Selective sense of hygiene

Berjis Desai

The infamous ‘railing’ where the hoipolloi of the Dadar Parsi Colony meet christened her as Maku Macbeth. She was much more though than Shakespeare’s compulsive washer, Lady Macbeth (who felt guilty for killing the King — ‘all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’). Not only did Maku wash her hands repeatedly, she clipped her nails every morning and changed her underclothes in every gah (staying near an agiary helped, as she could hear the bells resonate to mark the beginning of a gah). Of course, she and her sister Freny never contemplated matrimony; aghast at the idea of touching another being; to put it mildly. They repeatedly checked whether the front door was locked, as if they were guarding Fort Knox. It did not require a genius to conclude that they suffered from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), a difficult psychiatric condition to cure. Unfortunately, the community has a disproportionate number of Maku Macbeths and Fastidious Frenys. Are we genetically predisposed to OCD, or do we have a selective sense of hygiene?

 Illustration courtesy: Hemant Morparia in Parsi Bol


While the causes of OCD could be many, at an ethnic level, it could be deep insecurity. Even though more than a 1,000 years have passed since we sought refuge in India, some of us still have a strange sense of unbelonging in a foreign land. A collective guilt, perhaps, of not making enough effort to go back to the motherland. Also, the feeling that we are somewhat superior to the natives — cleaner, more hygienic, better organized. A simpler explanation is that we are plain eccentric. Whatever the reason, many Parsis have an exaggerated sense of hygiene.
As children, we were not allowed to sip a cold drink through a straw. A housefly settling on an exposed straw (in those days, straws did not come in sealed paper pouches) could upset one’s digestive lining for weeks. Banish the thought of tucking into some variyali or saunf (fennel, aniseed) from a bowl in a restaurant; tiny cockroaches could have laid their tinier eggs there overnight. There were a laundry list of prohibitions – paani puri (did you see how dirty the bhaiya’s nails were, as he punctured the puri to fill it with spiced water? Unboiled and bristling with germs, of course); bhelpuri at Chowpatty sea front (the ink from the newspaper comes off with the watery chutney); freshly cut fruits (did you notice the thin layer of rust on his knife, and the flies buzzing nearby?)
Apart from hygiene, there is also this obsession with orderliness. One of our clients – we will call him Jamshedji – would rise from his chair in the midst of an important meeting to minutely correct the angle of the photo frame on the wall, much to the amusement of his juddin colleagues. "I feel giddy at seeing a crooked frame,” he would whine. We had an aunt who singularly contributed to the sales of Tata’s eau de cologne, a bottle of which would be found those days in almost every Parsi household. Apart from being liberally applied to matronly necks and hands, cologne water, as it was popularly called, was used to revive those who had fainted; a few drops consumed in water was supposed to cure nausea. Years ago, an aristocratic Parsi lady client would carry a bottle to official meetings and suddenly summon her Man Friday to liberally slap the liquid on her sleeveless muscular arms, ostensibly to repel mosquitoes [("Bamboat! Jaldi, cologne water lagaro! (Bamboat! Quickly apply the cologne water!)].
Another acquaintance, a well heeled gentleman of leisure, bitterly complained to us about the exhorbitant charges of doctors paying a home visit. We solicitously enquired the reason for the home call. "You know, I suffer from piles,” he said, "I called him to apply antiseptic cream, and he charged me 800 rupees!” "Why did you not apply the cream yourself?” we asked incredulously. "Never!” he exclaimed, "Mané soog laagé (I feel yucky)!”
In the late 60s, an old Parsi hotelier and his daughter ran a lovely little hotel at Deolali (the desserts were simply divine). One of the rooms facing a large garden was permanently occupied by a Parsi spinster known throughout Deolali and Nasik as the Eucalyptus Queen. If you walked on the verandah (porch) of the hotel to digest a sumptuous breakfast, the salubrious morning air of unpolluted Deolali was replaced by the pungent odor of eucalyptus oil. She stored hundreds (no exaggeration) of bottles of the oil in her room; generously sprinkled it on all her clothes, bedsheets, towel and even the curtains. Maids suffering from a severe cold would volunteer to clean her room, so as to open their blocked sinuses instantly.
Until her knees turned arthritic, Goolbai preferred the Indian style toilet. One’s posterior did not have to touch any foreign object nor was it subjected to the indignity of water splashing from the toilet bowl. Water faucets had not then arrived, so Goolbai put on thin surgical gloves. Using a public toilet, be it in a five star hotel, was out of question. Hence, she shortened her public engagements, including leaving the theater during the interval. To visit her son in England, she would abjure direct flights at night lest she was forced to use the first class loo. All her laundered underclothes would be wrapped in butter paper, the kind one uses not to soil a plate. Every day she would unwrap a fresh cake of soap, which would be dumped in the dustbin, as she could not bear the thought of her servants using it. She had a perpetual frown of disapproval on her rotund face, like an angelic being shuddering at the dirty world.
This extreme sense of hygiene, however, disappears, when it comes to partaking meals from a patru at weddings and navjotes. So do we unconsciously distinguish between Parsi dirtiness and juddin dirtiness? The former being incapable of offending our selective sense of hygiene, we turn a blind eye to the conditions under which feast food is prepared and served. We prefer to ignore the horrible state of our dakhmas, where bodies in varying states of decay rot and stink. After stuffing herself with saas ni macchi, Maku Macbeth perhaps does not feel like washing her hands.

Berjis M. Desai, senior partner of J. Sagar Associates, advocates and solicitors, is a writer and community activist.