I was walking hurriedly in Jawalakhel the other day, my eyes wandering to locate an office where I had a meeting, when my attention was briefly drawn to the Headquarters of British Gurkhas Nepal (BGN). The place looked clean, organised, and seemed to command importance like any other diplomatic missions, offices of bilateral and multi-lateral donor agencies and international NGOs in the cluttered huddle of concrete houses and buildings in the Kathmandu Valley. Surrounded by high walls topped with metal railings and CCTVs, a big iron gate serving as the entrance, only part of the main building could be seen from outside.
However, a large rectangular sign I noticed at the gates, even though I was in a kind of a rush, later forced me to think hard about civic sense and responsibility in Nepal, or the lack of it, and the foreign perception of Nepali people. It read in big, bold lettering: “Spitting is prohibited inside the camp and any offender will be disciplined or evicted from the premises.” Below that was the Nepali translation of the admonishment. The sign didn’t strike me as a big deal at that moment, as I brushed the matter aside and concentrated on finding the office.
A little while later I again walked past the place looking for a cab. Even from across the street, I could read the sign clearly and easily. Of course, the sign offended my sensibilities. But it was not because I indulge in such gross and unhealthy act of public spitting or other careless discharge of bodily fluids (like urinating in public). This was also not the first time I had seen such a sign: I had seen them in few hospitals and public schools. However, I had never seen such caution in the walls of foreign missions or agencies, at least not as prominently or belligerently as the one in front of me. It seemed that the BGN office, the head quarters of the almost two centuries old institution that symbolizes British imperialism and Nepali “bravery” and “courage” across the world, was facing a huge problem of spitting within its premises. For if that hadn’t been the case then the sign would not have been placed slam bang at the main entrance, immediately bringing the attention of the visitors not to engage in such unpleasant habit within the BGN premises.
The sign offended me because it kept the visitors on toes even before entering the camp, automatically assuming that every visitor– most of whom are of course Nepalis – to be public spitters (or having all the potential to be one).
I thought how the sign affected the people who visited the camp on a regular basis. Have the public spitters among the visitors stopped engaging in the revolting act as a result? Of course, they will not spit inside the premises for fears of reprisal (although the habitual may still do it unconsciously), but would they actually stop doing so in the streets, in public. And what about people who passed by the place every day? Would gobbing and spitting in public continue?
But again, there’s no reason to get so worked up over a sign. Only that I would have preferred, if I was visiting the camp, to be gently reminded about it by a sign at the guard’s room. Or, maybe even asked politely by one of the guards not to do so in the premises if it is such a big problem here. But definitely not to be rudely reminded of the annoying habit, which going by the way the sign is given so much prominence, every Nepali appears to possess.
I was walking thinking about the sign when a young man walking towards my direction turned his head and carelessly spat on the street. It felt as if the man did so to show utter contempt towards me (as people may do when they are extremely angry at another person), but we were strangers and I had done nothing to anger him. He was just spitting out of habit. And then I realised that the tight slap that the sign was on the sensibilities of every proud Nepali was somewhat deserving. In fact I have seen people (of both sexes, young and old) spit by habit, perhaps even to show off, while walking on the streets and there was one time I saw a street altercation almost erupt into a fight when a passenger in a bus mistakenly spat on a motorcyclist during a traffic jam.
Sadly, no matter how disgusting the habit of public spitting may be, the misdemeanor continues unabated as people spit with impunity on Kathmandu’s streets. In some parts of Kathmandu you virtually have to negotiate your way through phlegm and slime. There’s no law against public spitting in Nepal as it is just seen as a way to discard something unpleasant in one’s mouth. However, it is about time to introduce a law to discourage or even ban public spitting by making offenders pay hefty fines. Of course, some complain about high levels of dust and smog in Kathmandu’s air that cause them to hawk up and spit. Some may say that spitting is just a minor problem when so much trash and uncollected garbage lie scattered on the streets. However, they are just excuses. Looking at the rampant public spitting and urinating (sometimes even shitting) in the roadside not only shows that we lack even basic understanding of hygiene and manners, but it also shows our utter disregard towards the problems in our streets and unwillingness to take up the responsibility for it like civilized people.
A bideshi friend once told me when we were walking in a dirty street of Kathmandu that although he finds the people in the city very hospitable, but what he finds most annoying is seeing people habitually spit on the streets and using the walls as urinals. “It seems that spitting and pissing in public is allowed in your country, while kissing is not,” he said in way of jest .
Our close neighbors India and China have already introduced stricter laws to curb public spitting in their towns and cities, and they have so far been very effective in dealing with the misdemeanor. Awareness campaigns are regularly organised to inform about the hazards of expectorating both to the people’s health and the city’s image. However, public spitting is not a nuisance in the cities of developing countries only. Places like New York, London, Tokyo and other world capitals also face similar problem, only they have harsher fines and punishments in place to discourage such habit.
However, only bringing in new legislations is not enough as Nepal lacks good implementers and monitoring mechanisms to enforce them. So, special campaigns need also be started to raise public awareness against the habit of spitting on the roadside that is not only gross from the point of view of hygiene but also potentially life threatening because of the adverse effects it can cause on people’s health: spitting is said to be one of the biggest problem in Tuberculosis control and can even spread life threatening contagious viruses.
By making public spitting and urinating socially unacceptable, even criminal, by punishing offenders with a hefty fine and possibly even jail time, we can make our cities, towns and villages not only clean and disease free and improve their image, but also save ourselves the embarrassment of being taught a lesson on personal hygiene and civic sense by our foreign friends.
Talking about foreign friends, I was in Thamel last time having Falafel at a good roadside eatery after browsing through a book shop. Frankly speaking, I don’t like to visit Thamel, alone or with friends, often because it is too congested and loud, but I have to because most of the good bookshops, restaurants and bars are concentrated in this part of the city.
So I was quietly enjoying my food when a woman came to the counter and started checking out the menu displayed in front of her.
“How do you make your Falafel?” she asked in a somewhat thick eastern European accent.
“It is good,” the guy at the counter said while the cook kept himself busy preparing Falafel for another customer.
““See, I don’t want a Nepali belly, alright,” she said in a sort of mocking tone and circled her hands over her belly. She then gave a smile.
It was a descent place and the cook used hand sanitizer before preparing Falafels and sandwiches.
“They are clean and fine. Don’t worry, you won’t have a bad stomach,” I said in defense of the eating joint which I sometimes visit.
“Don’t mind, but I have read a lot about how the restaurants in the city have poor hygiene and sanitation standards,” she said and settled down on the chair.
I shook my head to indicate it was alright. I finished my food, paid up and prepared to leave.
“By the way, where are you from?” I asked her just to end the conversation in a friendly tone.
“Turkey,” she said.
“Oh, the land of belly dance,” I chuckled.
“Well then you must know a great deal about controlling the muscles of your belly if you do end up having a Nepali belly, mam,” I said smilingly.
She smiled back.
I told her to enjoy her stay in Nepal and left.
Not very far away, a fat lady who owned a roadside eatery beckoned, “Momo, chowmein, sandwich burger... cheap is, cheap is...”
A group of backpackers entered the restaurant with a grin upon their faces.