Toilets, or rather the lack of them, has a funny way of bringing women together. At Khardung-La, the famed spot in Ladakh known to be the world’s highest motorable road, an unlikely bond formed between women, all tourists, from different countries, cities and ages one afternoon in July. What united them was the fact that there wasn’t a single usable toilet in the area. First, there was collective outrage, and then a common solution was arrived at. Fifty-odd women lined up, in batches, on a side of the mountain, to squat. One batch made sure no men ventured their way, and also kept a close eye on women who were squatting too close to the edge. “Don’t fall off the hill!” was the usual frantic refrain. From then on, pit stops were decided based on whether there would be a usable washroom or not.
Indeed, the availability of a toilet too often dictates women’s movements in India, even in the urban centres. Ummul Kher, 24, follows a simple, if exasperating rule of thumb before she leaves her hostel at Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital to travel into town: no water, no food for at least four hours before departure. “I can’t take the chance, especially since I don’t have full use of my left leg due to a bone disease. If there is no western loo, I have to use my hand to support myself on the floor. You can imagine how revolting and unhealthy that is,” she says, adding that her frequent trips to aiims in Delhi to the orthopaedic department are no less traumatic. “The washroom is up a flight of stairs. It was impossible for me to get up there when I was in a wheelchair. So when my sessions lasted from 9 am to 1 pm, I would not have a single drop of water.”
Sometimes urgent matters do call for drastic measures. Bangalore-based French teacher Kamalini Natesan recalls a trip to Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi: “I really needed to use the toilet, so I tried walking to the closest McDonald’s outlet, but it was too far. I finally had to plead with a watchman at a national bank to open the locked bathroom. It took a long time to convince him, but ultimately he sympathised when he realised I was helpless!”
So is it any wonder that the city’s women know never to take a good toilet for granted. Last year, when the popular music festival NH7 Weekender took place in Pune and Delhi, visitors, especially young women, gushed on social media not only about the performances, no, but how well maintained the portaloos at the venue were. The organisers said as much: you can’t deny the place of a toilet in having a good time. Their count of portaloos at the Pune venue which will host about 9,000 people at this year’s edition of the festival: 100.
It’s true that many urban women have access to toilets at home, but let’s not forget they lose that advantage the moment they step out. Ekta Jaju, a documentary filmmaker in Calcutta, points out that the search for a loo is among the few occasions which can make a woman feel really inadequate. “You lose your independence because you want someone to come with you to keep a watch while you use the toilet, hold your bag, especially in desolate places, or at night.” Says Rolly Shivhare, a rights activist based in Bhopal: “Even initiatives like Sulabh shauchalayas are not free of infections, and they are not that many in number anyway. They also give no guarantee of safety for women. In our office, we have just segregated the toilets, but in many offices it’s a daily struggle because the women’s and men’s toilets are not separate.” For women who are often out with children, it’s doubly tricky. “I track down a good hotel if I’m out in the city,” says Sophia Khandelwal, Chennai-based businesswoman. “When I moved to India from Spain I was struck by the number of people urinating out on the streets. But then reality sunk in, where else could they go?”