What you are going to read happened in a small town called Sivakasi, in Tamil Nadu, way back in the 1980s. 1989 to be precise.
For those who don’t know, Sivakasi is a hyper active town with a population of less than 5 lakhs yet supplying 90% of all firecrackers, 80% of all safety matches and more than 50% of all offset printing in India.
I was 14 years old – all of these 14 years were spent in cities such as Jamshedpur, Jalandhar, Kolkata and Kolhapur. On the fateful year – 1989 to be precise, my parents decided that I should spend some time with my maternal uncle’s family. My uncle’s name was Mahalingam. He owned a paper shop, from where offset printers bought all kinds of paper.
Mahalingam uncle and my aunt considered me as a ‘City Boy’ who needed a lot of help adjusting to life in Sivakasi. They tried their very best to make my 15-day stay as comfortable as possible. Unfortunately, they couldn’t help me with one thing – toilets. Back then, houses in Sivakasi didn’t have toilets. Yes, you read it right, they didn’t have toilets. The folks in Sivakasi were so busy working (mind you Jawahar Lal Nehru called Sivakasi the ‘Little Japan’ of India) that they found allocating space to toilets, an unnecessary wastage.
As a result, my uncle’s house also didn’t have a toilet. To top it, he lived in the center of the city. As we move forward in this article you will understand why the location of his house needs a mention.
Finding out that there was no toilet in the house
Within 30 minutes of landing in their house, I asked: “Uncle, washroom?”
“Number one or number two?” He enquired.
“Just tell me….I don’t want you to know what I am going to do inside,” I replied in jest.
“Son, it depends. Tell me, number one or number two?”
“Just head out on to the next lane and hang around till nobody is passing by. The best time for this is between 2 pm to 4 pm…the siesta time.”
“Whattttt?” I just couldn’t believe my ears.
My uncle smiled.
“Don’t worry, we have a better arrangement for number two.” I could see that he was confident that his solution for number two was better than that for number one.
“And what if it were number two?”
“In that case, here take this one rupee coin and head straight for the R.M.S Road, the very next street. They have a public toilet there.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I shot back a shocked, “Really?”
My uncle didn’t read my expression right or maybe he decided to ignore it, and continued, “Once you spot the public toilet, look for a guy sitting outside with a table in front of him and lots of one rupee coins on the table. Just give him your one rupee and he will allow you inside.”
“Whattttt?” Again, I just couldn’t believe my ears.
Fate had struck twice within the span of 30 seconds. And struck at my genitals. It wasn’t going to be easy getting up.
Getting used to a life without toilets
With a heavy heart, I walked out of the house, onto the next lane and waited for it to be empty (it was a long wait)…and then emptied my bladder. The moment I was back, my uncle, aunt and their three children were waiting to ask me how it went. To add insult to injury, they were smiling.
That day, I didn’t drink too much water but still had to rush out at 7 pm. It was a little easier – in the darkness I could merge with the surroundings better. Now I was an expert. The next day, I would go on and explore new lanes and new time slots. More on that later.
At around 8 pm, it struck me that I should also be worried about the next day morning. What about number two? So, I had a very light dinner. It surprised my aunt that a 14-year-old had such bad appetite. “City boys, I tell you,” she complained.
But I wasn’t willing to risk emptying my bowels in my trousers.
At 11 pm, I managed to sleep off the fear. But it was back again when I got up at 6 am. I moved around the house slowly lest I trigger some bowel movements. I refused the tea my aunt gave me saying I wasn’t into drinking tea. She couldn’t believe it but I was adamant.
The morning ritual in a public toilet
At 6.30 am, my uncle said I could accompany him to the public toilet – this was quite a relief because I was (and still am) very bad at directions and it would have taken me at least an hour to find R.M.S Road, even if it was the next street.
Both of us walked out of the V.K.M street, and walked 1 kilometer to reach the R.M.S street. The whole distance I tried to maintain a balanced walk, lest I triggered any intestinal movements. I tried not to laugh at my uncle’s jokes, which tend to upset him a bit but I didn’t care. Honor before anything else.
Once we reach R.M.S Road I noticed that there were only three public toilets, because of which there was a queue. One could also take bath (though thankfully, in my uncle’s house there was a place to take bath) and put on some makeup in front of the wall-mounted mirror. The cashier took my Rs 1 and allowed me entry.
As I walked in, I saw many men smoking cigarettes outside trying to build up the pressure. It also helped that there was a tea stall right next to the public toilets – men who needed a tea to build the force inside could help themselves.
My first public toilet experience was a huge success. I was in and out in less than two minutes. The cashier smiled when he saw me return and asked me to come back the next day – and why not, after all it is the two-minute customers like me whom he would prefer for a bountiful business.
On the way back we bought groceries for the day, from the grocery shop nearby.
And then my stomach revolted
The next day my uncle didn’t accompany me. Since I wasn’t an earning member, I would ask my uncle for Rs 1 and walk out of the house on my daily chore. It was that simple. The next three days went well. In fact, I had started to enjoy the new experience. It was all fine, I told myself. Or at least that is what I thought.
But on the fourth-day tragedy struck…the moment I came out of the toilet after spending my Rs 1, my stomach started mumbling again and I had this urge to go back immediately.
“Hi Sir, I just paid you Rs 1 and came out early. Can I go again please?”
“No Sir, for Rs 1 there is only one entry. To enter again, you need to pay me another rupee.”
I wouldn’t say I walked back with a heavy heart, it was, in fact, a heavy stomach that I walked back home with, asked my uncle for another rupee and walked all the way back to the public toilet to relieve myself. I came back to my uncle’s house a dejected man but a man who had understood the importance of Rs 1.
Being adventurous in toilet-less Sivakasi
This went on for a few days (I had started going there with Rs 2, just in case) and soon enough the royalty wore off. During a casual chat with my uncle on the subject, I asked him: “Is this the only place one can go to?”
“No…there are a couple of other options as well. But I thought you might not be so adventurous.”
This pricked the ego of this Rajan. We Rajans are egotists and we don’t take insults sitting down (pun intended). So, I replied: “You haven’t tried me yet, uncle.”
He continued looking into his sheaf of papers and said: “OK then, be ready tomorrow at 6 am. I would suggest you eat a light dinner.”
The next day we had a visitor at 6 am. It was my uncle’s friend Manikam. The three of us took off at about 6.15 am for an adventurous dump taking. Once I started asking questions, I came to know that we were going to an almost dried up lake in the outskirts of the city (Sivakasi is a small city and you can walk your way out of it). We were to take a dump in the lake, wash up in the yet-to-dry parts of the lake and come back home.
As luck would have it, this lake was 3 kms away and I was tired by the time we reached. But when we reached, it was heavenly….a wide expanse of dried up land with little bushes sprinkled all around. Once we were almost in the middle of the dried up lake, my uncle advised me to take a spot behind one of the bushes and relieve myself. The very next moment, he and his friend vanished, probably behind some bushes.
I looked around, found a thickset bush, went behind it and sat down. The next two minutes were very peaceful. There was nobody in sight, just the chirruping of the birds. Just when I was about to get up I heard some women talking and the voices grew louder with time. It took me a while to figure out that they were right behind me. They were walking towards me.
I had two choices – stay put and pretend nothing happened or get up and stand right in the middle of nowhere pretending I was doing something else. I chose the first option.
Now the voices were really close, and that is when I heard: “Why doesn’t he get up? He is still sitting.”
They were talking about me!
But I held my ground. Now they were probably 15 meters behind me.
Within seconds I could see them from the corner of my right eye. My uncle hadn’t advised me on the appropriate behavior in such instances. I held my ground…I continued to sit. For psychological comfort, I even closed my eyes.
I heard one woman ask the other: “Do you think he is blind?”
The other replied: “Even if he was blind, I am sure he can hear us. Too much of a coincidence that he is both blind and deaf.”
Now I didn’t need to look thro’ the corner of my eye – they had passed me and were now ahead of me. I could see them thro’ the bushes. I continued to hold my ground.
Before they disappeared, the first woman told the second: “Men nowadays…can’t they get up when they see women approaching? Phew!”
Now I knew why the women were upset…but it was too late to get up.
Later my uncle confirmed that Rule Number one of taking a dump in the lake is ‘Get up & pull your trousers up when you see a woman.’
For the next seven days, I preferred the public toilets.
It has been twenty years since, but even today my attached toilet finds a mention in my daily prayer.