Friday, November 20, 2009

Progress and Sanitation

Progress , often has something to do with "improvement in rank". Or perceived upgradation in stature.

To someone like Mukesh Ambani, it might mean climbing higher in the Forbes Rich people's list. To some, it might even mean graduating from cutting chai and udupi filter coffee, to Cafe Coffee Day, notwithstanding the fact that free wi-fi for your laptop and a fancifully named bitter beverage is never a match for 2 masala dosas. A chief minister may not rest till he has achieved his planned level of progress by buying an "official" personal plane, while to some, having 35 police, one bulletproof car, and stopped traffic may simply be the ultimate in progress. And we wont mention personal statues.

When you are a member of the Third world, everything that emulates the First world is automatically considered progress.

Including toilets. Which this city has not been able to provide along with a modicum of housing, to those who continue to stream into it, in search of work. There are some very dedicated organizations that work in this field , like Sulabh Shauchalaya, but space is very expensive in big cities , and progress then is slow.

Sometimes, progress to some, means graduating to western style toilets. Commodes.

During my working life, I once had the opportunity to shift to a special newly constructed building. In contrast with the rest of the 30 year- old buildings around us, this place had wide sweeping staircases, nice wide windows, modern beams traversing above, and great fixtures and facilities to enable infrastructure.

The bathrooms, were big, airy, had a decent amount of space outside the toilets with mirrors and sinks. Nothing that screamed "posh interiors", but the only trouble was, all the toilets were western. Which was something that begged explanation. Some of the ladies endured difficult travel for large periods of time, with no en-route toilet facilities, and a decent comfortable toilet on arrival was a welcome thought.

Most of us have grown up using the Indian style toilets. To this day, many of us are not terribly thrilled with western style toilets, which are considered unhealthy, in construction as well as usage. It's not a question of physical comfort. Its what you are comfortable with. And paper fails miserably compared to water, if you get what I mean.

In my childhood, folks who boasted of commodes in their toilets, were either in the armed forces, Anglo-Indian, Parsi, Christian, or someone who had returned after working for the government abroad, say, in the Civil Service, which was initiated during British Raj. We used to associate such folks with those who wore shoes in the house (regardless of weather), and wore lipstick and sleeveless blouses on sarees.

Our parents' generation was probably the first generation to get knee problems in their late seventies. And slowly, an additional bathroom with a commode first appeared in the house. Today, some folks in their 50's take immense pride is their inability to use an Indian Style bathroom. Partially because they are not fit, and partially because, it's "progress "...

To get back to the original story, the ladies of the section , a sizable number, discussed the matter together, and decided to put in an application for one of the bathrooms to be converted to a Indian style bathroom. A letter was drafted , signed, and sent to the Estate/Establishment Office , through, what is called "proper channels". Its not as if anyone was asking for an advance salary, unusual special leave or special permission of any kind, but the Head had to recommend that the higher ups pay attention to this. It made "going to the toilet" an official activity.

This resulted in several worthies suddenly appearing in a group to "tour" the facilities under question, and "discuss" the matter with the applicants. Possibly, an application was then put up to the highest planning authority (who normally sanctioned entire buildings and stuff) for "sanctioning" this. Some days later, a second-rung set of people appeared to take some measurements. Someone went back, and "put up" a note. After a few weeks, a possible configuration of an Indian style toilet, with diagrams was presented, with details of materials, and gauges, and assorted stuff. None of the ladies who travelled long distances, in crowded trains, standing, really had anything to say; they would just be happy if they did the modifications fast.

A couple of months later, the needful was done, and lo behold, the ladies acquired an Indian style bathroom. Probably considered a regressive act, but never mind.

Nov 19, was International Toilet Day. There were the usual articles in the papers , symbolic things like gathering to "squat on the beach", laudatory articles on those who were working in this field. There were also frustrated articles on how we are a dirty population, and how people don't follow hygiene while using the loos in what are the latest in Mumbai : Malls.

Many malls have only the western style toilet model. Not everyone who comes to visit these malls is acquainted with these, and comfortable with these. Very young children probably regard it as a hole into which they will fall, and cry. The railways take this to another exalted level. I have indelible memories of travelling , 25 years ago, from Mumbai to Delhi by Rajdhani, with a 24 month old son, whose trip to the bathroom consisted of both of us going in, me holding him on the commode, and he bursting into a loud wild uncontrollable cry, as he saw the rails and ground go past as he looked down the commode hole; he would insist of coming out of the bathroom, but would get desperate to go again, and the whole drama repeated several times till at some point nature involuntarily won, but the entire trip was traumatic for the little kid, and highly entertaining to the remaining travellers. Which is not to say that the Indian style toilet, in trains was any different. You could see the rails there too, but we never got to use that because there was a bigger demand for usage there.

Malls are a very western concept, accepted with great alacrity by Indians. That, is considered progress. For folks in mall-less cities, it is a matter of great pride to say that they visited so-and-so mall, and went around all the brand names. That's progress. For some, vegetables are nicer when bought in a place in the mall, that sells them cling-wrapped, resting in AC comfort, amidst rows and rows of other veggies, all at higher prices, and you lug them around in carts. Clearly, the neighborhood vegetable vendor, where you break a bean between your fingers to test the freshness, before he puts it in your cloth bag, with some free coriander and green chillies thrown in, is NOT progress.

Is it too much to ask that Indian style toilets be provided there ? In a city where the government has things to say about the language in which you display your shop/company name, can someone make a rule saying premises should have Indian style toilet facilities as an option ?

If a justification be required, the way it was, in our office, the health and other benefits may be found here.

Oh yes. Before I forget. Happy belated International Toilet Day.....


  1. I think you blog time stamp is showing wring time,isn't it ?

  2. very apt post ! I just read a post on G's blog about the same problem..and I say the same that you can't teach people to use western toilets but at least you can make Indian toilets available in public places.

  3. Are Indian toilets like bidets? You mentioned water for cleansing and that sounds like a bidet.

    If I had to squat to use the Loo I would be in big trouble.

    I had trouble trying to find out where the flush was on different toilets in Europe. I also hated the harsh toilet paper. I guess it's all what you re used to.

  4. Nu Yes, first rank . Pedhe ? :-).......and no the time stamp isnt wrong. The post was being written over the whole day, starting at 9 am. I guess people get the toilets they ask for. Most people dont bother asking for Indian style specifically, or maybe installing a western is easier or something. Who knows ...

    Darlene Its not like a bidet, but more like , say, a bidet sunk into the floor. No part of your body touches the thing, except the soles of your feet , because you squat over it. We are used to this from childhood, and if you continue it into your 50's and 60's , its easier in your old age. But yes, folks who have surgeries and knee problems are often advised to use the western style system.

  5. I agree Suranga. Never thought of it that way. Makes more sense to have Indian toilets in malls. But at bus stops around our state, the toilets are Indian style itself but are F.I.L.T.H.Y. So much that I cannot even describe. How much does it take to flush?!! :( Sad state of affairs.

    About knee problem, my Mom's doc (who is the kinds who opposes surgery and supports exercise) told her that she should not get a western style toilet installed at home, instead its good to squat. That way your knees get that kinda exercise, or they will stiffen.


  6. And hey forgot to mention one point. When the Sulabh Shauchalays charge a rupee or two, I have seen women traveling in volvos and sleek vehicles refuse to pay up. What a shame yaar!

  7. Yeah, Pedhe would do when we meet :)

  8. I wonder if the Indian style toilet is like those I saw 20 years ago in public facilities in France? If so, I quite agree that they are more hygenic.

    The public toilets we have in the UK are only nice to use if there is an attendant to make sure that they stay clean.

  9. G Yes, I too have seen the fancy ladies arguing about paying for the toilets.

    About the knees, they say that ever since sofas and dining tables became de rigeur as a sign of "progress", people , or rather their knees have forgotten how to fold. "Mandi ghaloon basna" khoop lokana aaj kaal jamatach nahi. I know lots of people who do vajrasan every morning , and that is supposed to help.

    Nu Life is surely getting "pedhemai.....:-)

    Dorothy The Indian style of toilets hasn't changed in many years, although these days they also offer a hybrid western-Indian style. Its possible that the original Indian style thing is similar to what you saw in France....

  10. I really prefer Indian toilets to western style ones - it may or may not have something to do with the fact that I was brought up on one, but (warning - potentially gross material up ahead!) I generally find things more ...smooth if you know what I mean.

    I've lived in the US for just over a year now and boy, do I look forward to getting back. I've been dreaming of coming home on and off for several months now. The Indian toilet is just icing on the cake.

    And don't get me started on Toilet paper.