Thursday, January 15, 2009

The shit fields of Raigad

There's a particular kind of madness in our public life that allows carts to be put before horses. The latest example is the recently scrapped "Liberate Raigad from the hagandari" campaign.

"Hagandari" may be translated as "shit valley", though Moleswoth's Marathi-English dictionary puts it in a more roundabout way as "A place of general resort for the disburdening of nature".

Those who have some acquaintance with village life in Maharashtra, know that there are places on the outskirts of villages marked for the disburdening of nature. In recent times, we have seen two village-based Marathi films, "Valu" and "Dhudgus" in which villagers go singly or in groups to disburden nature, carrying what are known as "tumbrel-s". These are empty provision canisters to which wire handles have been attached for convenient carrying of water. There is no water on tap in hagandaris.

Middle-class urban people are squeamish about this part of village life. It falls outside our poetic imagination of rusticity. An aunt of mine hated "Valu" because it showed the village priest bound off to the hagandari after every meal because he couldn't resist having helping upon helping of his wife's spicy chutney. My aunt didn't think that was funny. Nor did the priest's wife, as it happens.

To return to Raigad, one fine day a bunch of government officials (or maybe there was just one powerful one) decided to liberate their district from this shameful practice. On this particularly creative day in their lives they even thought of an effective way to do so. It doesn't matter that the idea was lifted from "Lage raho Munnabhai". What mattered was that they weren't planning to beat the shit out of people as government officials tend to do--you know, simply send havaldars to people's homes with lathis and people shit their pants within four walls leaving hagandaris spic and span. No. Their plan was to use the womanpower at their command to do it with flowers. Anganwadi workers from villages selected for the pilot project were to be the angels of cleanliness.

This was how the plan was executed. Anganwadi workers got up at four in the morning, trudged to the hagandari approach road with flowers and a loaded camera. They said "Good morning" to all prospective disburdeners of nature, handed over a flower to each and took a snap, politely requesting her/him to look out for their mugs in the papers the following day. The same routine was repeated after working hours. By the time the women returned home, they had no time left for their housewifely duties. This caused much domestic rage, proving that working women are like dholkis, to be beaten at both ends.

It was the domestic crisis in the selected villages that stirred the local branch of a trade union to lodge a protest. The campaign was cut short. The cart has been stored away. Long live the hagandari. But two questions remain. Are these creative officials looking at the possibility of providing the village with some horses? Like are they planning to build public toilets for the villagers' convenience? Or are we to assume that toilets exist but villagers still insist on disburdening nature in the open in order to keep the toilets clean?

Question number two. What did the villagers do while the campaign was on? Did they find that flowers were an effective way of stopping up the passages of nature? I see some horticultural entrepreneurship possibilities there.


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