Front to the wall

Don't commit nuisance: the message painted on the city walls intrigued me when I was a child. 'Nuisance', I remember finding out in the dictionary, meant various things: annoyance, bother and trouble among others. So what exactly did this message refer to? If one chose to 'commit nuisance', could it be prevented by a message on a wall?

The realisation dawned on me only much later. This particular use of 'nuisance' will not be found in any dictionary of the English language. It is, rather, an excellent instance of a uniquely Indian usage, referring as it does to a characteristic of Indian males that the wordsmiths of English dictionaries have yet to discover.

This unwritten definition of 'nuisance' is what could be called the Indian male's 'front to the wall' syndrome. That this syndrome is rampant is evident across India, but most particularly and prominently in towns and cities, because this is where most of the walls are to be found. A line of males will stand with their fronts to the wall, and proceed to display the highest degree of civic sense. The entire other half of the species may well scream Nuisance! at such an idea, but who's listening?

And whoever thought that a Don't commit nuisance message on the wall in question would stop such behaviour must have been a diehard optimist. I say this not because I don't think people (men, that is) would listen, but because they probably would not understand. Even if I were among the fraction of India's population that reads English, has access to a dictionary, and, moreover, has the inclination to refer to the dictionary, I would have no idea, as I faced the wall, what it was that I was supposed to not commit. 'Nuisance' was something committed by one who stops traffic, throws a stone at a bus or eve-teases a girl walking by. I would only be relieving myself – and what harm can that cause anybody?

Would things be different, then, if the message were more explicit? For a long time I thought that the front-to-the-wall syndrome was primarily found in the North Indian male. South India, after all, has a claim to being more educated, cultured – civilised, even. But a recent visit to Bangalore, a city that is supposed be leading the world on many fronts, was something of an eye-opener.

Painted on the walls of none other than the National Tuberculosis Institute was a message as clear and precise as can be. Do not urinate, it screamed in a prominent red. And indeed, the wall did not appear to have been used. But whether that was because people (men, that is) understood the English and obeyed the instructions is difficult to say. The reason could well have been that the wall stood along a road with heavy traffic, and that the footpath was hardly wide enough to walk on, let alone allow one to stand and do one's business. Perhaps this is another reason to do away with footpaths on Indian roads entirely: remove the footpath, and remove the issue of encroachment entirely. Pedestrians be damned, either way.

More recently, I was driving along a bridge near the Egmore railway station in the heart of Madras, when a message on the walls on the other side of the road caught my eye. Clean city, clean values, they read, elegantly. After we'd passed four such notices, we finally saw him: our good old friend in the lungi – back to the traffic, front to the wall.

But back to North India. Our next port of call is Dehradun. Dehradun was a real shocker. It was a cold evening in November of last year. I was standing on the road outside my hotel having a cup of chai, watching a marriage party move slowly towards the hotel's lawns. There was the loud band and the procession vigorously dancing, followed by the bridegroom in a safari suit astride a majestic white horse. Even as the groom sat patiently atop the decorated animal, five members of the dancing party (five men, I mean) approached the wall that stood by the road. One by one they came and went. Then, my heart skipped a beat as I saw the groom dismount – and amble towards the wall.

No! Not here, not now! I wanted to scream to this strapping young man, dressed up for his very own nuptials. The venue was just around the corner, in fact on the other side of that very wall. Facilities of all kinds would certainly exist. Why here? Why now?

I don't think there could have been any answer. "India", someone once told me, "is one great open-air male urinal." Its motto: Anywhere, any time. What to do?

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Himal Southasian