A Toilet With Tiles

A Toilet With Tiles

A Toilet With Tiles 150 150 Comfort Aid International

A Toilet With Tiles 

I was recently in remote Lushoto, Tanzania, inspecting a CAI donor-funded school under construction and debating on whether to install maintenance-free tiles in the bathrooms. Since I am now traveling to remote Madagascar and unsure if I’ll be able to write and publish anything from there, I re-publish the following Blog from 2012 with a similar subject – you may find it interesting reading.

The area around Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai is not very pedestrian-friendly; certainly not a place to exercise. With snarled traffic, drivers’ intent on out-hooting each other, metro and overpass construction, decibel levels that deafen, and a stink that curl up toenails; it is a wonder to see people out and about. I have no choice, I must put in my hour of exercise, else my metabolism hibernates. I navigate another heap of rotting, stinking garbage, paying careful attention to human or dog poop mounds; they can spring a nasty surprise on unsuspecting footwear. Immediately past this eyesore is a grimy Muslim restaurant with white-capped customers enjoying early morning spicy concoctions of eggs and potatoes and steamy tea. A teenager in a filthy once-white vest perches over a hissing stove on a veranda edge tending to a boiling wok of bubbling grease with jalebis sizzling in agony.

A mile up the road and I walk into slum India, a community of humans packed into ramshackle dwellings surrounded by garbage, grime, and a peculiar foul smell that stays with me even as I walk faster, trying to escape it. Flies ignore frantic waves of my hands and sorry-looking dogs scavenge near an open nullah that runs along the road I walk. I eye them cautiously; they have rabies written all over them. Maybe? When I look up and around, swanky, tall glass buildings sprout all over, catching the glint of a rising sun; The Leela, Marriott, InterContinental, Sheraton…mocking my astonishment, at the fallacy I see. I think I’ve had enough exercise and want to return to my hotel, a much modest Suba International, shower, have a luxuriously slow breakfast, and a nap before heading to the airport and back home to Sanford when I walk into a sort of a maidan – a clearing.

To one side is a pukka two-storied hut that stands isolated, in a midst of mountains of litter: newspapers, soda cans, plastic bottles, plastic bags, metal cast-offs, auto and bicycle tires…even a rusting auto-rickshaw, long dead. In between the house and trash heaps, sits a charpoy. A thickly bearded man wearing a Muslim cap sits on it, puckers his lips, blows on a murky glass held by the tips of fingers, and takes a tentative sip – hot tea perhaps? A chicken pecks on the dirt near his feet and not too far away, a half-naked toddler with an effusive runny nose plays with dirt. I pause by the rotting rickshaw to observe the infant, busy with a stick that s(he) is bent on interring into the dirt with very little success. Frustrated, it begins wailing. There is instant attention. Aree, aree, abhee kya hoowa, mai aye, mai aye… A young girl, hair covered with a dupatta, comes jogging from the house, carrying a large tub full of splashing water. She places it down, lifts the toddler, places a series of ringing kisses on its face, removes a filthy vest, immerses the now naked boy into the tub, and begins a vigorous rub down with a bar of soap. I wish I had a camera; this would be an interesting shot.

I sense a movement inside the rotting rickshaw and nearly jump out from my skin in fright. A young boy, no more than ten, twelve, very dark, sits inside a tiny space grinning at me. We stare at each other, him grinning silly; I try to steady my wayward heartbeats. The boy waggles his eyebrows and holds out a palm, Hello hero, he quips, show khalaas, soo rupees. Astonished and somewhat amused, I turn around and start walking away but the boy is nimble as a monkey, out and blocking my way, palm held out. Show not pree, says he, in Bollywood fashion, ek soo rupee, dedo fast, fast. Perplexed, I want to ask him why but a sharp smack on his head sends him scrambling away. The man I had seen sitting drinking tea now stands in front of me, frowning. He is wearing a colorful lungi with a thin fading white kurta over it. Forgive him, sahib, he has lost his manners. TV shows give our children crazy ideas. They think they can extort money from strangers. Please ignore him, go in peace. Or perhaps I can offer you some tea?

I sit on the charpoy with Abdul Raheem and warily sip piping hot tea from a not-so-clean-looking glass, hoping all germs have been eliminated; I do not fancy a Mumbai belly on the long flight home. A bashful Zakeeya Bano, the young woman I saw cleaning up the toddler, her youngest brother, serves the tea. Zakeeya Bano and nimble Munna are Abdul’s children, two of nine from two wives, all living in the house behind me. Abdul is a scrap dealer, has been since moving to Mumbai from somewhere in UP. He was dirt poor when he first arrived in Mumbai, spent months being homeless with his first wife and two daughters, Zakeeya Bano one of them, the older one is married and lives in the Malad slums with her family. Abdul was among the first ones to claim this piece of property as a home, then a strip of marshland adjacent to Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. Nobody cared about recycling fourteen years ago; Abdul traded in newspapers, magazines, and other paper products, scraped a living. Then suddenly, commodity prices took off faster than the fastest jet planes Abdul had ever seen, and recycling became fashionable and profitable. He saw profits and competition escalate so everybody in the family joined in the business and he made money, got a good rishta for his oldest daughter, and could afford the dowry for the boy from a decent family. With the savings, he expanded the business, acquired more land by paying off harassing police, sharks, and other squatters. And he married, again. 

Why I ask. Abdul looks at me in surprise, frowns, strokes his bushy beard thoughtfully as if I have asked him a profound question that needs contemplation. Then he smiles, revealing strong white teeth in between peppered whiskers. Arre Ali Mia, why not? I am a man, I have needs, no? He gives me a knowing wink but then his face sours. And I could afford it. Then… His second wife Shabnum Bano joins us, carrying a steel plate, each of sweetmeats in assorted colors and a savory concoction of fried daals, peas, and cashew nuts. Abdul encourages me to have some, but I politely decline. When I ask Abdul how he manages to live with two wives and nine children in one house; his face darkens some more. Hmmm, he says irritably, very difficult, that is why you don’t see the first one here…gone maike. He joins fingers of the right hand and flaps them, yap yap, all day long, tongue never stops, saali troublemaker. I ran her off to her mother, let her go, and yap all she wants there. She’ll be back soon enough and eat my head again. I suppress an urge to laugh; Shabnum Bano has a smug look on her face.

Abdul, his family, and residents of this slum are a worried lot, however; their luck fortunes have taken a severe trouncing. They have been served an eviction notice by GVK, the airport developer, to move within three months. Why? The entire area will be part of the new airport, a showcase for India to the world. In compensation, they are offered a 400 square foot apartment in some fancy high-rise coming up. Allah knows where or when. For this, I had to bribe the government land department at Andheri ten thousand rupees to get a piece of paper affirming I live here. Ten thousand rupees! Can you believe the goondagheeri of our officials, Ali Mia? This is my house and my compound, which I bought and paid with my sweat to the Tamil land shark at exorbitant rates. Now, I must bribe some haraami so that a piece of paper says it belongs to me. Do you have to go through this kind of goondagheeri back in Amrika, Ali Mia? I shake my head. Perhaps you can highlight our plight in Amrika? Talk to your Sarkaal? Tell them to urge the government of India not to rob us so much? What am I supposed to do in an apartment, hmmm? Will they let me sell scrap there? They say it will have a proper bathroom and a proper kitchen with gas connections, it will have a 24-hour water supply…but I must pay for it all. Have you seen the price of a gas cylinder lately Ali Mia? The developer boasts that the toilets will have shiny tiles in them. What for? Am I supposed to admire my bum’s reflection in them? Bah! Tiles indeed. I don’t need a tiled toilet for a few minutes in the company of filth and stink. I go round the corner and do it there, in that large cesspit. No lines, no waiting. How will the nine of us fit in a casket size toilet all at once! Bolo? Want to see or use our toilet, Ali Mia? No tiles, but first-class nevertheless, fresh air and lots of space… I must visibly pale; there is hearty laughter from those gathered around us.

After a few minutes of listening to them, I get up and bid farewell, telling them I have a flight to catch later that afternoon. They wag their heads in understanding and smile shyly as I shake hands around. Young Munna stands at a distance, bashful. I go and hug him, discreetly fold one 100-rupee bill into his palm; he beams, radiates joy. Abdul protests, tells me not to reward the badmash but relents because I insist. Shabnam Bano comes hurrying, a piece of green cloth fluttering on her fingers. She ties this on my right arm for safety and good luck in my travels. It is from a saint’s shrine near her village in UP. They troop after me to the main road. Allah hafiz, they repeat several times, heads waging, as I board a rickshaw towards my hotel.

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