Spit and tellIn the middle of the ride, the woman turned towards the window and spat, which, although quite inappropriate, is perfectly normal in Nepal, where all sorts of rights are sought for and entertained.
I don’t know what the headline was, nor can I comment on the authenticity of the information imparted, but the gist of the article, as far as I remember, was that in Nepal, as is the case with poor countries in general, more people die from communicable diseases than non-communicable ones. Perhaps after a few more rounds of five-year plans, the scenario will change, and maybe cancer or something will begin their reign of terror. But I have to tell you, communicable diseases losing their crown won’t be for the lack of trying.
What prompted these rather morose reflections on a pleasant Sunday morning was an open bus window I was sharing with a woman. Sometime during the middle of the ride, the woman whom I had barely noticed turned towards the window and spat, which, although quite inappropriate if you ask me, is perfectly normal for a utopia like Nepal where all sorts of rights are sought for and entertained. Perhaps there is the ‘Right to Spit’ engraved in some obscure legal notebook. Who knows.
Anyway, when that happened, I gripped my bag tightly but was relieved as the saliva didn’t boomerang back into the bus, thanks to the sluggish nature of office hour traffic. When the bus did come to a halt, a minute or so later, I looked around to see if the window seat on the other side was available, which it was, but the problem was I’d have to share it with a middle-aged man who was chewing betel nuts. To be fair, he hadn’t spit it out so far, but if the company of uncouth uncles had taught me anything, it was that such a person is the equivalent of a volcano waiting to erupt. I turned to the woman and sincerely hoped she’d go three stops without spitting.
She must have been in her late 20s, and the red sindoor on her forehead and the ring on her finger suggested to me that she was married. My fearful eyes were fixated on her beautiful dark skin, her curly hair neatly tied into a ponytail, the gold chain that went around her neck and finally, the brown bag inside, which I dearly hoped there was a handkerchief that she could use to wipe the saliva at the edge of her chin. Wipe her face, she did–with her hand, of course–but only to follow it up with what I can only describe academically as serial spitting.
I was caught off guard by the pace of this woman and the sheer repetitions that she was putting in, and it was only after I felt an uninvited moisture on my cheeks that I realised in hindsight what had happened. I felt disgusted, then irate, and I wanted to lash out at the woman, but thanks to my old habit of overthinking before acting, the rage fizzled into curiosity about the woman’s state. It was when she showed no signs of stopping that I said to myself, “Is she sick?” The remark wasn’t birthed by empathy or anything. It was just a good old-fashioned concern. For me, obviously. My body stiffened well before the voice inside my mind went, “She’s not going to vomit, is she?” I looked at my backpack, which seemed to be saying whatever state she was in was no excuse for our misery, but the side of me that the society has labelled ‘polite’ lifted him it for self-defence anyways.
The stop at RNAC was not far away, and I knew she was either going to stop there or at Ratnapark, and thankfully it was the former. As she stepped out of the vehicle, I understood what breathing a sigh of relief meant in the most literal of senses. The woman was joined by a middle-aged man, and from what I gathered from their body language, it was more than likely that the woman wasn’t feeling too well. Or maybe she was. Who knows.
A couple of passengers hopped on, and the bus slowly took speed. It must have been after five minutes that the uncle on the other side of the bus pushed the window more open, which is a tell-tale sign of what is about to come next, and then, in quick succession, spat once, then again and repositioned the window back to where it was. A part of me felt like applauding, and that took me by surprise. So low is the benchmark of public etiquette set by some that even an act which you would have otherwise considered outrightly disgusting by relativity becomes acceptable and thus sanctioned. But perhaps in Nepal, the emphasis has never been on setting a moral benchmark separate from the legal code. There is a particular penchant for the expression ‘rule of law’ as if the plastic wrapper that someone must be throwing somewhere at this very moment is somehow not a character deficiency but a legal one.
As I looked around the bus and reflected on the recently released census data, which is challenged by many because, in Nepal, no one trusts anyone else, I felt as if the universe was finally revealing to me one of the defining traits shared by the diverse groups across our country, and that was the penchant for spitting. We are, by and large, spitting people, and my use of the term goes beyond the literal to portray humans unaffected by the absence of etiquettes, people who almost masochistically are in wait for the tyrannical imposition of rules to tame them. And perhaps that, quite tragically, is the only visible unifying trait and characteristic among the masses. I looked outside at the skies. It was going to be night soon, the time when all the city’s pollution takes an invisible refuge in the darkness, and some amateur photographer takes a picture of night lights and posts them with the hashtag beautiful Kathmandu.
Pandey is a graduate of Macquarie University, Australia.