Many years ago, my wife and I were on a bus from Kozhikode to Bangalore. Delayed by rain and diversions, the driver came close to breaking Andy Green’s land speed record. This he did by sacrificing the customary toilet breaks. A couple of check-post halts inspired the men to step out and spray the shrubbery. There were about eight other women on the bus, including a nun travelling unescorted. They stayed put.
A long night on an air-conditioned bus doesn’t do the bladder any favours. And that old hat about women’s bladders being tougher than men’s is pure bunk, as Auntie Oprah’s website will inform you.
As it happened, my wife held on bravely all night. At dawn, when she could bear it no more, she asked me to tell the driver to stop. He mumbled something I imagined was an affirmative. Having nodded off, I woke to see Mysore Palace fleet by in a blur of winking lights. My wife’s gentle nudging had turned into a painful prodding in my ribs. I reminded the driver of his promise but he said nothing doing, there would be no more stops until Bangalore. I returned and sheepishly reported this to my wife who, without blinking, threatened to divorce me. Mollified, I shuffled up to the driver, gripped his bony shoulder and shook him until he pulled up beside a highway restaurant that had not opened for business. We slipped through the broken gate but the loo was shut. Locked! Shielding my wife from prying eyes I urged her, guilty shame gnawing at my heart, to do the needful.
We heard irate voices from the bus. Biology had overcome the nun, who was screeching ecclesiastical invective at the driver. Presently, every woman on the bus stepped out to relieve herself. Where, heaven knows, but they did. When they returned, they all smiled gratefully at my wife.
It wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that I have stood guard for a female fellow traveller in need of relief. Women travelling in groups look out for each other, but those who travel alone by road have told me they resort to incontinence pads to avoid risking their safety. After all, buses with onboard loos are still something of a novelty in our country, and certainly not affordable to all citizens with bladders.
Our national standard of public sanitation has changed little in half a century but it’s become fashionable to talk of the pressing need for toilets as if PM-aspirant Narendra Modi had minted the idea. When Jairam Ramesh, in his official capacity as rural development minister, said the same thing a few years ago, the same chest-thumpers booed him. But hey, suddenly, the loo has become an electoral plank and, in this nation that places cow urine above the human need to make a nuisance, the stuff has hit the fan.
Interestingly, it is on Modi’s home turf that there exists an academy dedicated to toilet research, though he can claim no credit for its body of work. The Environmental Sanitation Institute or Safai Vidyalaya in Ahmedabad is adjacent to the Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati and was founded on the Mahatma’s philosophy of improving the lot of Valmikis, manual scavengers. For a garden it has a tableau of toilets exhibiting a dazzling array of potties and the sanitation technology thereof. It is both illuminating and heartwarming.
Lamentably, this technology has not – pardon the pun – trickled down to practice. In Ahmedabad, ‘dry toilets’ (which necessitate manual scavenging) are still constructed and operated despite a 1993 law expressly forbidding them. It has been reported that Modi compared manual scavenging to ‘spiritual work’ but let's keep that out of this for now.
In India the bum rises before the sun. Those who have taken an early morning Mumbai local, leaning out over the tracks fighting off the city’s morning breath, know what I’m talking about. It may be an embarrassment for most of us, but our propensity for open defecation holds a certain kind of tourist in thrall. Varanasi, to most western tourists, cements the idea of India they come seeking. A Bavarian friend I made recently sang its praises. “Yeah, it’s dirty,” he told me. “But that’s what I find incredible.”
A recent photo-feature on Varanasi (graphic content, discretion advised) by a Chinese tourist made stink waves for depicting a dismayingly graphic picture of India’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Besides painting Varanasi as a necropolis of half-decayed human and animal corpses, the photographer did not turn his camera away from the minefields of human faeces.
Is that what Incredible India is about? A showcase of s**t?
Visitors to India sometimes leave with the impression that we as a people were doing our business in the open before the Dutch came by and introduced the idea of a sit-down lavatory. Incidentally, the Dutch word for the latrine, kakhuis, seeped into Indian vocabulary in a number of languages. Fact: The Indian subcontinent is not new to the idea of a water-washed toilet. Archaeologists exploring the ruins of Indus Valley sites in Harappa have found evidence of wet toilets connected to sewerage systems. We’re talking of more 3,500 years ago. Surely, it can’t take this long to fix the flush?
Convinced that information technology could wash away this social malaise, I talked to a couple of software developers about building a smartphone app that would help travellers locate clean, safe loos around India. Imagine that. A free app – call it Map-My-Loo if you will – that searches a repository of geo-tagged, user-submitted database of looks rated according to proximity, cleanliness and safety.
They nodded, clicked their tongues, scratched their stubbles, made obligatory notes and were never heard of again.
Unsurprisingly, both were men.
Bijoy Venugopal is Editor – Travel. Friday Funk is his erratic blog on travel, politics, culture and the multitude of grey areas in between. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook