“When is this country ever going to change?” lamented Vidya’s mother. “First they dropped out of schools because schools didn’t have toilets. Now the girls can’t use the fields too.”
“Every street has a temple. Can’t they spend that money on building toilets? Our priorities need to change”, Vidya replied.
Vidya and her mom were talking about the rape of two young girls who went to the fields to relieve themselves. The second rape in less than two years, that had earned national ire.
“Amma, can we have something to drink? I am very thirsty”, Vidya asked her mom. The two ladies walked out of the travels office to see if any juice shop was around. Madurai heat was sucking the sweat of their bodies like never before.Although they would be home in Bangalore in a couple of hours, they had to find ways to beat the heat atleast until they boarded their bus. They found a woman selling tender coconuts on the pavement at a distance of a few metres from the travels office. They ordered two tender coconuts at twenty five rupees each. Having had their fill of that cool, sweet fluid, they quickly went back inside the travels office, in a desperate effort to escape the sun.
About thirty minutes later, the Bangalore bus arrived. Vidya and her mom got into the bus with their luggage and made themselves comfortable. Vidya took the window seat as usual and closed the curtains. She made sure the AC vents at her end were directed at herself. While her mother had started flipping through Tamil magazines, Vidya tried to catch up on her Anna Karenina. The bus, in the meanwhile, had started moving.
Not less than twenty minutes since the bus had started on its journey,Vidya realized that the tender coconut had done what it was supposed to do. It was almost a litre of fluid after all. But Vidya didn’t care much. In another eight hours she’d be in Bangalore. And the driver shall surely stop the bus at a fuel station on the way. So she let Tolstoy continue to mesmerize her. How an entire chapter dedicated to the simple act of mowing, could make her feel so elated, was incomprehensible to her. To Vidya, the protagonist in Anna Kareninawas not Anna. Not Alexei. Not Levin. Not Kitty. But Tolstoy himself.
However, no love for good story telling can contain the most pressing, fundamental, physical urges.
“When do you think these guys will stop the bus?”,Vidya asked her mother. “Why do you ask?”, her mother looked at her suspiciously. “I badly need to use a toilet”, replied Vidya as her face flushed in embarrassment. “You’ll have to wait. They’ll only stop the bus at Salem, which is atleast four hours from now.”
Vidya felt troubled. She didn’t think she could wait that long. The journey, the AC, all of it seemed to only make things worse for her.
“Amma, I don’t think I can wait that long. Will you ask the conductor to stop the bus at a fuel station on the way? They’ll surely have toilets.”
“Even if I ask, they won’t stop the bus. Last time when your grand-dad came home, he had to face the same situation. They didn’t care that he was a 75-year old man. Please try to control for a while.”
“But there is no harm in asking. Please?” , Vidya begged.
Her mother was visibly embarrassed. The two women were travelling alone after all. She had to walk up to the conductor and driver, both of who were men, amidst thirty odd passengers who were also mostly men, and ask them to stop at a place with a toilet. Though the driver obliged, he told her clearly that he will not be able to stop the bus for another two hours. The mother nodded and returned to her seat, thoroughly upset. “You are not going to have anything to drink, the next time we travel by bus”, she told Vidya sternly.
Vidya herself was quite perplexed at how her body was behaving. Even as a child, Vidya never had to face such a situation. Her body had never troubled her with what until today she had considered so petty. Yet, here she was, struggling to remain still. She opened the curtains so she could quickly spot a place she could use and stop the driver.
Almost immediately after her mom spoke to the driver, the bus went past a fuel station. “There’s one. Why isn’t he stopping?”, Vidya whispered urgently to her mom. She got no answer from her mother. Her mother, after all didn’t know what to do. In the next twenty minutes, the bus had crossed three fuel stations and the driver never stopped. Vidya grew restless by the minute. She was using the nastiest of words in the English language to scold the driver in her head.
“That’s it. The next place he stops the bus at, I am getting down to find a place myself”, she told her mother.
Fifteen minutes later, the bus stopped at what looked like a pick-up point. Vidya asked her mom to move. “What will you find here?”, her mother asked, worried.
“I don’t know. But I’ll find out.”
She got down from the bus and asked the man at, what looked like a hotel, if there was a toilet around that she could use. The response was negative. Meanwhile, the conductor who saw Vidya get down from the bus, assured her that he’d stop the bus again soon. Vidya, by now, didn’t care what the men around her thought of her anymore. She went back in the bus. Her mother still wore that worried, helpless expression on her face. The bus started again. Vidya began to pray that the bus stops soon.
She couldn’t relax her back anymore. She had to lean forward to be able to be able to hold it in. This action made it impossible for her to occupy anymore than the tip of the seat. She held on to the handle at the back of the seat in front of her. Her facial muscles and jaws went tight. Her restlessness, which once increased by the minute, now turned into stillness. Stillness – the only thing that made it possible for her to control herself. But this stillness was painful. What seemed to be a discomfort earlier, now turned slowly into an excruciating pain in her pelvic region, which strangely made her knees quiver. She felt her temperature rising. A mild sort of tightness set into her lower abdomen.
Two more hours passed. The bus never stopped. Vidya didn’t talk, or laugh, or read, or watch the movie playing in the bus. All her efforts went into enduring that terrible pain in the lower part of her body, while simultaneously postponing her physical need.
It had been more than three hours since she had asked the driver to stop the bus. The entire route had no toilets whatsoever. The few places that did have toilets, neither the driver nor the conductor had the sense or sensitivity to stop the bus for the suffering woman.
Vidya felt utterly humiliated and punished. Like the whole of mankind had perpetrated unspeakable violence against her. She needed to relieve herself. A basic need, of which, everybody in the bus was aware. Yet she was being tortured like this. She was afraid she would lose control. She was afraid she would humiliate herself before strangers even though she was not to blame. Tears filled her eyes.
Finally, the bus stopped at a toll gate and the conductor showed the female passengers the way to the toilet. Vidya, obviously, was the first one to get down.
All those long hours of controlling made her genitals hurt as she relieved herself. How could anybody be so insensitive? A woman may have a hundred reasons to use a toilet. Yet, nobody wants to pay heed to her even after she makes her needs very clear. And this sort of behavior came from older men. The government didn’t make it any easier either. Again, she blamed a group of older men for the lack of toilets along the route. She witnessed, for the first time, the apathy and insensitivity her countrymen had towards her kind.
“Do they even deserve us?’, she thought to herself, as she walked her way back to the bus, relieved physically, but her woman’s pride hurt.