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From a certain perspective the human body is little more than a conduit or a tube, taking in and emitting in roughly equal measure.

It’s an elemental conception of human life that sees two reasonably balanced, opposite streams alternately feeding the organism essentials and sluicing away waste. It’s a perspective common to Chinese medicine and Hinduism (among other systems of esoteric thought), which makes it of heightened significance to the Indian city of Mumbai.

In Mumbai, the dividing line between the flow of ingress and egress is often so fine that the distinction is blurred. To a large extent, and for a large section of the population there is very little distinction at all.

People everywhere seem to be ingesting what has previously been passed and excreting almost to feed rather than to vent. The attitude to water supply and sewage in Mumbai has been so compromised by the demands of overpopulation and the environmental rigours of breakneck growth that its no wonder typhoid is rife in the slums. In a very real, and frightening sense, there’s a kind of Faustian toxic alchemy at work, switching the poles of ‘in’ and ‘out’, mixing the waters, crossing the streams.

A wet, vegetable smell, redolent of human vomit and loam wafts into the office. Workers immediately reach for the take-away menus. “Mmmm… Shall we order lunch, guys?” A sewage pipe is simply being de-blocked outisde the building. Reports abound of food poisoning from street food in the days when the sewers are exposed.

The bathroom I use in the home I recently rented a room in in Mumbai is separated from the kitchen of the family of four by a chipboard partition that doesn’t quite reach the outer wall. When I am sitting on the toilet and the lady of the house is frying, there’s the continual possibility of a fine mist of burning fat droplets fountaining over the wall to enliven early morning ablutions.

With a bit of effort, we could shake hands during our respective processes like the first excited penetrators of the Berlin wall. I wonder how the aromas emanating from my bathroom don’t enter the flavour of the delicious food she makes. If I leave a cut raw onion in a fridge with a pot of opened yoghurt, I can’t really complain if the stuff turns out tasting more like raitha than Müller Lite, now can I?

Years ago, a very dear friend of mine came up with an ingenious method of balancing the flows. He called it the ‘Shit/Weight Plan’.

According to this system, weight can be easily controlled, gained or lost through the judicious application of weighing scales at the two ends of the process. His theory was that if one only consumed an equal poundage to that amount dropped off, a steady weight would be maintained. If one troughed more than one sloughed, weight would be put on; if one dumped more than one scrumped then weight would be shed.

The domestic setup that my landlady and I have is ripe for a field test of the Shit/Weight Plan. If she pushes them far enough to her right, Sibyl and I could cut out the middle man and share the kitchen scales, one pan each; shouting the differentials to each other through the partition as we go.

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Andrew Johnson Andy is a freelance magazine writer and editor from the North of England. He has rapidly divested himself of his life and reassembled it so many times in so many different countries over the last several years that he feels like his hair is on fire. He is at work on a novel ostensibly about the British Empire.

6 Responses to “Faulty Towers”

  1. Brian Eckert says:

    Interesting and thought-provoking little piece. I’ve not traveled to India, but it’s near the top of my list. Your account matches up with what I’ve heard from other travelers, though, with that “authentic” Indian experience being inexorably linked to the sludge of overpopulation.

    Had a good laugh reading the “Shit/Weight” plan. I wonder if Dr. Phil would get behind that one…

  2. Darian Arky says:

    This “Shit/Weight Plan” could be applied to foreign policy formulation: Only take as much shit as you can give back.

  3. Yip Boblin says:

    So wait, you’re in Mumbai? Why? Taking Empire Land to the next level? Gettin’ yer post-colonial colonic firsthand?

    As usual, I like your puns. And your language is fecund. I believe you’re beginning to tap into expression, although I believe this entry would benefit by some immediate description of your physical environ in relation to your landlady’s kitchen in more detail. I don’t need a picture, but I would like to more than a “chipboard partition that doesn’t quite reach the outer wall. When I am sitting on the toilet and the lady of the house is frying, there’s the continual possibility of a fine mist of burning fat droplets fountaining over the wall to enliven early morning ablutions.” I can’t see it, and I really want to since it’s such an integral if not foundational aspect to this piece. The next mention of her in the kitchen has no obvious referent: “If she pushes them far enough to her right…”, and then obviously, as you subsequently mention, these “them” are the pans. But what I don’t get or can’t see is how you two are positioned. It seems like she is literally two feet to your left, and if she could somehow bend down a little, push the pan through a hole and you would squat and expel — all at a synchronized point in time, then you would drop that deuce squarely on her pan.

    In my Lat.Am. avant-garde class, we’ve been reading Trilce by Cesar Vallejo. He’s spent much of the first 25 poems talking about bodily fluids, ingesting, digestion and elimination, and how these relate to the hegemony of the US/Europe largely dealing with their consumption of Lat.Am. and laying waste to their land. The first poem is all about guano, or alcatraz shit that had accumulated on the shores of Peru for hundreds of years and made the soil fertile. For a short time, the bourgeois got rich off of shit, and then instead of reinvesting this back in Peru’s infrastructure, they squandered it on the Material, further continuing the cycle of ingestion, digestion and elimination.

    Vallejo was in good company, as Trilce was released in 1922, the same year Ulysses was published. This motif of shit is a good one, especially today, when post-consumer waste is reaching an ever-expanding zenith — Great Pacific Garbage Patch (http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-great-pacific-garbage-patch.htm).

  4. Brilliant comment, as always, mate – point taken about the expression. It’s more of a set-up to a couple of jokes than a detailled description. I just want the punchline to come as late and as strong as possible, ie. the absurdity of the spray of fat from the frying pan landing on me while I’m shitting is key, as is the payoff that yes, we’re so close that I’m shitting into one pan of the scales while she puts the food in the other.

    I love this thing about Cesar Vallejo and shit – it goes all the way back to the Aztecs. Check out this amazing book I just discovered, The Book of Symbols – Reflections of Archetypal Images. It’s really worth investing in for a writer with any sense of the interconnectedness of things. It’s a compilation of research by the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, which I’m considering joining. Fascinating stuff.

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