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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 4, No. 1, 2005
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Robert J. Lewis
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Rochelle Gurstein






It is 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 pants.

For 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.

Siggy 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.

The 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.

Carefully, 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.

Crossing 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.

In one 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.

Like 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.

I look 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.

Successions 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.

Siggy, 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.

How 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.

I am 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."

"Well 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.

Suddenly, 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.

When 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.

If only the ground would open up and take me into its gentle night.

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