A brilliant numismatist and an expert on India, James Princep, studied temple architecture and illustrated many specimens in the old city of Benaras
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My near-death experiences have taught me a sobering lesson: you can’t escape them; certainly not while travelling with a full bladder through remote areas where public toilets are as rare as a snow-leopard sighting.
My first such encounter with a local loo at Nimmo, a village in Ladakh poised at the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers, prompted me to condemn the term “public convenience” as criminally misleading.
A novice then, I hadn’t yet seen the toilet tent erected at South Pullu, a military check post en route to Khardung-La, supposedly the world’s highest motorable pass. Waiting outside it was a queue of chirpy women tourists. I watched each one enter. Their dazed silence as they emerged discouraged questions.
My turn came. Creeping past the precipice overlooking a vertiginous drop, I slipped in edgeways through the tent’s no-flap, open end – open to a gale-force wind threatening to blow tent and occupant away, to every Peeping Tom and Polly eager to brave that tightrope walk. Inside stood a latticework platform of criss-crossed bamboo poles so widely spaced that hurrying through the business at hand was secondary to the horror of imagining my sneaker-shod feet slip right through and sink into the pile of fresh “debris”, visible through the gaps, on the rocks below.
Sikkim, therefore, was paradise. “Short: Rs 5; long: Rs 10,” said the no-nonsense signs outside its clean pay toilets. Unsuspecting, we drove up to Gaigaon, an army check post not far from the sacred Gurudongmar Lake. It offered a separate loo for women. Luxury at 15,000 feet, no less. “Queens,” proclaimed the sign outside. My bladder couldn’t resist the honour.
Imperiously, I swept up the concrete slope to the entrance. The floor flew up and smacked a welcome kiss on my forehead. Offended by such familiarity, I picked myself up and took my next baby step carefully. The second kiss landed on my nose. Fearing where this might lead, I conquered the incline on all fours, a primate in battle mode.
Then I examined the floor. How had I tumbled? I eyed the sparkly pieces embedded in the cement – not mica chips as I’d supposed, but small puddles, frozen over and slippery. Puddles? Of water or…? I blanked out the evil possibilities and glanced at the cubicles: unusually low door frames – I’d have to pass through bent double – and another steep gradient, mosaicked with sleet. But this one was special: a deep groove ran down the middle, rich with the legacy of braver souls than me.
I retreated, cautiously. I survived. My bladder, though, was never the same again.
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