In this article we seek to interrogate the cultural, political and economic conditions that generate the crisis of sanitation in India, with its severe implications for the poor and the marginalized. The key question we ask is how to interpret and explain the spectre of 'open defecation' in India's countryside and its booming urban centres. The discussion is divided into three parts. Part one examines the cultural interpretation of 'shitting' as symbolic action underpinned by ideas of purity, pollution and 'the body politic'. Part two takes the political economic approach to gain further insights into contemporary discourse, performance and cultural politics surrounding toilets and open defecation in India. Part three examines civil society activities, state campaigns and media accounts of open defecation to explore the disruptive potency of everyday toilet activities, and how these interplay with issues of class, caste, and gender. Drawing on interviews and a review of ethnographic work, we seek to interrogate the idiom of modern sanitation, with its emphasis on cleanliness, progress and dreams of technology, as a constitutive idea and an explanatory force in Indian modernity.