Of Scatology and Manual Scavenging

Published: December 23, 2016 - 16:33 Updated: August 8, 2017 - 15:38

In 21st-century India, the shit has reached critical mass and is spinning out of control as it continues to splatter, raising a stink

Ratna Raman Delhi

Daily shitting is a marker of well-being for all living creatures. Yet, the colloquial expression “shit happens” is a metaphor which signals that terrible things can happen to people when they least suspect it.

An uncle at a US university wryly observed that the abbreviation BS (Bachelor of Science) actually stood for Bull Shit, MS (Master of Science) for More Shit, while a PhD instructed: Pile it, Higher and Deeper!

Colloquial usage of the word ‘shit’ is on the increase. Take the serial Suits being aired over several seasons: Its banal and superficial lexicon revolves around shit. When the mentor wants his protégé to get his act together he orders: “You need to get your shit together.”  Astonishment is supposedly manifested in the following profound exchange between significant actors in the serial – Q: Are you shitting me? A: No, I am not shitting you!

The highest compliment that can be offered to a man currently is to refer to him as ‘a cool shit.’

This is a far cry from barely three decades ago when the word shit was excluded from polite usage and conversation in English.

 The trivialisation of ‘shit’ and the fact that it has now been pared down to represent disgust or disbelief, or to a swear word purged of both smell and context requires us to examine  the much longer trajectory of excretion as an undiscussed bodily process with historical, cultural and colonial accretions.

Human dung, as we all know, is examined and analysed to evaluate processes of a physiological life well lived. Clinical pathology involves the study of excreted waste and secretions to identify disease in the human body. However, excreted waste is considered gross, unsightly and malodorous and discussions on it are termed uncouth. The disposal of bodily waste varies in the Indian context of urban and rural lives and time-frames.

 In fact, potty training for privileged urban infants in designated bottomless chairs with detachable containers is the optimal point of discussion in urban homes where nuclear families empty their bodily waste into commodes.

 The potty-trained urban human is earmarked for a longer journey wherein he or she takes control of bodily waste and disposes of it using larger, adult-sized receptacles.

Childhood memories of closed defecation in areas demarcated for the purpose come to mind. At first, there was a specific area at the back of the house, a long trough. Sitting on haunches with legs pressed to the floor, one could pee or poo, sometimes in serial order. The youngest in the same sex community sat in front or sideways. You could glimpse the white calves and untanned knees of aunts and other female relatives, and the silver toe rings and occasional anklet as they finished their defecation, cleaned themselves, washed hands with their lota of water and hurried along to their daily chores.

It was among the uncles that there were protracted discussions of colours and quantities, on solitary deposits shaped like a banana, others that looked like rolled rope or were just dung puddles.


Women in the house seldom came up with narratives that could match these fine points of description. There was always too much to be done; and they remained preoccupied with the rearing and supervision of children and the preparation of large meals for the extended family while the men lazed at home and joked at holiday time.

Later this crapping commune was replaced by the asbestos- roofed shed at the back of the house with a slit at the top of the door to let in light (never mind that using the same space during black nights involved balancing a hurricane lamp). The stench was overpowering, and the desire to escape from it all so compelling that I never understood why Freud emphasised that children held on to the contents of their bladder and bowels, as a conscious choice. 


So why exactly do humans, young and old alike, resist evacuation of their bowels? A common sense approach would be to recognise that a lack of fibre induces the nightmare experience of passing hard stools. This is the reason why not only children but also adults remain unwilling to relinquish their hold over their faeces.

There are articles on social media, thanks to Piku and an Irfan Khan, who eloquently explains through a diagram that bodily waste disposal into the once familiar hole in the ground, while seated on one’s haunches, is a superlative excretory technique. Apparently the adoption of the seated posture atop commodes promotes all manner of bowel discomfort and associated problems such as piles. Our new crapping postures remain inappropriate as they obstruct and constrict the natural movement of waste through the intestines and out of the body.

Visitors to the famed Topkapi palace at Istanbul get a frontal view of a white western commode, sitting on which a despot could view the pristine palace gardens through the bay window. The regular hole in the ground, also part of the daily routine of the Ottoman rulers in those days, is on view too; enclosed by narrow walls and roof, it remains a confined room without any view. 

 The palace provides a wonderful instance of how wealthy defecators worldwide embraced Occidental patterns of egestion. All subscribers to this civilising process adopted chamber pots and toilets and installed them within the house, dismantling and rejecting traditional options that were in practice.

Did we thus barter the discipline of the early morning routine for dubious privileges of deferral and delay, presided over by newspaper and light reading? At what point in our exposure to the idea that “your bathroom is a room too” did sluggish bowel movements become the new privilege to be nurtured at leisure? 

Despite  conventional queasiness evoked by words such as ‘shit’ or ‘stools’ or ‘turd’,  reference to the products of egestion repeatedly crop up in informal and written exchanges around the world.

Ancient Germany records the practice of smearing the armour and weapons of routed warriors in excrement as part of the victory score. Martin Luther, famous for the reformation of corrupt clergy, also allegedly possessed a scatological vocabulary that was lavished to illustrate matters theological and devilish.

 Small wonder then that satirists in the 18th century drew upon scatology to embellish    their work. Musical prodigy Mozart’s letters and early lyrics are supposedly replete with preoccupations related to defecation.

James Joyce in the early 20th century highlighted the limited possibilities available to modern man by placing his protagonist upon the commode throne, exerting authority over bodily waste. Naipaul’s  protagonist, Mohun, in A House for Mr Biswas, grows up in the Third World. With no access to a bathroom of his own, he excretes into a cloth and chucks it out of sight at night into the voluminous tree growing in the priest’s courtyard. This act of pollution leads to Mohun’s immediate eviction from the house and loss of apprenticeship.  The reasons for Naipaul’s unpopularity, long before his communal and misogynist views came to the fore, had to do with his documentation of defecation on the streets of India in An Area of Darkness.

The Saga of Dharmapuri , O.V. Vijayan’s  biting satire, takes turd deposits to metaphoric heights, highlighting it as the symbol of captive sycophancy and rotten administration. 

Slavok Zizek’s essay, “Knee Deep”, highlights three different existential attitudes set up by German (reflective thoroughness), French (revolutionary hastiness) and English (utilitarian pragmatism) commode designs. Unfamiliar with eastern toilet systems, Zizek sees the western commode system as “involving a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to excrement”.

Davy Dee’s song, “Long live the loos of England’’ (1967), observed that western commodes were most used and least praised “of all the works of Englishmen deserving fame and glory”. This no longer holds true as subsequent decades of advertising and copywriting have proved.

Defecations in nature and in commune fashion were historically replaced by public toilets and WCs for private defecation throughout middle-class India. Personal toilets, late entrants in modern India, shifted geographically from locations behind the house to the insides with their own range of gleaming accessories. An increased preoccupation with our personal systems of disposal allowed us to turn a Nelson’s eye to the larger issues of human waste disposal that continue to plague us in the 21st century.

Kiron Kher in Hum Tum (2004) gushes that her favourite view of the Bombay beach is of little children shitting on it, their bottoms exposed to all and sundry and, supposedly, such light-headed Bollywood wit glosses over the absence of sanitation facilities that compel public defecations.

Slumdog Millionaire’s depiction  of a public toilet and the little boy neck-deep in shit did very little to heighten public concern about the antediluvian toilet systems in India, especially after everyone was assured that the little boy waded through chocolate sauce simulated to look like liquefied excrement.

However, the western commode with its attendant problems has pushed us into introverted navel gazing, whereby we have disengaged our attention from primitive systems of excrement disposal. Once we squatted upon our haunches to defecate. Now ensconced on western commodes, it is possible to observe with detachment that currently the noun ‘squatter’ and the verb ‘squatting’ have very little to do with defecation. “Squatting squatters” is a reference to the illegal occupation of land or property by persons who have neither ownership nor tenancy rights over said areas. Language as a system of signs has effectively deflected the problem at ground level. 

The expression “manual scavenger” is etymologically disguised to camouflage the horror of humans engaged in the disposal of human excreta. The term ‘septic’ when applied to the human body implies the start of a severe infection that can turn fatal.

 Yet, septic tanks require humans to physically enter and clear putrefying excreta deposits. Thousands continue to die in this noxious space, but the collective will to modernise antediluvian systems of sewage disposal seems to be in abeyance.

Swachh Bharat photo ops on October 2 pay little attention to Gandhi’s mission which required each user to clean up after every act of bodily evacuation. Broom-wielding leaders of state swish the air and pose grandly, hoping that such gestures will suffice. Pantomimes of this kind deflect attention from laws forbidding manual scavenging passed in 1993 and again in 2013, that remain unimplemented.

Since we continue to overlook the horror and degradation that generations of Indian men and women have been subjected to, we must concede to being stuck in an ethical morass. Vulnerable women who defecate in the open are often molested and assaulted, reiterating yet again that hierarchies of power and powerlessness continue to be constructed through demarcations of class, caste and gender positions. The shit has reached critical mass and is spinning out of control as it continues to splatter, raising a stink.

This story is from print issue of HardNews