Friday, December 24, 2010

Of Mobile Phones and Toilets

About a month ago newspaper readers and TV watchers were informed that seven hundred million Indians own mobile phones. Another bit of interesting information was shared- there are many,many more mobile phones than toilets in India.

Also on TV was a brief discussion between an ecstatic ( the “you aint seen nothing yet” type) executive of a mobile phone company and a grumpy looking do-good city planner who was evidently not happy with our sense of priorities. The discussion ended with mobile phone guy looking even more cheerful and the do-gooder even more pessimistic.

I was a little skeptical about the data at first. Then the engineer in me took charge of my reasoning. There are four mobile phones in my home and two toilets. Extrapolating this statistic over a larger population-and considering that the ratio is even more skewed in favour of mobile phones in many homes, it was not hard to conclude that the information could indeed be true. I prided myself on my powers of deductive logic and turned my interest elsewhere.

Or, tried to. No thanks to J.

J was my guest from overseas. After making his millions, he had come to India in search of inner peace and spiritual enlightenment. His stay at my place was the last leg of a long visit to India and J was due to fly back home later in the week. From his descriptions I gathered that J had found what he came in search for. But one thing continued to bother him.

J could not quite comprehend “our different standards of hygiene”.  Put differently, the average Indian’s toiletry habits were beyond his understanding. Why do so many Indians have to “do it” in the open, he asked? The mobile phones to toilets ratio did not make sense to him. I could not explain it away and J would not let the matter rest.

Reluctantly, I arranged for J to meet P. Depending on your point of view, P was the neighborhood Mr Fixit or social worker. P is also the benefactor to hundred and odd families who have built their tin and plastic homes on a large piece of public land. P himself lived amongst these people in a brick and cement house. He is a very important person and I was hoping that he would be able present J with a perspective that I could not.

We went to P’s house the next morning. As we entered the dwelling, J could not help noticing that nearly every house had a TV dish and most people were carrying mobile phones.

P’s wife opened the door. She recognized me and invited us in. She also told us that P has gone to the “back side” and would be back soon. I translated the information literally and let J stew in bewilderment.

P walked in soon after. His one hand was wet and carrying an empty pail. With the other hand he was talking on his mobile. He went inside and came back with his hand dry and smelling of soap. Apparently, he had also finished his conversation on the mobile. I made the introductions and P sat on his chair and looked benevolently at J.

“How can I be of service to you, sir?” he asked. I translated for J’s benefit.

“I would like to know why there aren’t any toilets here”, J said. I translated.

 P looked at J as if to ask, “You came all the way from your country just to ask me this?”

 “We don’t need them,” he said flatly. J was taken aback.

“But, why?” J persisted, “what about privacy and hygiene?”

P spread his hands expansively in the direction of the main road. “We have all the space we need,” he said, “the women go there before daybreak and the men’ later. There are no problems. Everyone respects the discipline”. The logic was lost on J and I told myself that I would explain in detail after we reached home.

I then remembered the land use guidelines for the place. I pointed out to P that there is enough vacant space to construct toilets.

“Ahh…the rules and procedures are very complex”, he said. He was on the defensive now.

“Surely the task is not beyond your abilities?” I responded, resorting to flattery.

P tried to look modest as he replied “ It can be done,” he agreed. There was a pause and then he smiled “But, you see, I have promised the land to a very dear old friend. He wants to build a shopping complex there.” He also added, looking at J “There will be a few toilets, too”. I could not help but admire this noble soul who could gift away public land for friendship’s sake. Such acts of generosity so humbly performed that we rarely get to know about them these days.

P’s phone rang and as he answered it, he looked at us as if to suggest that the meeting had ended. We left without J getting any closer to a rational explanation.

On the way home, we met M, the local mobile phone salesman. I made the introductions. Since M spoke English, I did not have to translate. The conversation ran freely.

“How’s business,” J asked, perhaps out courtesy. Whereupon M launched into a detailed explanation on the market for mobile phones, service quality and why he was in the best position to offer value-for-money services. Apparently, he was looking at J as a prospective customer.

“Quite, quite,” J murmured and brought up the T-word again. “I still cannot understand why mobile phones are more important than toilets”, it was an almost plaintive wail.

“Sirji,” M replied “Its all business. Mobile phones are good business. Toilets are not. Tell me, if there was money in toilets, wouldn’t you spend millions to get film stars to promote them?”

J returned to his native country a singularly unenlightened soul.