10 November 2015

Curb your incontinency!

My good friend Dimuth Gunawardena chides me now and then when I use what he believes my late mother would have considered ‘bad language’. My mother, apparently, would express embarrassment to her friends and students whenever I used certain words or whenever I wrote a letter followed by a few asterisks to indicate expletive.  She herself, however, was not averse to calling a spade a spade on occasion (‘spade’, let’s say is code-word for p***, i.e. the Sinhala equivalent of bum).  I have heard her say, for example, ‘am I supposed to call a spade a spade or call it a parliament?’ 

She could laugh, loud and long and although she was the strictest of teachers and at time ill-tempered, her generosity and good humour always made all her idiosyncrasies and character flaws eminently sufferable.  I don’t want to offend her memory and so, with Dimuth’s permission, I shall proceed to use a four-letter word which although not exactly an expletive might be objected to by some. I am sure, wherever she is not, she will understand and cheer me on (in private she might say I embarrassed her of course, what do you say Dimuth?).

I am talking about piss.  That’s 4 letters.  It’s a synonym of ‘urine’, the liquid ‘waste’ we pass from out bodies several times a day.  Technically, it is referred to as ‘liquid excretory product’.  It is also called pee, ‘water’, wee, choo etc.  The former Indian Prime Minister, Moraji Desai is supposed to have taken a spoonful every morning and this, some say, was the secret of his longevity. 

It’s not bad stuff, if one considers the composition of the average sample.  It is made mostly of water (95%). Considering the impurities and their proportion that probably exist in a random water sample, one might argue that drinking urine is better than drinking tap water in certain parts of the country.

The virtues of consuming piss aside (real or imagined) what really bothers people about it is the stench.  That’s probably due to the heady cocktail of the non-water components: Ammonia (0.05%), Sulphate (0.15%), Phosphate (0.12%), Magnesium (0.01%), Uric Acid (0.03%).  It’s a part of life. Like breathing. Part of our bodies and part of our bodily functions.  We have piss inside us and we piss.  We also piss-off some people, but that’s just pinning the stink to a phrase that is not very complimentary.  The important thing is that it’s not a foreign object. It is local.  The other important thing is time. And the third is place.  We can’t really piss anywhere we like and whenever we want. 

This is where the problem lies.  Take a short tour of Colombo and you might notice a sign that keeps popping up almost around every corner: ‘muthraa kireema thahanam’ (urination is prohibited).  I haven’t seen any Sinhala equivalent of ‘Piss-off’ or a play on those lines to dissuade would-be pissers from pissing at will and without permission.  I’ve see creative lines though, for example, ‘muthraa kireema ballanta pamanai’ (only dogs allowed to urinate) which is a piss-version of an anti-dumping line, ‘kunu demeema ballanta pamanai’ (only dogs allowed to litter).

What is upsetting is the need for people to scribble such warning signs.  It implies that we are an incontinent society.  It made me remember a conference on liberalization in India held at Cornell University in the mid nineties where a hardcore pro-liberalization Economist, Kaushik Basu, observed that although liberalization is good, it is not good enough to stop Indian’s from pissing in public places. He didn’t mention ‘shitting’ of course.  The liberalization logic was utterly flawed and was shown up by a couple of Indian Economists whose names I cannot remember.  Basu’s urine-angst gave rise to an interesting critique of his ideological position by my friend Kanishka Goonewardena. He called it ‘Urination and its discontents’. We turned it into a leaflet and distributed it among the participants under the name ‘Ravana Club’. 

It is not about liberalization or some other kind of economic system.  Kanishka’s pamphlet borrowed from ‘Civilization and its discontents’ written by Sigmund Freud in 1929 and first published in German the following year as ‘Das Unbehagen in der Kultur’.  The words belong to the same family, I now believe.

Pissing is part and parcel of the human condition. Pissing at will and without thought to fellow creature, however, is uncivilized. There is no excuse for a nation that had highly sophisticated sewerage systems two thousand years ago to act as though it has not been toilet-trained.

We are nothing like India in terms of what kinds of toilets we use and our sense of propriety in evacuating bodily waste and this by the way has nothing to do with the fact that we began ‘liberalizing’ more than a decade before our pals across the Palk Straits did.  That’s no reason to unzip and squirt each time we see a wall or empty space now is it?

It is not that houses don’t have toilets.  Even in the shanties (I believe in all 500 plus of these communities that live in not-seen-by-tourists places in Colombo), there are public toilets.  We are hospitable and friendly. If someone need to go, badly, and a request is made, I doubt anyone will shut the door in the face with desperation and urgency written all over it.  We are a nation that finds it hard to say ‘piss-off’.  That’s a cultural trait and one for which we’ve paid with our blood time and again.  We won’t exactly say ‘come, piss, be our guest,’ but we will be courteous and even offer a cup of post-piss tea as well. 

Piss. Stinks. That’s why there are designated piss-spots.  It is not as though there aren’t enough of these places or that they are located so far from one another for bladder-bursting to be a risk anyone should worry about. 

Ok Dimuth.  This is my piss-story. Once and for all. Forgive me brother, but pass it around, ok? 

This article was first published in the 'Daily News' on November 9, 2010