City Zen

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.

cartoon I drew about Bangalore’s toilets in 2010A

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 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.