This actually happened. I swear on this precious life of mine, it’s not a figment of my imagination. I had been invited to a function, in Kalyan, near Mumbai. I was in my teens then, but some memories only get sharper, as time passes, and when they involve a toilet adventure, the memory never fades. The function was at a close relative’s place—a newly married young couple starting out in life, who had rented a couple of rooms, at one end of a long corridor in a chawl. That was all they could afford at that point. I did know that chawls had common toilets, and that most of them lacked sanitation.
So, I had resolved to eat little, drink little or no water, and avoid visiting the loo. I had also psyched myself that if nature did call, and I was unable to withhold, what ideally shouldn’t be, I would employ a pre-planned strategy to finish the business. ‘I don’t have to live in the loo,’ I told myself several times. What was the strategy? Well, gather my clothes—every fold—as clingingly close to my body as possible, tread carefully into the loo, making no contact with the walls, use the tips of my forefingers to open and bolt and unbolt the door, squat cautiously, keep a handkerchief on my nose, breathe only to keep myself alive, and not so deeply that the stench knocked me out, and close my eyes too, if doing so did not endanger me. Then, post job, use an antiseptic liquid and soap to wash myself thoroughly. I had not given a thought then, to the bucket I would have to carry to the toilet, engaging one hand. Most toilets in chawls have a trickle in the taps or no water at all, forget a flushing facility.
I did know that chawls had common toilets, and that most of them lacked sanitation.
My resolution was broken, when my overenthusiastic relatives lovingly served me mountains of delicious festive food. ‘How’s the food?’ they asked. ‘It’s just so yummy,’ I replied, and along with my foot, I had to swallow large second helpings too, till I could hear my abused stomach grumble and groan in protest. I knew, even as I ate the last morsel, that I had helped nature to give its call. This was one call I couldn’t risk ignoring. Many are those who’ve tried it and ended up aerophagic, polluting an already choked environment. So, when the first wave of pain arose somewhere deep inside my intestines, I attributed it to my imagination, but stayed put on my perch, hoping to defy gravity.
when the first wave of pain arose somewhere deep inside my intestines, I attributed it to my imagination, but stayed put on my perch, hoping to defy gravity.
After persistent alerts from my body, when I realised that things might just get too conspicuous or audible, especially, when the strain began to redden my face, I knew it was time to venture into the cubicle, which had all the elements of a scatological adventure. I could contend with the expected, like graffiti, cobwebs, and even a gecko. It is at this point that the self-talk began. At least I wasn’t defecating in the open. It was just a two-minute job. My relatives went through the ordeal every single day. What was I fussing about? Women living in shanties have it much worse. They have to deal with voyeurs, apart from finding a ‘private’ spot out in the open. Yet, everything I told myself in those five minutes was silenced by a shriek that rose within me, ‘But goddamnit, I need a clean loo. Just that. It’s basic.’
After persistent alerts from my body, when I realised that things might just get too conspicuous or audible, especially, when the strain began to redden my face
Well, it’s not as if I had a choice. I mentioned discreetly to my relative that I needed to answer nature’s call. ‘Oh, you’ll have to go down. The toilet is in the compound,’ she informed me. My face is such a giveaway. One look at it and she gave me an escort, another teenager (her neighbour) who wanted to visit the loo too, and who smiled at me affably, giving me the onceover, and gathering that I was in a sorry state, both mentally and physically. She ushered me out of the house, head held high, filled two small buckets with water from a large drum, threw in two tumblers, handed me one and asked me to follow her, both of us wearing oversized rubber slippers meant to be worn especially during the event.
My face is such a giveaway. One look at it and she gave me an escort, another teenager (her neighbour) who wanted to visit the loo too, and who smiled at me affably
As I walked, I practised holding my breath, and hated myself for being so squeamish and fuddy-duddy. What could I do? Where I lived, a clean toilet inside the house, with running water, and a pleasant Odonil scent (back then, it was THE deodoriser), was something one took for granted, along with the generous after-scent of phenyl. So, scolding myself for my indecorous mental chatter, I braced myself for the inevitable. It is when I saw the dilapidated twin toilets, which would give way with the exertion of just a little pressure (pun indicated), and the creaky, ramshackle wooden doors, with no bolts, that I realised that the exercise involved far more skill than just squatting precariously. It was going to require the dexterity and balance of an acrobat and some challenging anatomical juxtapositions.
I would have to hold the door shut with one hand, gather my clothes with the other, and er…while washing up, release the pressure on the door and risk the accidental entry of a similarly afflicted biped in an urgent, natural state of impending elimination. As I stared at the door, contemplating how best to tackle the challenge, my new friend asked me, ‘You do know this is the topli type toilet, don’t you?’ Now, topli, in Marathi, means basket. I had never heard of a topli toilet before. Seeing my raised eyebrows, she said, ‘Topli inside.’ It was the month of May, the season of mangoes. There were two empty mango containers lying outside the twin doors. One was a wicker basket and the other a rectangular box with wooden slats. Putting two and two together, I nodded. I had to carry a topli inside! It was going to serve as the squatting pan. How could anything human fit into either topli, leave alone accomplish the inevitable? This required expert estimation, remarkable flexibility, and careful aim, and some feline manipulation. The most puzzling part was the cleaning up. It foxed me. After comparing the two toplis, I ventured apologetically, ‘Is it okay if I take the rectangular one inside, please? I’m not used to this.’ ‘Please,’ I begged, surmising that the wooden crate was a sturdier receptacle, and if I had a misadventure, would hold itself and me together.
At this, the girl started cackling, bending forward and backward, over and over again. Wiping her tears and catching her breath she asked, ‘Why do you want to take it inside?’ ‘Well, you said we had to take a topli, didn’t you?’ I asked, a bit miffed now, as my stomach reminded me there wasn’t any time left for discussion. ‘Budhoo, there is a topli inside. You don’t have to take one,’ she clarified, bursting into laughter again. This was a calamity. There was no knowing what type of topli awaited me inside, and what it would require me to do. And people went through this every day? Every day? Very slowly, I opened the door, balancing the bucket of water, with the tumbler dancing inside it, my jeans hiked up to my knees. Then I saw it—the supposed topli—a rectangular opening in the floor, a pit, below which was a mass of, you guessed it, poop, all cocooned in a topli paced underneath. So revolted was I at the sight, that I stepped back instantly, banged the door shut, my body tensing, as mind prevailed over faecal matter, and nature diverted its call to another time and another place. If there exists such a condition, I had contracted it. On-the-spot constipation!
Out of politeness, I waited for my comrade to step out. ‘Done?’ she asked me. ‘Hope it was okay.’ I couldn’t believe I was having that discussion. ‘No, I’m fine. I misjudged. Didn’t need to go,’ I said, as I began to think of a valid reason to flee from my relative’s house. I don’t remember what I said. I only recollect running up the stairs, unmindful of the water spilling out of the bucket, of my feet slipping out of the rubber slippers, of the girl calling out to me, half laughing, half panting. I smiled bravely, as she narrated the whole episode, and the room was filled with laughter at my ignorance and naiveté. I collected my bag, bid goodbye to the amused gathering and made my way back home, my face flush with embarrassment. As always, I picked up a book and stepped into my diurnal comfort zone. How could anyone, anywhere live happily without a bloody good shit?
What shocked me to the core was the knowledge that the topli was collected by human scavengers, who carried the basket filled with excreta on their heads, to dispose it off at some distant place. What could be more dehumanising or horrifying?
It was much later, when I narrated the episode to my family that I came to know that this type of toilet was common in villages and underdeveloped areas. What shocked me to the core was the knowledge that the topli was collected by human scavengers, who carried the basket filled with excreta on their heads, to dispose it off at some distant place. What could be more dehumanising or horrifying? I’m guilty of not visiting my relative after that, insisting that she come over to my place instead. To my relief, and I’m sure hers too, she relocated to an apartment with a clean, sanitised toilet, soon after. To think that a toilet has the potential to decide the course of a relationship! Today, I look back at the incident with much amusement. And during every mango season, I try not to make a certain association with the wooden crates and the wicker baskets. And every morning, when I count my blessings, my toilet figures in the top ten. It’s where I read, and think and, of course, lighten my burdens. But, I never take it for granted.
By Archana Pai Kulkarni. Archana is the former editor of New Woman, and a short story writer.
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