This piece was published in Time Out Mumbai's After Words (Vol 9, Issue 13; February 15-28 2013) in a slightly edited version.
No loo is too loo-brow for me to give it custom.
Being blessed with far too much weight and far too weak a bladder, I follow the only injunction I hold to be the one truth- when you have to go you have to go. I therefore have no qualms about the smell, the wetness, the ability of the flush to work, or the sight of previous detritus. Can’t afford them. All this and more can be bypassed if I am able to pass some myself.
I have, more or less mastered the art of standing tippy-toe on dryer patches of a public toilet, managing with a bag in one or both hands, and not being excessively prissy if the loo does not have a door latch. Bodily privacy does not amount to much when it comes to bodily priority and evacuation is imminent.
When it comes to going for the ‘big one’, I go down on my knees (bad choice of words here) and thank providence for a decade of apprenticeship that I had, of living in a chawl with common toilets. Over the years, I mastered the art of doing my thing with a single, approx. three-fourths of a litre, ‘tim-pat’ (tin-pot) of water. This included washing to satisfaction and saving some for flushing after (in deference to the next-in-line). This rigour has stood me in good stead when I needed, no, when I had to go behind a rock outcrop near the Khardungla Pass (17,582 ft.) with a bottle of Bisleri, or to similarly not embarrass myself, and others, numerous times when on the road.
I am not complaining, but I have also had access on occasion to upmarket loos too. I remember being utterly impressed by the newly minted ones in the Inox at Nariman Point when that multiplex opened its doors. It was all glitter and glam, just like going to the movies, but only for valid ticket holders. I have visited the ultra swank bogs at the Royal Opera House in Muscat, complete with gilt signage of a man in Omani national dress and its squatting-type WC’s that shone like burnish’d gold. Damn it all, we all grew up to treat the ground floor loo (to the left) at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel near the Gateway as the public toilet of choice in our growing up years, didn’t we?. That one of course is no longer of use when the urge is too strong; the time you spend getting frisked and patted down could lead to a disaster having national consequences.
How a body is able to manage in Mumbai’s streets is another thing altogether. Loo-lore of the location and proximity of public conveniences is vitally important to my well being when I go about my daily work. This is of no help at all in places I do not normally frequent, where such knowledge is unavailable. Mumbai has no signage in her grand outdoors that indicates where a toilet is located. Even if you wished to throw all civic sense and propriety to the wind, in our densely occupied streets there are few alleys or shielding walls offering the possibility of unseen micturation. The undersides of flyovers, those puke-inducing pools of putridity have also been appropriated now for pay and park purposes.
Thank you for reading thus far. You must know that I am of the male persuasion, and that these are profound urban inconveniences that I find myself subject to. Now imagine being a woman with similar needs on Mumbai’s unhelpful streets.
Mumbai needs many more accessible toilets for both men and women than it needs urban transport, redevelopment or any other form of aspirational pipe-dreams. It needs them as first priority, placed visibly, and with it the signage and directions for immediate and easy access. It needs them at frequent enough intervals so that long lines do not form outside them. It needs them with doors that latch and with hooks for bags.
I would like to see the day that the Chief Minister proudly proclaims (on TV, on Twitter and in print) that Mumbai has more loos than Shanghai. It is no excuse that loos are not built because maintaining them is difficult. You might not like to hear this, but Mumbai needs public toilets first, their hygiene and cleanliness can follow.