What’s in a toilet? After all, it’s just another shallow victory of civilization over primal instinct. You cannot expel body fluids as and when Mother Nature calls, you have to find the appropriate place. And the appropriate place is a toilet. Now put that in perspective with a person like me, who did not need to deliver a baby to get a weak bladder, and a toilet becomes a torture chamber of the most gruesome proportions.
I have always envied all those cast iron bladdered women who could sit guzzling cold drinks on an eight hour bus journey to Amritsar without even thinking loo. If I have to travel from Delhi to Meerut (forty-five minutes in the hands of a seasoned DTC driver in the old days), I have to stop all fluid intake from the night before. Even so, I just about make it to the Meerut bus depot.
But the real test for the bladder lay in Europe. Firstly, I realized that answering Mother Nature’s call was not just a question of finding an appropriate place. You had to (a) pay and (b) manoeuvre the most intricate turnstiles and coin-operated doors.
If you think I’m nitpicking, how about budgeting Rs 200 per day in forex on toilet expenses? From twenty pence a go in England to up to a euro in Germany, I soon found I had calculated my budget without consulting the bladder! Also, I had to plan ahead of schedule in time to make it past the turnstiles with the exact change.
Apart from the twenty pence, England was fine. WCs and Toilets. Ladies and Gentlemen. But one Tube station stumped me. It had no words on the doors, which, by the way, were side by side – just little plaques depicting a shepherd/shepherdess straight from Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon. Have you ever thought of how like each other the Versailles courtiers dressed? I was just about to toss a coin, when a man emerged from the left door. Whew! That was close.
York was more friendly. They had public toilets all over the place, coin-operated, of course, but most users stuffed a wad of toilet paper in the door to prevent it locking after they left. The next person, who got in free, was supposed to return the favour, as I discovered to my consternation from the glares I got when I let my door snap shut unconcernedly.
Wales was a nightmare – quite literally all Welsh to me. Suddenly, the Toilets all became Toiledaus. It took me half a day to figure that one out. Then it clicked. What else do you do but toil to get in there? As for Ladies and Gentlemen, I stuck to the signs. Luckily, Marie Antoinette never made it past the Welsh border.
As an aside, do you know that in Geneva, if you disturb your neighbours by pulling the flush or having a shower after nine at night, you can have the cops called in on you? That was a tough week, believe me. Still, restaurant owners in Geneva take pity on bladder sufferers. For the price of a cup of coffee, you can use the rest room and drink the coffee, too. A much better bargain than 20p for just a pee. Public toilets are few and far between, but what there are, are free.
Amsterdam has eco-toilets, little green kiosks that sprout up suddenly on street corners and disappear just as suddenly. Not so clean, the flushes are as whimsical as the kiosks in which they stand, but eco-friendly, I guess, does have its disadvantages. The bladder, well trained in India, frankly did not care.
But where Holland really rose to the occasion was on the motorway. Every gas station had a toilet. Proclamations of the fact started a good kilometre in advance, so one could actually live in anticipation. The toilets themselves were sumptuous, beautifully appointed, smelling of citrus and pine – I’m sure the bladder thought it had died and gone to heaven.
Cross two international borders and enter Germany, and the bladder came into its own version of hell. Well, you have to take the good with the bad! And Germany really was bad. The autobahns would promise a toilet, but when you made it gasping to the door, it would be ominously and uncompromisingly locked. The doors that were open yielded to sparse little cubicles, not particularly obvious in cleanliness. Quite basic, to tell the truth. And aptly named – Damen and Herren!
My woes didn’t end with a lighter wallet every time I used a public loo. Each toilet I visited had a different flush system and a unique tap. I know the West is far advanced technologically, but it seems to me that their advances appear targeted specifically at toilets. A truly anal society!
During the course of my various visits to the loo, I have stamped, pressed, pushed and clicked buttons, even waved my hand before one, to get the flush going. Even so, I had one flush going off under me before I was quite through. The sensor that worked the flush automatically had gone haywire, I guess, but to a Third Worlder like me, it was a mystical experience.
Another wonder loo was the one I encountered in a London suburb, in a poky little restaurant that served the most marvellous falafel. After the job was done, and I was up, I found the toilet seat rising up at me. How did it know I was a brown skin? I wondered miserably. Then I noticed a wee sponge coming out from the flush tank area. The toilet seat went around twice to be wiped clean by the sponge. I felt terribly guilty for having caused it so much work.
However, I had the final satisfaction on the way back. Just as I had worked myself into a tizzy at Heathrow about whether I had the time to make it for that one, final trip to the toilet and was worrying about what fresh horrors this one would hold, I noticed a massive ad panel. ‘Suffering from incontinence?’ it asked. ‘Try our extra heavy duty pads. You’ll never have to worry again about reaching the loo on time!’ Leaky bladders were not a uniquely Third World phenomenon, after all!
First published in The Financial Express in September 1999.