The Politics of Toilets

In her fascinating 'ethno-sociology' of the artisans of Varanasi, academic Nita Kumar writes, "Men often told me that one aspect of the overall friendliness and convenience of the city was that they could urinate wherever they liked. This, I realized after months of unwilling observation, was not an exaggeration." Hilarity apart, Kumar's wry observation points to a serious - and largely unaddressed - issue: public access to toilets.

And this is the subject of Bombay-based documentary filmmaker Paromita Vohra's quixotically titled film, 'Q2P'. The film uses the question, 'Who has to queue to pee?' to make visible the connection between the pleasures of roaming the city streets and access to public toilet facilities. It is a connection that has been largely ignored even by those who recognize that women's access to public space is a crucial part of the campaign for gender equality. Men, as we all know, can go anywhere, anytime.

The film focuses on Mumbai, placing the abysmal state of the city's toilets within the larger glittering vision of its future, in which there is no place for the poor - except as users of a mass rapid transit system that would remove them from the city as soon as the day's work is over.

In its quest for an accessible, clean, women's toilet, the film takes us through a variety of locales and into conversations with different groups of urban women. We travel to Bombay Municipal Corporation schools, where toilet facilities are often non-existent, or so bad that girls and teachers (90 per cent of whom are women) try their best to avoid using them. They drink no liquids all day and often suffer from stomachaches and urinary infections. Then we visit a beauty-training institute where the girls first giggle and insist they've never needed to use a public toilet ("Aisi naubat hi nahi aayi"), but finally admit they're too embarrassed to search for one if they do feel the need.

Vohra talks to men in a small Udupi restaurant, who speculate obligingly - and to hilarious effect - on the reasons why there's only a toilet for men behind the restaurant, and why there are few women's toilets in the city in general. Because women's loos take more space, suggests one, while another dwells at length on the polluting effects of women using the toilet: they have to sit, so close to the ground, you see... And what would happen if women were to start doing what men do all the time - pee in public, anywhere, everywhere, asks the filmmaker. The answer is only half a joke: "Kya hoga? Tehelka!" ("What will happen? Pandemonium!")

She takes us to one public toilet after another, the camera moving from the promise of a 'ladies' sign to the disappointment of discovering that the whole complex is, in fact, in use by men. You don't really blame them, these men who emerge into the morning light, still dripping from a bath, tightening insecure towels round their waists in the face of an unexpected camera. Using a public toilet for your daily ablutions shouldn't be an act that bespeaks privilege. And yet, in the crazy world of the Indian city, isn't that exactly what it is?

The film also makes a detour to Delhi, which also allows for a brief meditation on the division of the city into two - earlier a colonial separation, now concretized into an NDMC-MCD (New Delhi Municipal Corporation-Municipal Corporation of Delhi) divide. The 42.78 square kilometer NDMC area, which has the most wonderful well-maintained public toilets, is occupied by the city's (and in this case, the country's) VVIPs. It is, in the remarkable words of one NDMC official, "the drawing room of the country". But if one part of the city is the drawing room, what - the film asks - does that make the other part?

Away from these 'drawing rooms', large parts of the population live in slums or on the pavement, without access to toilets in their homes, or even to affordable public toilets that have anything like a good sewage system, running water or ventilation. They must perforce carry out these activities in public.

This is hardly new. The use of public spaces in India for washing, changing, urination and defecation has long attracted the attention of the outside observer. For one 19th century lady traveler, it was "a perpetual source of wonder and amusement to see the unembarrassed ease with which employments of a most personal nature are carried on in the most crowded streets." And the venerable V S Naipaul observed in 1968 that "Indians defecate everywhere...They never look for cover."

But neither the lack of embarrassment assumed by these commentators, nor historian Dipesh Chakrabarty's more recent reading of these uses of public space as "a refusal to become citizens of an ideal bourgeois order" takes into account the fact that, for the people concerned, no better option exists.

A more grounded academic position is taken by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, who says that "shitting in public is a serious humiliation" - something done under duress. He talks of a project that built hundreds of toilet blocks in Pune and Mumbai - under the combined auspices of Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, an NGO, and National Slum Dwellers Federation and Mahila Milan, an association of slum and pavement women - since 2000. Appadurai argues that participation of the community (especially women) in the design, construction and maintenance of toilets, as well as the innovative Toilet Festivals (Sandas Melas) help "resituate this private act of suffering and humiliation", making it the scene of "technical innovation, collective celebration and carnivalesque play with...officialdom".

While Vohra's film makes no mention of the project, it does take us into a Mumbai slum, where we are introduced to Raju Bhai, who builds private toilets. "Everyone wants a 'real' home, with a separate drawing room, bedroom, kitchen, bathroom," he says. "If all of this is impossible, at least slum-dwellers can have their own bathroom." Whatever we might think of the long-term implications of constructing these unauthorized toilets in unauthorized structures, listening to his grateful (female) clients does raise an uncomfortable question: does the very principle of community toilets deny the fact that everyone should be able to have a toilet at home?

These are difficult questions, and have no easy answers. But it is clear that toilets do provide a prism through which to look at the inequalities of caste, class and gender that underlie the Indian city. Pushing toilets to the forefront of public discussion might be one way in which to bring these inequalities to light. And 'Q2P' certainly demonstrates that without this happening, the risks and pleasures of what Kumar's Banarasi interlocutors call "ghumna phirna" (walking about) will continue to remain the preserve of men. 


More by :  Trisha Gupta

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