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Squalid bathrooms are the bane of Indian public life, finds  the writer much to her chagrin.

Some days back, one of my family members was hospitalized for a heart ailment. For some reasons, she could not immediately be taken to one of those coveted flashy private hospitals but was taken to a Government Hospital in the tricity, with a Meditrina owned Heart Care Centre providing considerably good CCU and ICU services. Just because she was sure to be shifted to a better place the very next day, I readily agreed to stay with her and attend to her for a day. I realized quite at the onset, that it was easier said than done. The waiting area of the CCU was a microcosm of rural India. I dreaded being part of such an uncouth set-up, but the fact that I was urbane and educated and that they dared not involve me in their socializing business, encouraged me to be there throughout the day. I just returned the smiles and stayed engrossed in my newspaper and Geetanjali Shree’s ‘Tomb of Sand’. Initially, I felt that the only problem was the discomfort arising from sitting on the metal chair in the waiting area, with a huge number of patients’ attendants –talking, eating, giving and seeking not only introductions but also advice, and spreading their sheets on the corridor floor to lie down –as if they were on a holiday (I of course sympathized with the fact that they were forced to do so as they had no other option). But my real struggle started around 12:00 noon, when I felt the need to go to the loo.

I located the Women’s Washroom and entered it, least knowing what shock it held in store for me. There were three cubicles inside the large washroom, all of which were terribly filthy. I had to rush out to stop myself from puking. Still hopeful of getting a better one, I strolled down the ramp, to the ground floor. This time, I didn’t rush in; rather stealthily pushed open the door and sneaked a quick look. More horror was waiting for me in there, in the shape of soiled sanitary napkins strewn around an apology for a dustbin, lying in the corner of the washroom. The expression “Ohh shit! Ooh shit!”, which I don’t much approve of, and seldom use –escaped my lips, in the form of a loud scream. I ran out of the building, with the fumes of stink following me, and sat on a bench in the lawn for a while, greedily inhaling mouthfuls of clean air –trying to figure out what to do.

Suddenly, it struck me that the hospital premises held the Office of the State Dental Council, which I had visited once, some years back, to enquire about the Registration Renewal of a dentist friend, practicing in my hometown. I thought to myself that that although the hospital didn’t care for the toilet needs of the patients and their attendants but they would definitely be providing clean toilets to their staff. So, I took a long walk across the campus, and entered the HSDC office, absolutely certain that I shall be finally relieved of the burden, this time. But, I had the shock of my life that day –the condition of the women’s toilet on the ground floor, was appalling. Out of the two cubicles, one was flooded with mucky water which was slowly surpassing its boundaries, submerging the main area, thus, making it impossible to step into this ghastly space. Terrified, I banged the door, and stepped back. Now, my frustration was turning into anger, but, hoping against hope, I took the flight to the first floor. Alas! The women’s washroom on the first floor had an A4 sheet stuck on its door, saying, ‘Out of Order’, as if the rusted lock hanging on it was insufficient to convey the unpleasant truth.

I was almost in tears by now. It had been a dreadful experience. I looked at my watch -1:05 pm. I had not realize that this quest for a clean toilet had consumed more than an hour! Down and out, I sat on a lawn bench again, thanking my bladder for so efficiently holding the one and a half liter of early morning guzzle, for so long.

Cursing the hospital authorities and repenting my offer to stay in this gruesome place throughout the day, I finally, walked towards the parking lot, pondering and worrying about this problem. Why is ‘toilet’ still a monstrous issue in India? It is shameful that the health department of the state headquarters is blind to the miserable state of toilets housed in their own structure. A clean toilet is still so rare in our public spaces. Is it such a Herculean task to maintain clean toilets? Is it ignored just because it is a problem faced by women alone? Men can relieve themselves anywhere and everywhere… they need not look for a toilet –the whole landscape is available to them. Why can’t the government recruit more sanitary staff? Why can’t everyone contribute to keeping the toilets clean? Why are the sanitary napkins thrown beside and not inside the dustbin? Why can’t everyone flush their shit just by pushing a button? Why can’t the water supply in the toilets be ensured?

To regain my mental peace, I put these questions on hold, took a deep breath, exhaling my frustration, involuntarily reminiscing about my most recent family vacations to Singapore, Hong Kong, and even Sri Lanka –where there is no dearth of toilets in public places, and the most amazing thing is that every toilet is clean and freshly sanitized at all hours.

With the visuals of the most squalid washrooms flashing in my mind, I drove to the nearby Starbucks, ordered a Hazelnut Latte, and dashed into the Restroom –spent the waiting time of five minutes in the pleasant smelling, most aesthetically done, clean, hygienic, sparkling washroom, before being treated to my favourite Café Latte.

Image by Kristina Flour
Periods, menopause and other related terms are taboo even today in Indian households and are talked of in hushed whispers. Abolish the whisper, says the writer.

I’ve just entered the peri-menopausal stage of my life and my otherwise carefree, rather careless son has suddenly transformed into a doting young man, always trying his best to make me comfortable and happy. Though I appreciate this effort of his and am thankful as well, but his concern fills me with guilt –guilt of not paying the same attention to my mother’s needs when she was going through her menopausal years, which I should have done, as a daughter. But my simple reason is that I didn’t know anything about it. Yes, it sounds stupid, but 20th century was the era of taboos, when it was still not natural to talk about periods. Periods were a whisper (pun intended). I admit that I just didn’t know about it –I didn’t know there was something called menopause; I didn’t know it was so upsetting; I didn’t know she needed attention; I had no idea about one of the thousand things which I was supposed to know at that time –All because no one told me about them.  I earnestly wish I had known about this when my mother needed my care and concern.

Though my family was an open minded one even in those times, but it was an established fact that menstruation was only a women’s problem, and no one else had anything to do about it. My mum would whisper “…can't attend the Puja because...” –the unfinished sentence would say it all. There was such a hush-hush around this topic, in middle-class Indian households, that the whole support system that a woman deserved, got wrecked. She was left alone to cope not just with her own mental and physical havoc, but also the needs, tantrums, and expectations of the unaffected family members. But who is to be blamed for this indifference towards women’s menstrual needs? Perhaps, this whisper!


And the painful thing is that not all has changed even in the 21st century. Even today, there are men in my highly educated circles, who are callous regarding menstruation and the related travails.  I also know a lot many so-called modern mothers who are still hesitant to talk even to their girls about 'it', forget about the boys! When asked the reason, they simply say that it makes them uncomfortable. So, they expect schools and teachers to take up this job, which is a tricky business.  


Some years back, I tried doing it for my students, but had to face an uproar among the parents from a rural background. The rural households are still sectioned –with the male and female areas strictly divided which do not converge even after years of living together. Even in the 21st century, there are husbands who would depute a sister or mother to accompany the pregnant wife to the gynaecologist. This aloofness in the situations where involvement is essential, makes these boys callous towards female needs. I never dared try the same again. Though well equipped with excellent language skills and the required knowledge on the subject, I have to curb my desire to educate my young male students about menstruation.

Is it that difficult to bring this change in the social mindset? Though the movies like Padman have paved the way for the smooth rolling of this cart; the sanitary napkins in the advertisements are stained with red ink instead of blue, perhaps in an effort to make the picture widely acceptable. The word ‘periods’ is all over the suasive blurbs on TV channels but without any perceptible change towards the subject.  As the saying goes, ‘Charity begins at home.’  Movies and advertisements won’t be of any help unless there is an open dialogue among members in the families. We need to give an intermittent push to this cart every now and then. And that can’t happen as long as we talk about this subject in whispers!

To bring about the desired change, sensitizing young men at the right age is a must. Even the issues which are specific of a gender, can’t be done away with unless they are treated holistically, involving both genders.  The indifferent young boys deserve to be informed about feminine problems, and also involved in their effective management. A boy who doesn’t have the memories of his mother struggling with menstrual issues, is least expected to be moved by the pain and suffering of his wife, or that of any other girl, for that matter. No wonder, even today, jokes in men’s circles centre around periods, pregnancy and suckling.


So, what’s our saving grace?

Just abolish the whisper… Create a dialogue –not just with daughters, but also with sons.


Pooja Singal is an Asstt Prof of English at Smt Aruna Asaf Ali Govt PG College Kalka in Haryana (India). She writes in her free time.

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