Washing a little girl’s bottom, Rihan Najib realises that some things never change.

Year after year, I seemed to be collecting all manner of haphazard notions of hygiene and bodily propriety.

If I remember correctly, the gathering of such myths began once I joined a university that had a large primate population with alarmingly ebullient bowels.

Monkeys would stalk through the hostel corridors, calmly leaving generous quantities of droppings everywhere imaginable. Following outbreaks of conjunctivitis, prolonged indigestion and dysentery, many in my circle became pathologists-on-demand. We possessed an exhaustive compendium of factoids relating to preventive medicine. Nevertheless, we were rather limited in our analysis of ailments.

Monkeys and mess food were registered offenders, but to us, the etiology of the average communicable disease ended with people who didn’t wash their hands. Therefore, all our narratives of pre-emptive measures hovered around disinfection. But what began with the humble Lifebuoy soap rapidly expanded to accommodate a cosmos of products and practices that informed the empirical undergrowth of this discourse on hygiene. Every time I sneezed, I would reach for my hand sanitizer in Pavlovian fashion. The courtesy of “gesundheit” or “bless you” seemed to be replaced by the gesture of handing out lavender-scented wet-wipes. Disinfection had become a carefully cultivated attitude, a hallmark of modern civilisation.

The whole enterprise was presented to me in a highly naturalised fashion, and I was an abiding but baffled adherent of its norms. Only recently was I forced to contend that these developments characterised a disjunct that was nearly Copernican in its scope.

Those of us who have been raised in the scummier neighbourhoods of the Middle East will recognise the childhood years spent within cramped quarters in the suburbs. We seemed to move only from box to box. The outdoors were no less rectangular than the indoors, just that we walked on tar and hot sand instead of cheap linoleum, and if there was more vegetation than the occasional potted plant, it was called a community park. So, yearly visits to my mother’s native village in Kerala heralded an expansive sense of space, a break from linearly arranged lives. My brother and I scrambled all over the countryside with a gaggle of cousins, many of who also lived in stifling urban regions of a Muscat or a Riyadh or a Doha. We spent all of our hours outdoors, this little band of tiny, lean and loud five-year-olds, till our mothers yelled warnings about giant four-headed snakes who ate miscreant children loitering outside after sunset.

One of the great pleasures of being a toddler in my mother’s ancestral house was how doing the potty was sometimes a communal event. What was otherwise a private activity in a confined space became a shared experience. One of my cousins wouldn’t want to go to the loo inside the house and his mother would wearily ask him if he preferred doing it outside, hoping for an answer in the negative. When he gleefully agreed, the rest of us kids would become positively mutinous if we weren’t allowed to do it outside as well. Then we would march triumphantly to the outskirts of the backyard, a harried mother in tow carrying a bucket of water. We must have been quite a sight, a handful of little brown bottoms squatting around as a mother shouted at us to hurry up. I remember how we continued talking and playing our word games even as we evacuated our bowels. When we finished, we just pointed our bottom in the direction of whichever adult was standing by and water would come splashing. All women of a certain age and size were a proxy for mother, and we weren’t embarrassed about alien hands sitting us down and ordering us to wash ourselves properly. We were then herded to the area where the well was located. There, we stripped off all our clothes, pranced about and sang incoherently as a mother drew water from the well and poured it on us. My aunt described how she preferred bathing the more dignified cattle rather than us hyperactive little monkeys.

As is the case with most ancestral houses, my mother’s house too, is rather empty now. My grandfather lives there with my youngest aunt and her family. I’m great friends with her vivacious five-year-old, Laali, even though we have irreconcilable differences over some flavours of ice-cream and who had the authority to hold the TV remote. Last month when I went to visit, my aunt had to take my grandfather to the hospital, leaving me and Laali alone in the house. Laali’s favourite show was on, so we huddled in front of the TV. She takes a deep personal interest in the lives of the cartoon characters and regularly yells advice to the characters on screen. As we watched, Laali suddenly turned to me and announced, “I’m going to the bathroom.” I nodded at her and resumed watching television till I noticed she was looking pertinently at me. She repeated, “Ithaatha, I am going to the bathroom.” Knowing of no good reason to stop her, I said, “Okay.” She seemed befuddled by my response, but replied, “So come, no.”

I followed her till the loo, switched on the lights and waited outside, flipping through a magazine. Laali was perched on her potty and seemed to be holding a loud moral debate on the actions of the cartoon characters. When she called me again, I looked up to see a little pair of buttocks staring back at me. This, I realised, was one of those lousy moments in life when you were forced to take a decision about the person you were going to be. I approached her with the intent of delivering the classic speech about how she was a big girl now and that she would have to clean up her “durttee” herself. Laali turned around to look at me. Thinking I didn’t know how to proceed, she opened the tap and pointed at the mug.

There I stood with all of my acquired absurdities. I had come to believe the body was a personal battlefield, to be handled and cleansed by the discerning self and only the self. Was I really going to do this? But do I dare make her in the image of myths, exhort her to invest her bottom with a sense of inhibition and associate it with foulness? More than anything, I felt just absolutely foolish telling this little girl that I wasn’t going to wash her bottom. Recalling the unimpeachable natural justice that I felt as a child in having someone else help me with such matters, I began to see my half-baked understanding about hygiene for the blight that it was. I mutely picked up the mug as Laali chattered away about what she really thought of a certain cartoon.

After she had finished, I poured some handwash on Laali’s palm and showed her a few ways to thoroughly cleanse her hands. She enthusiastically followed my directions and then told me, “They showed this on TV, you know. But I thought they were just joking.” I stared at her with a smile, wondering where I had been all this while. Year after year, I collected legends, myths and fables, hoping to surrender them all someday to a final disinfection.