Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


In Spitting Distance of Flammable (the politicization of spit during the pandemic)

Annie Zaidi

My earliest spitting memory comes from a movie. A character, trussed up or held down, spits at the villain. I’ve forgotten the name of the movie but there are half a dozen similar scenes in Hindi cinema where the hero, or heroine, or one of the other good guys is overpowered and, in a show of defiance and contempt, they spit upon the faces of the goons. Even to my child self, the meaning of the gesture was clear: in spitting, the character asserts whatever is left of his/her freedom.

During the Covid-19 pandemic India has suffered a rash of fraudulent or manipulated content suggesting that Muslims were deliberately contaminating food products via spit or licking utensils. One video showed a young man in the back of a van, spitting at a cop. It later emerged that the video was older and unrelated to the pandemic[i]. The undertrial prisoner was taken to court for a hearing where his family sent him some home-cooked food that the cops wouldn’t let him eat. In frustration and anger, he spat upon them.

Reading the news report, I was amazed at the undertrial’s behaviour. Surely, he knew that once he was in jail, away from camera scrutiny, he could be punished? But perhaps it was not just about home-cooked food. Perhaps it was rage mixed with desperation and defiance at the odds stacked against him.

The meaning of spit changes with context. Literature is full of spitters and the spat upon, from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan to Raj Rao’s Kanthapura. In all of the above texts, a powerful person or dominant community spits or threatens to spit upon the vulnerable, as a way of demonstrating that they can. I was also reminded of Ha Jin’s War Trash, set in the Korean War of the early 1950s. Towards the end, Chinese prisoners of war are given a choice between repatriation to the Communist controlled mainland and going to Taiwan. China was persuading them to return to the mainland. One member of the group that did not want to return suggested spitting at “the Reds” as a way of pre-empting any veiled threats and making their opposition public.

The gesture is always underpinned by anger. In Hindi, we have a saying, ‘gussa thook do’ (spit out your anger) which is a request to calm down or let bygones be. There are other proverbs such as ‘thook ke chaatna’ (licking your own spit), equivalent to eating your words, and ‘aasmaan pe thookna’ (spitting at the sky), which indicates your insignificance relative to the object of your criticism. A person may also be described as ‘thookne laayaq’ (worth spitting at) or not worth even that. Some people spit or say ‘thoo-thoo’ aloud as a superstitious gesture, intending to ward off evil. However, saying the word ‘thoo’ universally signifies disgust, and was recently deployed on Twitter as a hashtag[ii] aimed at journalists[iii] who were accused of fanning Islamophobia during the pandemic.

The politicization of spit is not a new phenomenon. A few years ago, I heard that Sunni Muslims believed Shias spat into food or drink offered to Sunnis. The recipient of such slanderous information must have assumed that it was an expression of sly hostility. Later, I was told that similar rumours about Sunnis have been circulating among Shia groups!

Spit-in-food rumours deepen social cleavages. People are sensitive to biohazards in addition to the symbolic expression of anger or contempt. Those who accuse a community of deliberate spitting are trying to create new socio-economic barriers against trust and familiarity. They seem to have partially succeeded since the Covid19-related misinformation burst in India. Some Muslims have been prevented from selling fruits and vegetables in certain localities[iv]. In the suburb where I live, a customer was booked by the police after he refused to accept food delivered by a Muslim[v].

As these suspicions work themselves through the body of the republic, it would serve us well if our leaders publicly mulled the reasons why manipulated videos found their way into people’s phones so quickly during a public health crisis. It would also do the country good if we reflected upon why we tend to suspect those who are vulnerable – restaurant workers, street hawkers, delivery staff, minority groups – of spitting into food. Could it be that dominant and powerful groups are aware that they might have done something to deserve the contempt of the vulnerable?

[i] https://www.boomlive.in/fake-news/video-of-man-spitting-on-cop-is-unrelated-to-covid-19-7503

[ii] https://theprint.in/india/twitter-turns-nasty-spitter-as-thoosmitaprakashthoo-becomes-a-top-trend/398717/

[iii] https://www.freepressjournal.in/viral/after-thoorahulkanwalthoo-trends-on-twitter-journalist-slams-sit-at-home-journalists-and-pundits

[iv] https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/coronavirus-uttar-pradesh-abused-stopped-from-selling-vegetables-allege-muslim-vendors-in-up-2210963

[v] https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/mumbai-man-refuses-to-take-delivery-from-muslim-held-6374733/

Bread, Cement, Cactus (Open Access) by Annie Zaidi
Bread, Cement, Cactus (Open Access) by Annie Zaidi

About The Author

Annie Zaidi

Annie Zaidi is a freelance journalist and scriptwriter based in Mumbai, India, and was named by Elle magazine as one of the emerging South Asian writers ‘whose writing ... will e...

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