Translated from Gujarati by Dr.G.K.Vankar
Since I came to live in Gandhinagar I have only two kinds of dreams, either of police or of toilets. Among the ever-expanding colonies of workers in the eastern belt, Rajpur, my home or native place, is one of them. Father used to say that he did not find any work hence he left the village. Thereafter, wherever we live is our village. Father worked in ganjifarak mill of Rakhiyal. In eastern Ahmedabad, as a shadow of every chimney of a textile mill there existed a chawl. One such chawl in Rajpur Gomtipur is Abu Kasai’s chawl. My home was in that chawl.
As the respiratory system is linked with my existence, so is my excretory system. If I stretch my memory to the time very close to my birth, then what emerges immediately in my mind are the latrines of Hiralal’s chawl in our neighborhood. Somehow or the other we were able to fill the pit of belly, but where to go for toilet was a major problem.
It was like this. Our chawl did not have its own latrines. That’s why we had to go to toilets of the neighboring chawl. We children would squat anywhere on the footpath but what about the elders? What about women? In our chawl mostly Rohits of Kheda district lived. In the other chawls, mostly Vankars of Mehsana lived. We did not have our own toilets hence we had to go to the toilets of the neighboring chawls. The residents of Hiralal’s chawl were possessive of their toilets hence they would tease us calling us Chanotara.
And what were the toilets like? The seat was neither of marble nor of tiles. The wall plaster was peeling off. The doors were not in place and the stopper? Sing praise to Rama! As footrests there were two stones. But of these, one was either broken or was on verge of breaking. Hence one was compelled to squat with a slant. One had to sit with the chain secure in one’s hand and if the queue outside lengthened, they would shout. If someone said that a particular toilet is occupied by a chanotara then they would barge in, would pour away the chambu3 water. If we were in the queue and our turn was next, at that juncture even if a child of Hiralal’s chawl came, we had to forgo our claim. The first lessons of social inequality that I learnt were in the queue of the toilets.
I sometimes think that we dalits, instead of using the word sugandh or suwas (fragrance) use the word gandh (stink); why so? In the dalit dictionary there are no words like sugandh or suwas -gandh of the roses and gandh of the scent. And then I wonder that if one has ever experienced the smell of the toilets then how could words like sugandh or suwas even enter in his or her perception. Not only of our chawl, toilets of other chawls and slums too would be fully studded with shit, even today.
Besides, in our toilets, people would even release rats caught in traps. Hence, when we were squatting, mama mushak would arrive all of a sudden to startle us! In the shit packed toilet when feces fell, then it would splash all over our body. Moreover when the toilets overflowed time and again, the smell would become intolerable. And yet I have not seen anyone covering nose with handkerchief or clamping nose with fingers.
Just in front of the toilets, there is an open space. Children and adolescents squat there in the open. When I had to go to the toilet in the morning making way through their shit, how difficult it was, I can still visualize that vividly. These toilets had customers throughout the day. But the young girls and women usually came to toilets at night. Young wives would come covering chambu with end of sari. Most women would sit with the doors open and their sisters-in-law or friends would stand guard holding the door; and would chatter standing there. I wondered why everyday at night youth would frequent the area. I came to know the secret after quite some time. To meet one’s love or betrothed, one was not required to go to a restaurant or a garden. If at night one stood near the toilets, he could see all women. The toilets of Hiralal’s chawl were their love garden.
Near our toilets there was the Ahmedabad Municipal Transport Service (AMTS) bus stop of Hiralal’s chawl. The college going boys and girls from the chawls would wait for their turn at the toilets in a queue or would pass with a chambu in hand. I have witnessed how they would try to hide themselves from eyes of their collage mates. The caste Hindu boys and girls used to call this bus-stop near the toilets, ‘hollywood.’ The college going boys and girls were so ashamed to get down at this stop that they would rather get down at kamdar maidan or Gomtipur and then walk back to their homes.
When the toilets overflowed, it would be terrible. Shit and dirty water would spread all over the road. The cleaner of the toilets would mostly be a lean thin woman, usually a widow or a separated woman. The overseer would assign them only this work. I have seen so many sweeper women dying very young cleansing the toilets of Hiralal’s Chawl. The toilets had no doors, or the doors were broken or else many wooden layers of the doors were peeled off. She had to go to clean the toilet even if a man was sitting in the toilet. Besides if the man who came were headstrong or influential, he would order her to pour two extra chambus of water to clean the toilets.
On the Diwali nights mermerayas and on the New Year mornings khalkhokhro they would put near the toilets only. Many would dump the waste directly in the toilets or in the gutters of the toilets. Hence on the New Year mornings the toilets would overflow without fail. My house was on the entrance of the chawl. Municipal footpath was our front extension of the house. Hence it was we who were troubled by the smell most. My bosom friends Indubhai Jani and Harshadbhai Desai would come to greet me on the New Year day in the chawl home. Mother and we all would be tense right from the morning because of overflowing toilets. Mother would be busy from the morning to cleanse the faces with a tin plate or a broom. She would blabber and abuse while she went on cleaning. We would pour much water but would the smell of the toilet go like this? We had to welcome Indubhai and Harshadbhai with the smell of toilet only. We would light incense sticks everywhere in the house, but can that conquer the smell of the toilet? For using such toilets we had to pay tax. I heard about Aamir Khan’s Oscar nominated film Lagaan (tax) only recently, but I was introduced to lagaan of the toilets long back. Some influential or headstrong person would come to our homes every month to collect the toilet rent. He would come dead drunk. Uttering abuses he would demand the rent. If someone told that he has not yet got monthly salary, then he would be troubled to the point of death. So many women would supplicate and give the toilet tax.
Since I grew up, I had thought of doing something about the toilets. My small efforts of getting constructed our chawls’ independent toilets were the beginning of my public life. As the population in Rajpur became dense, then the issue of widening the roads came up. The toilets of Hiralal’s chawl also came within the boundary of the road and hence the two rows of men’s toilets were demolished. At that time, many like me had pangs in their hearts as if their own houses were demolished.
These chawls had problem of urinals, too. One caste-Hindu doctor in the area would go to Gomtipur village to pass urine. This was because, to reach urinal of the chawl was so difficult and on the wall of the urinal there was some sticky substance which smelled so foul. Another doctor friend would never go to the public urinal ,but would pass urine in his clinic behind the screen of the injection room only in the chokdi.
When Municipality declared a scheme of construction of private toilets with 80% contribution of corporation and 20% contribution of the owner of the house, we got our toilet constructed. When it was being done a funny thing happened. Seeing that a single toilet was being constructed a vaghri woman could not help asking my mother- “why are you constructing only one toilet? Would you not make one for the women?” Toilets should be separate for men and women in the house too – that was her belief. When the toilet was ready with its white tub, brand new tiles with borders, we were struck with wonder. The ceiling of rest of my house is made of tin, that of the toilet and bathroom are pucca. In the house, the floor had a cement plaster but the toilet has beautiful tiles. To tell the truth, in the whole house it was the most clean and nice place where one would like to sit and eat.
Gradually many houses had their own toilets. But the toilets of Hiralal’s chawl remained as they were with all their dirt. So many workers and youngsters have tried to construct community hall, shops, K.G. there, but the smell was difficult to be eliminated.
When in 1997, there was an incident of damaging of Dr.Ambedker statue in Ramabai Colony, Mumbai, dalits throughout the country were agitated. In protest, Ahmedabad and Gujarat bandhs were announced. That night the road was full of agitated dalit crowds. The youth wished to give vent to their anger, but how? Someone had a funny idea and talked of demolishing toilets of Hiralal’s chawl. The whole vanar sena was called into action. Within minutes, the toilets were demolished. People took away even the bricks smeared with shit. Then there were discussions for several days what to do with the space. Some thought that the toilets were owned by the chawl and hence the residents of the chawls should decide. There was another opinion that now that most houses had personal toilets, we should not construct toilets again at this place. Some wanted that the toilets should be constructed. Finally it was decided to construct toilets as per the ‘Pay and Use’ toilet scheme. Within twelve months, fine toilets were ready. The toilet stands with new color and decor - with its walls, floor with tiles, and beautiful plants at the entrance. The toilet is such that rather than going for shauch (toilet) one feels like sitting there for soch (thinking). For using the toilet, one has to pay one rupee. The textile mills are closed, the factories have dull market, and whole area is afflicted with poverty and unemployment. Hence pay and use toilet is hardly being used.
Whenever I go to Rajpur, in place of toilets of Hiralal’s chawl, I see ‘Nutan Pay and Use toilet’ and it pierces my heart. There are only few beautiful, shapely, colored buildings in our area comparable to these toilets; we call this decorated toilet as ‘Mayor’s Bungalow’. I see such Mayor’s Bungalows not at one but so many places. In the midnight I have dreams of toilets of Hiralal’s chawl and they keep me awake throughout the night and compel me to write something about them.
Rohits,Vankars = SC sub-castes
Chambu = Cylindrical vessel made of tin for water for washing after toilet
mama mushak = Maternal uncle mouse
mermerayas = Earthern lamps taken in a procession on Diwali night,
khalkhokhro = Earthen vessels that are changed on New Year Morning.
chokdi = A square spot generally in the corner of a room, set apart for accumulating waste
vaghri = OBC community
vanar sena = Army of monkeys, mischiveous crowd
Chandu Maheria, born 28 June 1959, is an activist, poet and a writer. He works as an Officer in the Gujarat State Government.
He edited Asmita: A Collection of Representative Dalit Poetry (1984) and Visfot (1984). He also edited ’Madi Mane Sambhare Re’ ( A collection of memoirs about dalit mothers, 1994). He is credited with more than one thousand letters to editors on vital issues.
His address: ’Nirant’, 1416/1, Sector 2B, Gandhinagar 382007, Gujarat.