THE DAY I COULDN'T URINATE
Paul is an India-based environment and development journalist
reporting to many leading global media outlets including Thomson
Reuters and Inter Press Services. She is the recipient
of the 2014 and 2015 Asian Environmental Journalism Award.
a multimedia journalist with a lot of 'Been there, Done that'
stories. I report/blog/ videoblog and make documentaries on
development and environment issues. Presently my own boss, I
have earlier worked as a news reporter for ETV, MSN, was a media
campaigner for Greenpeace and the Communications Director of
Video Volunteers - world's largest community media organization.
a journalist, I tell to the global audience, the unheard stories
of marginalized communities. And when I am not working on a
news story, you will find me talking about issues that affect
our youth, especially our women. I am a part of Friedrich Ebert
Stiftung - a global policy think tank that works to make heard
the voice of the youth.
well known by now: a majority of Indians do not have a toilet.
They urinate and defecate in the open. They include men, women,
children and adolescent girls. It’s a shame. It's indignity
epitomized. But do you ever think what does a journalist who
covers sanitation issues in India go through? Well, it’s
the same shame and indignity. Let me tell you about one day
– of many days -- that I had to experience this.
in Handitola village in Rajnandgaon district of Chhattisgarh
state in central India. With me was a local woman social activist.
We arrived at the house of the village council head (locally
known as sarpanch) for an interview. As it turned out, she was
away from home, and would return in another half an hour. Her
son and daughter-in-law were at home and they requested us to
sit. They also offered to make tea for us.
were waiting. The house had a neat courtyard, three rooms, a
nice little veranda and a cowshed. I walked around a bit, peeped
here, peeped there. I could see no toilet.
had eaten a rather large breakfast in the morning at Bhan Didi’s
(the activist) place because it was going to be a long day,
and I also drank a large glass of chai. Now, I was feeling the
pressure on my bladder. I needed to go, urinate. But, there
was no place to go.
out of the house and looked around. The house of the sarpanch
was on the main road that went cutting through the village.
There were people moving up and down the road every few seconds.
There were also houses on both sides of the road. There were
no walls, or even a hedge separating them. And there were no
trees. The only greenery that came was from a few vegetable
creepers which went straight on the roof of each house. So,
no 'bush' as such.
the other side of the road, there was a community cultural hall.
This was, as the sarpanch would later tell us, the prized possession
of the village. She had spent over a hundred thousand rupees
to build it. I walked up to the community hall, thinking, 'there
ought to be a toilet here.' The hall was big. It had a large
podium, several benches and several chairs. There were earthen
pot of drinking water and a steel tumbler in a corner. No toilet.
were fetching water from the community-owned pond roughly a
kilometer away. The other source of water was a large puddle
of mud water.
a call. The sarpanch had returned home. Her daughter in-law
had made chai and was calling me now. I started to panic: refusing
the drink would be seen as a rude gesture, almost an insult;
it would be interpreted as me telling them “I am superior
to you, so I won't eat or drink with you.”
that would end any chances of a candid conversation with the
sarpanch. It wasn't a risk I would ever take.
drinking a large cup of chai, thickened with sugar and milk
-- was going to increase that pressure on my bladder for sure.
What should I do?
have looked very helpless, because Bhan Didi looked at me and
said, “come inside and sit. Let us finish the work quickly
and then go. If you stand, the pressure (on the bladder) will
heed. I returned to the sarpanch's house. I sat with one thigh
on another, to suppress the pressure on my bladder.
the chai, our conversation began. Most of it centered on sanitation,
especially open urination and open defecation.
one point, I remember getting up and opening the top button
of my jeans because I felt a swell in my abdomen and the waist
band of the jeans was cutting into it.
conversation, as it always happens with me, didn't end for another
couple of hours. And then the sarpanch wanted to give me a tour
of the village, especially the facilities she had built. These
included her office, a play school cum health center for village
children and a hostel for girl students. The latter had a toilet.
heart jumped. I wanted to see the toilet. The sarpanch went
into her office and brought a key. The toilet had a big lock.
Why lock a toilet?
is no water. So, we let the girls use it only when there is
an emergency like someone has loose motion or something. If
we keep it open, girls would go in anyway and try using it all
the time. It would then stink and become a nuisance,”
how do you manage water in an emergency?” I wanted to
girls carry a pitcher from the community pond (nearly a km.
away) and pour it here,” she replied, showing a iron bucket
which was completely dry. After this, she quickly locked the
toilet door again.
hoping that if she showed me a toilet, I would request her to
let me use it. Now that hope vanished.
was afternoon when we finished the work. We could now go home.
My thighs were numb by now. I walked slowly, like one with a
village was connected by bus and we started to walk towards
the bus stop. On our way, we saw the community pond -- a large
pond, now half dry, with a few short date-palm trees standing
in each corner, like a group of midgets.
sarpanch was walking with us. Pointing at a corner of the village
pond, she asked me “that is where we go (to relieve ourselves),
would you like to go too?”
around. It was about a hundred yards away from the main road
(on which buses, motorbikes and bullock carts ran), and today
the village was celebrating Mandai -- a village carnival, so
the road was dotted with people.
Yes, I had to go. I had not urinated for a good ten hours now
and could hold it no longer.
sarpanch and the social activist stood guard near a palm tree.
And I went behind one, pulled down my jeans.
care if the tree was big enough to cover all of me. I didn't
care that the urine actually rolled down and went into a field
where locals would sow rice and other grains. I didn't care
that the ground under the date tree was filthy, layered with
feces and gave a nauseating smell. I didn't care because I couldn't.
I cared about was that I had to go and that I was being guarded
by someone who would stop an intruder.
when I began, I again felt a panic. What if someone actually
came up to see what was happening? In my panic, I tried to empty
my bowel faster, putting more pressure on my bladder. I couldn't.
I was helpless. I had to squat until I was done. And I was very
aware of my naked bottom.
I was done, I remember coming out, feeling dirty (the sole of
my shoes were wet from the urine) and embarrassed (I wasn't
so sure nobody had even looked up at me from the road or someplace
else around the pond). And I felt a deep sense of shame for
which I couldn’t find an explicable reason.
that evening when we sat in the bus, I thought of the girls
and women who suppressed their pressure for ten hours or more
every day and then went behind a tree like I did, because they
simply had to go.
then I thought of them who had nobody guarding them. I thought
how I would also panic while emptying my bowel. And how they
would feel ashamed and afraid if they heard an approaching footstep.
I couldn't think any further, I shuddered and closed my eyes.
The bodies of the Badaun sisters (who were recently ambushed
by men while going to a field to relieve themselves in their
village in northern India, raped and then hanged from a tree)
kept moving in front of my closed eyes.