Friday, August 07, 2009

Envy, back home

When I returned home, the first thing everyone in the family asked was: "So how does it feel to be back?"

I answered with the truth. It feels good. It feels like home. It feels like it felt. And the familiar, while breeding a certain degree of contempt, also guards you and hovers over your like an anxious mama-figure and you cannot help but be relieved to see it.
My uncle laughed a little, disbelieving. "It doesn't shock you each time you return?"

And I laughed and said, no. I'm so familiar with it. 'It' being all the things we should not be. The clogged drains. The smell. The air heavy with smog and dust. The cramped living. The jostling. The noise. The lack. The haggling.

The lack of water in the restroom sinks at the international airport in Mumbai. The lack of quiet smiles. The lack of electronic receipts in the average taxi. The auto guys who will not use meters, or even the pre-set standard prices everyone else has been surviving by thus far. The auto-guys who will just not go, because they are reading a newspaper.

I know it all. And though it is not alright, it is too. I know it enough to call it the motherland.

But I also know that there is very little excuse for no water in bathrooms. Or no bathrooms at all. Of all the things I envy the great western cities, the greatest is this: bathrooms with running water and soap.

Yes, there are other things I envy: Shiny, clean floors and windows. Trash cans everywhere. Mounds of art generously sprinkled around the cityscape for harried, hurried citizens, and for visitors - along the long escalators, at airports, on the underground, on walls, on store shutters. A sense of security and freedom for women, no matter what they wear. The freedom from spitting on the streets. Car-free zones. More and more incentives to bikers (bicyclists), with dedicated lanes everywhere. The relative ease with which people speak to each other across class barriers. Live music on the streets. So much more live music of all genres in so many more eateries and pubs.

I wish we had all of that. But I can live without all that too. What I find absolutely unforgiveable about my own country is the lack of investment in sanitation and public hygiene. There are places to eat, and drink, on every other street. But there are hardly any places to relieve yourself. When, when, when will come to terms with the truth that people need to pee and shit just as much as they need to eat and breathe. They die if they don't. And no, it is not just their own problem. Just like I expect the government to step in sort out an issue of there is a serious hunger problem in my country, I also expect them to step in and sort out this sanitation problem.

The few places we do have are filthy. Not just stinky, I mean, filthy. And it isn't just about the lack of manpower or resources or infrastructure. It is also about terrible, terrible sanitary habits. And these terrible, terrible sanitary habits come from our schools, our homes, our reluctance to even talk about the importance of toilets, and the risks inherent in not keeping them clean.

It comes from our refusal to think beyond the immediate. Yes, you want to pee so you want to find a clean toilet and then leave right away without bothering to stop and think about whether you are leaving the place suitable for the next person. But you will also want to pee an hour later in another location, and then you might find that the person ahead of you has not bothered either.

If there is one thing travel has taught me, it is this: culture is not just about museums or clothes or food or history. It is as much about widely accessible public toilets and running water as it is about sculpture and architecture. It is as much about not stealing the metal bottoms from trash-cans as it is about stained glass in churches.


D said...

I miss only two things when I come back from a trip abroad: ice cream and clean toilets! How can an entire nation have such awful toilet habits?!

The Wizard of Odd said...

Well said. It's my one thought as well, every time I return. It took me about two years over here to get used to the fact that I could survive a loo visit, that I didn't have to hold it till I got "home"... wherever home was, at the time.

Not sure why there's such a disability when it comes to talking about the need for proper sanitation and toilet-training, quite literally. Methinks public-funded and organized HPV discussions might actually happen before the toilet discussion.

But then again, I just might be kidding myself.

Anonymous said...

Nice blog.

Sumedha said...

One of my friends has been in shock since we've come back from Singapore. He sees everything he doesn't like in Calcutta: the dirt, the stink, dirty toilets, biased conservative people.

I spent a long time on the phone with him trying to help. He was a bit panicked about the fact that he's actually thinking such thoughts about a previously-beloved city.

I like coming home. I don't mind the dirt and the stink and the crowds so much. Actually, more than not mind, I've gotten so used to them, I don't let them bother me. But what does bother me is the constant disregard for any rules. I started driving in the city recently, and the sheer number of drivers ignoring traffic rules and courtesies amazes me. It's everywhere, not just on the roads. No rules, no courtesy. I guess the dirty bathrooms are part of this too.

dipali said...

What amazes me is that our shopping malls are somehow managing to have sparkling clean loos, but our airport loos, both domestic and international,(in Kolkata at least) are pathetic.
In firang land, though, I do miss water in the toilets, since I seriously dislike using toilet paper.
I actually cart a mug along.

As a country I guess we are in serious need of 'toilet training'!

Tweets by @anniezaidi