No trivial matter

We like to keep our homes neat and clean but habitually dump garbage out on the streets and in parks. Who amongst us does not occasionally feel the need to answer the call of nature when outdoors, yet we don’t build public toilets. Men urinate overtly and defecate covertly.  Women cope somehow, only they know how. 

(Published in the Daily Times, 23 May 2012

Karachi will have 200 paid public toilets in the next few months, we are told.  To the extent that this promise will turn into reality, millions of Karachi’s citizens will heave a sigh of relief.  No luxury, the humble toilet.  Answering the call of nature is no laughing matter!

I suppose that one can measure the level of social development and civic consciousness of any society by the attitude of its members to public hygiene and their willingness to stand in a queue where required. 

We like to keep our homes neat and clean but habitually dump garbage out on the streets and in parks. Who amongst us does not occasionally feel the need to answer the call of nature when outdoors, yet we don’t build public toilets. Men urinate overtly and defecate covertly.  Women cope somehow, only they know how.  By contrast, Westerners consider the provision and proper maintenance of public toilets in all public spaces just as important as building roads, parks and playgrounds.

In the 1980’s and early 90’s I traveled by bus from Islamabad to Gilgit (18 hours), Karachi to Islamabad (28 hours), Quetta to Karachi (12 hours), Madras to Bangalore (10 hours) and Bangalore to Bombay (25 hours).  More recently I took the inter-city bus in Bangladesh as well.  There were no public toilets anywhere along the way, not even one, not in Pakistan, not in India and not in Bangladesh.

About two years ago, on the way to a spectacular tourist resort high in the Tien Shan mountains about 100 kilometres from Urumchi in western China, our bus stopped at a rest area with a few shops and public toilets.  The shops were doing brisk business, but the toilets had neither water, nor toilet paper, nor soap.  Human faeces lay strewn amid pools of urine. But, thankfully, at the end of the journey the resort itself had very fine public toilets.

In India, some parts of large cities resemble open-air toilets and urinals, even in cities so popular with tourists as Mumbai, Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi.  In Agra, the sound of a train approaching an overhead crossing sends everyone on the road below darting back, lest they be showered over by human excrement and urine dropping straight down from the train’s toilets.  

Looking out the window from any early morning train approaching or departing New Delhi, one can see, on either side, between the train and the shanty dwellings, rows of men answering the call of nature.  Barely ten metres from the train, they present a very unsavoury sight, leave alone the hygiene.  In terms of squalor and disregard for public hygiene, India is easily the world’s superpower. 

It is something of a consolation to know that even Europeans are relatively recent converts to public hygiene.  Dustbin is called la poubelle in French after one Eugene-Rene Poubelle who, as a city administrator, introduced dustbins on the streets of Paris in the late 19th century.  Initially, he earned the public’s ire, not gratitude, for his troubles.  Parisians consigned his name, quite literally, to the dustbin!

While Asians are generally averse to standing in a queue, in the West people join queues as naturally as they walk the streets.  In the former Soviet Union, however, queues were in a class by themselves.  They are best described by Hedrick Smith in his book, The Russians (1974), as having a dimension of their own, a different concept from anywhere else.

Though a mighty superpower in the 1970s, the Soviet Union perennially suffered from shortages of everything except armaments, of which it was a great exporter.  Being the best provisioned city, Moscow attracted shoppers from the regions and small towns, where shortages were even more acute.

In big stores one queued three times, once for viewing to select the item and get a voucher from the sales-girl, then to pay at the cashier’s and get the voucher stamped as “paid”, and finally to queue again to take delivery of the purchased item. 

One often queued even without knowing what it is that one wanted to buy or what it is that is on sale.  The longer the queue, the greater the urge to join it, for logically the object of a long queue ought to be a “high value target”, to use a terminology now popular with American strategists. The length of the queue had to be directly proportional to the scarcity of the merchandise on sale!  It could meander from the ground floor, up the stairs, to the upper floor. 

Having joined a queue, one would wait just long enough for a few more people to join the queue, after which one exchanged a few pleasantries with the person behind, sufficient to leave a visual impression of oneself on the other person, then disappear after saying, “I will be back shortly”. 

One would then walk to another queue and similarly secure one’s place there.  As a result, queues tended to be rather elastic – they would shrink and expand.  One would take a step forward, only to be pushed one step back, for while some people would leave from the front of the queue after being served, others would reclaim their place in the middle.

Having invested so much time in a queue, one would be foolish to return empty-handed.  So, if the shoes or jeans on sale were not the right size, one would buy a pair or two anyway, for they were sure to fit some relative or friend.   News of some good import available in a particular store would result in a quick dash in that direction, before it ran out. 

Fresh fruits and vegetables were the scarcest of all.  Bananas, oranges, grapes, peaches and apricots were as scant in Soviet Russia as they are in the Sahara.  Thank heavens for the apples, potatoes, carrots and cabbages.  Pathetically malnourished they looked, but they nourished millions. At least they were mostly available, most of the time.

Watermelons occasionally made a brief appearance in Moscow during summer, transported from one of the many –stans which were then a part of the USSR, only to run out before one reached the front of the queue.  Then, those sweet watermelons quickly turned into sour grapes!

by Razi Azmi

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1 Response to No trivial matter

  1. Nadeem says:

    The bottom line is that hygiene is the last thing on everyone’s minds back home. Unless the citizens start an action campaign themselves, little will get done. In the present India, everyone is too good to clean drains and therefore, it falls to us to clean our drains ourselves, that is, until we find an alternative.
    In Golding’s words: ‘Everywhere man goes, he takes his filth with him’ and so it is with us. I think that for NRI’s who have lived abroad for the greater part of their lives, it is very hard to settle for the lack of hygiene when they return home. What’s more, the residents don’t think it matters at all!
    Change is obnoxious to human nature anyway because it challenges habit and the comfort zone we live in. Residents have built a charming home in mohallas where they are surrounded by the interesting smells of fecal sewage, rotting rubbish, people peeing and spitting where they will, broken nullahs which are overflowing with all sorts of household waste etc. And when the rains come, the street or gali is run over by a deluge of raw sewage from everywhere…

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