Déjà vu

History repeats itself; just watch the dogs. 

Seeing dogs in the NYC streets always gives me a sense of déjà vu. Are we at the cusp of the dogs’ civil rights movement? A non-violent uprising that will see them achieve equality with their masters. You see, it always starts with the indignity of performing one’s business in public. Seeing dogs pissing and pooping in public brings back childhood memories of seeing open defecation in India and how its eradication is the first step in India’s development.   

Growing up in rural India, I saw the poor face the indignity of open defecation daily. Toilets were (and still are) scarce for the poor. Even places with public restrooms are crowded, and people must wait in long lines. Mother nature, therefore, becomes the alternate public toilet.

I grew up in Kerala, India, which did not have enough poverty to warrant public toilets, which was worse for the poor because they had to fend for themselves. At dawn, the unmistakable stench in the air was proof that the poor men and women had completed their morning ablutions in the nearby vacant plot of land.  

If you happened to be awake at dawn during a train journey across India, in addition to the sunrise, you would see scores of men squatting on the riverbanks carrying out their business. I remember dreading traveling on the train that passed through Tamil Nadu, India, at dawn because it was a poor state which meant a higher rate of open defecation. 

Sadly, women bore the brunt of this indignity; they could not afford to be seen at any time. Men could at least pee in public. During my recent visit to India, I asked one of the ladies I knew did not have a toilet growing up.  She still seemed hesitant to talk about that phase. Finally, she said it was tough but having a stomach upset was the worst; she would have to dig up some secluded spot to do her business and cover up her crime. 

These men and women had to exercise extreme control over their excretory systems since they only had a narrow window at dawn for their daily ablutions.  Imagine oversleeping and having to hold it in until the next day. The dogs in NYC are also trained to hold it in till they go on a walk, although they have a wider window than the poor in India. Thankfully, open defecation has mostly disappeared in India, but not completely. 

I recently moved to a new home in New York and must walk past an animal hospital. The stench of animal excretions is unmistakable, bringing back the memories of those smelly toilets in India. During my childhood, there was a running joke that public offices did not need a restroom sign; you just followed the smell.  Sadly, it is still true in many places as India grapples with providing its burgeoning population with basic facilities. In addition, toilets often lack water supply, compounding the problem. 

The other day I saw a hip Lulu Lemon-type woman holding a leash in one hand and a bag of her dog’s poop in another, walking until she found the next trash bin.  Her nonchalance reminded me of the contrasting plight of the ostracized human scavengers of India, an exclusive caste who used to carry and empty human waste. I have seen these people emerge from sewers covered in human waste after clearing up some blocks. Thankfully, India has now abolished this practice. 

As India struggles to abolish open defecation, the NYC dogs openly engage in it. But are we at the cusp of banning it? The other day I saw a woman scolding her sons who were petting a big dog while he was peeing, saying, “Geez, give him some privacy.” Signs asking owners not to allow their dogs to pee on plants and kill them are starting to appear. I see people wrinkling up their noses at the smelly spot near the animal hospital because it is right next to a restaurant block.   
Conducting your business privately and at your will is the first step to dignity and freedom. Interesting that cats naturally have habits making it easy to be private. Seinfeld prophetically said that his grandkids would exclaim, “What? Dogs couldn’t vote?” But before that, “What? Dogs didn’t have restrooms?

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