Yaaaaarnk! The blood-curdling sound freezes me to the spot. Like the prehistoric caveman who heard behind him the warning roar of a sabre-toothed tiger about to spring, I feel my hackles rise and my muscles stiffen. My body prepares itself for the inevitable. It comes.
There is the thick, wet, glooey splat of a great dollop of mucus laced with phlegm and paan juice striking the ground. Another great expectoration has hit the dust of Delhi’s streets in a sticky spray of spittle and germs.Indians are probably the world’s greatest spitters. If the collective sputum ejected every year in our cities and villages were collected and channelled it would make for a river of rheum which would put the holy Ganga to shame.
We are born drooling saliva and die doing so, and a great part of the time in between we seem to devote to perfecting the art of spitting. With us spitting is more than just a way of life. It is a sort of beatitude, a communion with the innermost roots of our being. Just watch a spitter in action. You see him walking along the road, looking a bit abstracted.
Obviously thinking of this and that, possibly scratching himself or picking his nose as he ambles along—in the exact sense of the term, just an ordinary man on the street. Suddenly he pauses, slowing his pace without quite stopping. His head lifts a little as though in acknowledgement of the high source of the inspiration that has descended on him like the apple on Newton’s head.
It is a moment of afflatus. The furrowed brow wrinkled with humdrum cares suddenly clears. An aura of intense concentration steals over the features. The Adam’s apple bobs a couple of times and the head is lifted higher. The chest arcs with the deep breath that is slowly drawn in. All the resources of the body seem to be preparing for a great climactic event.
The splayed toes curl with tension, gripping the ground more firmly in preparation, rather like the diver who poises himself on the high board watching the wink of water far below, or the boxer who sees his opening and squares up to his opponent to deliver the final thunderbolt uppercut. The mouth is now partly open, sucking in air, and the body rigid, as in the moment before orgasm.
Now the sound starts, softly and slowly at first, and then building up to a crescendo, a low whistling wheeze that builds to a throaty rattle and finally a great nasal roar. The head whips back and shoots forward and a glinting globule of guck flashes meteor-like through the sunlight to crashland on the pavement and splatter into a yellow, grey-green or red star-shape. Wiping the back of his hand slowly across his mouth with the satisfaction of a man who has seen to the successful completion of a difficult and demanding enterprise, the spitter walks on, his step lighter and brisker now that he has relieved himself of his great burden.
Why do we do it? Or, more to the point, how do we do it? The average Indian is not a big chap. He stands five foot two or thereabouts on his barefoot calluses and weighs a mere 100-odd pounds. Where in that small, wiry, under-nourished, sun-sered frame is there the space or metabolic wherewithal to produce and store the formidable quantities of salivary waste that he so generously bestows on the world?
Paan, khaini and supari help of course. The walls and corridors of offices, cinema halls, government departments and other public places are liberally frescoed with surrealist splotches of crimson and red. Excavating archaeologists in the distant future coming across these might well surmise them to be motifs of a spontaneous folk art, like the cave paintings of the Stone Age man, and they wouldn’t be far wrong. Expectorations appear to be the most ubiquitous and eloquent of our common cultural expressions.
From Kargil to Kanyakumari, spitting is our birthright and we shall have it. We are quite amenable as far as most things go. Prohibit drinking and we meekly turn down our empty glasses. Tell us that we must all speak a certain language and we don’t kick up too much of a fuss. Inform us that by the end of this year prices will have gone up another 20 percent, and we shrug our shoulders.
Hoodwink us, exploit us, betray us, cross floors, change sides, switch policies, we will put up with it all, time and again. But do not expect us to give up our spitting. That is asking too much.And when you come to think of it, when you look around and take stock of all that we have to put up with, a good healthy spit seems to be a not unnatural reaction. It helps to get at least some of the bad taste out of one’s mouth.