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!!!

That silly little dress

65 years ago, on September 15th, 1964, 5000 people (mostly men) were transfixed as Marilyn Monroe stood on a New York subway grate and bent just a little oh so much to go down in Hollywood history! Her attempt to hold down a flying dress is one of the most iconic images in Hollywood. Fourteen takes in all to create that movie magic. The Seven Year Itch made history with its iconic scene with Monroe holding down her dress from being blown away. I can watch that scene and look at that photograph a million times over because it’s HER! She was a stunner! More than a stunner. Read Arthur Miller’s love letters to Monroe and you’ll know what I mean.

Actress Marilyn Monroe and actor Tom Ewell on the set of The Seven Year Itch. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

But what happens when one is not posing for a movie shot nor is one Marilyn Monroe, but the dress goes flying still? What happens when that dreaded phrase called wardrobe malfunction stares right up your legs? Well, then that’s precisely what happened on a windy, Sunday morning in classic Monroe style except it happened to me.

Nope, there were no giant Almonards positioned under a New York subway grate to knock the wind from under my dress, no. This was on a pothole- and traffic-ridden, mushy, mucky street in Bangalore. There are hoards of jokes and memes about Bangalore roads. For instance, look at what social samosa says, “In India, we drive on the left of the road. In Bangalore, we drive on what is left of the road! Or any one of these memes:

Translation: See child, on Bangalore roads, once it rains, you don’t know where the road ends and the gutter begins!

Sorry! That’s how deeply disturbing Bangalore traffic is. Traumatic to such a degree that it raises its head at the most inopportune of times. If you are a Bangalorean, forget your parents scarring you for life! Bangalore roads will take care of all that!

Now let me proceed to explain in detail what happened. See, the memes and jokes about Bangalore are not entirely misplaced. It sets the scene. Any given moment in time, there is always a guy on the left wanting to turn right, the guy on the right wanting to turn left, and then the guy in the middle wanting to make a u-turn. Imagine the chaos that ensues. Needles to say, it’s one HUGE San Andreas fault line! Into this mixture throw in a road that’s decorated with potholes filled to the brim with rainwater, drain water and then bellowing winds that raise all the stray plastic packets that Jaggu, the engineer would have handsomely deposited on to the streets thinking no one was watching. Sounds like a scene from one of those fancy Alien invasion movies that Hollywood makes, no? I wonder why they don’t think of using Bangalore for a setting? It lends itself naturally for a film like that.

Now to all this, I am yet to add the fact that my in-laws were visiting. To anyone married, whether Indian or not, in-laws have a special status in the dictionary of life! Hahaha…I become philosophical even!

Jokes apart, they are amazing people, truly! Being traditional in their outlook to life, in their own way, they do all that they can to ensure that their lineage remains intact even when they have a daughter-in-law who is one nut short.

If you’ve ever spent time with Malayali families, you know where I’m going with this. City slick daughter-in-law marries in-laws from God’s own country. Yes, yes…whoever told you that you marry the son gave you a whole lot of baloney. It was one, big fat lie! So anyone still disillusioned that you will be marrying a wonderful mallu boy, leave that illusion behind. Better still, leave him behind! Oh lord! I am on a roll. Someone either give me an Amen or remind me what I was trying to write here.

If you are mallu and raised catholic, attending Sunday service is like military drill practice. The drill sergeants are always your parents. Even when you’ve moved out and grown old to a point where you have one foot in the grave, your parents will wakeup from the dead to remind you that you need to get your lazy ass out of bed and to mass. Sometimes, the visions are straight from the Walking Dead.

On such a Sunday morning, with family in tow, everyone marched to the church in a single file. Dad-in-law in front, mom-in-law in the middle and I trailed somewhere behind. All’s well until the first faux pas happened– my black stilettos got stuck in the lush green lawn, and I suddenly began to feel the earth beneath my feet. So about turn and back into my shoes. Then, as I step on to the road, the wind began to swirl. All that I said earlier about traffic and Jaggu engineer came magically alive!

So I had put this thing on in a hurry and rushed out the door. My house keys were with the drill sergeants. I perhaps took two steps in front while the army marched on, and voila, these magnificent overlay pants went flying in the air, and I did a Marilyn Monroe for all the commuters on that particular street on that fated Sunday morning. I remained transfixed while the wind continued to play havoc with my clothes, and I screamed out to my mom-in-law to rescue me. She looked devastated as she turned around, hearing my frantic cry for help. If you’ve watched that heart-wrenching scene in Deewar, where Nirupa Roy (the mother) looks perpetually pained by what seems like pine cones wedged between her armpits…that was my mother-in-law that morning. Forget looking pained, she looked mortified that my legs were exposed thus! And the only thing she yelled to my quick marching father-in-law was “thuni keeri poi!” (ഥുനി കെഎരി അനിയാ) meaning “her clothes are torn!”

And to fix things as quickly as possible, the keys were hurled from one end of the marching line to the other end. Thankfully, they landed in my hands and not in the drain hole nearby.

To be fair to me, the model displaying the pants just stood straight-legged with the outfit on in the shopping catalog. There were no overtures to sell the outfit to me. There was no demonstration as below:

I needed something black and long, and I went right ahead and ordered it. I hate trying clothes on so I didn’t even attempt to put it on before Sunday service, so I didn’t know there was a gaping hole on either side to reveal my rather muscular legs. And you know how Sunday service works–very austere. If one can be dressed like cloistered nuns, that’s the perfect outfit, but hey, that’s why I’m a laywoman. So go, figure! Had I known that wearing pants like these would lead me to recreate a moment from 1954, I would have bought 20 such pants.

Sorry. I digress again.

To do damage control, I had to return home and slip something more appropriate on, and I did just that. I suppose in someone’s diary, somewhere this will go down as comic relief on an otherwise hellish, Bangalore-traffic day. It was by far one of the most hilarious experiences of our lives! My hooband and little boy just wouldn’t stop laughing. My lovely parents-in-law attributed the whole thing to my thuni being torn. The only folks who perhaps enjoyed the spectacle were the irked commuters stuck on the crazy, traffic-ridden road.

What’s life without some lemons, right? So don’t be fooled by the monsoons in Bangalore. It maybe cloudy but it sure promises to be entertaining.