The toilet fiasco of our education department last year, in the form of a questionnaire, asking students questions such as “Do you have toilet in your house?” If not, “Why don’t you have toilet in your house?” Again, “What do you wash your hands with?” among other such questions. These questions had to be answered with admission forms in colleges. That news reminded me of an incident of similar nature in my life, almost four decades back.
In my early twenties, I was working in the marketing department of a very reputable company based in Mumbai. I was stationed at their Kolkata branch but after a few months, was called to Bombay to attend the quarterly sales conference. After the conference I was asked to go to Delhi for three weeks to get an idea and feel of the markets in North before proceeding to Punjab, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir independently.
There was one Ravi in our Delhi office with whom I joined forces to get a picture of the market and get acquainted with culture of the Northern people which is quite different from those of other parts in India. Ravi was a witty fellow and I hit it off with him from day one. I stayed in Gujarat Bhavan for the first three days, when Ravi insisted that I should stay with him for the rest of my stay in Delhi. I had learnt that Ravi stayed in a joint family so I hesitated, but Ravi would not take no for an answer and suggested that I try his place for one day and if I was not comfortable, I could shift back to Gujarat Bhavan. So I relented. On the fourth day, after completing office work, he took me to his place in Shahadra.
Shahadra, beyond river Yamuna, was just a developing township then. We had dinner at his place and settled for the night. True to his word, other people of his household left us alone after initial greetings and nobody entered the room we were in. So it was okay.
Ravi woke me up the next early morning and asked me get ready to go to the JUNGLE (chal jungle ho aaein). Not knowing what he meant, I thought he must be talking about morning walk. I asked to be served tea first before anything else. The morning tea arrived with a few biscuits and after tea, Ravi motioned me to follow him. Just near the back side exit of the house, there were three small plastic buckets lying on the ground. He filled one with water from a nearby drum and whispered: “We are going for morning constitution in nearby jungle, take one bucket for yourself . Then the nickel dropped.
I was aghast and at loss of words. I remember to have stuttered a few meaningless words. I had never imagined that I would have to face such a situation in life. Not that I was not aware of such things. I had travelled far and wide throughout India and had seen plenty of such ugly sights, people answering call of nature in the open, relieving themselves at railway tracks and such. But originally I belonged to Calcutta where we had a fairly decent self-contained flat and even in Bombay where I put up we had all modern amenities, in fact both Indian and Western facilities to suit all. So I could never dream of such a situation for myself. So I politely refused Ravi and told him to go ahead. Perhaps he sensed my predicament, hesitated and said: “At least come with me for a walk. What will you do among these womenfolk?” So I went with him.
After about ten minutes walk, we approached an area which had plenty of plants with thick foliage with small bold surfaces in between, scattered here and there, not visible from a distance. On each of such open surface ground, a small group of men squatted, their backs to each other so that they didn’t have to face each other. Trying not to look at them we proceeded further and came upon a slightly big opening where at least ten to twelve men were doing the job. Ravi said: “Here is my group.”
This was the most amazing sight I had ever seen or would want to see in my life. Instead of their backs facing each other, these people were squatting actually facing each other, talking to each other amicably, being most natural in what they were doing, with various containers at each one’s side. They were sitting in a circle leaving an opening on one side as if inviting a few more to join them. One of them was reading a paper, a couple were arguing about something, one had an intense look of pain on his face. It was the most horribly fascinating sight I had seen in my life. As soon as we reached near them, one fellow greeted Ravi saying, “Come Ravi, aren't you a little late today? And where is Mehra?” Another from the group replied: “Mehra is not well. I came by his house.”
The fellow nearest to us saw me and said: “Ravi, saab kaun hain? (Who is this gentleman?)”
Ravi hesitatingly tried to introduce me: “He is a friend…………..” And as soon as the fellow tried to extend his hand to me, I fled the scene without bothering to look at or say anything to Ravi. By the time Ravi returned home I was ready with my shoulder bag. I told him I was going back to Gujarat Bhavan and will meet him in the office. Ravi didn’t stop me.