You’re arranging marigolds around diyas, when you feel a wriggle. A green caterpillar is trying to latch on to your hand.
You’ve been bitten and the offender’s flying off. Not-so-fast, you rage, and squish it with your hands leaving them bloodied.
Gross! Ugh! Eww!
Reactions to experiences like these are getting new-found respect as a human universal which Charles Darwin counted among six basic emotions - surprise, sadness, happiness, fear, disgust and anger - in early 1872.
Even as a little voice in our head tells us to avoid the nasty, rancid, putrid and offensive, its pull and fascination can nevertheless be overwhelming. No wonder celebrities being asked to take on disgusting tasks on reality shows get such high ratings and deformed monsters and ghastly vampires make a killing at the box-office.
Disgustologist and anthropologist Valerie Curtis’ latest book Don’t Look, Don’t Touch based on her research into “the shadow emotion we’re less familiar than love, fear or sadness,” has brought disgust into sharp focus.
Curtis, who heads the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine told DNA, “This reaction underlies our sense of good manners and moral behaviour as well as nastier tendencies like misogyny and racism,” and added, “It influences what we eat, who we desire, our political inclinations and even our moral judgements!”
Her interest piqued during the several years she spent in Africa. “Its an ancient evolutionary process. Those disgusted had a better chance of surviving and ensuring furtherance of lineage.
The socio-cultural connect of say phlegm with respiratory disease or genital sores with sexually transmitted disease, interested me.”
She pursued hygiene behaviour patterns across Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, China, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Uganda, Vietnam. “By understanding disgust we can manage and direct it usefully. While it’d help reduce disease by raising hygiene standards around the world, a deeper understanding of its influence could help counterbalance harmful manifestations like xenophobia and sexism, exploiting it for good.”
After it became an object of serious study in recent times, there’s been a virtual explosion of books, papers and conferences on pollution, purity and disgust as classicists, historians, students of humanities, anthropologists, bio-ethicists, philosophers marketers and psychologists grapple with the hitherto taboo subject. Since 2011 alone a record 78 books on disgust have been published – more than double pre-2011- with titles like ‘Yuck!’ and ‘That’s Disgusting!’
While admitting he’s fascinated with Curtis’ work, Dr S P Dube who heads the Board of Hindi Studies at Mumbai University points out how ancient thinkers from the sub-continent had thought about disgust even in 200 BC.
India’s Nātyashāstra (a 6,000-verse, 36-chapter compendium of drama, dance and music) by Bharata, he points out, deals with navarasās or nine basic emotions. “Apart from shringāra (love), hāsyā (laughter), karunā (compassion), raudra (anger), veera (courage), bhayānaka (terror), adbutha (surprise), and shāntha (peace or tranquility) it dwells on beebhatsya (disgust) too in elaborate detail.”
According to him the navrasās are so deeply anchored in the socio-cultural ethos of the land that they find resonance in literature, theatre, dance and music. “Take the example of Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850-1885). His celebrated novel Gangālahari describes in great detail the scenes on Ganga ghat with corpses being brought for cremation, the bloated half-burnt ones being pushed into the river and the birds of prey waiting to feast on them.”
He further points out, “"The Nātyashāstra, tells us not to shun any of these emotions as they are all equally part of the same tapestry of life.”
A sentiment, which finds an immediate echo with renowned Odissi exponent-guru, Jhelum Paranjape. “Whether its a child who pukes or food which has gone mouldy, beebhatsya is all around in the little things in life,” she tells her students enacting the Ramayana scene where Laxman cuts off Surpanaka’s nose. She demonstrates this with the classical expression of pulled down sides of the mouth and wrinkled nose.”
According to her, late Odissi guru Surendra Nath Jena -who married elements of folk forms with ancient sculpture - was perhaps the only one who created an entire ballet around beebhatsya as a theme. "His visit to the 64-yogini temple at Hirapur near Bhubaneshwar left him so enthralled that he went on to create a ballet of the same name in the early 60s on the theme."
The hypaethral roofless temple, an ode according to experts, to tantric traditions of yore has some of the yoginis in ferocious forms which border on the disgusting. These traditions were so hush hush and sometime grotesque, that they instilled fear. With the arrival of Brahminical Hinduism on the scene, many of the old practices like sacrifice (he-buffaloes and goats) became hidden or stopped altogether.
Disgusting or cute
This brings us back Curtis’ study which found bodily fluids causing maximum disgust universally.
Other things like, disgust for rats, she found, was an acquired instinct. “While rats disgusted Indians, in Netherlands they were sought after as pets,” says Curtis who has used these differences to give friends and colleagues plenty to laugh about. “A plastic turd I carry along has led to the collection of some amazing nasty stories,” she chortles.
WHAT DISGUSTS INDIA?
Curtis found Indians with maximum responses with things that disgust them:
Faeces, worn-clothes, dead rat, urine, flies, dead cricket in food,, toilets, insects, rotting flesh, sweat, maggots, parasitised meat, menstrual blood, lice, wet cloth, spilled blood, stickiness, cut hair, mouse in curry, decaying waste, impurities of childbirth, rats garbage dump, vomit, dogs, sick person, smell of urine, stray dogs, hospitals, waiting rooms, open wound, meat, beggars, saliva, fish, touching someone, dirty feet, pigs, lower caste, eating with dirty hands, fish, smell, crowded trains, food cooked with a dog or cat around, menstruating, lizards, alcohol, bad breath, flies on faeces, nudity, smelly person, liquid animal dung, kissing in public, yellow teeth, soap that has been used in the latrine, nose picking, dirty nails, dead animal.
Curtis finds it exceptional that, “Individuals like Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Teresa show how they went beyond the instinct of disgust to nurse, clean and treat poor and the destitute.”