Monthly Archives: April 2013

Socially responsible spitting?

Ok – a difficult (and perhaps contentious) post. My observations to date would suggest that public spitting in Mumbai is constrained in all manner of ways that many people would simply not (or would prefer not ?) to recognise and that this constraint will often be with a nod towards social responsibility and against simple, indiscriminate and uncaring behaviour. I would also argue that a form of socially responsible spitting is supported by what I have found in Malyasia/Kuala Lumpur (as will be revealed in the next post). Ironically (perhaps) socially responsible spitting is more easily visible among those that chew paan (or sirih as it is called in Kuala Lumpur) and it is also the case that paan/sirih spitting probably represents the least form of socially responsible spitting for the same reason.

So, although some spitting appears at first sight to be relatively indiscriminate e.g. a spitter buys paan, chews for a few minutes and then turns and spits near the vendor’s booth it is not as simple as that. As I have shown this is often into drains, gutters and/or common paan spitting areas. There is a genuine attempt to not simply spit on the pavement or up certain spaces. In a different forum, it will be more obvious to many that paan use at ceremonial (weddings, parties etc.) gatherings in India and consequent spitting (either into wash basins in hotel toilets, outside in an appropriate space if at a host’s other location, not in front of specific elders/those of authority etc.) has clear informal controls attached to it. Some spitters in the street are exercising a semblance of public conscience whilst others do so sometimes, rarely or never. Paan juice being what it is – a red staining fluid – we have evidence of both forms of behaviour. The more socially responsible and irresponsible.

In my last post I discussed the different forms of (spittle/phlegm) spitting of my taxi drivers and suggested that the first two, both of whom spat in a comparatively discreet fashion, might score lower on an index or scale of disgust/offensiveness than the other two who spat more noisily and aggressively. Further reflection has suggested to me that whilst this might be true for some contexts it is not necessarily the case for all. It may be the case that in a context where hocking/hawking is more prevalent and accepted (if barely noticed) then the index of offensiveness would have to be altered downwards, and in a context where all spitting is considered unacceptable, upwards.
Because spittle/phlegm often disappears quite quickly without leaving much by way of evidence that it existed it could be argued, in comparison to paan (or even chewing/bubble-gum) it is a less socially offensive form (unless accompanied by a ‘hock/hawk’? Even here however as we shall see this can be so totally accepted that it also becomes invisible. If it is invisible – or rather unnoticed – it is neither socially responsible nor irresponsible, it just ‘is’. More on this as the countries and the variations and examples mount.

Prevalence and practice of spitting in Mumbai/India

Ok, knowing how much spitting goes on in any one of the countries is not possible without undertaking an extensive social survey in those countries and even that would suffer huge challenges. In a context where there is almost nothing at all currently recorded about the prevalence of spitting some ‘good enough’ indicative data should however be possible in those countries where spitting is commonly visible. This is the case, I would suggest, in India/Mumbai but when doing this it is important to avoid both over-simplification and exaggeration.

Ex-pat forum topics and online anecdotes abound about spitting in India but because these are nearly all posted by ‘Disgusted of London / Ohio / or Sydney’ the depictions tend toward the worst case spitting and how it is everywhere.
First off it’s worth stating that not everyone spits. Not even everyone that uses paan spits as some will swallow (and reciving a more intense ‘hit’). Many Indians – I would be guessing a larger proportion being of the middle-classes – do not spit and condemn whilst others who do not spit, might prefer it to be absent, but are relatively nonchalant about it.

A lot of Indians however, as we have seen, and as evidenced by the survey, do spit. If you stand on a street for a few minutes you will see an Indian spit (either paan or spittle/phlegm – both are common) and in some areas you will see numerous Indians spit in such a time period. If it is near a busy paan vendor you will see it over and over again and paan vendors as already related can be every few yards in some localities (although they will not be in constant demand). Men and women spit, children spit, business people spit and the poor spit. Well-dressed people spit. People spit out of habit and from chewing paan and tobacco and both these latter behaviours are implicated in every-day functions and tastes as well as rituals. An example of both how common spitting is, but also of relative difference, can be given by referring to my spitting auto-rickshaw drivers. I have had four and all four spat. The first two however were both relatively discreet in their practice (waiting until the traffic stopped and then leaning forward and drip/dropping it out just beyond the auto-rickshaw with a deft flick of the chin and a little bit of sluiced pressure) with the first only spitting two or three times, the second however spat more than twenty times before I stopped counting – both relatively inoffensive. The third was similar in terms of being discreet although he ‘hocked’ a couple of times and spat that forward. The fourth – also the most aggressive of the drivers and the youngest – hocked numerous times and spat firmly out of the auto-rickshaw. He didn’t slow down when doing this (in fact he swerved twice just a little) I wasn’t hit with any spittle/phlegm but easily could have been with a different wind. Paan spitters often spit in drains but many do not, some spit into the road as a preference to the pavement and so on. Most people I have seen that spit spittle/phlegm do so with little venom, merely pushing it out and moving on. Sometimes it’s closer to a forced dribble.

I am starting to conceptualise an index of spitting ‘harm’ and offensiveness. When spitting is depicted as a foul and disgusting thing it is the hocked phlegm from the back of the throat that is spat down to the ground or the ‘snot-rocket’ shot out of one side of the nose whilst the other nostril is held closed that is most often mentioned. The discreetly dribbled spit out of sight (or attempted to be such) is never mentioned. I would suggest that the former examples make up the minority of incidences but that they are portrayed as the norm on which spitting and spitters are judged. From observation, I don’t think this is a fair way to encapsulate the nature of spitting in Mumbai and probably India.

Mumbai Day 6: Meeting with Vivek to discuss future research and collaborations

My flight to Kuala Lumpur was at 11.55pm (arriving at 7.30am) so I spent much of my last day in India getting ready, answering emails, making blog entries, and then in the afternoon, discussing with Vivek how to progress the research further in India and what plans we might have for publications, a conference, and institutional partnerships and collaboration. We decided on at least three specific journal articles based on the Indian context, a conference on manners, etiquette and traditional behaviours, and a book that will contextualise spitting around the world. We will continue to research paan and other spitting in India in a more in depth fashion and to explore differences in spitting practices and attitudes towards it, regionally. We are also aiming to bring the universities of Mumbai and Plymouth into closer collaboration in a variety of ways.

I have been a little anxious about researching spitting in Kuala Lumpur/Malaysia as my survey and other bits of information I have gleaned of late have suggested it is pretty much absent and that Malaysia is not tolerant of it similar to Singapore where it has been largely eradicated. Given that Jakarta/Indonesia is a well known betel eating and spitting location I suspect that I should have spent more than the two days I will have exploring there following my (effectively) two days in Kuala Lumpur.

Mumbai Day 5: Meeting with an anti-spitting campaigner and a visit to Cheeta Camp, one of Mumbai’s most famous slums.

In the morning I met with Dr Dilip Nadkarni, a campaigner for Spit Free India. I used Dilip’s anti-spitting video, that I came across on YouTube, in my lectures as an example of the nature of public health messages in India but also how messages can be relayed with humour. Dilip’s video uses a popular song reframed with anti-spitting lyrics. Take a look – it actually encapsulates how spitting is an act of the wealthy as well as others, quite well. Needless to say the angle is not a sympathetic one and Dilip and I chatted for a while about the use of paan at weddings, and ceremonies, in expensive hotels and the like, and also about what might be possible regarding changing spitting cultures in India.

At the clinic (an NGO called PATH [People’s Association for Training in Health] which has a tuberculosis check-up dispensary, we met Dr Marian Gomes (medical practitioner) and Mr K.T. Chacko, the founder Director of PATH – shown here in the depths of the Cheeta slum colony.
The clinic specialises in containing the spread of tuberculosis – of which there is an extremely high prevalence among the slum dwellers – and spitting is a major concern of theirs. Spitting is seen as an important factor in the spread of TB and other diseases and viruses through airborne particulates. Because the clinic is faced with frontline priority health issues, on a daily basis, including trying to prevent spitting in a population that spits all the time and the challenged conditions in which they have to carry out this invaluable work made me self-conscious about musing to them about the ways and wherefores of public spitting more generally and unsurprisingly I was met with some scepticism about the value of the research. What followed was a long and involved discussion around whether there is much reliable scientific evidence (simply assumed usually, but poorly evidenced in reality – about spitting being a significant threat for the spread of TB and other diseases, followed by various depth cultural examples and a friendly exchange the nature of spitting in different cultures.
Here’s a Shanghai Public Health clip claiming to depict the way spit spreads disease.

Mumbai Days 3 and 4: Back in the field – red-light district, train and bus stations and back in the seminar room

On day 3 Vivek and his assistant Abinash from the university and Abidali, our intrepid almost ever present taxi driver, took me to other parts of the city. To get to Kamathipura, the red-light district however, we drove through various neighbourhoods and in one particular market area, Khardanda (largely populated by migrant workers from Northern India where poverty is greater) we decided to count the paan shops. In just one street covering only a third of a kilometre we counted 62 paan outlets on either side of the road! On route to Kamathipura, I also witnessed, in the space of 30 seconds, a young woman (mid-20s) and a very old woman, both well dressed and presented, casually spitting out onto the street. This was spit not paan. In another area on route, one that was Catholic dominated there were few paan shops.

The red-light district is one of Asia’s largest, it is a poor area and paan selling, chewing and spitting is all around. Shukhalaji Street (see image) is the famous street/hub in this area. Cigarettes, comprising local palm leaf and tobacco are sold individually or in packets – we purchased 4 for 2 Rupees (less than 2p) and a pack of 25 of these ‘Beedies’ is just 12 Rupees (less than 10p).

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Examples of daily, consistent/routine paan spitting that stains the walls in particular can be found in and around the bus and train stations. Travelling via Mumbai Central Rail station; Dadar fish market and Dadar vegetable market and the Worli slum we reached the Kurla local railway station which is close to the City Bus Terminal at Nehru Nagar Kurla. At the train station paan (fresh and old) was spat all over, even inside the ticket collection area, but most commonly on specific uprights, walls and areas that had naturally become a convenient place to spit out (see images). In some places the level of paan spitting over many years had corroded metalwork.

Vivek is standing next to a paan covered pillar at the train station as we had to pretend we were taking a picture of him not the walls. We had just been moved on by an official at the bus station where the wall behind the waiting area was covered with paan (picture on right)

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The sheer numbers of people and thus chewers that walk past these spots every day but particularly on their way to/from work makes them hot-spots for the public paan experience. At the train station paan also lines the platform, in part from waiting passengers but also, very commonly, from passengers already on a train who take an opportunity to spit when the train is still (people do spit from moving trains but the risks are obviously added!). If you look carefully in this video there is a clear example.

On day 4 I delivered my third presentation to an interdisciplinary group of academics resulting in good humoured and reflective discussion particularly around the notion of socially responsible spitting which I am developing and which I will post an entry on later today, and the extent to which anti-spitting campaigns can either work or the extent to which they are even appropriate.

On the way back to the hotel my auto-rickshaw driver spat constantly whenever we stopped for a few seconds. I counted over twenty and then gave up. They were relatively discrete spits as can be seen by this clip.

Miracles in Mumbai: The organised chaos of traffic/driving on Mumbai roads

This blog is a number of things: reflection on the research process and on spitting but It is also about travel and cross-cultural observations. This entry is about cross-cultural observation on the Mumbai roads.

It essentially defies logic. Imagine (as do those that analyse traffic flow through computer modelling in the UK) how multiple objects best move through a narrow pipeline and where at different points/intersections in the pipeline new objects join and fight for movement through it. In the UK we drive in straight-lines and new traffic has to join in the one, two or three lanes available. When the road narrows tailbacks occur and traffic can almost stop. Jams are common and they last too long. Yet in Mumbai it feels as though the traffic never stops despite the amount of traffic being far, far greater; that ‘rules’ around lanes and overtaking are virtually absent (overtake either side, switch ‘lanes’ or road position ten times a minute), and everyone aims aggressively for any space that might take you two feet further forward. Visually it is often closer to cattle being herded into gateway than anything related to ordered traffic flow.

At first the rules appear to be absent but they are there: if you have your nose evenly marginally in front (which may be contested to a point) you can keep going, sounding your horn incessantly (but as everyone is doing this incessantly it is not always clear if this has a genuine purpose). In the UK such action leads to raised temperatures but mainly because vying for space like this happens only rarely. In Mumbai it is every second of every minute. Drivers are mostly stoical and I have barely seen one driver shout or even mutter at another but the competition for that space further forward is competed for with vigour at all times. Driving is clearly intense – being a passenger from elsewhere can be both exhilarating and quite worrying, if not frightening. Prior to writing this post I have been taxied around (by both taxi and auto-rickshaw) over four days. It defies logic in part because I genuinely find it difficult to believe that I have not been involved in an accident. I doubt that words can convey what probably really needs to be experienced – it is fast and furious driving – as seen in parts of Portugal or Spain but one hundred fold. It is quite simply a different driving culture. And yet it works (sort of) I am yet to witness an accident yes near misses happen every few seconds. The traffic keeps moving and when it stops it isn’t for 10, 15 or 20 minutes it is for a few minutes ay most. If the same driving was transposed to the UK it would be carnage, straight and simple, here, as I say, it works.

Other related observations are that around 1 in 20 cars/auto-rickshaws drive without lights on at night; cyclists (in mortal danger at the best of times) do not have any lights; children cycle through all of the above (mostly in the day), sometimes two or three hanging off a single bike and pedestrians NONCHALANTLY (really nonchalantly) negotiate traffic literally by millimetres. If you don’t believe any of the above here’s a couple of (probably weak – I can’t be bothered to provide perfect – life is too short, especially in an auto-rickshaw) examples.

Mumbai Day 2: University of Mumbai visit and presentations

Today I visited the Department of Sociology at the University of Mumbai. It is India’s oldest sociology department and (Prof) Vivek
who is collaborating here with me on the research is perhaps the only other sociologist around (anywhere in fact) that has researched spitting in any meaningful way. Here is Vivek beneath the departmental sign.


One of the aims of giving lectures/presentations on the trip is to present my thoughts and ideas around public spitting and to get considered feedback from others that have first-hand experience of it in their respective context/s and to receive feedback on these ideas in development. I gave a presentation initially to the Sociology Department staff and then to postgraduate students. Both presentations were well received and resulted in long discussions and reflection on the topic. I am grateful for the hospitality of the University. In two days time I will again give a lecture but this time to an interdisciplinary group of senior university staff.

Some key issues that came up were: spitting paan (and generally) is also socially/culturally circumscribed in the sense that there are numerous cases where an individual would not spit in the presence of the head of the family, or another authority figure out of respect (authority respect being an important social etiquette in India) but, that e.g. elder may well reasonably spit in front of those younger/of less authority; paan is now present in many ceremonies and events and is almost ubiquitous at wedding ceremonies and at these settings is a show of success. As such the spitting of paan is also prevalent in such settings