Despite the fact that I’d seen plastic bottles piled up just about everywhere. And despite the fact that the mounds of trash at various, dirt road intersections (or sometimes right in the street) were so absolutely heaping that they reminded me of trips to the city dump when I was a kid. I tried. I tried because, I can only suppose, that I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for so long now that the ‘go green’ attitude had worked its way into me. Not that I was ever ‘pro-pollute’ or ‘pro-litter’ by any means. Is anyone? It’s just that, while living in Florida, there simply were no recycling services anywhere to be found. The option simply didn’t exist. And so…at work, I’d throw out cardboard boxes by the dozens; right into the trash. And at home, case after case of empty beer bottles would also. And I felt bad about it. Maybe a little guilty even. But hey, that’s just the way shit went down there.
In India, however, shit was a little different. It was worse but I guess that much is to be assumed. Because, unlike in Florida where all my trash could be deposited into a dumpster that was emptied and taken away regularly, in India there was no such utility available. One could say that it was two steps behind then. There was no recycling service, of course (which is unfortunate for them because they probably could have made a ton of money off all the reusable commodities lying right there in the street). But there were also no trash pick-up offered at all…not that the general residents would be able to afford it even if there were (or the cities, for that matter)…and not that they’d care enough to support such a idea. Because in India, from the best of what I was able to determine, trash was simply a way of life. Much of the time, no one ever even went out of their way to remove the hip-high piles further than just to the side of their front doorstep. Perhaps every few blocks or so, it seemed that someone with one of those heavy-duty custodial brooms had tried to consolidate all the shit into an even bigger pile but, thankfully, away from where the children liked to play. Yet, there it remained. Some of the shit was organic, granted. Imagine an entire nation's worth of worshiped moo-cows' sour milk. And there were banana peels and orange peels mixed in there as well. Shit that would have biodegraded on its own if it hadn’t been more quickly munched up by both stray cows and dogs. But most of the shit consisted of the thin, plastic wrappers of crappy, processed snack foods or plastic bottles such as the one I had in my hand. All along the dusty roads. Filling entire neighborhoods. The shit just piled up.
For a while, I wondered whether or not it had something to do with the caste system. They’d taught us in school that the castes and the thought process behind them had been all but abolished in the country. They’d taught us that this was a brand-new India on the rise but that’s not what I saw once I got there. Shit. They’d barely managed to pass a Sati Prevention Act in 1987 (the obligation of a woman recently widowed to jump on top of her husband’s funeral pyre in order to burn with him; alive). And although this self-immolation was now considered (through this act) to be a technical illegality, I received the strong impression that those wives who didn’t now choose to break the law and burn with them were shunned and considered extremely dishonorable and disrespectful. And that must have really sucked for women since it’s always been men who have the shorter lifespan.
But I’m getting off track. The question was; did the caste system and its Hindu beliefs have something to do with all the trash in the streets? Did the belief that one was born into a more poverty stricken and hard life because of something they’d done in a past life affect their attitude when it came to just picking up all the fucking garbage? And the answer is; a little bit. I believed that they believed that just by being as good a person as they could be amongst all these piles and all of this unsanitary crap, that they’d eventually be reborn into the next life somewhere far away from here. Somewhere cleaner. And richer. Like America. That was part of it, I’m sure. But the other, much more earthly and practical part was; where they fuck do you put it? I mean, even if a whole neighborhood did team up and try to move it somewhere; the practical question becomes, where? India is so fucking populated that they’d have to carry all that shit, wheelbarrow full after wheelbarrow, for miles and miles only to dump it out into the closest area where there were no immediate domiciles (which was still probably someone else’s owned land) or into the nearest sewage stream or river. And then that would really fuck shit up. Because if Indians knew one thing regarding sanitation practices (as individuals and as a community), and again I’m only imagining, it was that clogging up the very irrigation streams that drew the human shit away from their neighborhoods would not be in anyone’s best interests.
So the answer, I repeat, is that it only had a little bit to do with the castes and that inert way of thinking. The more practicable answer was simply; there was nothing to do about it. When the trash can in the house filled up, it was time to take out the trash just as we all do. But in India, taking out the trash in this fashion meant only dumping that can across the street into whatever remaining empty lot had been designated amongst their immediate area or commonality for this purpose.
And I waded through it sometimes. The peels and bottles and wrappers and dung. The dung, in fact; being the only item in the waste department that I ever saw people picking up or recycling there. And it wasn’t just for the sake of sanitation. But a guy would come by with a horse drawn cart, shovel a bunch of dung onto it that the stray cows and dogs had shit out after eating up all that they could scavenge of the organic trash, and carry it away towards probably a nearby farm or something where it would be used as fertilizer.
So despite the fact that I’d seen this shit piled up everywhere… Outside of town in what seemed to comprise an entire acre sometimes… Despite the wading through the shit and having become sick myself from having my feet and ankles covered with trash and human and inhuman feces every fucking time I went to take a walk… Despite all that! I tried. In Agra. In the center of town one night. I’d finished drinking my bottle of water and walked up to the nearest stand in order to trade it in for another (so to speak).
I held up the empty bottle and pointed towards one of the full ones behind the counter of this outdoor stand that literally a seven-year-old was managing.
“How much?” I asked.
And he gave me a price.
I told him I’d bought my last bottle, which was the same size, for three rupees less at the stand just across the way…and I pointed to it (the stand, that is). And then I turned as if to walk away.
“Okay, okay,” he smiled in the defeated enjoyment that a white man had actually gotten the best of him.
“Alright, cool,” I smiled back. Then, about to hand him my empty, I asked, “Do you have a trash or anywhere that you could maybe throw this away for me?”
And he took it from me instantly. He grabbed that empty water bottle, did a full-on pitcher’s fucking windup, and chucked that bottle straight over my head and out into the road where the traffic of tuk-tuk drivers and cattle carts ran it over and completely ignored it.
His grin after doing this was priceless.
Anyway. I handed him the money. He handed me the new bottle. And it was then that I remembered only a couple nights ago when I’d just met my present travel acquaintance, John, on a train from Bombay. We were sitting across from each other on the berths and John had just finished eating some cheese and crackers or something. The plastic wrappers that had contained both of these products were still sitting on the little, foldout table between us. And just as he was about to fold that table back up again, John grabbed both wrappers up into his hand and looked. He actually looked around for one second before realizing…before remembering…
“You know what I love about this country, Mick?” he asked me.
And he was Portuguese so he sort of rolled this last ‘R’ in such a way.
“It’s that there’s no garbage in India!”
And, with this, he threw the two plastic wrappers right down onto the aisle floor. And it’s not like anyone would have ever given him a dirty look or thought about saying anything. Because everyone else was doing the same thing too!
He then displayed the self-satisfied look of someone who’s just eaten a fulfilling meal. He even sat back and rubbed his belly.