Home and away

Frank Ronan with reasons why London is dirtier than Delhi
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The Independent Culture
I first went to India reluctantly, certain that I would hate it. Squalor wasn't my kind of thing, and squalor was what India was famous for. If I found the men and women who sleep in doorways in the Strand upsetting, how would I cope with hordes o f leprous and limbless child beggars? I had been told that some of the worst scenes would present themselves during the taxi ride from Bombay airport through one of the biggest and most impoverished shanty towns on earth. I braced myself, prepared, if ne cessary, to feign sleep rather than confront the seemingly irredeemable.

Astonishingly, within an hour of arriving in Bombay I had fallen in love with India - with all of it, including the endless grey slums, and the beggars, and the way they might look at you. It was not until two months later, when I returned to Europe, that I was able to analyse why the poverty and dirt which discomfited me here should not have the same effect there.

For any visitor, an Indian city is an unsanitary place, and in the recent plague hyperbole we were shown television pictures to prove it - open sewers, giant rats and primitive hospitals. But to me London is dirtier than Delhi, perhaps not on a germ-by-germ basis but on another level. Delhi, Bombay or Calcutta are probably as clean as they can be, given their economic and social circumstances, while London or Manchester are about as dirty as our resources can make them.

It is almost as though, having beggared most of the world through the colonial system, the West, and Britain in particular, is now beggaring itself and creating a mini Third World within its own society.

We can be terribly smug about what we call the Third World. It is a place whose inhabitants live in corruption and poverty, without hope of a better life. What we mean by a better life, of course, is our own life. The proof that justifies our complacencyis the assumption that any hungry villager from Bihar would readily leave everything behind for a council house in Solihull. The worst that we have here is better than the best that can be expected there, naturally.

You expect culture shock to hit you in an alien environment. I used to think that I was immune to it because the farther I travelled, the more I felt at home. Then I realised that culture shock described the feelings I had on homecoming. There you will see people relieving themselves in the street because there is nowhere else to go; here you will see it because the public facilities are padlocked. There you will see litter thrown down, collected and recycled; here you will see it blowing across the road in the wake of a privatised dustcart. There you will see poor children using a plastic bag as a home-made kite, laughing; here the children of the poor sniff glue, unsmilingly. There the poor will look you directly in the eye because on a fundamental level money does not make you unequal. Here no one will look you in the eye, and the poor are ashamed because poverty is failure in a wealthy society.

As communism and Thatcherism have failed, it must be fairly evident by now that not everyone can be wealthy. If all four billion of us had motor cars, the ozone layer wouldn't last five minutes. So why sneer at and patronise the poor, and say that they must be developed? There are villages in India that have satellite television but no wells. Soon, India will be as filthy as the West, and as corrupt.

If you scramble aboard a bus in Delhi and if in that packed crate of human flesh you get even the smallest whiff of body odour, you only have to look over your shoulder and you will see another European, smug and stinking. It is we who have bathrooms anddon't wash enough that are the filthiest creatures on earth.