April 25, 2010 | Ronda Jambe

Have a good dump!

The newspapers report that there are more mobile phones than toilets in India. Hardly surprising, given the number of times a bush was the best we could do for a ‘comfort stop’ on my recent tour, and the number of men along side the road as the bus pulled out of Agra in the morning.

Imagine if there were men squatting, pants around their ankles, along Kings Avenue Canberra with Parliament House in sight? Or under the Sydney Harbour Bridge? Many of my observations while travelling in Rajasthan were confirmed by the White Tiger. This marvellous novel by Aravind Adiga (thank you Jennifer!) says more about contemporary India and its culture of corruption than a year of pouring through social research. Fully deserved the Man-Booker Prize, too.

The scandal prompting the resignation of cricket chief Shashi Tharoor is just the tiny tip of a huge iceberg. For every well intentioned policy move in India there is a counter-force demanding compensation or consideration. No wonder their government is more of a shuffle than a dance.

And where do the women do their business? Perhaps they are all working in call centres, where maybe they have access to toilets, but I doubt it. The White Tiger is very much from a male perspective, with selfish grannies, fat rich women and Russian prostitutes for gender balance. Tragically hilarious, with a strong scent of reality.

What does it say about a society that has more mobile phones than toilets? How tame Australia is, with our publicly funded online map of public toilets. How sweet, how egalitarian (even the rich need a public toilet now and then), and above all how functional.

Maybe Australia is still dependent on its rocks and flocks (more the former than the latter these days) and maybe it retains a lop-sided distribution of funding for health and education. There will be many more COAGs before that gets sorted out to full public benefit.

But at least we have some priorities right: what is more fundamental than public hygiene? But in India, the caste system is visceral rather than vestigial. You can visit temples where rats are worshipped and  priests drink out of the same bowl with them. Or maybe you’d like to watch the lunchtime performance of a devotee as he flogs himself.

Another interesting statistic: in Africa at least 70% of people identify themselves as ‘deeply religious’, whether they are Muslim or Christian or combine these with pagan rituals. In the US that drops to about 50%, and in Sweden, a mere 8%. Which is more civilised, where would you feel safest, and which place would seem to best uphold the values that religion is supposed to uniquely provide?

Next time I find myself talking to someone from a call centre in Kolkata or Mumbai, I’m going to ask them if they are rest room facilities. And wish them a good day.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 2:07 am | Comments (4) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. I can’t remember where I read this – an Australian women on tour in India asks a local “Where is the nearest toilet?” The reply- “Madam, all India is a toilet” Deeply religious values, are often not compatible with civilised ones,so the answer is, as the Yanks say- a ‘no brainer’.
    It’s particularly iritating when Indians criticise Australians for racism and then proceed to defend the Caste system on religious grounds.

    Comment by Russell W — April 26, 2010 @ 6:29 am

  2. Indian women have to go to the toilet at dawn then cross their legs all day till dusk. Creates a lot of health problems over time. Westerners usually go to a restaurant and ask to use their facilities in the cities ….

    There are more toilets these days but you have to pay so of course few people use them. The best idea was a returning Overseas Indian who wanted to help the old country so he told the Delhi Corporation he would build free toilets and pay for it by advertising on the walls so it cost the authority nothing. India needs more entrepreneurs with a social conscience like that ….

    In the tribal village I stay at in Gujarat, the locals go in the bushes by the river. Two women went to Mumbai but left after a day as they could not cope with an indoors toilet and the thought of not going outside in the open air. My hosts had the only toilet indoors in the village but you still had to use your left hand and I got used to it …..

    Different cultures, different perspectives.

    Comment by peter d jones — April 27, 2010 @ 1:37 am

  3. A friend has done some research in India on how they think about toilets. Young people said a toilet means modernism to them, women said it means privacy, and men said it is a social status symbol, because if you have a toilet you can attract a richer wife.

    Comment by Ronda Jambe — April 27, 2010 @ 9:08 am

  4. peter d jones,

    What’s the perspective of a pathogen? I’m definitely not a cultural relativist when considering hygiene standards and I’m sure the average bug isn’t either.

    Comment by Russell W — April 27, 2010 @ 11:22 pm

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