Walking above the village of Mehrauli on Delhi’s southern perimeter, we pass a woman with a half-empty bottle of water—one of several we have already noticed since daybreak. Dressed immaculately in a brightly colored sari, she emerges from behind a prickly bush on a tract of waste ground. If she were a man we might not have merited such discretion. India is about the only country in the world where you actually see human adults defecating. When traveling by road or rail you can be struck by the image of men squatting openly, impervious to the public gaze. The UN estimates that 638 million people—or 55 percent of the Indian population—still defecate out of doors. The practice is clearly born of necessity in a crowded country where the development of public amenities has conspicuously failed to keep pace with economic and demographic growth.
Conspicuous defecation, however, is restricted to males. Female modesty—enjoined by Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism alongside age-old patriarchal codes—dictates that women may relieve themselves only after dark or in the most secluded reaches of the forest, a practice that exposes them to violence or even snakebites. The consequences for women’s health can be devastating. Women of the poorest classes notoriously suffer from a range of urinary and bowel disorders born of taboos about pollution and other social constraints applied to the most basic and banal of bodily functions.
My companion and I are looking for the walls of Lal Kot—one of the oldest of Delhi’s numerous cities, built by the Rajputs in the mid-eleventh century, before the first Muslim invasion. The 3.6-kilometer-long walls enclose a space that has been largely abandoned to jungle. The cladding of irregular quartzite blocks was cut so accurately that no mortar was needed to hold them together. Set high on a ridge overlooking the present-day city, Lal Kot is a magnificent outpost of a forgotten civilization—a worthy precursor to the great Delhi Sultanate that flourished during the centuries of Islamic rule, as well as to its grandiose successor, New Delhi, designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker and completed in 1929, less than two decades before Britain was forced to abandon its Indian empire.
Lal Kot is far from the tourist trail. To reach it you have to cross a large rubbish dump and negotiate the odoriferous detritus—what used to be known as night soil—left by Mehrauli’s less favored human residents. They sleep rough, in old tombs or flimsy home-made shacks erected near the open sewers that intersect the area’s magnificent architectural monuments. In the absence of municipal services, refuse disposal is performed by long-haired pigs, which eat up every kind of organic matter, not excluding human and canine waste. (As Moses and Muhammad taught their followers, ham and bacon are best avoided in warm climates.)
The lack of sanitation is emblematic of India’s failure as an…
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