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.


2 thoughts on “Prevalence and practice of spitting in Mumbai/India

  1. Mike

    Have just read your post: it was the first one to come up after Google search “Spitting India”. My example is here, in the UK. I have a boarding house, currently with many (mostly well-educated, professional people) Indians here on a short-term contract. Including a married couple – he, IT professional, she, stay-at-home (no work permit). And it’s she who hawks (which you call “hocks”), clearing her throat, and sometimes emptying the contents into my kitchen sink. So, triple taboo over here: 1) hawking; 2) woman (OK, sexist); 3) in kitchen, into sink. I’ve heard somewhere that it’s a taboo for South Asian/Middle Eastern people to retain body waste on their persons – so, no handkerchiefs, and blowing their noses with one finger; perhaps this also relates to the taboo on sink plugs with dirty water. So, a possible Indian taboo against body waste, versus a Northern taboo against spitting, and in this case, in a domestic setting. How does one balance the two, without giving offence? Any ideas?

  2. kafoodie

    I work in Afghanistan and have the misfortune of sharing toilet/shower facilities with several Indians. Their propensity to loudly “hock up loogies” and spray snot into our communal sinks is unhygienic as well as irksome. It certainly does seem to be endemic to the population of Indians here.
    I won’t even get into their seeming inability to properly dispose of their feces.


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