by Amitava Sen
“Desh is doing wonderful and so much for the better”, declares my friend after his recent trip to Calcutta. I suppose Desh means Calcutta. “People are so prosperous, everything is available at the wonderful shopping complexes; diaper, canned ham” he continues “you name it, they have it”. My friend is all dazed up by the malls and the wonderful shops there. Like Sukumar Roy wrote in his celebrated poem that Borobabu’s moustache made him what really Borobabu was; to my friend the city belonged to its shopping malls and that’s what the Desh was all about.. What else he needs to be impressed about the tremendous leap Calcutta is taking towards progress? He has no doubt in his mind that the country we have left behind is doing wonderfully well. Truthfully I was not that persuaded by his argument, it was only the shopping malls, I thought. What’s the big deal?
But that was till my next visit to Calcutta. I did not have to go any farther than Southern Avenue at Golpark in order to get totally swept away by Calcutta’s progress. The view of a public toilet made all the difference. The new public toilet under construction washed away any reservation I might have had. Built to the architecture of Sydney opera house it was indeed mind boggling. Even a person like me with a poor TV memory could not forget the images of its impressive opera house during 2000 Sydney Olympic. The Sydney opera was almost like a mascot for the event, it was hard not to remember and I continued to be awed by its magnificence.
According to the newspaper report the opera toilet in Calcutta would cost 25 lakhs of rupees not counting the cost of the valuable property it was built on. Indeed, I thought Calcutta must be doing wonderfully well. And what other than a cultured Bengali mind could think of a toilet looking like an opera house?
Some one said “Calcutta is a big bathroom”. While not denying the truth in the statement and not depriving the voting masses of their proletarian rights of using the street sides as bathrooms, the municipal corporation has come up with the idea of adding an intellectual and artistic touch to the toilet culture of Calcutta. Travel not far from the opera house public toilet and you will find another public toilet behind Gariahat market with decorative façade and imaginative signs. Women’s stall, instead of a letter sign has a portrait of a stern looking Indira Gandhi and an effeminate portrait of poet Nazrul Islam in shoulder length tresses, looking like he is in a wrong place, adorns the men’s enclave wall. The other Sai Baba (not the one with bushy coiffure) who I am sure is there, to add a spiritual touch to the mundane business of relieving oneself is staring at you from the other side of the wall separating the men’s place. People who are not sure which direction to take can walk straight to the middle and bump in to Rabi Thakur.. If you expect to be calmed down by soothing Rabindra Sangeet after suffering through irritating confusion, you may be disappointed; the attendant from the neighboring state prefers blaring rendition of “Jai Jagadisho Hare”.
Returning to the subject of opera toilet, I kept on wondering as to how much it was going to cost to use it and who would be using it? I would imagine the use fee will be set high enough to keep it out of the reach of the hoi polloi. The suggested rate should be no less than ten rupees (22 cents) which is the poverty level wage per day according to the government of India’s published data and which will safely keep thirty percent of the population out.
The families who live under the nearby Gariahat fly-over, cook there, sleep there, do all their ablutions there are definitely not its customers, neither are the two children who sleep late into the morning on the sidewalk in front of Gariahat Police station, next to the opera toilet through every night. But never mind about them; they don’t matter, they are just numbers among 50 percent malnourished children in India.
That does not mean that the place will close down for lack of clientèle. There are still a lot of people who can afford bottles of quite expensive mineral water. I am sure it will attract a steady stream of NRI’s too. There are local clients as well, mostly from Rajasthan Diaspora. Their youths are the hip generation, always eager to spend their money on expensive services. Surely, there will be sprinkle of IT professionals. As to its interior make up, Satyajit Ray and Ravi Shankar definitely belong there; Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Girija Devi are in contention too. Mozart or Brahms will be too hard on Bengali ear; Raga Vilaskhani Todi on Sitar should create the desirable ambience. If you rather would have a song playing, “Amar Oi Jharna tolar Nirjane” (In solitude of the quiet flowing stream) will be a fitting selection of Rabindra Sangeet. I could not visualize any lesser person than Jyoti Babu to preside over its inauguration.
According to a New York Times’ account 56% of the Indian households do not have a toilet, which means any kind of private place to go, A train journey from Howrah station to Tarakeswar in the morning made me think that the figure might be somewhat understated. That is no consideration while building a 25 lakhs toilet as “the Desh”, when it is doing so well, should have toilets befitting its new found wealth. If lavish malls are the face of prosperity, colonnaded toilets should be its culmination.
I am sure more of these 25-lakhs toilets are being planned in front of the Hotel Sonar Bangla or Hyatt or the Taj where a bottle of mineral water costs 12 hours’ wage of the driver of my rented car. It will be a shame if the up scale, doing-well generation is made to use any lesser toilet following the consumption of purified, sanitized and branded water.
I cannot imagine my friend who is so impressed by the progress happening in Calcutta to have left Salt Lake neighborhood in the city with its gleaming shopping malls, out of his rounds. To make it starker how far Calcutta has traveled my friend should have visited the canal side in the fringes of Salt Lake. There are plywood shacks with no toilet, no running water and no electricity, in one of them lives the person who cleans my cousin’s house, six people to a room. What goes in the name of toilet is an enclosure of torn rags and the open canal bank. Moving back to the shopping mall from the canal side I realize that Calcutta indeed has made a great stride, only in the process the ‘Calcutta’ has been left behind.