By Damian D'souza Oct. 02, 2017
Communal loos are a big part of the daily grind in Mumbai’s chawls. These little cubicles are places where people sneak in to grab a smoke, watch porn, or scribble deep thoughts on the wall.
My morning routine comprises lying motionless in bed staring at the ceiling, wondering what it would feel like to just stay there forever. My thoughts are interrupted by a slight prod in the pit of my stomach. I ignore it. Then somewhere, between my third sip of coffee and an alt-fact- ridden video about the Illuminati, it happens again, that familiar prod, accompanied by some rumbling. I know it’s moving south, so I grab my third cigarette of the day and I’m off. As I make my way to the toilet, I walk past my mum, my neighbours, and a stray dog everyone lovingly calls Bhadwa – each step bringing me closer to taking what I hope will be an epically euphoric shit.
My dreams of euphoria are dashed when I encounter Salman, Aftab, and Raja, waiting patiently ahead of me, with buckets in tow, for their chance at rectal nirvana. We’ve all queued up in front of the two loos that serve as common toilets for five homes. I’m fourth in line and I know this isn’t going to be pleasant. Raja’s family is vegetarian; they survive on a diet of dal.
When one talks about life in the chawls, one bemoans lack of space, repressed sexual appetites, and the filth, but no one talks about the real shit. That’s because only those who belong to this tribe of tatti, this communitatti, know what a big part of daily life these communal loos are.
Back when we were middle-class kids, our spartan 10×10 homes didn’t have closets for ghosts and monsters to hide in. Instead our stories involved chudails in the toilets after 9 pm. Our favourite dare was spending five minutes shut in those dark, confined spaces, or hiding in there and scaring the literal shit out of people about to take a dump. Later these became places where we would sneak in to smoke, watch porn, and even roll joints. These common loos offered privacy in a world where big brother and the neighbours were always watching.
These communal toilets, 4X4 cubicles, could easily pass off as closets in larger, more palatial homes. But in a chawl, they are the social heart of our living space, even more than the most accommodating living rooms. Most mornings involve banter over hyper-local issues like the fight that broke out last night outside the desi bar, the couple that eloped because they were from different castes, and who is having an affair with whom. These subjects are up for discussion because they’re light and least likely to spark an intense debate the way religion or politics would, lest your rumbling bowels decide they’ve had enough. Talking politics with a clenched asshole is just not toilet etiquette.
Shitting in a common toilet teaches you the literal value of time. Go over the limit and someone’s bound to yell, “Ae baher ye re, hagtos ka baghtos.”
I’ve heard people wax eloquent about how they spend hours on the pot, contemplating the meaning of life and the nature of consciousness. How they play Candy Crush before they flush, and how they check social media while turds plop out of them. In a chawl, the equation is simple: If there’s no line, take your time. But when people are waiting to take a shit and then rush to work, you learn to focus on the essentials. You narrow your focus, sharpen your thoughts, and reflect on them like a motherfucker for 10 minutes before it’s someone else’s turn to enter the chamber of introspection. Shitting in a common toilet teaches you the literal value of time. Go over the limit and someone’s bound to yell, “Ae baher ye re, hagtos ka baghtos. (Come out already, are you shitting or staring).”
But sometimes it’s hard to rush while taking a dump in these toilets, because you’re busy reading. Not the newspaper, or a Chetan Bhagat novel, but the literal writing on the wall. The inside of a communitatti, is like Craigslist, Bharat Matrimony, and Whatsapp forwards rolled into one. There are one-liners and jokes scribbled: “Sandas me teherta hai goo, goo se yaad aaya yaar, kaisa hai tu?” And there are ads of political parties assuring “parivartan”, mainly bigger toilets, and Ayurvedic sex babas offering “lingvardhak” drugs.
Sometimes I wonder if Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of a digital wall, where people leave information was inspired by him taking a dump in a chawl toilet because it’s not just well- targeted ads (penis advertising while peeing is sheer genius), there’s also a section similar to the personals on Craigslist.
The next day, right below the ad for “night sex with Salman”, was a caption that read, “Yahan muth maarna mana hai”
My neighbour Salman, the local Casanova, had his number and the words “call for night sex” scratched on the wall by his friends. What started as a prank ended with Salman getting action when Ruksar, who had the biggest crush on him, decided to take a chance by calling the number. Salman, slight, wiry, with a Cristiano Ronaldo haircut and a face that only his mother could love, got lucky, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mukesh, sadly, does not have such a happy toilet story. Devoid of space at home, Mukesh had developed a habit of masturbating in the communal toilets. Growing up, we’ve all rubbed one out in there at some point in our lives, but Mukesh continued to do so, until Rahim chacha, the astute neighbourhood bigot, noticed a blob of mucous that looked highly suspect. What followed was a screaming match, as Rahim chacha yelled bloody murder, and Mukesh tried to cover it up as phlegm resulting from a particularly nasty cold. But crafty old Keramma, the woman in charge of cleaning the toilets every morning, joined in the chorus, and Mukesh was forever called Muthesh. The next day, right below the ad for “night sex with Salman”, was a caption that read, “Yahan muth maarna mana hai”. Another one cropped up in the adjoining toilet: “Mukesh chutiya, maare muthiya.”
With increasing education and income levels, the communitatti may soon die. For people like us, modular kitchens, elevators, swimming pools, and Italian marble be damned, the collective dream is and has always been shitting in the comfort of your own toilet, devoid of the stench or occasional skid mark left behind by your neighbour. Last year, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance revamped all the toilet blocks in our chawl complex, and the chipping paint and wooden doors where replaced with brand new metal doors and ceramic tiles. All information broadcasting services were suspended until the content providers discovered permanent markers, and the posters came right back.
But I know one day they will permanently go. I don’t know for how long I will be privy to Salman’s sex life, or Aftab and Raja’s take on the Indo-China tension. It will be great, of course, having a sanitary environment to shit in with ample running water and not having to squat until you’re knees hurt. But then it’s not about the act of taking a shit, it never was. Shitting takes 10 minutes. It’s about a bunch of people, with clenched assholes, shooting the breeze and taking interest in other people’s lives rather than playing with their phones.
The communitatti may be the last bastion of analog interaction in an increasingly digital world. When they graze the last communal toilet and send the communittatti to its grave, I will engrave its epitaph: Came for a tatti, stayed for the tête-à-tête.
Damian loves playing videogames. If all the bounties he collected slaying zombies were tangible, he wouldn't need to write such bios. Seriously though, Damian used to be a cook who wrote, now he's just a writer who cooks.