Earlier this week, seven of nine celebrities on Sony Television’s Iss Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao, a reality show set in the Malaysian rainforest, angrily announced that they wanted out because one of the contestants had been bitten/scratched during a “jungle challenge”. After intense off-camera negotiations, the contestants said they would stay put if the channel agreed to certain conditions. One of the items on their charter of demands was that they would absolutely not clean their own toilets.
Works of art: Ornamental toilets are displayed at Sulabh International’s Museum of Toilets in New Delhi.
What is it about cleaning our own toilets that gets us all hot and bothered? Surely as urban, progressive Indians who can argue convincingly that caste is no longer such a big scourge in this country, we still don’t believe that cleaning toilets is a job best left only to others? Why do we find it demeaning to clean our own toilets?
At home we clean our own toilets (the husband does most of the work, but it has never occurred to either of us to find a third person to clean our loos). On busy weeks, the part-time maid helps out.
Growing up in 1980s Mumbai, the retinue of support staff in the homes of friends and family never cleaned the toilets. There was always a sweeper who marched in and briskly washed all the bathrooms. We lived in a hotel so there was always someone to cook and clean, but several years ago when my father announced that he was phasing out the position of sweeper and that the hotel bathrooms would, henceforth, be cleaned by the floor helpers, there was huge protest.
The helpers said they would not clean bathrooms, saying that it was beneath their dignity. Eventually, it was decided that all the new helpers the hotel employed would be told clearly that their job description included cleaning toilets. After a decade or so, all the helpers now clean toilets, but many are still unhappy about this part of their job.
Of course things are changing. I just did a spot poll of the colleagues who sit around me in the office and everyone said they clean their own toilets. We all know Infosys’ Narayana Murthy cleans his own toilet. And even the creepy Rahul Mahajan scrubbed toilets cheerfully on the last season of Bigg Boss and joked that he had done such a good job that Lysol should sign him on as brand ambassador.
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Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of the Sulabh Sanitation Movement, is an encyclopaedia on toilets, untouchability, manual scavengers and our attitudes towards sanitation. Sulabh runs 7,000 pay toilets in India but Pathak says nearly 4,000 collect very little money because they are rarely used.
When he launched pay toilets in Patna in the 1970s, people laughed. “They said here people don’t pay rail fares and bus fares and you expect them to pay to use the toilet,” Pathak recalls.
He believes our toilet phobia goes back to the Puranic period when it was suggested that we should not defecate near human habitation. So people typically walked a distance from their homes, dug a pit, did their business, filled it up with grass and leaves and then covered the hole with soil. “No house had a toilet so there was no habit of cleaning the toilet,” he says.
These days Pathak is working on building a culture of sanitation among schoolchildren. “I begin by telling the teachers that they should take turns to clean the toilets and set an example. If families protest that their children shouldn’t be cleaning the school toilets, it should be explained firmly that this is the rule for all who study in this school,” he says.
If Pathak is successful in getting our children to understand the importance of a clean toilet, at least the next generation will be assured cleaner airline toilets and more respect for public restrooms.
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