30 May 2009

In Defense of Toilets

It’s the 100th year of the lavatory- or so says the Hindustan Times. I sure am glad that it is, even if it’s really not. My happiness stems from the realisation of the comfort which all our umpteen modern ‘conveniences’ (talk about fitting names!) have brought to our lives. Sadly, we seem to take all of them, including the humble toilet, for granted.

Arguably, the toilet is one of the single most important invention without which the progress of human civilisation would not have been possible. Without toilets life would’ve been miserable, trudging to the bush and back again every second hour. Without toilets we would never have had ample time to devote ourselves purely to work or leisure, for we would still be nicking into the nearest convenient bush to answer nature’s inexorable call. Villages would not have developed into Kingdoms, Kingdoms not into Empires; Empires would not have fallen, Kingdoms again not risen, Monarchies then not evolved into Democracies.

Considering the pivotal role which toilets have played in human history, it is surprising that so little attention has been paid to them in world literature. The near-universal silence of literature on this vital aspect of human life is as shocking as it is suspect…a gigantic consensual conspiracy of silence, transcending all socio-politico-cultural barriers and shadow lines, seems to be underway to edge out the toilet from public consciousness, thus denying it its rightful place in the annals of history as one of the most fundamental building block of human civilisation. Indeed, the degenerative mythification of the toilet as a cultural taboo unworthy of mention is one of the greatest crimes which Literature is yet to be accounted for.

A world without toilets, a world wherein we did not pee or shit is unimaginable. Yet, the evidence afforded by our Literature seems to suggest otherwise. In no work have I come across a passage wherein somebody just breaks off with a “I gotta pee”. The narratives just go on without any regard for realism. This tendency towards deliberate over-simplification and programmatic marginalisation of important life-processes is markedly prominent in ancient and medieval literature.

Consider for example Homer. The great bard versified so much, yet he could not bring himself to make any single one of his characters to relieve themselves when it’s patently obvious that all of them must’ve spent a considerable amount of time and effort doing so. By a rough estimate, there must’ve been more than 90,000 men in the Achaian army. While the high ups like Achilles must’ve had the luxury of deflating themselves in small pots in the comfort of their tents, a majority of the common soldiery would’ve had to go out, either by the sea or under cover of wooded Ida. Imagine first the sight, thousands upon thousands of men groggily tramping out of their miserable camps to ease out last night’s ration. Imagine then the cumulative stench which would have accumulated around the camp in 10 long years of continuous excreta. Imagine now the environmental degradation, the inestimable damage done to the rivers and fields of Troy. All these are important, pertinent issues, but that all too famous poet sheds no light upon them.

The additional burden of structural artificiality of irresolvable, unbelievable imbalances added on to such fantastic works as epics becomes all the more apparent when one tries to imaginatively identify with their characters. Take the Ramayana. Ramanand Sagar’s version; the final fearsome aerial battle betwixt Ram and Ravan. A volley of abuse and deadly arrows flying over to each side. The tacky ‘mahasangram’ tune blaring in the background.

(Mahasangram! Ek dharm raath par baitha, ek paap rath par baitha, do maha bali, do maha rathi sangram karte hain! Antim charan mai yudh Ravan Ram karte hain! Yudham, yudham, yudham maha-yudham!)
Ram (righteous wrath): Neech nishachar! Asahaiye striyon pe veerta dikhane vale kayar! Tu kis baat par apne ko veer kehta hai! Dharm ki maryada bhang karne vale paapi! Teere samast paapon ka dand aaj tyujhe avash milega! (lightning across the blue-red-yellow-green sky; Narad and Devtas nod in approval)
(Mahasangram! Ek dharm raath par baitha, ek paap rath par baitha, do maha bali, do maha rathi sangram karte hain! Antim charan mai yudh Ravan Ram karte hain! Yudham, yudham, yudham maha-yudham!)
Ravan (devlish sarcasm): Dand dene ka kaam raja ka hai, bhikari ka nahi! (demonic laugh) Hahaha! (more lightning; Narad and an assortment of devtas look worried)
(Mahasangram! Ek dharm raath par baitha, ek paap rath par baitha, do maha bali, do maha rathi sangram karte hain! Antim charan mai yudh Ravan Ram karte hain! Yudham, yudham, yudham maha-yudham!)
Ram (eyeballs popping out in anger; taking up his bow): He paapi, kshatriya prahar karte hain, shastron se, shabdon se nahi! Seh mera var!
(Mahasangram! Ek dharm raath par baitha, ek paap rath par baitha, do maha bali, do maha rathi sangram karte hain! Antim charan mai yudh Ravan Ram karte hain! Yudham, yudham, yudham maha-yudham!)
Ravan (casanovic carelessness; taking up his mace): Kaal tumhe pukar raha he Ram!
(Mahasangram! Ek dharm raath par baitha, ek paap rath par baitha, do maha bali, do maha rathi sangram karte hain! Antim charan mai yudh Ravan Ram karte hain! Yudham, yudham, yudham maha-yudham!)
Ram (sheepish, but with all the Iskvaku dignity): Ruko Ravan! Ruko! Shan bhar ke liye ruko! Yudh viram karo! Aaj subah se sonch nahi gaya hun: aab sheegra, ati-sheegra jana hoga! Mai abhi aya...(to Matali, the charioteer of his divine raath)…Matali, jaldi jungle chalo!
(Ravan, Lakshman, Hanuman, Sugreev, Jamvant, Narad, Devtas and others aghast)
(Mahasangram! Ek dharm raath par baitha, ek paap rath par baitha, do maha bali, do maha rathi sangram karte hain! Antim charan mai yudh Ravan Ram karte hain! Yudham, yudham, yudham maha-yudham!)

I mean, I can take dragons and walking mummies and gandharvas and fairies and daemons, but I simply cannot believe in a world where nobody never ever needs to shit and pee!

Just how simple and easy it would’ve been for us students and critics of humanities, of history, sociology, religion, politics, psychology and literature, if writers had just mentioned the toilets of the rich and famous they immortalised. Had Plutarch just dropped in a line or two about Caesar’s loo before he fell with ‘Et tu’, we could’ve have saved a whole colosseum full of money spent in archaeological excavations. Had the unknown bard of Beowulf just put in a few verses about his lavatory we would not be scratching our head with regard to early Anglo-Saxon conveniences. Had Shakespeare made Hamlet continue his trauma while letting go of his inner tensions our perception of Elizabethan hygiene would’ve been a lot less murky. Had Eliot given Maggie just a wee more room in a little loo of her own we would’ve better understood not just her but the Mill, and so the Victorian milieu, as a whole…

Had…if…the literary history of the toilet’s representation is a sad invisible chronicle of deliberately squandered opportunities, of blatant sacrifices of realism to arbitrary cultural norms in the name of a mythical purity. Of course, Literature’s reprehensible role in the formation of these norms, as for other norms, cannot be over-emphasised. The loss, however, has also been Literature’s, for the toilet’s comic, tragic and tragi-comic (things…cameras…going down the chute) potential has been largely unrealised.

Fortunately, the democratisation of Literature along with the emergence of literatures has ushered in an open-minded honesty which slightly redeems it of past atrocities. (Post) Modern writers in their depiction of reality-which is no longer thrice removed from anything-do not shy away from toilet scenes, be it escaping the police by jumping down a toilet in the Louvre in Brown’s Da Vinci Code or wild sex in an asylum’s washroom in a Bond thriller. However, what really broke the porcelain ceiling was the entry of cinema and television and its depicting of all sorts of toilet and toilet-related activities: sex, strangulation, drinking, electrocution, smoking, stabbing, graffiti, cat-fights, vandalism and so on. Posterity will be indebted to modern-and post-modern-cinema and television for an open, unbiased and healthy pursuit of lavatoric realism which does away with the restrictions of previous narrow eras...

There comes a time in every society’s history wherein it makes a tryst with destiny. Long ago, with the emergence of modernism, we did that and the time has come to redeem that pledge. At the dawn of history the toilet started its unending quest for glory and the trackless centuries are filled with its unyielding struggles. The toilet’s star has finally risen and Literature now stands at the cusp of a new age, a new dawn of equality and emancipation. Freedom and power have brought us a responsibility to correct the wrongs of the past, and we must all labour hard to give expression to our reality, to write in unison for the formation of a better, shitty world…

14 May 2009

Padichcha Muttal

To my parents, thanking them for their good sense, for had they not been so, I would not have been able to write this at all.


“What is education?”, I asked P.T., my oldest-and now settled in Canada-friend.

“I guess its school and college, test and exam, certificate and degree”, he replied. “You know, all that boring stuff.”

However, as I lay down to sleep that night, that seemingly simple question haunted me and my friend’s answer got me thinking.

Is education just about school and college, test and exam? Is its purpose so shallow or is there nota higher meaning attached to it?

That a huge majority of people hold my friend’s view is more than just obvious. Society considers a matric pass to be more educated than an illiterate. Similarly, a degree holder is more educated than a matric pass and a 95% scorer is definitely more valued than a 75% one.

Society is of course right in adopting this approach, for it creates standards which must e met and which, if met, augur well for a person as far as his/her economic condition is concerned.

However, what I feel is that society cannot be justified for calling each and every degree holder or matric pass person as educated.

According to me, education has a far greater meaning than just what our parents and friends would have us believe, for just as it is about ‘all that boring stuff’, it is (or should be) also about acquainting students with the finer aspects of human nature (such as kindness, compassion and honesty), imbibing in them a sense of what is right and what is wrong and sensitising them towards the plethora of problems that mankind faces today and making them realise the individual’s role in solving them.

So perhaps what we consider as education is just the process of getting literate, partially or fully as the case may be. The wisdom and foresight that comes with education has perhaps nothing to do with the subtle art of scoring in exams. If this be the case (and I strongly feel that it is), then all of us ought to stop, introspect and pose that dreadful question to ourselves- “Am I educated?”

Let me give an example of two men whom I happened to come across.

The first one is an amiable man, ever so polite in his manner and ever so witty in his speech. He works hard, is honest and true of heart. This man is a rickshaw puller, an illiterate person from one of the lowest strata of Delhi’s many layered society.

The second is a boisterous person, vulgar in his behaviour and totally unruly in his conduct. His speech is always graced with the most unutterable of swear words that were ever made. This man is a class fellow of mine, a person from a well to do, respectable middle class family.

Who would you consider more agreeable, more likeable, in fact, the better human being- the unlettered, but yet humble rickshaw puller or the so called educated, but yet atrocious middle class lad?

There is something fundamentally wrong with a society that scoffs at the poor rickshaw puller, but showers praise on the rowdy school boy as long as he continues to score (which, considering the technological advances made in the still more subtle art of cheating, is not so difficult!).

It is clear that education and the process of getting literate are two different phenomena, though slightly inter-connected. Therefore, the question worth asking is this- If schools don’t educate, then what does?

To me, the answer lies in that most primitive of human creations that has uptill now stood the ravages of about 10,000 years worth of time and provided the foundation for human society to grow and to flourish- the family.

It is undeniable that a strong, sensible family gives a stable and fruitful environment for children to grow, and resultantly, get educated. It is also undeniable that a weak family deprives children of the essential atmosphere for their stable growth.

Therefore, if the system is churning out such mammoth proportions of uneducated literates, then it is not just the fault of the so called temples of learning that have converted into temples of Mammon, but also the current generation of parents who look inside just the report card and not the heart.

To be literate is easy enough. To be educated is what is challenging.