Thursday, October 2, 2014

Swacha Bharat Abhiyan

Indian women are very talented. We are good at many things including making our marriages last long, even the unhappy ones. But one particular talent is controlling urge to relieve ourselves! Indian men are rather lucky in this aspect, they can relieve themselves anywhere, right in the middle of a busy market, on crowded roads practically anywhere. All they need is a short wall or perhaps even a tree stump. But we are not so privilaged. Before the advent of  all the malls out there we went shopping to markets say like Chickpet, Malleshwaram, Gandhibazar in Bangalore or say Chandni Chowk, Sarojini Nagar, Lajpath Nagar in Delhi. I do not ever remember using a toilet or for that matter relieving myself ever while shopping, even if we shopped the entire day which we mostly did. For that matter I do not remember any of my family member or my girl friends I went shopping did. Pee at home, shop and get back home to pee. What an amazing talent indeed. No one speaks about it but for most women it is just part of life, something like breathing.

I did not quite realize this till my solo journey on Karnataka Express when I went away to the university. Karnataka express used to be a 42 hour long journey from Bangalore to Delhi. Starting at Bangalore around 6 PM, the train used to lumber on via Hyderabad Karnataka, Maharastra, MP , UP and finally reach Delhi around noon the third day. To make things worse, the train was seldom on time. So when the train started in Bangalore, things would be clean. The bathrooms usable, there would be water in the toilets and sink and hawkers would sell something called paper-soap. It was a rather smart idea, strips of paper coated with soap which would work lather with a dash of water and the paper that was left over was to be trashed. Smart  indigenous idea indeed. I loved them.
The second day early morning, things would still be ok. But I figured out in my first few trips that it was good idea to wash up at day break else it could get crowded and of course dirty.  But the end of the second day water could be scarce. That is when the problem started. Also by then our people in the train would have used the toilets umpteen times and would find it either dirty or lazy or simply ignorant perhaps to flush and the people sitting close to the toilets would have to endure the stench for the rest of their journey. Water which would disappear by then would just make it worse.

So that is where my talent helped me. During the entire course of 42 hours, I would have used to toilets a couple of times, three times at the max. To avoid having to use the bathrooms, I did be preparing from day 0 of the journey. Eating little, and eating foods that were easy on the stomach. One day 1 of the journey, again eat little and avoid foods that made you go.  Through out the journey, I would eat very little, drink very little water and sleep most of the time typically on the upper most berth. A strategy that helped a lone young south Indian girl traveling into the unkind Northern plains as much as help me avoid using the toilets.

So much of strategy to just travel! But I guess most of us did that. We, as women had our own ways of coping up with the system that imposed invisible constraints, so much so that it was the norm for us. When I came to the States, one of the first things I noticed was how ubiquitous public toilets were and most of the time they were usable and had water. Women here probably do not even realize how easy their lives are, or to see it in a different way, women here most likely do not have this particular talent that we have.

This particular talent has been nurtured by generations in the past. No wonder we are so good at it. Perhaps our great-grandmothers were much better than us in this respect. In my family from what I have heard from my older family members, my great grandfather (a prosperous civil servant) had a big house which survives even today albeit as five portions with four different tenants and an uncle living there. The big house has one bathroom with a big wood fire Handi to heat water but no toilets. The men obviously in those days too had no problems. They would relieve themselves when ever they felt like. But women folk of the family had to wait for the cover of darkness to go to the near by fields to relieve themselves. I shudder to think of how they could have been waiting all the way from dusk to dawn to relieve themselves and then they had to walk in the dark on unpaved paths into the fields. I wonder if they ever encountered snakes, scorpions and other scary reptiles or if they ever encountered other wild animals which were ample those days like leopard, hyena and wolves and may be tigers. What if they did? Was it just a 'normal' thing for them? Were they ever scared? they might have their own strategies to cope up with such dangers. What ever they did, they outdid us in this particular talent!

To this day, there are so many homes in India without a toilet. They simply do not see the need for it perhaps because being a male centric society that it is, when men do not find it a problem to relive themselves in public there is no obvious need. Women just learn to live with the constraint. So there is no obvious need to have toilet at home or for that matter in public places like busy markets. If Indian men were a little more conscious and had the habit of relieving themselves only in toilets, I bet there would have been a lot many more toilets than what we see today. Just like they say there in the States the if men were to have babies, paid maternity leaves would have been long. It is just that since the burden of not having toilets is borne entire by women without complaints we see fewer toilets. We learn to hold our pee instead of demanding for toilets.