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V.S. Naipaul understood the culture of open defecation way back in 1964!

Blog Post2 min read

I recently picked up V.S. Naipaul’s book An Area of Darkness, a chronicle of his first trip to India published in 1964. Although some view the book as overly pessimistic and scathing, his portrayal of India’s culture of open defecation is uncannily accurate.

Shankaracharya Hill, overlooking the Dal Lake, is one of the beauty spots of Srinagar. It has to be climbed with care, for large areas of its lower slopes are used as latrines by Indian tourists. If you surprise a group of three women, companionably defecating, they will giggle: the shame is yours, for exposing yourself to such a scene.

In Madras the bus station near the High Court is one of the more popular latrines. The traveller arrives; to pass the time he raises his dhoti, defecates in the gutter. The bus arrives; he boards it; the woman sweeper cleans up after him.

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In Goa, you might think of taking an early morning walk along the balustrade avenue that runs beside the Mandovi River. Six feet below, on the water’s edge, and as far as you can see, there is a line, like a wavering tidewrack, of squatters. For the people of Goa, as for those of Imperial Rome, defecating is a social activity; they squat close to one another; they chatter. When they are done they advance, trousers still down, backsides bare, into the water to wash themselves.

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Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover.

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A handsome young Muslim boy, a student at a laughable institute of education in an Uttar Pradesh weaving town, elegantly dressed in the style of Mr. Nehru, even down to the buttonhole, had another explanation. Indians were a poetic people, he said. He himself always sought the open because he was a poet, a lover of Nature, which was the matter of his Urdu verses; and nothing was as poetic as squatting on a river bank at dawn.

He eloquently describes in these vignettes what we have found 50 years later in the SQUAT and Switching Studies: that defecating in the open is the social norm. It is considered to be a part of the wholesome, rural life, in which one takes a walk outside in nature, socializes with friends, and avoids polluting oneself and one's home.

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r.i.c.e. is a non-profit research organization focused on health and well-being in India. Our core focus is on children in rural north India. Our research studies health care at the start of life, sanitation, air pollution, maternal health, social inequality, and other dimensions of population-level social wellbeing.

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