar. Neither cinema, Shahrukh, Amitabh nor Rajnikant. Not festivals. Not politics. Not the life-giving monsoon. Not the Indian Railways. Not even the great Indian election... none of these can take the credit for defining what might be called the great Indian Spirit. These are only the pretenders. The real thing, that something that signifies the "Great Indian Spirit" is clearly, and without doubt — you would have guessed it — It is the "Great Indian Spit" "Thooo... "
From north to south (include the Andaman and Nicobar Islands too), from west to the east and further into the North East, in village, town and city, in place big or small, early in the morning, at noon or in the night, if there is one thing that binds the people of this great nation — it is the spit — the one great affliction that we indulge in with such great affection.
No distinctions of any kind here — religion, caste, creed, sex, status, class, age — no bar of any kind. Everybody does it. Everywhere. Spitting breaks through all barriers. From trains, inside trains (generally under the bench), from windows of moving buses, on the road, in a park, by a tree trunk, near the garbage bin, occasionally in the wash basin when there is one (often underneath it), it is everywhere. Corners are the evergreen — I mean ever red — favourites. In public places in particular, rare is a corner which is not spat in; the pan and katha often creating a layer so thick it could be peeled off if someone felt the desire to do so.
So there is "spit in", meaning spit "in" the corner, which is rather clear to understand. Then there is the "spit at" and the "spit on". Clearly "spit at" is the most dangerous because the implications go far beyond excreting some secretion of the human salivary glands. "Spitting on" happens, but "spitting at" is an expression of disgust, anger and rejection. It is this "spitting at", that has been, at least in Hindi cinema, the critical pivot of many a story's entire plot.
"Heroine rejects advances by villain — spits at him (never on him), generally downwards and towards the side, twirls her nose, whirls around, and leaves the villain standing. Bad man can take anything, but cannot be spat at. Revenge!
Attempts to either kidnap woman or, worse, attempts rape. Enter hero... "
Moral of the story? Okay, one of the many morals — don't spit at someone because there can be retaliation.
But being "spat on" is different — it is almost inevitable, particularly in any one of India's hugely crowded cities. Co-lateral damage someone might call it, a professional hazard of being a pedestrian or using public transport or any public space for that matter.
My earliest memory on being spat on goes back many, many years. I was making this journey with a friend from Pune to the famous hill station of Mahabaleshwar. We'd managed to get seats in this new, well-furnished state transport bus with huge windows and lovely curtains. I'd pushed my friend aside, and jumped into the seat by the window. We had just begun climbing the ghats; the view was beautiful and a cool breeze blew into my face.
That's when I heard the old man in the seat in front of me starting to cough. He coughed gently a couple of times, paused a bit and then there was a loud and violent one, like we do to clear our throat. That's exactly what he had done and before I could say 68, I saw and heard him go "thooo"...
I actually saw this green slimy slob/blob of saliva and phlegm go flying out, turn around in a quick turn as the bus continued to climb up at a good pace, and come right back to hit my face that was peering out at the beautiful scenery. It happened faster than you read these lines, but it is etched in my memory in complete slow motion. Close your eyes and try going it over in your mind and you'll know — the slow motion, I mean.
The old man had seen what had happened, and before I could react, he had turned around and was profusely apologetic. What can you say to an old, ailing man who is being so sorry? I don't exactly remember what I told him. I do, however, remember suggesting that when he spits from a moving bus, the least he should do is ensure that it is downwards. It will at least ensure that what he emits does not go flying into someone else's face. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he kept saying and promptly handed me his handkerchief. At least he realised that the mistake was not mine, unlike a bus ride in Delhi a few years ago.
It was a bus crowded to the brim, and I had a window (again!) towards the rear end. A guy in his early 20s, in the seat ahead of me, leaned out and went — what else? — `Thooo... '. Red betel juice went flying in the air and sprayed back on the unfortunate me. I screamed a couple of choicest Hindi abuses — "You've no brains," I yelled. The boy was a little taken aback at my violent reaction. He was only doing the done thing. He apologized profusely, but I was in no mood to listen and kept abusing. He'd had enough. Offence, we all know, is the best form of defence. "Abey," he started aggressively in Hindi, "What's your problem? Did I ask you to put your head out of the window? Do what you can." And to prove his point, he turned his head to the window and went "thooo... " again. The only difference this time was the trajectory. It was directed nicely downwards, so that I would not get another chance to scream and abuse. I do remember hearing a scream and an expletive from outside the bus though. The bus picked up speed and we were gone.
What is it, I have never been able to understand, that makes India spit so much? Is it just the tobacco, the areca nut and the pan that we love so dearly, or is there more to it? I have no problems with their consumption, even increased ingestion. Can something, however, not be done of the problem of the spitting — at least from a moving bus?
Another white shirt of mine just got sprayed earlier this morning. I was in it too!