BAD BELLY IN DELHI
ROBERT J. LEWIS
another dirty, dusty Delhi day and I am obsessed by one thought:
I musn't soil my pants. Under normal circumstances I would relish
describing, in minute detail, the artless arsenal Delhi faithfully
deploys as it invades the senses: scathing 45 degree heat, the
ubiquitous smell of uric acid that burns off the ground and commingles
with the odor of foul fruit and rotting vegetables, the profuse
presence of excrement from the many cows and bullocks that inhabit
the streets, the skeletal shapes of beggars that sleep where the
more fortunate walk, and the cries of the hungry and homeless.
But all this is as faraway as a remote Himalayan retreat, for
I have been wholly captured by one thought: I mustn't soil my
the past two and a half days, and no fewer than 60 times a day,
I have been blasting liquid excrement into a now familiar, and
thankfully nearby toilet. The explosion is preceded by a wrenching
cramp that tears down my intestine like a dull knife; at the point
of discharge, the peristaltic waves have gathered such force I
literally explode into the receptacle, spraying the porcelain
interior like a paint-gun right up to where my feeble flesh tenuously
reposes. During the post-mortem that inevitably follows, I experience
serendipitous surprise not to find my intestinal tract among the
doleful debris. The sickly color ranges from pale chestnut to
anaemic apricot and may even resemble urine. I feel like a woman
and hate myself and yearn for a solid stool. But things could
be worse were it not for the generosity of my friend Vasu
Seshadri, who selflessly introduced me to the Hindu
way of hygiene. In memory, the caring cadence of his voice sings
like a song of salvation: "After each bowel movement, and
with your `right' hand, take the pitcher which you'll find everywhere
near a hotel toilet, and slowly pour water over the area in question.
Then, with your `left' hand, direct the flow to clean yourself.
Believe me, you'll never again use toilet paper." To the
chagrin of friends who no longer accept my handshake, Vasu's counsel
is now a fact of life. If I have evacuated no less than 150 times
during the past two and a half days, my unprecedentedly clean
and unchafed crack is none the worse. I offer a prayer to you,
my good friend Vasu, and wish I were with you in the temperate
zone where cold winds blow and solid stools glow.
points to a lime stand across the street, but a sudden cramp blurs
its close distance. I stop in my tracks. She flashes concerned
eyes into mine as the cramp spirals through my intestines like
water down a sewer drain. I clamp my buttocks, uncertain whether
it's formless flatus and/or ferocious feces trying to work its
way out into my dun-dyed underwear and khaki cut-offs. I mustn't
soil my pants. I repeat the mantra like a holy man in prayer.
I mustn't soil my pants.
gods respond. The cramp miraculously diffuses. I relax beleaguered
buttock muscles and mop my sweat saturated brow. Siggy smiles
and squeezes my hand. "We'll be back at the hotel in less
than 30 minutes," she reassures. "You mean in 1,800
seconds," I reply, surprised at my show of humor.
we step over a runlet of urine that runs parallel to the fruit
stalls. As far as the eye can see, men and children, and even
a few women squat over the fly-infested stream, their only privacy
provided by their skirt-like saris. The stench is formidable,
overpowering, unmitigated by the randomly plentiful deposits of
fresh camel and bullock dung.
the unusually wide street, I am seized by another piercing paroxysm.
This time there is no doubt. Or, as they say in India: It was
meant to be. I have between three and five seconds to either pull
down my pants or soil them. Do I face the fruit stalls and use
Siggy's wide skirt to screen out the scrutiny of street traffic?
Or face the traffic and avoid the long stares of idling vendors?
I turn my backside to the traffic.
fell swoop I yank down my shorts and underwear and sink into the
squat position as a rush of feces erupts and splatters my calves
and ground. At that very same instant, as fate would have it,
a cycle-rickshaw, precariously pedaled by a bone-thin Hindu trying
to avoid hitting an errant bullock, swerves between myself and
the dumb animal. Its outer wheel barely brushes my left buttock,
but enough to cause me to lose my balance and topple me into my
excrement, while more of the same issues from my misbehaving bottom.
an untouchable left for dead, I'm now sprawled unmercifully in
the street, my private parts, arms and legs smeared with dirt
and dysentery. I am so horrified and humiliated I wish for immediate
death, and feel myself about to break down and cry like a child.
"Come on, get up," encourages Siggy, pulling me up into
a standing position. Prevailing upon the toilet paper (a currency
that rivals the rupee) she carries in her purse at all times,
she frantically begins to wipe my dirt-covered genitals and feces-smeared
bottom and calves. I am dazed and hold on to her lowered shoulder
for balance. As she performs this hardly enjoyable task, a pleasant
numbness overtakes me, and in the blinding sunlight the surroundings
take on a tremulous, dream-like quality.
about. A sea of eyes are staring. Undaunted, I stare back. Their
reactions to my misfortune are mixed: while some permit themselves
a disinterested glance before returning to their toil, other sun-browned
faces flash bored smiles of amusement. Still others openly laugh
out loud, urging their friends to join them in their merriment.
Yet strangely, I feel serene and marvelously disconnected from
my trauma. The humiliation that only moments ago had almost brought
me to tears has vanished. The fact that my genitals are exposed
and excrement is running down my legs has absolutely no affect
on me. It's as if I've regained the privileged world of childhood,
where when nature calls, it knows no shame. Like the invisible
man, I feel self-possessed and yet beyond possession, a shadow
beyond the reach of all harm. In what is incontestably the first
epiphany of my life, I find myself calmly presiding over a new
self that has spontaneously transcended 'inauthentic' self-consciousness.
And while somewhat reluctant to recommend this messy means to
achieve that end, I must wish this selfsame mishap on everyone
since it sets the seeker on the path to self-hood.
of tingling wave-like surges ripple up and down my body. So exalting
is this new mode of being in which I'm luxuriating, my arms, of
their own volition, rise to the sky and disappear into the ether,
while my weightless sense of self merges with the universe.
who has meanwhile been conducting a remarkable clean-up job (mere
vestiges of the accident remain), not only wonders why I don't
pull up my shorts, but is at a loss to explain the aura of bliss
that emanates from my being. "You can pull up your goddamn
pants now," she snaps. I meet her eyes turned into scissors
with infinite calm and compassion.
could she know I am rapturously beyond embarrassment, that for
the first time in my life I belong wholly unto myself, free
from the entanglements of the world, that after a lifetime of
searching I have become one with the joy of the seeker who when
he looks into the mirror discovers the face of God.
ready to walk the streets naked until the end of time. I want
Shiva and Vishnu and the great Ganesh to grant me more cra(m)ps.
After all, if I can drink water unselfconsciously before my fellow
human beings I should be able to be shamelessly dysenteric among
them. "Siggy," I begin as she hoists up my stained underwear
and shorts. "This is the most ecstatic moment of my life."
I'm glad you're enjoying it, she snarls back, shooting both her
hands into my face. The pink palms are smudged with fecal matter.
the transcendental bliss that had granted me reprieve from my
horrible predicament begins to slip away, leaving me stranded
in my shame. I close my eyes, desperate to prolong the trance,
the ecstasy, but to no avail. Seconds later my feet are dragging
along the smelly ground.
I open my eyes again I'm my usual, self-conscious self, mortified
by the jeering crowd and blushing like a schoolgirl whose period
has soiled her white dress.
the ground would open up and take me into its gentle night.