The Great Indian Rail Toilet

In 1909, arising out of a desperate situation, Okil Chandra Sen wrote this letter to the Indian Railways:

Whether or not his letter or the following situation had the Indian Railways smacking a tiny chamber hole between boggies remains a mystery.

I’ve used the Indian railways for as long as I can remember. My father’s privileges as a railway employee gave us free rides across the country every year.

Thanks to these little perks, I began rail yatra when I was eight years old! So that sort of puts me in a distinguished place to recount my years as a faithful rail traveler. I can tell you with absolute certainty that much has changed since the 1980s.

While change is inevitable, there are also certain things as stubborn as a mule. In some other context, such stubbornness and determination would yield great achievements, but not in the context of a toilet. Look at it (actually, don’t since you might gag), we’ve maintained some steadfast dedication to stinking, dirty toilets. If we want to assign names of Greek gods to folks who can aim right while the wheels spin, then by golly you are a Greek God of all sorts.

If you’ve traveled by train, which most of us have, then you know how this rolls. If you haven’t, you’ve missed one heck of an experience. You thought six-flags has it down for the best roller coaster ride? I’ll laugh that loud, guttural laugh now…muahahaha. No! The craziest of all rides are inside the Indian railway toilet in a superfast express with your pants down! There…I said it.

If you are a woman, it’s a nightmare, but if you are a man, then it’s apocalyptic. The collateral damage is determined by the attire you wear (read my earlier post on wardrobe malfunction). Take, for instance, the sari…Your squatting expertise will determine your choice of Indian or Western ( many choices). Upon entering the toilet, it’s like a bar scene…bottoms up! You immediately hold the bottom of the sari up for fear of getting it wet. If it’s a salwar-kurta or leggings-kurta, then the problem is further compounded since you have to preen over your kurta to look past your falling hair and dupatta. You might be saved a lot of trouble if you wear pants, but nothing can save you if you are not a sure-footed person, if you know what I mean.

Sure-footed or not, what stares you in the eye next is near catastrophic. Why? Because once you get over the nervousness and paranoia of how to navigate this mysterious test of agility, balance and precision (feel like a tight-rope artist ?), you need to figure out where or what to hold. The confusion arises when you begin to look for a spot that is potentially germ free. Here’s where men make a grand entrance.

I’m not a man but I can only fathom the challenge of the flow in a moving locomotive. On a normal day, I have a horrendous time telling my ten-year-old that he cannot act like the sprinkler in the garden when he uses the toilet, but who ever listened to their mom, right? So I can’t imagine what it’s like for a man inside a rail toilet.

Perhaps the feeling is akin to where you aim for the bullseye on the dart board, but hit the wall instead. You know where you want to go but nothing in your humane power will let you get there. Reminds one of the scene where the Terminator holding the Beretta splays the T-1000 to smithereens. Precision is not for the directionally-challenged! Do I hear a groan? Come now, the number of times you’ve heard your mother, sister, girlfriend, wife tell you to aim right so she doesn’t have to clean-up after you, doesn’t ring true?

The funniest of all is when people wait in line outside, and the one who used the toilet steps out and no one, and I mean no one, wants to be anywhere near a two mile radius of the person who just made the exit. The avoidance techniques are worthy of full-length academic papers. There is the À la seconde, where the expectant waiter steps to the side or the Cambré, where the waist bends in all sorts of direction–forwards, backwards and sideways. Considering such precise ballet moves, one would think the same can be accomplished once inside the confines of the dreaded four walls. But, alas!

In the days when you could not count on a public toilet facility, an English woman was planning a trip to India – She registered to stay in a small guest house owned by the local schoolmaster. She was concerned as to whether the guest house contained a WC (Water Closet). She wrote to the schoolmaster inquiring of the facilities about the WC. The school master, not fluent in English asked the local priest if he knew the meaning of WC. Together they pondered possible meanings of the letters and concluded that the lady wanted to know if there was a “Wayside Chapel” near the house. That the letters could mean a bathroom, never entered their minds. So the schoolmaster wrote:

I take great pleasure in informing you that the WC is located 9 miles from the house. It is located in the middle of a grove of pine trees, surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people and is open on Sundays and Thursdays. As there are many people expected in the summer months, I suggest you arrive early. There is, however, plenty of standing room. This is an unfortunate situation especially if you are in the habit of going regularly. It may be of some interest to you that my daughter was married in the WC, since she met her husband there. It was a wonderful event. There were 10 people in every seat. It was wonderful to see the expressions on their faces. My wife, sadly, has been ill and unable to go recently. It has been almost a year since she went last, which pains her greatly. You will be pleased to know that many people bring their lunch and make a day of it.

Others prefer to wait till the last minute and arrive just in time! I would recommend that your ladyship plan to go on a Thursday, as there is an organ accompaniment. The acoustics are excellent and even the most delicate sounds can be heard everywhere. The newest addition is a bell which rings every time a person enters. We are holding a bazaar to provide plush seats for all since many feel it is long needed. I look forward to escorting you there myself and seating you in a place where you can be seen by all.

With deepest regards,
The Schoolmaster.”

No wonder the woman never visited India!!!

Measure for Measure

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

“Hi. I see you have an interesting profile. I have some work for you. Could share me your Whatsapp number?” LinkedIn message

“I imagine you in a bikini running on a sandy beach somewhere.” 

“You look so sexy in that outfit that even our CTO said something about it.”

“Hi, you write really well. Is it possible to have your WhatsApp number?” LinkedIn message

“You see that woman there, she sent me some “special” videos, and I accidentally shared it with my colleagues on the group. When I did, they all laughed so much.”

Perhaps common banter amongst the boys club, but these comments, although veiled like statements shared between friends within a workplace, has the word harassment written all over it. And when it comes from your reporting boss, it certainly is. The ‘other’ colleagues and the CTO who laughed or participated in any form were equally complicit in the act. 

IF you are in the habit of reading Shakespeare, it won’t be a surprise when I tell you that we’ve been discussing harassment issues since as early as 1604. Read Measure for Measure and you will see what I mean.

A very long time ago, I was associated with one of the leading carmakers in the world in a professional capacity. I left the organization because what was once newspaper headlines soon became my reality. After repeatedly informing the right set of people, and the perpetrator himself, I decided to move on from there because not even a finger moved in the direction it was meant to. I am a talented, intelligent, and an ambitious woman, so why waste my time at a place that had no regard or respect for women was the thinking, so I moved on. 

Someone once said, “the behaviour we tolerate, recognize and reward, is the culture we nurture and create.” And that’s precisely the message the company sent out, promoted and rewarded– that it didn’t matter how many times you flouted the law, you were simply above it. When a harasser repeatedly gets away with a slap on the wrist, it tells the person that no matter what he/she does, they will get away with it. That, I believe, is the problem. The second one, as I see it, is when it goes unreported.

The moment I submitted my letter of resignation, I remember the number of women who reached out to me saying they had had similar experiences but were afraid to come forward because they had a lot to lose. Women who were harassed by the same individual and women who were harassed by other men within the organization came forward to express their fear and frustration. For those who took the legal route of registering a formal complaint, they were isolated and weren’t given their due. For those who did not disclose their claims, they eventually left the organization because stress took a toll. This was at a time when the #metoo movement was not in the making. The fact remains that people leave their bosses and eventually the organization, but if it’s a “bad” organization, good or bad managers make little to no difference to a person’s decision to leave. I decided to leave a “bad” organization. 

I remember even to this day sitting across the Head HRs table and having a conversation that left me feeling vulnerable in so many ways. The meeting was arranged to ensure that once I left, I wasn’t going to hold them responsible for the actions of the perpetrator. The company went as far as making it seem like they were letting me go instead of helping fix the problem. They were even willing to pay me three months severance (but never worded it that way) as a gesture of remorse. Had I taken the bait, I’d have a completely different set of problems on my hand. And this is where information is critical. I held power and not the other way around, and I did not hesitate to let them know. Needless to say, after a complete shakedown, I left. 

But, it turned out that the faulty break line was beginning to bleed them, and they saw no choice but to let the predator go. It came to a head when fourteen women (not knowing the other had raised a complaint) at different points registered their grievances with the unit head, with the HRBP, and with teammates about the same person. Did this make newspaper headlines? Nope! Did they register a case against him with the authorities? Nope. All they did was give him a pink slip and let him become someone else’s problem. And that’s precisely what he is at another organization–a continued problem and a festering wound.

I don’t know if we take background checks seriously in our country, but one police check will unearth several misdemeanour charges as well as rape and assault FIR’s on the said individual yet he is hired at another organization in a position where he can hold power over others. Fair? I don’t think so.

Yes, I understand that fear can be one heck of a deterrent. It’s crippling and devastating. Not to mention the toll, all of this takes on your mental and physical well-being. You feel everything is at stake when you are dangling between wanting to report it and wanting to make your peace, but report it you must. 

This isn’t a rant where I begin to shred big corporate organizations for not handling harassment ethically and lawfully. This post is about how to take power back into your hands when you think you’ve hit rock-bottom.

Power is a funny thing: it derives its legitimacy from group recognition and sustains itself by the threat of exclusion. None of us wants to be left out. I suppose high school cliques are excellent examples of that ‘club’ atmosphere. The cool kids always had it made because they ‘belonged’ there. But work isn’t highschool. It’s the real deal. So when these ‘boys clubs’ keep your access out, you decide you want to create your own because their worth is entirely dependent on how they can control access.

So the best way around it isn’t to participate in the power structures it creates – the systems of selection, obeisance, and reward – but to go around them and create your own. 

How do you do that?

Speak up

It is rampant. A lot more than you’d imagine. Make it known at get-go the behaviours you will not tolerate. “I raise my voice – not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard – we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”  Raise your voice and make it heard each time those behaviours come to light; however difficult it might seem. Each time a coworker passed a sexist or lewd joke about another colleague, I made it very clear that it was not acceptable and walked away. Yes, I was excluded from the ‘boys club’, but it eventually paid off because the male colleagues knew what I considered acceptable workplace humour and what I did not. 

Focus on your success

Nothing should get in the way of your professional growth and success. You aren’t there because you want a walk in the park. You are there to grow. Choose your battles carefully. Harassment is a battle that is not easy, but it’s a necessary one to fight for yourself and for the ones who will suffer if you don’t. 

Culture Matters

It’s not just the simple Indianism of “cultureless peoples,” it is the plain truth. If a company is yet to figure out its culture, then it’s as good as doomed. There is little you will accomplish in such a place. These are precisely the places that become breeding grounds for different kinds of concerns. The most common risk factors for sexual harassment include workplaces with a strict hierarchical power dynamic where men outnumber women and most supervisors are male. 

Make It Known

It is imperative that the matter is reported within a certain time frame. Delays in reporting or personal pleas asking the perpetrator to stop will only be used as ammunition later.

Harassment Happens Not Only in Person But on Online Platforms too

The quotes at the beginning of this article are not imaginary ones. These are real quotes by people who were in command and they made these statements knowing fully well what they were saying. And this sense of entitlement set it in because very few people drew the line and let them know that it was not acceptable.

Interestingly, LinkedIn, has become a ground for such a thing and most people who think posing as potential contractors for projects can say what they want to don’t understand what they stand to lose.

Abuse in any form is wrong. It’s not normal human behaviour. Abusers have deep, disturbing psychological issues that have gone unaddressed. Understand that it is not your fault but one where the responsibility lies entirely with the abuser.

You are not alone! You have more people who will give you the support and strength you need. You only need to reach out. Sometimes it might seem like a dead-end road, but there is always a light at the end. I know. I’ve been there.