Devan Nair, Singapore’s first ethnic Indian president, told India’s high commissioner, “Indian culture, yes! Indian toilets, no!” He should have known the two are inseparable. That is all the more reason for welcoming the Planning Commission’s wisdom in reportedly spending a fortune on refurbishing Yojana Bhavan’s toilets. Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s contribution to yet another Bengali revolution might look like money down the drain; actually, it’s investment in cultural upgrading.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak knew what he was talking about when he declared that what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. Okhil Chandra Sen started the toilet revolution in 1909 with a historic letter to the Sahibganj divisional railway office that is preserved in Delhi’s Railway Museum: “I am arrive by passenger train Ahmedpur station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just I doing the nuisance that guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with lotah in one hand and dhoti in the next when I am fall over and expose all my shocking to man and female women on platform. I am got leaved at Ahmedpur station. This too much bad, if passenger go to make dung that dam guard not wait train five minutes for him. I am therefore pray your honor to make big fine on that guard for public sake. Otherwise I am making big report to papers.” But for Okhil Babu, millions of train passengers might still have been condemned to the same dire fate.
The indomitable Nirad C Chaudhiri took up cudgels when BBC correspondents based in Delhi’s AIR building during World War II had the temerity to object to their hosts using the same lavatories because Indians roosted like hens on commodes. Chaudhuri’s “No common toilet, no broadcast!” banner soon put things right — though later and in a far-off land, Malcolm X, the militant Black American Muslim, refused to be fobbed off with desegregated facilities where Blacks squatted comfortably next to Whites.
The flame of revolution burns brightly even in the feeble body of a woman, as Elizabeth Tudor might have said. That was evident when Kolkata recently stole a march over the rest of India. Mamata Banerjee’s seat will be the first city to boast a network of two-storey public toilets, women on the ground floor and men on the first.
Broad-minded enough to grasp all sides of a problem, Bengalis also know that toilets can be a weapon of the counter-revolution. Ranjit Gupta of the old Indian Police, who died recently, suggested that Tiananmen Square could have been emptied without a drop of blood being shed if the authorities had withdrawn toilet facilities. Protesting Chinese students would have hesitated to treat the square as Indians do the beach at Puri. Was al-Qaeda playing the same game when a toilet exploded in a Washington administration building, forcing the authorities to place all bathrooms off limits? The Bandung conference paid special attention to toilets so that Whites didn’t get the wrong (or, perhaps, right?) idea about Afro-Asians.
But, alack and alas, Bengal is losing out in this too. Haryana’s “No Toilet, No Wife” campaign must have prompted many a winsome lass to turn down a likely lad who couldn’t promise a house with a lavatory. Nor has Mamata Banerjee launched an equivalent of Haryana’s all-women Nigrani (vigilance) Samitis scouring the fields with torch, stick and whistle at crack of dawn. Any suspiciously crouching figure is bathed in torchlight to piercing whistles that bring the community hotfoot to witness the spectacle. Whether or not the stick also rains blows on cowering heads, being surrounded by a ring of fearsome females at such a vulnerable moment must be traumatic.
It serves them right. The 600 million Indians who do their business in public spread diseases that the health ministry says cost the exchequer Rs 1,200 crore annually.
But – this is where culture comes in – not for nothing did early beneficiaries of Britain’s free housing store coal in their unaccustomed bathtubs. The splash of red in the basin of the gents room of one of India’s august clubs is a reminder that it’s not enough for the Planning Commission deputy chairman to install swanky loos. As Air-India passengers know to their cost, India’s elite must be trained to do them justice. Ahluwalia’s better half being from Kolkata, he should know that whatever they might think in Doha, WTO is World Toilet Organisation.
Question: When was Queen Victoria Empress of China?
Answer: When she was sitting on the throne.