Over 13 million passengers use the services of the Indian Railways everyday. That’s more than the population of Switzerland and New Zealand combined. This means that as much as they try to clean it, the Indian Railways toilets end up being at best “usable” and at worst not to be neared with a 10 foot pole. This means that more often than not, I will myself not use it during an entire journey that could last 24 hours or more. And this requires almost Olympic level preparation – no fluids 6 hours before the journey, just enough water through the journey to hydrate, no coffee/tea (they’re diuretics).

Dadar Chennai Express

Sometimes however, no matter what, when you got to go, you got to go. Nature calls can never be ignored long. This particular incident happened in 1999, on a journey on Dadar Express, between Chennai and Mumbai and I was traveling with my grand mum. Just as I excused myself to use the toilet, she hushed to me in an undertone, “Don’t lock the door.” This seemed to be an ominous piece of advice to give in a packed train where anyone could walk in on you. I looked at her dubiously, went and stood my turn, prayed for a modicum of cleanliness, chose the Indian closet over the Western (nothing touches anything) and finally got in. The floor was wet – yes people like to hose it down after using it. That wasn’t the worst thing in the world, I told myself. And luckily there were no dupattas that were going to accidentally brush the floor. The toilet itself was relatively clean. I breathed a sigh of relief (only for a second before gagging from the stink, drew in a large breath and decided to hold it till I got out) and proceeded to lock both the locks (there’s one latch lock and one 180 degree sliding lock whose purpose I haven’t yet fully decoded, for it can be opened from the outside too). I did my business, washed my hands with the soap I’d brought, adjusted my clothes and undid the 180 lock and tried to open the latch lock.

To no avail. I tried harder and still no luck. Now panic started churning and I was out of breath from holding my breath and almost started feeling woozy. And we didn’t even have cell phones back then. Now my frantic attempts to open the door became audible outside the toilet and I started rapping on the door to tell people outside I couldn’t open it. Random instructions were thrown at me – “Darwaza dabake kholo” (Press the door and open) and even “Tel nahi hai kya aapke paas?” (Don’t you have oil with you?). The panic was turning into tears – my grandma had somehow foreseen this. Oh no, how would I inform my grandma that I was stuck in here? Should I announce my seat number to the random public outside and trust them to transmit a message? Should I ask them to pull the chain and ask for help to break the door open? What now? What about the embarrassment I had to live with for the remainder of the journey? Screw it. I asked for help – “Koi kuch to karo! Kaise kholun?!” (Somebody do something, how do I open this?) Finally someone suggested pushing the door from outside and I yank at the lock the best I could. I don’t know what happened in those few seconds but somehow the thing unlocked and out I came – gasping for breath, sweating buckets and looking quite haggled from my encounter of the worst (well, nest to worst) at an Indian Railways toilet. A small applause broke outside and it’s safe to say I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life.

Needless to say, from then on, I always take heed to my grandma’s words. I don’t lock the toilet. Instead, I tell the next person in line to be a lookout. And that’s fool proof, you believe me.


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