The furore over the state of the athletes’ accommodation at the forthcoming Commonwealth Games has focused largely on the issue of cleanliness.
Putting the issues of security and hygiene aside for a moment – these are separate concerns that require a different reaction – I think the cleanliness issue is interesting in the way it relates to our different cultural ‘dirt boundaries.’
Dirt, as defined by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger, is ‘matter out of place.’ A coke can in a newly ploughed field is litter – is dirt. But move the coke can into your fridge, and it is now the soil from the field that is ‘dirt’ on a ‘clean’ can of coke. In other words, dirt can be more relative than we think.
In different cultures, different things are prescribed as dirty. On the Indian subcontinent, for example, you will regularly see people evacuating their nasal and throat passages onto the street. Disgusting. Until you hear that local people see the practice of blowing your nose into a handkerchief and putting your snot back in your pocket as…filthy.
What we classify as dirty or clean tells us something about how we order our society, who or what is included or excluded. Lepers and women were excluded in Jesus’ day – and in crossing the ‘dirt boundary’ to engage with them he challenged his society to not only consider the way it denominated dirt/clean and included/excluded but also how it’s mechanisms of cleansing worked too.
So…with the issue of cleanliness of the athletes’ accommodation we may need to ask if this is simply an issue of different cultural understanding of what dirt is. India is a far dustier – far ‘dirtier’ place. But herein lies an opportunity which seems to fit well with the modern idea of the post-colonial Commonwealth system: by going to the games to engage with and grapple with the dirt of another culture a chance to see renewal in all the cultures that clash arises. Sure, the athletes do not want to be in danger, and nor do they want to fall ill. But by going and engaging, and getting a little dirty, they may find that their understanding of the emerging India as a complex and still caste-based society may be enhanced, in a way that simply would not occur in a sterile games village.
Dirt tells us that things are out of place. And it seems that the construction of these games has meant that slums have been cleared andmoney has been finding its way into the wrong places too. Attending these games and engaging these issues is what India needs if we are to help bring justice to the many forgotten and untouchables in its ranks.