Germs, Stains and our Pure Society

Author : V. Geetha

We were obsessed with germs, even before Corona came upon us. Check out all those advertisements for sanitary items that clean floors, kitchen surfaces, clothes – and the running theme is getting rid of stains, germs, intrusive little critters of all kinds, all sufficiently and cutely demonized. And Corona has given us a valid and entirely legitimate reason to want to keep ourselves pure and sanitized. Whether we lock ourselves in or lock others out, we end up creating boundaries that often map on to existing ones, of caste and class, ethnicity and religion.

Little wonder then that we have taken to surveillance, marking and excluding of those we consider actually or potentially contagious with a gusto: the catching out of those who are on the roads, publicly shaming them, making the names of those who have been advised home quarantine in the public domain, refusing to allow doctors and nurses into housing colonies where their homes are … Ko. Raghupathy a historian from Tamil Nadu recently drew attention to a notice from 1925 that was on bus tickets and which stated, “Panchamas and those suffering from incurable diseases not allowed” (personal communication). A century has passed, but not much has changed.

For those who have always been uneasy with the poor at their door, whether as workers or those who solicit their charity, the present moment must feel liberatory: they need not hide their distaste for these classes and castes. And so fellow citizens in gated communities and not so gated housing colonies practice social distancing, vigilante-style. And no one here demurs from using the term, social distancing, never mind its association with caste and untouchability, it is a phrase that sits comfortably on many a tongue.

This marking of the citizen as deviant appears part of the same governance process that is determined to mark several of us as non-citizens and some as illegal and doubtful citizens.

This is why the seemingly ordinary and even banal obsession with dirt and stains appears ominous: it is a symptom of a more deep seated anxiety about contamination, which is as much social and political as it is habitual. We want to be pure, build a pure society and be ruled by a pure state – and this purity is neither a physical characteristic nor an ideological attribute, rather it is the mark of a social sensibility that is determined to build a non-mutual, non-fraternal society, and which is to be sustained by a meanness of spirit and an even meaner imagination, which revels in the banal.


A banality that affirms every petty and not so petty prejudice we harbor, and allows us to be violent in our responses if that prejudice is not granted the status of truth. This is not done through grand ideological statements, but through an incremental number of offensive and hate-filled calls to action, to savage those that the banal and prejudiced mind cannot accept, tolerate, or countenance as fellow human beings.

Banality has been elevated to mythology and political spin passes off as statesmanship, as is evident in the adulation that is bestowed on the ruling combine, particularly its leader, and kept alive, day and night by an amoral and aggressive trolling culture. In another time and place rites and rituals did what trolling does today, constantly assuring the rulers and their twice-born priests that they deserve to command, lead and control. These injunctions were filtered through fantastic tales, which in turn, were subject to endless interpretation until you lost sight of their purpose, and consumed them for what they were. Just as we do the vapid advice that is “spoken from the heart” and thrown at the citizenry week after week, never mind where it comes from, what it stands for and the many narratives it seems to build to scaffold its own mania for power.

Advertisement from a Delhi based firm for cleaning overhead tanks in households

This meagerness, of mind and spirit, was on full display these last few days: as the working poor, terrified and unsure of what the future held headed back to their kith and kin and familiar rural worlds. Clearly the cities they build are not yet homes, and if anything events of the last week have further underscored the extreme precarity of worker lives: today, we demand that their needs be addressed, but the problem is these needs are frankly minimal and all the labour and striving does not leave the worker with anything beyond what might feed her and her family for a week, if at all that. So, in effect, what the lockdown has done is to place the worker even beyond the pale of precarity! And those who have never fought shy of hard labour are today made the recipients of a charity they never asked for in the first place.

What the Indian State has offered is thus not recompense for workdays lost or the actual value of labour, but a fistful of rupees to stave off starvation, so that the labourers could come back and labour, if they are not, by that time, dead already. And the meagerness of it all is contagious, and is nowhere more evident than in the predictive numbers that we are forced to deal with, in the context of what we might expect in the days to come. Without disrespecting the efforts of all involved in warning us of what might yet transpire, it yet appears shocking that the value of life has not to do with the richness of existence, but of sheer survival. For the worker, though, it is clear: should they choose death through hunger or death through illness? Such clarity is an indictment of the political and social order, of all of us.

The frugality that structures worker lives mocks at our attempts to fight death. And the opulence that the criminal rich are allowed by the selfsame state shames our efforts at redressing hunger.