shall we bare our bums then?

A first class AC coupe does not ensure a clean toilet. Within the hour, someone had done their big business for the day, and failed to flush away. The coupe was connected on one side with the second class coach, and on the other side, with the engine room, which did not bode well for sanitary conditions through the journey.

After lunch from miniature sized foil boxes that ensured maximum spillover, I walked into the corridor looking for a dustbin. The attendant said there were no dustbins, I could throw the boxes on the tracks from the gap between the two dabbas. I looked at him incredulously. From behind me, Teja asked, “There are no dustbins in the coach?” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “There is one in your coupe.” He came to the door, and pointed to one, in a dark corner, under the seat. I said, “Then why did you say there were none?” He said, “You asked me if there were any in the coach.”

At night, Teja said, “Use the toilet on the left. The one on the right is being used by the attendant and the people from the engine room to smoke beedis.”

The lobby near the left hand side toilets was covered in daal, banana peels and what-not. The attendant passed me red-eyed, and went off to sleep, waking up only at 10 am the next morning, to collect our blankets and pillows.

Later on our road trip, up into the hills, at Dev Prayag, the toilets were refreshingly clean. In the hills, I went under cover of the forest, mostly. Im Ghimtoli, at Makar’s house, the toilet is outside the house, but spotlessly clean.

Back from Rudra Prayag, at Haridwar, the toilet attendant looked at me sleepily when I walked in. After I had peed, there was no water in the taps, flush or basin. One of the toilets was disgustingly dirty. As I walked out, the attendant opened his eyes wide enough to ask me for money. I scolded him for the state of the toilets and the lack of water. He said, “Oh, if one toilet was dirty, you should have gone into the second one, or the third, or the fourth. And if you needed water, you should have asked me.” He got up to start a tap high up on a wall, at which all the taps in all the toilets started gushing water. I failed to make him understand that I could not go into a toilet, discover it does not have water, and then ask him for it, with my pants down. He did not look like he cared, anyway.

In the car, I described to Teja, the state of the toilet in graphic detail. “Why do you need to share this with me?” he grumbled. “The next thing I know, you will be showing me photographs.” I said, “Just. The curse of being a woman. In India.”

I shall refrain from sharing the details here.

A couple of hours later, at a dhaba in Muzzafarnagar, I did the crouch, my face and nose all puckered up. I went up to the proprietor and said, “Can’t you keep your toilets clean? How are women supposed to go there?” He said, “Oh sorry. It must have been those people before you. Should I wash it with water?” I could not explain to him, that a toilet needs to be clean before someone enters it. After a 2 or 3 hour drive, I am not going to wait for someone to clean down the toilet before I go.

I came out to Teja, standing in the sun, braving the wind, muttering under my breath. “Who are you abusing now?”, he asked. “No one”, I said. “Yes, you are.” “Men, in general”, I said. “Just because they can pee anywhere, standing up, they just don’t care about what happens to women.” “Why don’t you start a campaign?” he says. “Women should start peeing anywhere and everywhere. Men do it. They don’t feel ashamed if a woman is around. Then why should women be the only ones to feel shame? Let the men worry that if they want to ‘protect the honor of their women-folk’ they had better take care of them.”

There was a tree just before us, between the highway and the dhaba, and a clean patch of ground around it. I wondered what the men in the dhaba would think of me going there.

Maybe they would start scurrying around to clean the toilet, which they had not done, even after my complaint. Or would it just be titillating for them?

So, anyone ready for some monkeying around? I am certain that we would soon have the morality police down on ‘shameless women’.


  1. I remember on one of my road trips in India, I was going from Pondicherry to Puttaparthi, and during the 12 hr journey, I was forced to pee several times outdoors.
    We had to stop at dhabas and then, cos their loos were so nasty, I walked away into the fields and had to pee behind the bushes. Public toilets in India are absolutely horrible!
    I live in Dubai, and the public loos in the malls are really good. And if you’re going on long journeys, the petrol pumps always have loos that aren’t the cleanest, true, but are still muuuuuch better than the sorry excuse for a loo you have in India. I wonder why it is so difficult to maintain a good toilet!

    • Sanjana, peeing outdoors or in the fields in definitely preferable to doing so in the loos. Sometimes though, there just isn’t the space to do so.

      Considering how cheap labour is in India, I have never been able to understand why a person cannot be hired to maintain the toilet through the day. I can understand small dhabas may not want to incur the expense, but even the better quality of highway restaurants, etc. don’t bother.

      That is the one big ‘faayda’ of malls, clean loos.:)

  2. Oh Banno.. don’t get me started here. I think I am so obsessed with this, I even have nightmares of entering a toilet that isn’t clean. And I am not joking there. I really have those visions. I am one who holds on till I get home, which is why i do not travel in a train for over 12 hrs, and if God forbid, it gets extended, I starve and wither.. refusing food/water/any intake so that I don’t have to go. Its a paranoia I have transferred to Pari as well. And if I ever leave the country and settle down abroad, it will be the public toilets to be blamed! So I am totally on you with this, lets do the same… act shameless!

    • Violet, I travel so much, and also work mostly on the road, for my documentary shoots, that starving myself would not work.:) So public toilets are inescapable.

    • Neha, I have no hang-ups about non-flashy loos, as long as they are clean. I haven’t travelled much in Western Europe, but yes, the loos in Paris cafes weren’t exactly clean, either. Japan was the best. The Urinelle pack does sound useful.

  3. Even being a guy I find the fist class AC toilets unusable. Me and my wife carry disposable wipes to make sure things are clean. Regarding public toilets the things are beyond question, deplorable. Everything except the “firing hole” is littered and glittered.

  4. Banno, you’ve caught me on a sore spot with this article. I still have nightmares of a journey from Bombay to Goa, by bus, that took 24 hours (don’t ask!). I ended up using the fields behind. Who was the poor minister who announced that, if elected, he would build clean public loos *and* maintain them, and got laughed out of the election? That shows you how much even the average person thinks about this as a problem!

    • Anu, bus journeys are the worst, because not only do you have to resort to fields and dirty loos, you also have to ask for the bus to be stopped, and be stared at, if you are the sort who needs to go often.
      I don’t think the average person thinks of this as a problem, as loos are not only badly maintained, but badly used too, by people, with no consideration for the next user.

  5. Rule no. 1 when traveling in India: Never go anywhere that takes more than 2 hours.

    Rule no. 2: Don’t eat or drink before traveling. Do all that after you reach your destination and safely ensconced at your friend’s/relative’s home. Then wait at least two hours before you start on the road again.

    Rule no. 3: Make sure that you have friends/relatives to visit at the proper intervals on your trip. If not, do not go.

    Rule no. 4: No car journeys that take more than 2 hours. Take a flight, and if that is too expensive, stay home.

    My whole family lives by these rules.

    I almost got stomach cramps from reading your post, but didn’t want to offend you by saying that at the start, considering you weren’t laughing at the time!

    • Lalitha, I wish we could live by these rules, but unfortunately, a lot of women do have to spend a considerable amount of time in public spaces. You can make choices about holiday or pleasure plans, but not so much when it comes to work.:) re. the stomach cramps, no, I wasn’t laughing then, but am now.

  6. Oh, Banno, you made me laugh: you grumble so beautifully about a journey which I wonder if I will ever make in my lifetime!

    It strikes me that there is a market for toilet-tent-dresses: all the lady needs for trainside decorum ….although the whole thing would still feel very weird….

  7. Thank you for blogging about this. I did, once and was asked by some moral folks to not write about ‘such things’. I’m all for baring bums (in a rape & outrage free zone of course {which, I know are too few & far between}) if the loos are too dirty.
    But I’d prefer clean loos. Super writing.

  8. Such an unhappy post, and such unhappy (with reason) comments, that I thought I’d lighten up the mood somewhat…😉

    I peed beside a road last September, simply because the only other alternative was to barge into a random village home. We were travelling the Delhi-Kota stretch (9 hours, but 14 thanks to my husband’s “this is a shortcut” decision). After 8 hours of holding it in, I decided I had to go. So we pulled up – this was 9 at night, completely deserted village road, with not a soul for miles around. Trees and bushes everywhere, and the starriest sky I’ve seen in a long, long time.

    Relief, and a gorgeous view.

  9. You know, airlines reserve the front loo for business class passengers – maybe the railways should do the same! I just wish that every loos user left it behind in a neat state, and that there was always enough water to do so. Dirty loos are nightmarish😦
    I find the best maintained loos in Kolkata in Shoppers Stop. The domestic and international airport terminals both have rather sad ones😦 Very depressing, not to say disgusting.

    • Dipali, Of course a lot of times, water is the problem. Strangely, during this visit, all the loos I went into, including the ones at the Garhwal Nigam Vikas Mandal guesthouses, had leaking taps and leaking flush tanks, so lots and lots of water being drained out, with no end result in cleanliness.

  10. To p or not to p,
    that is not the question.
    It is never nobler in the end to suffer,
    the agonies and convulsions of a
    distended bladder.
    Always take brooms against dirty toilets and toileteers,
    And by flushing them clean, shame them,
    so that they sleep no more, so that they
    spend eternity polishing commodes.
    T’is a consummation devoutly to be wished

    • SSW, that is a brilliant idea. I must carry my own broom and disinfectant, I don’t mind at all getting down to a bit of cleaning, if it means that it will shame the owners to maintain them.

  11. one of the things about India I dont miss at all. so, tell me what’s the differentce then between traveling AC coach and regular?
    i have had my share of running into khet’s and forests and what not and now when i look back, i wonder how i did so? well, answer, i didnt really have a choice.

    • Sukanya, the only difference travelling in a first class coupe was the space. It still didn’t protect us from mobile phone conversations, long ones outside our door. The seats/beds were dirty, the loos, you already know about.
      I have heard tales of first class coupes being like 5 star rooms, but that must be in some other trains, maybe the Rajdhani or some such.:)

  12. I think saying I am sorry, doesn’t amount to much. But I do feel with all women facing this problem.
    I just don’t understand why people can’t flush after they use a toilet or ask for water afterwards if it was not available. Is it so difficult to have some civic sense.
    At my working place, we have lots of visitors. Thank God they flush at least, but some just haven’t learnt to use the brush. I know you will say if the flush works, I shouldn’t be complaining.
    You are right, I think it is high time, people are shown the consequences of the neglect of cleanliness in the public lavatories. But most probably they won’t care if the whole Indian population would go to the fields or road side to relieve themselves. The powers to be will just levy a tax on it.
    The loos in Central Europe at the highway restaurants are good, but avoid the public ones. The ones in the cities are all kept clean but they charge you some money since the past 6 or 7 years. In the regional trains I have often experienced that there is only one toilet in the whole train and it is damaged!

    • Harvey, I am sure the government would levy a tax on roadside toilet use, if they could. In Bumm-Bumm-Bhole-Land, the entire city works as a toilet, specially for the men, as you well know. Even though there are lots of public toilets here, the problem is that there is no will to keep them clean, by the people who maintain them, and more so, by the people who use them.

  13. I haven’t seen a public rest room in India for more than a decade. On the 3 hr. bus journey from Kolkata to my in-law’s place I manage and have forced the daughters to pee in “khuli hawa” which they did not like. On the almost 2 day Kol-Mumbai train journey in the mid nineties I would use the rest room only once, in the wee hours of morning.
    I am all for “bare bum” project if it improves anything. Count me in.

  14. Add another strong sympathizer! Btdt, have had the UTIs to cherish! Most of our travel in recent years has been on highways in S.India and I see several decent loos nowadays, with attendants. I always over tip, in sheer gratitude. And I well remember a trip to Badrinath – NO loos enroute, and Most of the time we women travelers had to create tents with bedsheets etc. to pee.

  15. The last time I was in India, a half-a-decade ago, we took a long driving trip in S. India between Eastern ghats and Western ghats passing through Benguluru. I was pleasantly surprised to find a clean toilet along with a bucket of water at 3am near a roadside tea stall with a woman attendant at the door. Those are the best Rs.10 I ever spent.

    The rest of the stories before that following along the lines as above. Once our bus on school trip got stuck in a massive traffic jam from some road being washed off due to monsoon. There wasn’t even a open-air option as we were in the middle of working fields and a village. All the girls split into groups and begged random strangers to let them use toilets in their homes after 8-10 hours of holding in.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s