Early one morning two or three years ago, I found myself on the bank of the Ganga with nothing much to do. It was a ghat, a relatively small one as it happens, at a spot where the river, flowing right to left before me, was so wide I could not see the other side. I found myself a place to sit under a tree, pulled out a book and began to read. I must have spent three hours there, and actually I didn't get much read.
What was far more interesting was watching the people who visited the ghat.
To my right there was a ceremony in progress for someone who had died, the body lying on a bed of flowers in the midst of much quiet chanting and whispering. Fairly early, two young boys arrived at the waterline, unfurled long strings with something attached at the end, whirled it about their heads and cast it into the water. Magnets, with which they were trawling the river for metallic objects. People brought flowers. One man stood near me with folded hands, eyes closed and lips murmuring a prayer. Several man lowered themselves into the water and bathed.
In most respects it was a languid, peaceful three hours that I thoroughly enjoyed.
There were moments I didn't enjoy quite as much. Several men hawked and spat into the river, one of them producing long streaks of paan-coloured spittle. Every now and then, somebody brought a bag filled with trash and emptied it into the river. One didn't bother emptying the bag: he cocked his arm and flung it as far as he could. Four or five men brushed their teeth, rinsing their mouths with the same river water. At least two men walked past me, turned right, edged along the lowest step of the ghat about 20 metres, then stood and peed into the river. At least two men did the same edging, then squatted and defecated into the river.
So yes: I'm sitting there on the bank of the river, and I am trying to get used to the idea that there's sputum, garbage, toothpaste saliva, urine and shit going past me in this river. That there are men bathing in this murky concoction.
And when someone in Australia uses words like "junkyard" and "shithole" to describe India and this river, I cannot help remember the morning I spent on the banks of this river.
At least at that spot where I sat, he was right.
Now if there are those who feel like the river purifies itself and therefore it is clean, that's fine with me. They are welcome to their belief. In exactly the same way, they should allow others their revulsion at what they see happening to the same river. To call it what they think it is.