“What I learned in Nepalganj” in the Peace Corps, writes T.D. Allman, “has kept me alive in situations when I might have gotten killed.”
I met my first untouchables in Nepalganj, a writhing market town on the Indian border where living gods and human feces are scattered all over the place. I also became acquainted with my first prince there. He and his wife received me in their small palace, a whitewash-streaked ersatz-Palladian structure with a tin roof. Over tea we discussed defecation. It was a perplexing and important topic for a cleanliness-obsessed young American like me. For the first time in my life, I was living in a place where almost everyone was not white, and not prosperous, and not one person in a thousand had ever used toilet paper.
My house had no toilet, only a circular cement hole in the floor. Daily—and when my latest attack of diarrhea struck, many times a day—I would approach that hole with a greater sense of foreboding than later, as a war correspondent, I would any battlefield. The people in Nepalganj had no such scruples. They moved their bowels, it seemed, anywhere the spirit moved them. “You too must squat!” the prince informed me, while his wife poured more tea. “It assures a more complete and healthy evacuation than your American sit-down affairs.”
We turned next to love. I had heard that people here actually got married to people they had never met. “Oh, you Occidentals and your love matches!” the prince exclaimed. “When you marry, your love is like a vat of boiling water. As soon as you get married, you take the water off the heat. Everything cools off, whereas our arranged marriages,” he continued, “are like pots of cold water. When we marry, the pot is put on to the heat, so year by year it gets hotter.” At this point, he and his wife exchanged glances of tender complicity.
The Sweeper’s Beautiful Wife
The first untouchable I got to know was the sweeper who came almost every day to the little house in the middle of the bazaar where I lived. “Sweeper” was a euphemism. His essential function was to assure the removal of the human waste I deposited into that round hole in the concrete. Beneath it was a rectangular cavity the size of large suitcase. On the street side of the cavity was a little door.
With a mixture of dread and eagerness, I awaited the sweeper’s first visit to that little door—dread because of the shame and injustice of it all, eagerness out of a desire to have that fetid material removed from my vicinity. The sweeper never came; he made his wife do it. She would use a large wooden scalpel to scrape my refuse into a wicker basket.
I never met the sweeper’s wife. Whenever I did glimpse her, making her rounds with her basket, she would avert her eyes, out of shame or modesty I never knew, though once I did I see her face. She was as beautiful as a Bollywood starlet.
Read the full article at: NationalGeographic