Culture and habits

Amal Chatterjee
9 min readJul 5, 2019

Source : Google photo of dirty habits

Synopsis : A habit is always acquired because no one is born with it. It can be a good habit or a bad habit that one learns from others .Collectively it then becomes a part of the culture of people like drinking tea or chewing pan. When such habits are practiced in private, it is no one’s business but in public ,it becomes everybody’s business. The blog looks at some bad habits that affect others in public places and some means to curb them.

In every culture in any country you will find certain habits that are linked to it. Thus you will find people patiently waiting for the green light at the zebra crossings but in other countries they ignore the lights and cross wherever and whenever they want causing accidents and chaos. My French teacher was so used to crossing anywhere she wanted back in France but was very surprised when a traffic police in Washington ,D.C. gave her a 5 dollar ticket for illegally crossing an empty street.

I saw the policeman hide behind a post and wait until the infraction was committed so that he could give the offender a ticket thus filling the coffers of the city with millions of dollars in fine collected from unsuspecting people. A simple show of face could have prevented the fine from us but they were more interested in collecting the fines than preventing the so called jay walking. That is their capitalistic way. In other countries they may use less persuasive but equally effective ways of preventing a misdemeanor.

But what I want to write about today is about dirty habits found in some cultures that are quite repugnant. People visiting Singapore for the first time are very surprised by the heavy fines for spitting on the roads or throwing chewing gum, wrappers or garbage anywhere because to them this habit back home is unnoticed and unpunished so they carry this habit with them to other countries where they are punished for it with hefty fines. The strict rules and regulations have made Singapore a clean city and the locals try hard not to violate the rules because doing so is quite painful for their pockets. The foreigners with bad habits learn it to their dismay that urinating in public, spitting and throwing garbage in the streets anywhere is not tolerated in many countries.

Source : Google photo

India is one country where the old habits die hard because the habits become a part of their culture so they see nothing wrong in spitting on the streets anywhere because they chew pan that makes them salivate profusely so they spit anywhere they want including hospitals. Chewing pan is a national habit that gives employment to millions of people who sell pan everywhere and hundreds of thousands of farmers who grow pan plants and sell the leaves to the pan makers. Pan is a leaf that they use to fill it with some lime, bits of betel nut , some peppermint, shredded tobacco and many other things that people chew making their saliva red that they have to spit out. The result is seen below in the photo of a big city.

Source : Google photo of pan spits on walls everywhere .

So the pan makers support the habit of chewing pan because their livelihood depends on it. When I visited a big hospital in Lucknow one day, I noticed the entire wall inside the hospital covered with thick spit of pan and saliva that was truly horrific and disgusting so I brought the matter to the administrator of the hospital. He was very apologetic and promised to get the wall cleaned up and post some warning to visitors not to spit inside the hospital.

But the guilty party was right outside the hospital who was happily selling the pan to anyone who would then go inside the hospital and spit on the wall ignoring the hospital hygiene. These pan sellers do a brisk business because chewing pan is a habit people can’t seem to quit even if they know that it is a bad habit and the tobacco they chew causes mouth cancer. It is like smoking that some people can’t quit no matter what the doctors say or the label on the cigarette packet says. They also support millions of tobacco farmers who make a fortune selling their tobacco to cigarette and cigar makers.

The hand rolled cigarettes, bidis or cigar makers employ millions of people so some habits support the industry that in its turn supports the tobacco farmers and employs a lot of people who earn their living this way. Bidis are hand rolled mini cigarettes wrapped in a leaf that are quite popular with the poor people in India.

The British brought the culture of snuff to India so the young people imitated the British and thought that it was the cool thing to do and got hooked because taking powdered tobacco to stuff your nose with is very addictive and causes cancer but nobody cared. So the snuff became available everywhere and the spread of nose cancer followed. Some people bragged about their bejeweled snuff boxes they carried in their pockets but over a period of time, it became not so fashionable anymore except some die hard snuff takers who can’t quit.

The government of India now has started a program of cleaning up India and has made sustained efforts to educate people so that they can be aware and change their bad habits but it is easier said than done. It is not easy to change people their ways of doing things because it has become a part of their culture that they all support and see nothing wrong with it.

Indians are very clean when it comes to their homes but they see nothing wrong when they throw their garbage out on the streets and spit or urinate in public so now the CCTV cameras are being installed to catch them and fine them on the spot. The penalty of heavy fines makes people think twice before they spit or throw garbage anywhere.

In south India , a thriving business is now flourishing because they have built public urinals where they collect a fee before anyone goes in. They money they collect helps them maintain the urinals and keep them clean but it also forces people to change their behavior of urinating anywhere.

So you have ask how does a culture develop? Before the British came to India , there was no culture of drinking tea. It started when the British found that the hills and cool climates of north Indian hills like Darjeeling, Shillong and Assam were ideal for growing fine quality tea so they started developing large tea farms. The Darjeeling tea is now exported to many countries and earns the country a lot of revenue and employs millions of people in growing and processing of tea.

So taking tea became a part of the Indian culture. If you visit someone in India and say that you do not drink tea, they are embarrassed because they do not know what else to offer you. In the north it is the tea culture and in the south it is the coffee culture because they grow coffee in the hills of south India. Drinking tea or coffee is not bad. It may even be good for your health but when you throw away your tea cup from your train or bus windows then it becomes a problem.

Source : Google photo of water pipe smoking

The smoking of tobacco in water pipes was introduced by the Muslim rulers who smoked perfumed tobacco in their elaborate silver water pipes before the advent of cigarettes and cigars. Slowly the elites and the rich people started imitating this practice so the poor people not to be left behind started making their own water pipes. This was cheaply made using a coconut shell, a stem of hollow wood and a baked clay cup to hold the embers and the tobacco. The coconut shell is filled with water and you inhale the smoke through it giving it the name water pipe or hukkah. Now anywhere in rural India and Pakistan you will find poor people using hukkah because it has become a part of their culture.

If you go to any country in the Middle East, you will find well dressed women and men in restaurants or such public places happily smoking their water pipes that are quite elaborate like the ones Mughals used long ago. It is now a part of their culture. But when you smoke in public, others who are non smokers are inhaling your smoke that is harmful to them , then it becomes a problem. So go and smoke in your house and pollute your house. Who cares? Just don’t do it in public.

A culture develops over a period of time accumulating behaviors that are at first alien to them but accepted and popularized that become addictive like smoking or drinking alcohol or stuffing snuff into your nose or chewing tobacco or pan. When people say that it is a part of their culture and use it as an excuse to spit everywhere then it becomes a dirty habit. Since it is very difficult to change people and their culture, the method of penalty and stiff fines are used to curb such practices like in Singapore.

The bad habits can be changed or entirely given up as I have done myself. I used to smoke fine tobacco like Amphora in my beautiful pipes that I collected from many countries but I quit smoking some twenty five years ago because I came to realize that smoking is not good for my health so I gave it up. I was not addicted to tobacco like some people are so it was not difficult for me and I do not chew pan but I can understand how difficult it is for some to give up their bad habits.

Now you may chew pan , drink alcohol or smoke in private but when you make yourself a nuisance in public then it becomes mandatory to curb such habits even if you claim it to be a part of your culture. No culture anywhere should tell you it is OK to spit anywhere or urinate anywhere or smoke anywhere because it affects others.

When you throw a banana peal mindlessly on the road, someone may slip and fall and get serious injuries. When you spit anywhere on the road , it creates pollution, spreads germs and spreads disease. When you urinate anywhere in public, it creates stink and very unhygienic conditions. When you throw chewing gums on the road, it gets stuck to someone’s shoes and is quite unpleasant. The municipalities spend a lot of money to clean up other people’s mess so now they have started collecting fines from errant people.

I think that a system of penalizing drivers who do not follow road rules is quite effective so it should also work for those who dirty the public places. People change when it hurts their pocket but not otherwise. Creating awareness through schools, bill boards, media and public forums can go a long way to change people in the long run. Just ask the Singaporeans. If they can do it then it is quite possible in other countries.

Please also read my blog called the dirty habits that is related to this blog.

Note : My blogs are also available in French, Spanish, German and Japanese languages at the following links as well as my biography:

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Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.