While travelling on incredible India’s incredible railways, I remembered an incident from mid-80s when I was returning jubilant from the Services Selection Board, Bangalore. Those days, getting a berth in the Parliament was easier than getting one on Indian trains. I had a ‘provisionally confirmed’ seat on Indian Navy’s prestigious first batch of 10+2 (Executive) Course for Officers (see Ocean’s Best ). But without a confirmed seat on Indian Railways for the return journey, I found myself pushed and shoved into the ‘Unreserved’ compartment’s lavatory with three other passengers. Those days it was possible to travel ‘without reservation’ in a train’s lavatory; most of us would have undertaken this journey at least once. Unless, of course, you were born with Air India’s silver-plated spoon in your mouth.
I have since retired from the Navy after a career spanning 27 years. So, a recent train journey from my hometown Palakkad to Bangalore gave me an opportunity to experience the déjà vu of ‘Indian Style’ from the safety of my confirmed berth on 3-Tier AC.
In the intervening three decades, India has made advances in every other field from the landmark economic reforms of 1991 to ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission. But the humble train lavatory has remained, well, humble. The only change I observed is addition of a new fixture called ‘Western Style’. Mind you, this is not the same as ‘Indian Style’ because we are slowly losing the ability to shoot straight when rocking side to side at 120 kmph.
It is ingenious how Indian Railways has provided so many facilities in such little space. There is the equipment for relieving yourself, of course. A Vaastu-compliant basin complete with mirror adorns the left side of the left lavatory and right side of the right lavatory (in case you want to powder up to impress that pretty F25 sitting across the aisle). A water-saving tap with foreskin-like operating mechanism requires such single-handed dexterity to use that it prepared us for one-finger texting long before the advent of smartphones. This supplemented the time-tested, Indian Railways’ technique of saving precious water – provide no water till irate passengers threaten to pull the chain. Another recent addition is a liquid soap dispenser which spews out some air and soap bubbles (if you are the lucky one) but no soap. Reason why frequent travelers like me carry along that cake of soap lifted from the previous night’s hotel stay. And if you believe in texting while on the job, your mobile could soon be out of coverage area and find its final resting place between a rock and a hard place.
Not to forget the humble stainless steel mug-on-a-leash. Designed by some sadistic genius who introduced a last-inch-connectivity conundrum, depriving you of any chance to respectably clean up. Try reversing your position and it still leaves you cross-legged and cross-eyed because now you can’t find the bloody tap as it’s disappeared behind you. Many years of evolution led us to the conclusion that nothing works like a Bisleri bottle. That steel mug-on-a-leash is a scam, perpetrated by some evil foreign engineer who never needed the mug anyway.
There’s a rattling fan that blows typical railways’ phenolic stink on your face, but damned if you can find how to operate it. You search in vain for the switch and finally give up – leaving the fan rotating into perpetuity, which is how it was designed to work in the first place.
The flush knob is another instrument of torture. It requires the devil’s strength to operate and there are only two possible outcomes. Either nothing will come out of it, or it will unleash suddenly with the fury of a Himalayan flood, threatening to flush you down the hole. If the former happens, you are back to fiddling with the steel mug. If the latter happens, you come out sheepishly hoping other passengers don’t notice your wet ankles.
There is that handle to hold on with one hand. Again, you can never hold it and still be able to finish your business unless you are wearing industrial harness.
There is no sure way of knowing from outside if the lavatory is occupied, so don’t be alarmed if you hear some break-in attempts while you are at it. Latch yourself in if you don’t want F25 to catch you in the foetal position.
While every rail minister espouses his dream budget, I wonder when they will ever announce a rail map to better-maintained lavatories on trains. Something that endures our cross-cultural demographics and offers more than the binary solution of ‘Indian Style’ and ‘Western Style’ lavatories that are cleaned only once in a few days (or weeks, if truth be told). Please spare a thought for the hapless M81s and F75s who in their advancing years have to go through this more often than frequent flyers like me and you. Prime Minister Modi has a catch phrase for it – “Shauchalay Banao”. This time, let’s do it on the trains, Mr. Rail Minister.
Oh, while describing lavatories and trains, I suddenly realize the train has chugged into my destination, Bengaluru. So long, Indian Railways. Together, let’s add more steam to the ‘Swachh Bharat’ campaign.
Image courtesy: en.wikipedia.org