‘You want to go where?’ Mr. Isaan, the desk clerk at the Ajanta Hotel asked me.
‘Here.’ I pointed at the map to the western outskirts of New Delhi.
‘Where do you want to go there?’ Mr. Isaan was wary.
‘Um. To the Mahavir Enclave?’
‘To see what?’
‘Um. The Toilet Museum?’
Mr. Isaan looked at me intently. He was confused: the confusion of a salesman whose job it is to be courteous, but impatient that he might be wasting his time on a lunatic.
‘For 600 rupees I can get you a driver to take you to the Red Fort. With lunch at a 3-star hotel included.’
‘No. I want the Toilet Museum.’
‘You only have two days in Delhi?’ He wasn’t grimacing, per se, but it wasn’t a smile.
Odd, to find a museum of toilets in a city with a reputation for having quite possibly the vilest toilets on the planet. Now, one would expect the open air urinals in the slums to be heady (they were), but even in the otherwise respectable restaurants and shops, the lavatories smelled as though they had been painted in stale pee. I visited the office of a friend and asked to use the facilities. I was told I might want to hold my breath. The advice was not misaimed. In an office building! I mean, there were decent fittings, and the ceiling was intact, but it was noxious. Just clean the fucking thing once in a while. That’s all it would take. I mean, seriously.
Sundeep, our guide, led us through the displays in the one-room museum narrating the story of Toilets Through The Ages. ‘They became more decorative, for the rich people’: they had a selection of toilets that looked like flowerpots, or crouching lions, or stacks of books (‘this is one from France, so all the books are English literature’). One was disguised as table, with an ornate handle, ‘so a thief can reach in, but doesn’t get a handful of gems.’ There was a toilet made of beeswax and a sofa that had a toilet in the middle of it—‘it’s a British design. The British are always constipated so this allows them stay in the parlour and play games.’
‘The first toilet was in India, not a lot of people know that,’ Sundeep said. No, certainly not the ancient Therans, whose newly excavated flush toilets on Santorini date from about a millennium before. But no one could begrudge the paltry grip on facts in the face of such well-placed earnestness. The museum was the work of an organization whose mission was to bring healthy sanitation to millions of impoverished people. In fact, as he proudly showed me, they had recently won an award for ‘Second Most Fascinating Toilet In The World.’ A perplexing category—I’m not sure who the awarding body was.
So, yes, leeway must be afforded. Like when he showed us the model of the two-storey outhouse with ‘Boss’ on the door on the top and ‘Employees’ on the door on the bottom. Sundeep fulsomely and with all seriousness declared that it was a prototype for a revolutionary new design. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that is was office gag gift from the 1970s. Rightfully, it should have been taken out of the ‘concept and design’ area and put instead in the section devoted to an array poo whimsy, like the funny toilet paper, the farting coin banks, or the two plush dolls from France, one shaped like a yellow teardrop of pee, the other a brown loaf, both with wide eyes and stitched on smiles.
Moving to more modern times they had space toilets and an incinerator toilet, with a superheating coil to meet the deposits before they hit the bottom, turning them to ashes in a flash. $2000. Personally I would find it hard to reconcile the hygiene with having a blast furnace inches below me as I sat with my pants pulled down, not to mention the disconcerting periodic puffs of acrid smoke.
Outside, Sundeep handed us over to one of the researchers, Manpreet, a stylish woman who seemed suspicious about my motives. She showed us the works that took the urine from the public toilets that they had on the street-front and processed it, leading us past the holding tanks and stopping at a spigot. She placed a flask under the tap and filled it. She held it out in my direction. I looked at the flask and then back at her. She wasn’t going to ask me to taste it? ‘Look,’ she said, ‘practically clear.’ The gas from tanks of solid waste was used to power the lights in the front office.
The courtyard of the museum was gravel, and pocked at regular intervals with pits. It was showcase of sanitation for poorer communities. They had the two-well squatters with a little lock to divert the cess from one pit to the other as required. This being Delhi, apartment blocks abutted the courtyard on all sides affording people a view of the garden of toilets from their balconies.
In the lab they had processors and ovens to produce dried excreta. They had plans for an industry to construct furniture out of it. Manpreet reached into the metal vat and pulled out a dun-colored, flaky chunk. Her eyes fixed on mine without warmth. I nodded, vigorously approving, and stepped backward, kept my arms tightly crossed at my chest.