I was thinking about spitting. Before some jaws that have dropped in disgust permanently stay that way, I must clarify, that I wasn't going to spit myself . But someone I know, P, who is learning video editing, needed to make a short film on Spitting/Tobacco spitting, and asked me to help find someone to capture on film and help with it.
Although spitters in Mumbai can be found everywhere, its not something they announce and do. I have dodged stuff on the ground, stepped across and over splashes of tobacco red on staircases, and once fervently thanked the Lord when someone in a bus, managed some projectile spitting, 5 seconds before I passed through there on a two wheeler. I mean, there had to be a hand of Providence, in the fact that nothing fell on me, given the fact that me, the bus, and the spit had their own velocity, and no one was a whiz at calculating projectile motion.
At this point , it is relevant to point out that spitting has never been the monopoly of , say, folks in the lower economic strata, as may be commonly thought.
We have rural, portly, landed gentry, that don't work for a living, but seem to think that chewing tobacco and spitting does something for their image. Their ability to chew, chew, talk, and then turn sideways towards a spittoon , and generate a projectile of stuff is supposed to be a display of power, amidst a society, where education is deliberately absent, and certain gestures indicate certain things. It also gives you a chance to look disdainfully at your opponent, and spit at him at any given time. The public notices, cringes, votes and then stays quiet, out of your path.
Then we have people who have migrated from rural backgrounds, where chewing tobacco along with a group of friends, after a hard day in the fields, is a kind of social activity, now brought over and established in an urban milieu. Today, fields are no longer an attractive proposition, and the vast amount of labour migrants coming into Mumbai for construction activities, think of this as a accepted mean between the extremes of being a drunk and drug-user, both two extremes.
There are also women who work in household jobs, washing , cleaning etc. Chewing tobacco is a personally affordable luxury for some who have troublesome alcoholic husbands and minimal support. They finish work and leave, only to stand somewhere on the stairs landing, pulling out something from the waist knot of their nine yard sari; a tobacco mixture, which they will hold in their palm, and rub it with the other thumb, closing the palm over it, only to plop it into their mouth with a tired, satisfied look, as they carry on to their next work assignment.
There are slightly higher rung folks like taxi drivers, who also chew the weed. These are fellows who don't own the vehicle, but hire it in shifts to drive and earn. They drive at all odd hours, and one of them told me once that this was a good way to keep awake, which was so essential in the Mumbai traffic regardless of time. These guys live in groups , have families back home in the villages, and slowly get into this habit which eats into their life.
The profile of spitters is possibly different in all countries.
A lot of historical, and sociological research points to use of spit to indicate anger against someone. Spitting blobs of stuff on someone is the ultimate insult. Slightly more prosperous folks, who cant make up their minds between following their intrinsic spitting urge, and trying to look like they have come up in the world, have found a compromise in the form of spittoons. You see this spittoon stuff in India, where the spitters are rich in money and spit, but poor in education and giving.
P and I were in Pune recently in Divali. The handy cam was with us, and there was some time on hand. Mumbai has large distances, and time wasting traffic, and so we decided to check out things in Pune.
Many Indian cities will have localities where the residential and commercial aspects seamlessly mix. You come out on to the road, and there is a rickshaw(3 wheeler) stand, a bunch of shops , within 20 feet of you. Rickshaw drivers, waiting for a hiring person, often sit around chewing and spitting.
P and I kind of wandered around with the handy cam, peering into corners, and sides of sidewalks, and bases of fences and trees and stuff, looking for the huge tell tale, horrible, red , spit patterns. Being a dud at filming , but good at locations, I did the looking around, the rickshawallas kept giving me dirty looks. P, having seen less of the world, got a bit flustered.
"Are you looking for something , Ma'am ?" from one of the braver ones.
"Yes. We are looking for tobacco spit stains, for a short film. And also for spitters ". Me.
Some fellows looked away, and suddenly spied customers, some pretended to wipe the steering wheel. Sidling up to me, and threatening me was not an acceptable option. Some even looked at me as if I was fibbing. In the meanwhile we kept spying stuff in corners and filming closeups of walls and compound floors.
A flower vendor at the corner had a big laugh and told us to film the police. They always spat. As if on cue, a two wheeler with a cop riding pillion came up, and stopped to check something with the vendor. The driver casually spat. And they left, with a frustrated P, and a shocked me, wishing we could have filmed that. Like I said, no one announces that they are spitting.
We turned into a lane to search for a Paanwallah (seller of betel nut leaf chewing mixture), where, someone said, we would spy spitters, amidst the hangers-on. Just then a rickshaw passed by and someone inside spat out , to P's immense frustration. You can either walk with the handy cam glued to your eye, or walk trying to avoid potholes, which would otherwise trip you down.
We gravitated to the Paanwallah. As soon as they saw P with the handy cam, all the chewers just stopped chewing. At least what was visible. The Paanwala kind of rose to the occasion .
"Yes ?" as he slathers some pink jelly stuff on the betel leaf.
"We are doing a project on tobacco spitting. Someone told us we could find some folks here . So where are all the spitting types ? " Me. P kind of cringes at this direct onslaught. She often thinks I am shamelessly direct.
"You won't find anyone just now. Post the swine flu scare and pre Diwali, they've threatened hefty fines for spitters, if seen spitting. Rs 600 . But you know, come by in the evening. There is a larger crowd. Safety in numbers often encourages someone way behind somewhere to desperately spit." He wraps a betel leaf expertly and hands it to a portly man who has been giving us mean looks, and waiting impatiently for it.
"You wont see anyone now. People are scared of the fine. Who would want to dare putting a hand in a cobra's throat ?" He signs off with this wordy visual.
In the meanwhile P has wandered away with the handy cam, and is gesturing at something , calling out to me. There is a fruit seller in the vicinity. He is sitting on his haunches, chewing something, right next to his cart, loaded with the most delicious fruit.
I feel like purchasing some of it. Loaded with oranges, papayas, custard apples and apples, P thinks I have lost it. But I now have a camaraderie with the chap. I ask if he is chewing Paan. He smiles, displaying stained teeth. And continues to chew.
"Would do spit for us ? This is a project for school ." Me.
He nods. He is from a part of India where women are rarely seen outside the hearth and home. And it is entertaining for him to see these "modern" women doing such films. P mobilizes for the shot. I know now, how directors feel. Actors can act up at times. You have to humor them. Cameramen take their own time setting up. I see P mouth "OK". And after she has had a decent shot of all that chewing , I signal to the guy. He turns his head, lifts his face a bit, narrows the lips and cheeks, and lets off a projectile in red. Duly captured on film.
P and I cover the spitted stuff with the soil that lies nearby. He watches. A bit embarassed. A bit amused. And continues to chew the remaining portion . Unmoved.
The irony of the whole thing amazes me. We've just got a guy to do something, to make a short documentary that says , "don't do this thing "......
Sports on television, internationally, is replete with players spitting on the ground. It is usual to see cricket players and idols, spitting on to their hands and rubbing spit on to the cricket ball, before handing it to the bowler. No one is seen objecting. Its certainly not a requirement of the sport.
Maybe we have evolved.
llamas, who are a member of the Camel family, use spitting to settle scores and disputes, establish dominance and pecking order, indicate to males that female llamas are pregnant, and express fear or discomfort. They even have a variety of spit, the worst being green spit straight from the stomach contents, which is sufficient anger goes over a distnace of even 15 feet, and smells.
In 2007, the worlds biggest (9 feet) spitting cobra was found in Kenya. When attacked, the spitting cobra can spit venom up to 8 feet in order to blind the enemy. Its venom is a neurotoxin which can produce pain and blindness. Understandably, the cobra aims its spit at the eyes of the attacker.
And then there is this Afrikaans animal called Kudu, which is difficult to hunt, but makes its presence known by leaving pieces of dung around. Inexplicably, there are humans, who make pellets out of this dung, and who get their kicks (and spits) by participating in Kudu Dung Spitting Championships, being officially held since 1994. There is even a champion, 1994 World Champion 'Slinger' van der Merwe, who is to be applauded for his Kudu Dung Spitting technique.
He removes his false teeth before spitting.
I take a deep breath.
I am just happy we have evolved the way we did given all this background. And the fine of Rs 600 continues.