Breaking Point
India, © 15.Apr.2004 kN
Photos of India
Introduction to India
India - how exciting! What was it like? What are the people like there?
Breaking Point
The Indian Railway Crossing
A Perfect Day
A Hippo in India
India is a country in which seemingly senseless cultural/societal "ways-of-doing" day in and day out cumulatively have the power to unleash a furious helplessness and out-of-controlness. This can sanitisingly be summarized as "hassles while you travel in India." They are, however, countless sore irritations of various types which fester just under the skin, and at some breaking point, will drive you wild enough to vow never to return to India. This reaction is not exclusive to me, but is unique to India with regard to me.


In Bangalore, I atypically fight with a security guard. Note for those who do not know me well - I lean towards the non-conflictual and rarely quarrel with anyone.

In the building of the Internet cafe, there is a men's toilet on the first floor and a women's toilet on the second. gM and I are here all day, and I go to the bathroom a few times. There are poor looking women outside the women's toilet, and I am not sure if I have to pay them even though there is no sign, no desk, no chair, nor a container for money; it has often happened before that poor looking women or men such as these women outside toilets gesture for me to pay. Since I know that we must spend much time in the building over several days, I decide to pay 1 rupee if they ask. This is a fair price because there are very few 50 paise coins, which I have already learned by trial and error when I had one of these coins, that they are sometimes enough for the toilet fee. I have already learned in India that things change each time, so each time I go to the bathroom, I have my 1 rupee ready in case the women ask. They do not.

Today. New day. Sunday. I go to the women's toilet. Locked. I search up and down the entirety of the 4 floors in the building. No other toilet. I go to a shop beside the women's toilet and ask who can unlock the door. The man dismissively answers my question. I go to where he looks over, but cannot find the security guard. I go back and more forcefully make the shop man better answer my question. I then find the security guards and ask one of them to unlock the women's toilet.

He says that it is locked, and that it will be open tomorrow. "Today is a holiday," he says.

Sure, no problem, I think, it's a holiday so I'll just come back tomorrow to go to the bathroom!

I am incredulously stunned at this idiotic Indian illogic. I do not apologize to you for calling this "Indian" because I have been here long enough to know that it is indeed Indian.

I reply, "Fine, I will go to the men's toilet."

I go, the men's toilet is unlocked - holidays do not affect when men go to the bathroom. I knock before entering, and then go in. There are 4 urinals, and 2 padlocked stalls. I go back to the security guard, report that the men's toilet is open while simultaneously asking why it is open when the women's toilet is not, and state that the stall doors inside are locked. I crook my finger at him to gesture that he is following me. He asks if I am working at the Internet cafe. He has therefore seen me there. I answer, "Yes".

He remarks, "OK" in a dismissive kind of way, and does not move. I make him come with me to the men's toilet - I am walking fast and angrily. I am speaking to him angrily. He follows me, sauntering. This time, I do not knock on the door to alert men inside, even though I know from the reflection in the mirror through the slightly open door that a man is peeing at the urinal. The guard comes in with me, and I show him that the stall doors are padlocked. Then, a man comes in, has a key, unlocks a padlocked stall, and goes in to use the squat toilet. After, the man returns the key to the guard. The guard finally says that he will use it for the women's toilet. I ask him about keeping the women's toilet unlocked all day because I will be here all day, however give up on pointing out the obvious unfairness and utter lunacy of the situation. No response. Where can I find him to unlock the door when I need the key later today? No response. He is not happy when he unlocks the women's toilet and leaves me. After I finish, he is not outside the women's toilet.

I return to the Internet cafe and ask gM to step outside. I tell him what has happened - I am livid. Uncharacteristically, I use "fu-----" about 20 times in my explanation. In response to my angry stance of "I will pee anywhere in the building since there are only toilets for men", gM counters that I am better than that. gM constructively reassures that we will find a toilet somewhere else. However, I am not assuaged because as we have previously scanned the vicinity for toilets, I know that there are none. I declare that when I have to next go to the bathroom, gM will come with me, he will stand outside the entrance door (I do not know if it can be locked), and I will pee in the men's urinal. I am pushed over the top by the day in and day out cumulative and overall frustrations of "going to the bathroom" in India. Today is on top of all the specific daily bathroom examples which are too numerous to exhaustively recount, highlights being there simply are no toilets, buses do not stop for toilet breaks (even when you ask for the bus to stop), men's toilets will be free and in contrast women's will not only almost always have a cost but have various prices depending on whether you use the women's open-air multiple squat urinal or a women's squat toilet in a stall with a door, and this is in addition to wondering what the actual toilet fee is and if all women pay or are they just asking me because I am foreign and they can get away with it. Men or women stand outside the women's toilet and ask for money, but very rarely does anyone stand outside the men's toilet to ask for money. To top it all off, men in contrast to women simply pee anywhere on the streets at anytime. gM points out that if one looks at the gender inequity in North America and in India, it is no wonder that it is like this in a country where women were burned alive because their husbands died. I grudgingly acknowledge that this is a good point. gM summarizes simply, "It's India."

Later that same day, I go to the women's toilet. Locked. The security guard is not where he was before. I go to the men's toilet. Unlocked, but there is no way to lock the entrance door from the inside. I return to the Internet cafe, and ask gM to come. We go to the men's toilet, gM checks and the stalls are still padlocked, so we wait until the man inside is done.

When I walk in, the exiting man says "Ladies toilet upstairs."

gM and I chorus "Locked!"

gM positions himself outside the men's toilet. I pee at a urinal, hovering over it in a sit-down position on my tiptoes. There is actually a garbage can in the room in which to throw away my toilet paper - this is a rarity anywhere in India. When I open the door, gM is standing in front of the door, blocking 2 men.

On a bright note, we did find a solution for this particular problem and it could have been worse. I could have been alone and, considering the high frequency of use of the men's toilet, would definitely have had men see me hovering over the urinal and/or see my reflection in the mirror doing the same. And, I have learned from travelling Third World countries to be grateful for anything and everything because you could not even have that. If there is no water in the toilet, I am grateful that there simply is a toilet to use. If there is no toilet to use but I find a place to go outside, I am simply grateful that I can pee somewhere.

What is the big deal, I hear you query?

Isolated, this event is laughable, even trite. It may even read to you as an overreaction. However, it is not an event in isolation, but an event in cumulation. This kind of event occurs for me many times day in and day out.

The big deal is the context in which this is happening, a context that I cannot change, but one to which I must adapt regardless of how senseless or arbitrary or unfair I deem it. This type of context is one in which I feel powerless because common sense or reasoning or fairness simply do not matter: things are simply done differently. This type of context is one in which I feel out-of-control because I am so pushed that I no longer recognize myself.

Tallying similar experiences of other travellers to India, I unashamedly argue that the breaking point is a touchstone feature of travelling India. The specific examples of breaking points are particular from person to person, but the essence of the feature is not. The breaking point is discomfiting to acknowledge because it almost certainly means that after the incident, either you cannot bear to rethink through what has happened because you relive the same wild and burning intensity of fury, or you cannot bear to look at yourself in the mirror. I can guarantee you with almost 100% certainty that you will also find your breaking point in India.

Introduction to India  /  India - how exciting! What was it like? What are the people like there?  /  Breaking Point  /  The Indian Railway Crossing  /  A Perfect Day  /  A Hippo in India