Public Spitting: Being in the Line of Spit and Spite

We were waiting at a traffic signal when the driver of a car in front of us opened his door and stuck half his body out. He then spewed a large pool of red saliva on the road. He bent further down and spit a second time before finally getting his torso back in the car.

The men waiting on scooters and bikes around him tried to lean away from the spitting man. They were desperately hoping to save their bodies, clothes and vehicles from the flying droplets, especially at a time when a slight cough or sneeze gets people in a tizzy.

But not everyone was successful in this endeavour. Remember, a lot depends on whether the person who is about to spit makes a guttural sound before the act or knows how to silently spit at a place uncomfortably close to you.

This man was a silent spitter.

Although public spitting has rarely caused furore in India, it took on a different meaning after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. In April this year, the Indian government made spitting in public an offence under the Disaster Management Act. Several states also imposed fines on anyone caught spitting in public. Meanwhile, celebrities endorsed anti-spitting campaigns to highlight how public spitting can spread COVID-19. Student and citizen groups have also campaigned for a spit-free India.

However, if you observe people on Indian streets today, it seems such government rules and campaigns have had little effect on people for whom spitting is a matter of habit.

Research on Public Spitting

In the year 2013, Ross Coomber, a professor of sociology and criminology in the UK, conducted a study on the nature of public spitting in six Asian cities, including Mumbai. He wanted to understand the various meanings and perceptions associated with spitting in Asia.

In a chapter on public spitting in the global south, Coomber and his fellow researchers, Leah Moyle and Adele Pavlidis, unravel the “complexity” involved in the act of spitting. They point out that it is important for us to understand the cultural and functional aspects of the act, especially in a country like India where both “paan spitting” and “normal spitting” constitute a part of everyday habits of many.

The researchers also compare spitting in India with spitting in China where it is apparently “more pulmonary and ‘clearing’ in nature and the spit to the ground more forceful.”

A recent article published in The Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine on public spitting in India during the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the relevance of understanding the psychology behind the practice of spitting.

Also read: COVID-19: The Joys of Silence and Coming Together

Three researchers at King George’s Medical University, Lucknow, including Sujita Kumar Kar, Praveen Pandey and Nitika Singh, argue that public spitting in India is “infrequently frowned upon” due to some of our age-old cultural beliefs.

The trio highlight specific cultural practices in some parts of India which involve lightly spitting on the side of a person to ward off the evil eye (or buri nazar) and/or shopkeepers spitting on the cash earned from the first sale of the day to keep bad luck at bay.

Moreover, while some view spitting as a pleasurable act, others may use spitting to communicate their anger and frustration.

Spitting as a means to an end

My husband and I happened in to be in line of spit and spite a few days ago. Our little daughter was on the backseat of the car. We were waiting at a traffic signal where a boy who looked about nine to ten years old tapped on our car window asking for money.

The traffic light was about to turn green and my husband’s eyes were focused on it. Unable to catch my husband’s attention, the boy showed us a blob of spit at the centre of his pursed lips. He was about to spit on the car window when the traffic light turned green and our car moved.

As we kept going down that street, I thought about what had just happened.

I realised we had collectively failed this little boy at the traffic signal who has to threaten to spit on people during the COVID-19 pandemic to make a living.

His spit was his only resource.

Smeeta Mishra teaches communication at the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar, and strives to understand people’s words, silences, and everything in between. She tweets @smeetamishra.

Featured image credit: Flickr