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She stares at me never lowering her gaze. My heels click-clack as I walk to the door and try to remember the name of my small town.
I stare at it discombobulated. Ten minutes is all I have to locate the drain, the hand pipe, the cistern, the bowl and to empty my bladder and the bowel.
That’s what happens when you gulp three glasses of cranberry juice with mushroom cheese frittata and raisin walnut omelette and crispy hash browns. Not to forget the cinnamon-sugar crescent roll I slid while leaving the counter. I have a thing for restaurant food and this time it was a five-star hotel- The Taj Palace, New Delhi. The first five-star hotel in my twenty years on this planet. And the first frittata and browns in my twenty years of roti and tarkari, dal chawal and khichdi.
The hotel, the first castle of my life with its soaring inner courtyard, Moorish tiles, and exquisite wood carvings had me blinded when I stepped in. Greeted by a huge octagon chandelier with long crystal strands in the middle of the lobby, I stood spellbound as my classmates scurried near the registration counter.
The hotel also housed a terrace garden fragrant with roses, petunias, and herbs. Every inch of the floor and the walls gleamed in perfection like a round brilliant diamond. I gawked at a Filmfare magazine lying on a mirrored console table at the entrance of the ‘HE & SHE’.
The restroom was nothing less than sorcery (in a good way). And it took a few minutes for me to absorb the granite countertops, the walnut framed mirrors, the gold vanity lights and the copper faucets with crescent-shaped spout and lever handles. I could spend my entire life in the restroom, I mused walking towards the conference room named – Oasis.
The brouhaha outside the door makes me uncomfortable as one of them calls my name, “Moon, do we wait for you? Come fast. The break is almost over. You have been there for ages?”
Every time they call me ‘Moon,’ the Chanda Pandey in me snickers.
“Go ahead, I will join you soon.” Nine minutes left, I start sweating. The pressure inside makes me nauseous and I hear the janitor blabber something outside. The click of the heels starts to recede as the door opens and shuts repeatedly.
The bowel will have to wait, I decide and force the waste back up the rectum. However, the bladder is implacable. I cross my legs and press my fingers over my front bottom. With each passing second, I feel the unrelenting force.
Where is the floor drain? Do these hotels even have one? If not, then where the hell does the water go? But where is water? Just a roll of paper and not even a hand pipe. The bowl gleams, its porcelain skin sceptical of the use (read misuse) I may put it too.
My heels click, and I wonder how to climb and perch myself on the bowl. The rim is thin and looks delicate and my brand new trousers, terry cotton formal trousers from Sarojini Nagar groans as I try to squat.
We call it a latrine. Squat, poop, flush, wash, and go. My neighbours call it a latrine too and so does my aunt in Muzzafarpur. In my small world, it is a latrine and water is an integral part of the setup. The Indian railways have it, the dhabas on the Murthal highway have it, the small motels have it, the chow mien restaurant has it and so does my house.
Back in my small town, back in the house, I lived with four other residents including my parents. I was the caretaker of the latrine, the steel bucket, and the plastic mug decorated with pink rose flowers. The colour of the mug faded, dangling between sky blue and white and I washed it each time before using it. My mother gave me phenyl, the one with the lemon scent to clean the latrine every two days.
The boys, my younger brothers were messy, missing the aim while peeing. Their urine spilled everywhere except where it was supposed to be. I suspected my father had an equally poor aim. A bucket of water, therefore, was more than a necessity. It was the only way to not let the cocktail stick to your slippers and feet. Phew!
Apart from cleaning the latrine, I was also a dreamer, a real one. Next year, I will be pursuing my Master’s at the Delhi School of Economics. Once you earn these brands, later they earn for you.
Prakash Vellapi Rao, my Economics teacher at Navodaya Vidhayala was fluent in English. And I preened at the attention I commanded because I was adept at Money and Banking, Government Budgeting and Expenditure. Sriram College of Commerce was within my reach, I was as sure as the floods in northern Bihar during the monsoon. The streets in my town are characterless, spiritless, and stereotyped. Big dreams have to lumber through the murky puddles of my town to reach their destination.
But navigating this urgency is like sowing in the sand. I feel the trickle and cross my legs harder, I had not trained myself for this. Now I see a wall-mounted receptacle, stainless steel, shining, I could see my flustered face in it. If it could come down, I could pee in it and leave. I try. Nothing moves.
Eyes flutter rapidly as I see the soft panic transform into a storm. I fling my pumps and tear my liner socks. Pulling off the cheap terry cotton pants, I am ready to hover. My underwear is wet, the leak is more steady now wetting my inner thighs.
Waist below, I am bouncing as I see the janitor wait outside my stall. Her shadow makes me want to evaporate in thin air. I review the setup once again in hope of finding an obscure drain where I can squat. Disappointed, I decided to climb, just the way I used to two years ago.
A Siberian proverb says it is easy to tempt the frog to the river. I was that frog. A year later the frog reached its destination riding on Sampoorna Kranti Express. Ninety-eight percent in 12th CBSE is no joke and I was on a high tide, full of the joys of spring.
My father, a small-town grocer was in two minds over Delhi University. He succumbed to the magnificence of 98 percent and Prof. Rao’s wisdom- Educate your girl, Pandey Jee, she is your real treasure.
In a month’s time, I was in Delhi, sharing a rented accommodation with five other small-town girls in Mukherjee Nagar. The restroom had a western commode and I refused using it with the ferocity of a wild boar. Truthfully, I did not know how to use it. Emptying the bladder was easy since the bathroom had a drain. Squat, pee, pour water and go.
The bowel though was a bigger force to reckon with. Using all my intellect, I tried to figure out where to place the feet but to no avail. Bizarre as it was, the first few days I spread a newspaper on the bath floor, pooped on it, and unloaded the newspaper waste in the toilet bowl.
The half squat was straining my pelvic muscles to unimaginable agony and the mess it created made me concede that I had a bad aim too. Asking PG mates for help would have been simpler, but it was a chance in a million that I was sure I didn’t want to take.
A 98 percent SRCC student knows it all. This ritual continued until I found the perfect balance on the seat, my toes, like talons of a peregrine clutching the side rim of the seat. Since then, I have been a falcon.
A 98 percent secured me a seat at Sriram College of Commerce and a seat at the centre of South Ex and Def Col girls lunch table. They depended on me for their academic future in the college and I let a bit of South Ex rub on my being.
Unapologetically, I tried to hide my small town lineage. It made me feel different, feel proud and I felt sorry for my mother haggling with the vegetable vendor for a few green chillies and coriander leaves. I hadn’t hit a jackpot, but I was sure I would along with the mannerisms of the hi-society. While I truly didn’t belong there, I truly wanted to belong there.
By any chance, if you are wondering where I am from, then bother not. I am a small-town girl. Call it Chaibasa, Bodhanor Jamui, or Nagar, it makes no difference. Let’s keep it simple and small.
When I was a little girl, I wore frocks that ran till my ankles and later turned into a top, stopping at thighs, with pyjamas underneath – any colour however mismatched. It would take four years for the frock to undergo various stages of transformation.
Occasionally, I also shoplifted butterfly clips and once picked (read stole) somebody’s fancy sandals outside the temple ground. I left behind my beige sandals with a broken buckle. This wasn’t any kind of barter, explicating and announcing to the God that the one who could afford shiny shoes would not mind parting with one.
It’s a game of ‘Adalat’ I played in my own mind and won most of the time. The hearing was mine and the judgment too. Not that I took pride in it but there was some satisfaction in the stolen treasure. What happened at home is a different story for another time.
It is a steady leak now, I can see a small pool forming around my feet. The janitor gives a gentle knock and I breathe hard. Unable to find the perfect balance, I stand motionless in the widening pool wondering if Sudha Murthy’s speech at the conference organized had concluded. It was organised by SRCC third-year students in collaboration with TISS at The Taj Palace, Connaught Place, New Delhi
As if in a jolt, I flinch. Then, I do what I have always done – I squat on the floor and let it release, release with such force that I feel my bladder burst. My eyes water, my chin muscles tremble, my hair rises on my arms, I breathe deeply as ammonia mixes with lavender. And I know that the world can hear me pee.
A minute later, I am ready to head out. Urine has spread over the entire floor, slowly making its way under the half door. The janitor outside knocks hard, saying something which my mind refuses to register.
Picking my belongings, I let out a sigh, and open the door. She stares at me dead ahead, never lowering her gaze. My wet heels click-clack as I walk toward the door. She howls from behind, I cringe and try to vamoose, each step leaving a wet stamp on the beige travertine tile.
“What is this? Did you urinate on the floor?” her voice more like a dog’s territorial bark.
I open the door, it squeaks. Before the door shuts, I hear – “Kahan kahan se aa jaate hain.”
Trudging back, I try to remember the name of my small town.
Picture credits: Still from Hindi webseries Raikar Case
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