(with some thoughts on Stalin, Tanizaki, and Gandhi)

Vinay Lal

1 October 2007

Charity begins at home, they say. So do toilets. It is with some bemusement that I read, in the “Indian Express” (28 September 2007), of the establishment of public toilets in Afghanistan with the help of Indians. The well-known NGO Sulabh, which has acquired a stellar reputation for itself in the toilet business, has built five public toilet complexes in Kabul. The article reports that during the days of Taliban rule, “women went to relive themselves only at night” but the new toilets give women privacy even in public spaces; and as armed conflict over the last three decades, landmines, and bombings have left many disabled people in Afghanistan, the toilets have ramps for those confined to wheelchairs or dependent on crutches.

Sulabh is apparently poised to achieve in Kabul what it has not done in most Indian towns and done only very rarely in the metropolitan centers. India may not have been bombed into near extinction, but it has hundreds of millions of persons without access to toilets, clean or otherwise, and one wonders if there any public toilets in India, whether among the million allegedly built by Sulabh or any others, that give access to the physically handicapped.

Let us be candid and admit that Indians have a notoriously difficult time with toilets. I refer here not to the frequent discussions among the geriatric and even middle-aged set about bowel movements, or to flowery expressions about ‘passing wind’ encountered not only at the doctor’s office but in everyday conversations. Bowel movements are discussed in India much in the way in which one talks about the weather in England. ‘Motion’ may be hard or soft, somewhat strained or rather effortless, frequent or not too frequent, but it is inescapably part of life. I am adverting, however, to the near impossibility of finding clean public toilets anywhere in India. To be sure, some decent facilities have cropped up in very recent years, such as the pay toilet at the Lodi Gardens in Delhi’s “posh” Lodi Colony. But my experience, and that of other Indians, of government-run institutions is that a passably clean toilet is a rarity, and ‘public’ toilets, in the most commonly understood sense of the term as accessible in principle to anyone, probably contribute as much as anything else to disease. We shall not even speak of the assault on the nostrils, the outrage committed on the eyes, and the pervasive feeling of sliminess. A visit to an Indian toilet is a complete sensory experience, to be undertaken only under the most dire straits and at considerable hazard to one’s well being.

The graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology have gone on to bring laurels to the country in diverse areas of science and technology, but no one seems to have found a solution to India’s toilet problems. As there is “wet” and “dry” cultivation, so there are wet and dry toilets; except that Indian genius has, for the most part, converted dry into wet toilets. Some people appear to think that the problem resides in the use of water to clean oneself, while others are of the view that the caste system furnishes a hugely distorted view of the problem of human excreta and its disposal. It is not necessary here to speak of the numerous merits of the squatting type toilet which has long prevailed in India, except to say that one of the ways in which it is distinguished from the commode, which came to India from Europe, is in its use of water. For reasons best known to users – the relatively exorbitant price of toilet paper, the discomfort that many Indians attach to the use of paper, the feeling (largely if not entirely correct) that paper is less effective – it is water rather than toilet tissue that is mainly used with Indian Western-style toilets. A dry Indian toilet seat is very much the exception, to be encountered, as far as public spaces are in question, only in some five-star hotels, elite clubs (the Indian International Centre, for instance), and the like.

Dry or wet toilets, the brute and ugly reality is that much of India is without toilets. There are plans afoot to convert New Delhi’s railway station into what is called a world-class facility, and the Chief Minister, Sheila Dixit, appears determined to transform Delhi into a “world-class” city. One wonders whether any thought has been given to the fact that as the train pulls out of the New Delhi railway station, it enters into what might be described as a seemingly endless shit zone. One kilometer after another, Delhi’s hapless inhabitants – one hesitates to call them citizens, if only because they have few if any entitlements that might come with citizenship – squat by the railway tracks to relieve themselves.

Some people are convinced, and they may well be right, that no resolution to India’s toilet woes will ever be achieved until such time as the caste system is abolished or fundamentally reformed. Notions of purity and pollution, the indologists have long argued, are so strongly ingrained in Indians, and especially Hindus, that most people will remain strongly reluctant to clean their own toilets much less those of anyone else until such time, perhaps, as a system of strong incentives (and disincentives) is put into place. As is now well documented, chillingly so in K. Stalin’s film, Lesser Humans (1998), manual scavenging is very much in existence today – even though it is, in principle, strictly outlawed and its imposition upon a people a criminal offence. Gujarat, which claims the lead in developing India, is more culpable in this respect than most states. That such a degrading practice should at all exist should dim the wild ambitions of those who are ever so eager to pronounce India as an emerging world power, but sadly the grave inequities that exist have seldom stopped the acquisitive and the cheerleaders in their tracks.

The Japanese writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, in a celebrated little book called In Praise of Shadows, wrote of the Japanese toilet as a site for the exercise of aesthetic taste and quiet contemplation. “The parlor may have its charms,” Tanizaki suggested, “but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden” (pp. 3-4, translation by Thomas J. Harper & Edward G. Seidensticker, New Haven 1977).

The hell holes that pass for toilets in some places in India aside, even urban Indians with access to clean toilets will find it difficult to appreciate Tanizaki’s paean to the Japanese toilet. I suspect, however, that Mohandas Gandhi, otherwise known as an apostle of nonviolence, the principal architect of Indian independence, and as a campaigner against untouchability, may not have been far removed from Tanizaki’s vision. Whatever else Gandhi did, he was one of the few caste Hindus of his time, or of any time, who did not hesitate to pick up a broom and sweep the toilet. He spent much time pondering how low-cost toilets could be installed throughout India, and in this respect as in many others he strove for simplicity. It would certain be difficult to find any other Indian who, I daresay, probably elevated the toilet over the courtroom, where Gandhi had fought many a battle, as the probable future site of the struggle for emancipation among India’s masses.