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Flatulence is as routine a bodily activity for all human beings as is breathing or eating. But it’s one that’s rarely talked about, and to which very few own up. And if culpable, most people dissemble, or deny guilt altogether.
In almost all cultures, farting is considered distasteful, even odious. And yet it has remained a source of endless mirth for aeons, especially for males and children.
The world’s oldest joke, traced back to 1900 BC in Mesopotamia, is about farting, suggesting that flatulence – derived from the Latin word “flatus”, the act of blowing – was as much of an entertaining no-no for the ancients as it is for us today.
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap,” goes the ancient Sumerian joke. Though not much of a rib-tickler, it reveals that breaking wind even a millennia ago was taboo, especially for women. The only known exception to such windy activity in public is the Yanomami tribe of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela, for whom farting is a form of greeting.
Over centuries, farting has featured in European and English literature. Dante’s Inferno mentions a demon who “uses his ass as a trumpet”, while Chaucer is almost avidly scatological.
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes Nicholas (one of the principal characters in The Miller’s Tale) “letting fly a fart, as loud as it had been a thunder clap” through a window, directly into the face of his unsuspecting rival Absalom. This fart “wellnigh blinded” Absalom, who, like Nicholas, was vying for the affections of a married woman. This most famous of farts knocked Nicholas out of the running.
Thereafter, in 1722 the satirist Jonathan Swift published a treatise, The Benefit of Farting, in which he explained that most of the “distempers thought to affect the fairer sex are due to flatulences not adequately vented”.
Seventy years later, Benjamin Franklin – one of America’s founding fathers, no less – published an essay titled Fart Proudly, in which he suggested that research be undertaken into methods to improve the odour of human flatulence.
Franklin recommended this on behalf of well-bred people, who refrained from breaking wind, fearful of giving olfactory offence. He also observed that “were it not for the odiously offensive smell accompanying such escapes, polite people would probably be under no more restraint in discharging such wind in company than they are in spitting or blowing their noses.”
And in 1800, Charles James Fox, an ebullient British MP, published 50 copies of Essay on Wind on vellum or fine parchment made from calf skin and impudently dedicated the composition to the then English Lord Chancellor. Fox ended his tract by declaring: Fart away then, my brethren, and let farting be in common among you. Vie with each other in producing No.1, or the sonorous, full toned, loud Fart. Fart loud, I say, and never more be restrained by example age, rank or sex.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, farting became a part of popular entertainment. Joseph Pujol – a professional French farter better known by his stage name of Le Petomane, or Fart-maniac – exercised remarkable control over his sphincter muscles to mesmerise audiences at Moulin Rouge in Paris. His stock-in-trade: breaking wind for cheering audiences.
Pujol mimicked the sounds of canon-fire and thunderstorms, in addition to playing songs – including ‘La Marseillaise’, the French national anthem – on a rubber tube inserted in his anus. He would also blow out candles from several yards away for patrons that included Edward, Prince of Wales, and Sigmund Freud.
The obsession with farting continued into modern English literature in the latter half of the last century.
J.D. Salinger, in his Catcher in the Rye, has a student farting in chapel in a posh prep school in which he “damn near blew the roof off”.
Thurmer, his headmaster, though offended, pretended not to have heard the fart, but as punishment ordered the entire class to compulsory study the following night. At the start of the detention, which the students loathed, Thurmer lectured the class – including Edgar Marsala, the offender – on good behaviour. He described the “boy that had made the disturbance in the chapel” earlier as being fit for expulsion.
“We tried to get Marsalla to rip off another one, right when old Thurmer was making his speech. But he wasn’t in the right mood,” writes Salinger. A pity.
To cap it all, Kurt Vonnegut nailed it in the late 20th century when he declared that “we were all here on earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different”.
Vonnegut’s literary observation is confirmed by science. Britain’s National Health Service has found that an average person breaks wind 14 to 20 times every day. It also affirmed that farting was the human body’s way, in most instances, of flaunting its general wellbeing.
And how about India? For most of us, especially in small towns and villages, farting in public is no big deal, exciting little reaction or hilarity. It’s not uncommon for locals gathered at a village chaupal farting with neither embarrassment nor shiftiness. In this, it’s no different from the belch.
But it’s just the reverse in the larger metros like Delhi and Mumbai, where breaking wind in company is clearly off-limits.
There was an incident when a young executive let out a fart at a party. He’d hoped to finesse it, but to his mortification, it erupted. In an elaborate ruse he blamed the host’s dog, only to have the animal run up to him and begin sniffing at the source of the stench.
A South Delhi resident, a retired colonel of my acquaintance, has a different attitude. It’s time, he says, that we were unabashed when passing wind. “I am not ashamed of lifting my cheek and letting fly in public,” the gamely old soldier said. (I should report that he doesn’t feature on everyone’s guest list.)
Actress and television host show Pooja Bedi goes one step further and maintains that for couples, farting in front of your partner is the “real relationship milestone”.
Writing in the Times of India in mid-2018, she declared that “kissing and making love (for couples) is based on attraction and all that’s beautiful and pleasant and concerned with your outer self and what you’re first projecting. Farting, on the other hand, involves trust and comfort in the relationship.”
No meditation on flatulence can be complete without the story of two lawyers – an English barrister and his Indian counterpart – presenting their briefs ahead of clinching a financial deal in Mumbai some years ago.
The barrister addressed the gathered quorum first, then ceded the floor to his Indian colleague. But just as the Indian finished his spiel, he let off a fart worthy of Chaucer. No doubt, he’d presumed it would be silent, but to his acute chagrin it was far from hushed. The elite gathering, humane to a man, pretended the mishap had not occurred.
Except for the barrister, who looked across at his Indian counterpart and said: “Do I Take that as a Yes?”