The Great Indian Shit Problem

An Indian toilet (Image — kunjila CC-BY-SA)

I am just back from the toilet. I had gone to pee. When i entered the toilet i realised that it had happened again. From the stench. I didn’t want to look there. It would ruin my day, sometimes weeks. It was the Great Indian Shit Problem.

My partner’s friend had come over. They chat about cinema. Sometimes i join in. But most of the time, when this friend of my partner whom i’ll call ‘Amt’ comes over, i am worried about just one thing. That like he had done the first time he visited, he would shit in my toilet and leave without flushing. It meant that if i was the one who went to toilet after him, i would have to pee/shit in the stench of his shit and see his shit.

Surprised? Don’t be. This is not an isolated incident or one of Amt’s idiosyncrasies. It is a problem that India has. As a country. We don’t know what to do with our shit. So much so that we entrust people — from a caste that we consider below others — with the job of cleaning it. If you have heard of India and not heard of the caste system, it means that you have only been reading brahminical news all this while.

India is a country where human beings were, as a tradition and as a profession, asked to carry the shit of other human beings. Manual scavenging in English. In Malayalam, my mothertongue, the word is derogatory ‘thotti’. This ‘job’ is reserved — oh the irony — only for Dalits. Would you believe it if i told you that manual scavenging was legally banned in India only in 2013? (Only the cleaning of ‘dry-toilets’ was banned in 1993)That is, just four years ago and 184 years after the ban on Sati. 148 years after the official ban on slavery in US, 52 years after the laws against dowry in India. Despite the law, manual scavenging continues unhindered, claiming lives of Dalits.

Amt’s habit is definitely not that of enforcing manual scavenging. Amt does not expect me or my partner to carry his shit on our head and dispose it. It is a habit that is common in India and only i seem to have a problem with. In here, the person who goes to the toilet after a practitioner of this ideology will have to see the colour and consistency of another person’s stool. With Amt, i have been that person and have flushed his shit down the toilet whenever it happened.

And it happens quite frequently. In hostels and even in strangers’ places. (As a matter of fact, we as a country are used to seeing a lot of human shit because we also practice open defecation. Here women get raped while they go to fields to defecate.) I am talking about manual scavenging and open defecation because i believe that the Great Indian Shit Problem has roots in it.

I thought about the problem a lot because for me, whenever it happens, it becomes a traumatic experience. I say traumatic, because like many incidents of abuse that i have faced, these shit-incidents flash before my eyes without warning. In my mind i get disgusted and get angry with the owner of the shit. For me, talking about shit is more awkward than talking about sex so it all happens in my head. The sight haunts me for weeks and it plays in my head when i talk to the perpetrators of the Great Indian Shit Problem. My thinking has resulted in the following conclusions.

  • In many parts of India, people don’t know how to use the Indian toilet.


  • They pretend they don’t know how to use the Indian toilet.
  • People in India, especially Brahmins, believe it is okay for others to see their shit in the toilet.

Everyone seems to know that in a Western toilet you have to flush the shit down by pressing the flush handle. Not everyone does it. Some ‘forget’ to flush. Some leave after they flush without waiting to see if all of the shit goes down or not. For them, it is not important. I don’t know if there are others like me who have panic attacks thinking they forgot to flush and rush back before someone else enters the toilet. Or wait to see if there is even a speck of shit left in the closet after flushing, fill a bucket with water and flush it down again.

Oh the bucket. I have seen people who are not aware or who pretend to be not aware that shit can be flushed down even when the flush is not functioning and when there is no water in the flush tank. You just have to fill a bucket with water and dump it in the closet. I have even taken mugs of water repeatedly to flush shit down when there was no bucket in sight. These are very common situations in India and if a person doesn’t know these, it means that they believe that cleaning their own shit is not their business. Like most men. (Literally and figuratively.)I have seen shit floating in many public Western toilets. Where else is this belief and the audacity to practise it coming, than from India’s ‘tradition’ of manual scavenging?

Now the Indian toilet.

Consider the time when i was at this professor’s place in Thrissur, Kerala to learn how to play chess. This professor was a champion and a few children, including myself, had camped at his place for a week for coaching. One day, a girl came back from the bathroom clasping her nose with her hand, indicating disgust. She told us not to go to the bathroom where she had just gone. When we asked what the matter was, she said that someone had ‘done number 2’ in there. I soon saw the ‘number 2’ because my mother asked me to stay there for one day more than the other students because she thought i would get special lessons that way. I didn’t. What i got was the sight of someone’s shit in an Indian toilet in the bathroom where i was sent to take bath. I had to take bath standing in the stink of the shit that was now days old. I even thought of picking up a toilet brush and cleaning it up. (i have a servitude gene that helps me get into abusive relationships so…) I couldn’t do it. I cried. I took bath. And waited to be released from that place, chess coaching or not.

What i gathered from that incident was that in some families, it was not uncommon to leave one’s shit for someone else — in most cases, a domestic help — to clean.

I faced another version of this attitude when i lived in a hostel while learning cinema in Kolkata. Hostel meant shared bathrooms. That is when i realised that there were students who thought that after shitting and pouring water to clean their ass as well as the accumulated shit in the ceramic part of the toilet, their job was done. But that is not true about Indian toilets. Even if you clean the shit from the ceramic area, it only accumulates in the pipe filled with water at the end of it. It is very visible, floating over there. It is also very ‘smellable’ if left there. You can see the area (the round opening that is filled with water) i am talking about in the picture below.

Indian toilet — people refuse to remove shit from the pit area in the picture by pouring water in a bucket with some force. As a result, other people end up seeing other people’s shit. And bearing with the stench. (Image — kunjila CC-BY-SA)

It amazes me that a person can grow up in India and still not know these basics about cleaning one’s own shit. The first time i called it out was in my final year of filmmaking. I had knocked on my neighbour’s door and told them that they hadn’t flushed the toilet. When i went back in, the shit was gone. This mean that they knew how to do it. Yet, it was repeated and i had to knock on their door once again. I have lost count of times when i have seen this ‘floating shit’ in Indian toilets. This was what had happened with Amt too.

Another friend had complained that her neighbour left shit floating in the common Western toilet in the hostel. She suspected that he was doing so because he was high on marijuana. When i told this to the neighbour, he accused her of the same. Both were Brahmins. My neighbour in my hostel was too.

When i moved in with my partner, i got to know that he was someone who thought that in an Indian closet it was okay for him to leave his shit floating in the water pipe for me to see and smell. After i confronted him, he too proved that he certainly knew what to do because the shit disappeared. So did his habit. (Did i just save a relationship?)

When I saw Amt’s shit floating in the toilet for the first time, i immediately told my partner that it had happened. I was hoping he would talk to Amt. Instead, he replied, “At least he has started washing the plate he ate in.”

I don’t know what Indian men, Indian Brahminical men and those who emulate them smoke. Whatever it is, it is a substance that generates the illusion that women, dalits or your fellow human beings exist to clean up after them. This sexist wall drawing from a local train station here says it the best.

Sexist wall drawing at Goregaon station, Mumbai (kunjila CC-BY-SA)

My partner is not brahmin and i don’t know Amt’s caste but i do think that this is a brahminical behaviour with roots in casteism. I can’t be sure because i have not heard anyone else talk about it.

Epilogue: I questioned Amt before he left. He swore that he always flushed after he shit and used copious amount of water. He gets chided at home for it, he said. I continue getting flashes of his shit and don’t know if he will ever visit again. My partner is taking lessons on doing dishes and laundry from me. In other words, i am shoving it down his throat.

kunjila mascillamani

Written by

Writer, filmmaker, small letter ‘i’s.

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