Saturday, October 10, 2009

A visit to the Ladies' Toilet in a Most Important Place

Caution: Gross details follow.
Yesterday, I visited the building where the headquarters of a very important government organization were housed. It was a long morning and as I waited for my meeting, it seemed like a sensible idea to visit the rest-room.
I wasn't expecting luxury, I assure you. I stepped in, gingerly. It was not very clean but I have seen worse in my lifetime as an Indian woman. I thought I would pull the flush.
The split second that followed was like a moment in the heart of the special effects of a horror film. Water rushed out in a torrent..... around my feet! I ran out of the stall as if chased by a vampire or an avenging banshee.
It took me a few minutes to compose myself. As I narrated this story later on, it was also funny. But outrage also remains with me.
This is the only ladies' restroom on the floor that houses the CEO of the organization. What if the CEO were a woman? What happens to the women who work there (and by the way, I barely recall seeing any)? What is the plight of women who visit for all-day meetings?

We organize a 16-day campaign against gender violence in Chennai and one part of the campaign addresses the issue of a good working climate for women in the context of workplace harrassment, but this is even more fundamental. How can you go to work in a place which doesn't bother with the upkeep of the most basic lavatory facilities for women? Perhaps the men's toilets are as bad, but is that an excuse or a consolation?

Why don't we care about these very basic amenities? How can a person go to work if their stomach is even slightly upset? How is a woman to work during her menstrual period or in the last stages of her pregnancy when she would need to use the toilet more often?

The conference room is airconditioned but the kitchen and pantry area are not built for hygiene. The executive office wears a designer label but the toilets are ghastly. The campus is manicured but the road approaching it is an open sewer. I am not writing about any one office or institution. This place is everywhere, and we have all suffered it.
On a day when the world is discussing President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, I suggest that the most appropriate recipient for this honour should be a person who has made toilets, hygiene and sanitation their priority--whoever it is.

PS: On my own bathroom water-banshee attack experience, I should add that when I ran out, I could not wash my hands because the soap-dispenser was empty and there was barely a trickle of water coming out of the taps. Luckily (for those who will rightfully worry) I always carry wet wipes and I could somehow assuage my own sense of 'ugh' before stepping back outside.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Thoughts about Delhi 2

It's wonderful to be in a city which takes cognizance of India's diversity as much as Delhi does. This city has changed so much, from the provincial but accidental darbar seat of India to a truly multicultural, even cosmopolitan city. I have sensed it before, but this time I can really tell. Maybe Delhi has become more this way since my last visit and maybe the contrast with Chennai--and my life--is just that stark.
Chennai, on the other hand, feels more and more provincial. Determinedly monolingual, monocultural, insular, even xenophobic... at the risk of being inundated by hate-mail and worse, I have to write this. Chennai doesn't feel like India.
This is the India I grew up in. Delhi still has traces of it. A continental national vision that has slowly, steadily made a melange of its determinedly North Indian cultural base. Nehru's India is still alive in Delhi--physically and now, culturally.
I want to say I feel like a foreign tourist because Chennai doesn't seem to belong to this country at all. But more, I feel like an exile coming home.
Bombay also used to feel like another world. And I used to say when I worked here twenty years ago that I stayed and worked in Delhi but lived in Bombay. I would compare Delhi to Aurangzeb's darbar where I was like a visiting mansabdar with a very small mansab. Shivaji.
Now both Delhi and I have changed, I come from elsewhere, and this feels so delightful.

Last night, I was at the DIAF concert featuring Bhai Baldeep Singh singing Gurbani in Dhrupad style for the first hour and then Aruna Sairam singing Bhakti music in eight languages in the second. Aruna Sairam and I come from the same India: where all these languages and all this music is ours to enjoy and cherish. I also really enjoyed the first part, and relished the idea that I could access and learn about something new so easily here.

On another note, though, in a continuation of my earlier reactions to Delhi experiences, I heard the DIAF organizer say this was India's largest arts festival and thought: really? One whole month, Margazhi, dedicated to the performing arts and now spilling past the month on either side... that's surely a good contender for the title.
I could also understand why Carnatic performers enjoy their 'season' concerts so much. It must be so nice to just sing and not be in explanation/translation mode.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Thoughts from Delhi

I am in Delhi after almost a year and a half, and driving into the city in the fast-disappearing twilight, I cannot believe how much more construction there is everywhere. My memory tells me where we should be but I cannot spot any of the landmarks myself. Delhi looks like a growing, booming, dare I say, modern city to my eyes.
I am also struck by how clean it looks. As always.