Indian Style or Western Style

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.


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43 thoughts on “Indian Style or Western Style

  1. Quirky, funny, absolutely spot on kips. I couldn’t stop laughing for a moment. Can you pen another one about the ubiquitous chai wallah on trains who board and disembark with the dexterity and speed of a leopard

  2. Ha ha Kps you spent more time in and on the loo than with the F21!! Really well penned. Can visualise the situation completely theough your words!!

  3. This is an awesome description of the biggest public transport system if our country . The beauty of the trains lavatory is that rarely anyone complains. Everyone tries to adjust, cause it is a temporary short journey. The second reason for no complaints is that most people who would have complained have jumped to a bandwagon who travel by air.

    An excellent peep into this important facet…Congratulations kp…well written

  4. Stark reality, humbly portrayed. I am positive that the day is not far when these basic necessities will get the much needed attention from those responsible for managing and running them. I echo, what you rightly said KP, Swachh Bharat, is a bold step in the right direction.
    Vivek Sharma

  5. Very well written KP – thoroughly enjoyed, beginning to end. Keep at it. Look forward to your next blog.

  6. Ha ha…wonderfully written piece…could visualize the scene so clearly…time well spent in the journey KP….

  7. Great piece Sir ! Spot on with the facts and humour. You should send the link to Suresh Prabhu too.

  8. Very true!! Been since I undertook a train journey in IR. From your description, nothing much seems to have changed!

    The hope is still alive. I am sure with the introduction of the new trains (high speed/ bullet trains), the poor country cousins will also see a change!!!!!!

    1. Thanks sir. A lot is riding on this rail minister and his boss, the PM. Since toilets have caught the PM’s fancy, we sure can hope for some change on trains too.

  9. Hi kps. Very well written article. Could not stop laughing through out. I also remember a phrase written in every toilet in those days
    ‘ shareer ka koi ang bhahr nai nekale’

  10. KPS it requires some imagination to look at the poor humble tap like this. Not that you spared the rest of the stuff in there. Great read. Keep going.

  11. Hi KP well written. You are in the league of writers! Reminds me of Jonathan Swift and seagull..One…you are like flier by night and writer by day.. it is your blogs..

    1. Deeply appreciate your lavish praise venky! These are the small incentives that provide stimulus for digging into mundane subjects and finding something to laugh about. Hope to always match up to your discerning standards!

  12. Hey pisha,
    Rolling in laughter…could visualise the entire sequence of actions!!! Brilliant.

  13. I am one of the lucky ones to be born with the silver spoon of Air India because of my father. Half of my life was spent in the skies and between the clouds and seeing the world as a map as I traveled from my hostel to my home. From the best served foods to the most handsome pilots and the then beautiful air hostesses I have seen quite closely. And as I was usually an unattented minor I got the privileges of been treated like a princess. But seeing the world from such a height turned into a boredom for me as I never really enjoyed the regular things.

    This all happened when I travelled in a train in 2013. I had to travel from Delhi to Jharkhund for a project on the Gond Artists. A project that I had got from the ministry. For the trip I was getting all the worlds facility for travelling which I rejected as I wanted to travel with the masses not as an officer from Govt. Therefore I reserved a ticket for the third class compartment. But really didn’t know the horrors I would face. But it was worth a travel to remember.

    On the d-day I reached the station on time and boarded the train in my compartment. I did find my seat but found an old lady with children sitting there. Therefore even though I carried a reserved ticket I found my place on the floor of the train where lots of people were sitting. And my journey started. I felt to be on the top of the mount everest as I could see the greens from the window. The jerking of the train made me feel happy as I was finally living my dream, until a jerk in the train opened the doors of the lavatory. Aaaa well after saving myself from puking and tying a handkerchief with axe perfume on my nose I saved myself from that horror. And then I did get the aisle seat and settled myself. The night went of well.

    The day began with a stink a terrible stink and I opened my eyes to find a lady with fishes and half naked children almost sitting on me. And then saw the fish box leaking and my new pair of jeans soaked in it. A tried to move away and realised the seat is over and nothing to hold on to and fell on a sack of cauliflower. Before I could even get up the person pulled away the sack and I fell on the floor. To save myself from another fall I settled myself there itself. But it was my another mistake as people happily walked over my feet as if I am not their or may be injected with anesthesia. And then of course the stink of people and the lavatory and fish was always there. Anyhow I kept traveling until my station came and I de-boarded the train with the crowd. Of course with the bare minimum I carried with me without having anything stolen, though many eyed my red suitcase. And not to forget the people who boarded the train from Bihar with their faces covered and sticks in their hands. They did look fishy but they soon got down from the train without any ruckus.

    Well that’s my bit from a train journey. Now if at all I travel then its first class with all the comforts. But would love to travel like this experience again.

  14. Wow! Some experience! Sounds like an extreme adventure sport!
    Thanks for the feedback and enjoy the perks of air travel while you can! Best regards

  15. 💐 KPS ! Excellent write up . Enjoyed . Like our AK has flair for painting; you are gifted with art of writing . Keep going .God bless.:)

  16. Dear Sir, next time do look out for the “health faucets`” introduced in the already ergonomic 2 by 2 compartment, which i had the privilege to witness recently.. Now i saw that it’s positioning was very strategic for some reason… As someone would squat down to do the needful, the health faucet` was located beyond the reach on the top right… Yeah you got it right… Plus our traveling public has done more than just mind their business in the 2 by 2, i observed in at least six “lavatories” , the equipment in various states of disfigurement… Some had the operating handle completely unscrewed and in some cases where the person may not have managed the neat booty to carry back as the journey’s trophy to be displayed proudly back in his personal 2 by 2 , it was broken at the place where you would depress to let water out due to the spring action…
    That not withstanding, i think the railways are consulting the same”mug on a leash” guy for all further and future A&As in the prestigious lavatory projects….. After all the lavatories also have been the subject of so many Indian spy comics in the past, which we used to read glue eyed…

    That being the case, I now have only one ambition as far as the rail is concerned and that is to book a seat on the “palace on wheels” or any such other fancy rail by shelling couple of tens of thousand bucks in search of that clean and hygienic personal space where one can do the needful without having to put the NBCD drill of pre wash , post journey, after the Uber have been paid off in a cash less manner, and prior making the grand entry into the home and before having the urge to hug the near and dear ones including pet dogs, cats ECT…

    P.S. thought i should add this as my top tip, should you decide to publish post with out asking the mug and leash guy to edit it… So here it goes…

    Should you have to use the two by two for reasons best known to you on that longish journey with ETA destination being beyond AM, the coming day… Put your phone or mobile alarm for around 4 AM… Thereafter the evolution works in the cleanest possible manner.. Due adequate water, plus a buffet choice of “lavatories” as per your liking seat position ECT… It works… All the best to fellow travelers.

  17. How cleverly or Englishman-like you have not mentioned about doing No. 2 at all but just been sidestepping into various bushes or more into the open watching each others smelly calligraphy on ground during the ex-outdoors.
    Laughed away and forgot to pull up my pants.Prefer doing constipated travels post the read.
    Keep spraying from the skies !look upwards.keep watching

  18. Dear Sir
    Although I am reading this particular blog almost after 3 years after it was first published but it sensed like I was on the job trying my best to hold on to all the available fixtures with my all the functional appendages and don’t lose my balance and eventually cutting a sorry figure in front of F20s.With such intricate observations and eye for details it was perfectly relatable and felt like a déjàvu moment.

  19. Proper Kanjoos Middle Class (Adopting it from your GPS episode)

    Ticket taking 3 Tier AC

    Want service of 1 Tier AC.

    Kaise hoga Desh ka Vikaas?

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