During the recent combination of flooding rains and Eidul Azha in Karachi, social media was rife with desperate requests to dispose offal responsibly to prevent the spread of diseases. Desperate because it is assumed, quite correctly, that the plea would go unheeded — strange in the land of the great Indus civilisation that gave the world its first planned cities and sanitation systems.

One thinks of cleanliness as a management issue — the responsibility of a city municipality. However, cleanliness is also an attitude with cultural, spiritual, psychological and religious significances.

Many religions have ritualistic cleansing — tahara (system of ritual purity), wudu (ablution) and ghusl (washing) in Islam, baptism in Christianity, mikva (a bath in which certain Jewish ritual purifications are performed) in Judaism, misogi (a Japanese practice of ritual purification by washing the entire body) in Shinto, and bathing in sacred rivers in Hinduism. Here, cleansing is not simply the cleaning of physical dirt but entering a state of spiritual purity.

Water is also presented as a metaphysical force. Narratives of dramatic floods washing away erring communities exist in Judaic, Christian and Islamic texts, as well as in Native American, Eskimo, African, Central and South American, Asian, Mesopotamian, Greek and ancient European cultures.

The Australian artist Fiona Hall has many works in carved soap. She sees washing with soap not only as an erasure of our natural animal odour, but also as an instrument of deception, a metaphor for colonial guilt — “washing away the traces of their murky history.” Much as Lady Macbeth says after the murder of the king, “A little water clears us of this deed.”

The plagues, initially seen as a punishment for misdeeds, were eventually recognised by scientists as a disease caused by bacteria. The 19th-century Germ Theory was formed, first described by Ibn-i-Sina in the 11th century. The scientific need for cleanliness and personal hygiene has remained a central concern of modern societies. Cleanliness is good for business such as restaurants and hotels, real estate value, hospitals, tourism and factories producing scientific instruments.

In her book The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitised History, Katherine Ashenburg reveals the rituals of personal hygiene, from the Romans who steamed and scraped their bodies every day, the use of perfume to disguise body odours in 17th century France to our present “deodorised world” of hand sanitisers, wipes and sprays.

Historically, personal hygiene was always practised across non-European civilisations in China, Japan, India, the Muslim world, Africa and the tribes of the Americas. However, the emergence of modern cities created unforeseen issues for the cleaning of public spaces. While municipalities were in place by the 20th century in Western societies, the more organic and rapid development of non-Western cities took place without well-planned infrastructures and unclear ownership of public spaces.

As world power tilted with colonialism, cleanliness became the description of difference, where non-Western countries and non-white races were seen as dirty. Carl A. Zimring in his book, Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, explores how the term “black and polluted” came into existence.

In India and Pakistan, another contributing factor is the caste system. Originally seen to be a division of labour, castes soon became hereditary, with cleaning becoming the task of the lowest class — a concept absorbed into Pakistani society. While in Germany residents take turns with sweeping and picking up trash in the neighbourhood, and in Japan school children clean their schools including toilets, this would be inconceivable in Pakistan where such tasks are assigned to people demeaningly called bhangis.

Positive changes are emerging with NGOs motivating school children to clean up beaches and parks. I met a lawyer who, with his colleagues, goes to homes in slums, where they clean, wash and tidy up to inspire residents to a better quality of life. As Matsumoto, a Japanese monk, says, “We clean to eliminate the gloom in our hearts.”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Email: durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 25th, 2019