All over India, from cities to towns and villages, women bend over in the early-morning haze to sweep away dust, a ritual cleansing to mark the day ahead. Some say the broom embodies the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, and helps bring in wealth by removing dirt and dust.
Whether cleaning a courtyard, the entrance to a dwelling, a patch of road or pathway, sweeping is usually performed by women. The broom has a relatively short handle with long materials strapped to it. These might be twigs, various types of grass or synthetic fibre. But given the length of the handle, they all require its user to bend over towards the floor to use.
Different brushes are used for different purposes. It always struck me as a bit strange – being an outsider – that hotel staff would use a broom with water to clean a bathroom. No mop and bucket or squeezable foam on a stick. But for sweeping fluids, a broom with thicker and stronger strands gets the job done.
It’s about a 35-minute walk to the gym from my current residence. Along the way, it is striking that filth, mud, cow dung, human and animal fluids and rubble are just taken for granted. Having to negotiate this obstacle course can be quite a challenge. Yet, turn a corner and there might be someone sweeping away, especially at the start of the day. She will be ensuring that not one speck of dust will remain in a chosen patch.
But the dust-free area will not remain dust free for long. A gust of wind might ensure its return, traffic pollution will take its toll and people will walk it back in. Displacing dust from one area to another can only be a temporary solution in India, possibly one of the dustiest countries on the planet.
Getting to the gym from my place is a test of resolve. Being alert to the guided missiles coming at you from all directions can be mentally draining. Even walking along a two-way traffic system with a dividing wall down the middle of the road is no guarantee of safety as scooters and carts travel in the wrong direction.
And after months of ongoing repairs to underground cables and pipes, the side of the road is finally concreted over. A pavement has almost been laid and looks impressive. But do not expect to be able to actually walk on it once finished.
It will soon be occupied by cages with live chickens waiting their fate, sacks containing produce, heavy gas cannisters, sugar cane crushers, advertising boards and families laying their heads to rest. And it will not be long before the next round of digging and repairs takes place. With its creaking infrastructure, much of urban India can at times resemble a permanent building site.
Little wonder that walking in the road among chaotic traffic is common in India’s towns and cities.
The solution today is to veer off the main road and head into one of the narrow lanes that will eventually get me to where I want to be. Shiva, Ganesh, Vishnu, Krishna and other gods peer out from the various temples and shrines that watch over the neighbourhood.
Around each corner, a new story, a new scene; neighbourhoods within neighbourhoods, glued together by extended families and perhaps a kind of obliged neighbourliness – living this close together, you are forced to get along.
The sense of community is tangible, somewhat reminiscent of the now long-gone neighbourhoods in England where, there too, a sense of tradition and togetherness was pervasive. But in the UK, some warped notion of ‘progress’ and modernity was embraced.
The old was discarded for the new. Profiteering developers and highly paid architects with their pie-eyed dreams were to create the brave new future.
Britain was once a place where a pub existed on every street corner and a church on every other. People now believe in individualism, not community, in the national lottery, not other-worldly salvation, in shopping, not God.
The plight of the traditional pub mirrors that of hollowed out British society. Many of the churches are now empty shells, but the pub has been transformed into the modern theme bar, the ‘theme’ sometimes being an empty version of the very tradition that was destroyed under the banner of ‘progress’.
There is huge profit in nostalgia, even if the whole thing is a massive con-trick. People now drink themselves senseless at the trough of make-belief sentimentality — of how they think things used to be. But it is not how it really used to be; it is how it is now — a self-conscious theme world that parodies the past, dreamt up by advertising executives and consumer trend analysts.
A cynically manufactured reality, which quenches the thirst for ‘community lost’ and tradition.
It is something writer Paul Kingsnorth wrote on some years back in his book Real England: The Battle Against the Bland. The real pubs, the country hedgerows and affordable housing, the individuality and character of many a town has been lost forever. A tale of corporate greed and clamour for thicker, faster income streams has resulted in old England disappearing under what one perceptive online book reviewer calls a “Starbucked, Wetherspooned, Executive Living Spaced avalanche”.
Homogenised culture, homogenised outlooks. Change is a constant but too often is about making someone somewhere more money as quickly as possible.
Apparently, this is progress. A new broom sweeps clean. But does it?
These types of internal conversations with myself are regular occurrences when in India, interrupted this time by me arriving at the gym. A small, gloomy entrance and up three flights of stone stairs. And then, inside this dimly lit, uninviting building I arrive at the shoe rack. No outdoor shoes allowed in the gym. Either wear ‘gym footwear’ or train in bare feet. I opt for the latter. It’s easier than carrying a spare pair.
Once inside, it is relatively modern by Indian standards. A big improvement on the entrance and stairwell. The place might be fairly upmarket but is still very ‘Indian’. Most of the lights are deliberately switched off, leaving you to train in semi-darkness. Even though this gym could be bright and uplifting, it is not.
At least they have sufficient fans, but these too tend to be switched off. If requested, the overhead fan where you happen to be training will be switched on. I’ve trained in probably 70 gyms all over India. Fans are usually switched off even though the locals are dripping. They inform me that this is good because it builds stamina. I never thought of dehydration that way.
I ask a fellow trainer whether the gym is open on Saturdays. It is, but he told me not to bother – there will be 100-plus people present. I can imagine. I have experienced it, which is why, these days I seek out those places that are open when everyone is busy working.
Back in 1990s, I went to a gym in Bhopal. A cavernous place packed with late teens all working out on substandard equipment. A gym for the ‘common man’.
As I performed my first exercise, I could see everyone gathering. They formed a circle and watched my every move. The attention persisted for the next hour – subjected to questions about where I live, whether I am married, what my job is, my age and so on. Aside from that, it was near impossible to gain access to any equipment given the crowd in there.
After that experience and many others like it, I learnt to avoid training at peak times.
However, there is one thing you cannot avoid. Training during off-peak is when the ‘cleaning’ is done. And that means – the woman with the broom!
No matter what time I go, mid-morning or mid-afternoon, she is sweeping dust into the air. Not good to be breathing in when training. And when she is about, the fan is switched off, so you are gasping, sweating and taking in dust.
But the cleaning – or displacing dust from one area to another – must be done. Actual dust removal depends on how much you can carry out of the place – in your lungs.
I guess that, after all, a new broom does sweep clean. Kind of.