It should come as no surprise that I visited the International Museum of Toilets primarily as a joke. While there was part of me that thought the visit might be instructive in a “development of civilizations” kind of way, mostly I just thought it would be hilarious.
I found reference to the museum in the New Delhi section of my Lonely Planet: India. In a city this maximal, this overpopulated, this polluted, this chaotic, and this overwhelming — with the options of a day trip to the Museum of Natural History, to the Fire Temples of the Zoroastrians, to the Lodhi Gardens, to The Red Fort, to the bazaars of the Old City — where the options of being poisoned immediately by the water, or over a few days by the air were ever present — where one can actually catch leprosy or watch sword-swallowing on a street corner, I couldn’t think of a single reason not to put the International Museum of Toilets at the very top of my list.
I suppose that says something about my character, though I’m not sure quite what.
I’d only been in-country for 24 hours when I hailed a tuk-tuk and handed the address to my driver. The museum was in the Mahavir Enclave, about 15 kilometers south of my hotel and far from any recognizable center of town. My driver spoke little English but had a wonderfully mysterious mutter about him. He wore a long purple-hooded robe, which seemed to fall on the Tatooine spectrum of high fashion somewhere between Jawa and Kenobi. His movements were exceedingly slow, followed by crisp flashes of predatory speed. His head would follow one image in the distance to the right or left as we drove down the street, and then he’d make a sudden twist of his neck, and instantly be staring deep into my eyes, all while guiding our tuk-tuk into a world of uncertainty and madness.
In New Delhi, traffic feels like two large herds of cattle being driven to slaughter in opposite directions. It is an inchoate, braying pandemonium. Every moment feels like it may be your last. Images of flying hunks of metal piercing you through the thorax compete with fears of a comically overloaded 18-wheeler rounding a bend in the road, its wheels losing their grip just enough to smash you and your tuk-tuk like a grape and then carry on into the distance, its radio Doppler-shifting Bollywood theme songs as you take your last breath.
The rules are British in theory (right-side steering wheel, left-side roadway), but the practice is entirely Indian. Cars, busses, tractors, motorcycles, bikes, land-speeders, tuk-tuks, elephants, wookies, camels and wandering cows all use the same lanes, and on occasion in both directions at once.
And yet my driver cut through traffic like a sword. Okay, a little slower than a sword. Maybe more like a putty knife. Still, he was good.
We arrived at the International Museum of Toilets after about 45 minutes, having passed shanty towns that boggle. When we arrived at the address, my driver stuck his head (then his neck and torso) out of the tuk-tuk, searching. Then he looked back at me and wagged a finger from side to side. Nothing here.
He whisked his body around, grasped the tuk’s steering wheel, looped us around 180 degrees and proceeded back up the street looking for something that resembled a museum. There was nothing. We drove through the neighborhood, both of us craning our necks to see a sign that might indicate where we were to go, but we had no luck. After half an hour of this, I was ready to give up the quest, figuring The Lonely Planet had screwed up yet another day of my life, but my driver had greater patience. His tuk-tuk patrolled the enclave, clearly looking for something specific, until we pulled up next to a crowd of men and he made a call that sounded more like birdsong than any Romance language.
From the corner approached another man wearing the same color purple robe and they conversed so quickly that Deep Blue would have struggled to keep up with the phonetic calculations. The man gestured to a place somewhere back in the middle distance, roughly where we’d first pulled over.
Both of us giving thanks to the man on the street, we returned to the original address. My driver held out his hand for payment, then ushered me out of the tuk-tuk indicating that I knock on the big metal gate that said Sulabh Sanitation and Sewage Center. There was nothing indicating a museum on the premises. I paid him his rupees, walked to the gate and turned around as if to say, “huh?” But he was gone.
The streets of the Mahavir Enclave were striking in their dichotomies. They stank of urine and smelled of fresh fruit. Venders sold food next to piles of human and animal waste. There were cows everywhere. Girls at work in dust-faded saris wandered through knots of school boys on break from their lessons. Twisted, broken, blind beggars reached up to radiant dark-skinned women with eyes of obsidian embedded in marble who passed by them without notice. Men wore turbans, women wore hijab. There was a haze of pollution as thick as barroom smoke. A catastrophe of traffic sounds: horns, screeching brakes, police whistles shocked the ears. There were puddles of animal fluids. Shopkeepers shouted at red-assed monkeys. Red-assed monkeys stole from shopkeepers. It was multi-dimensional pandemonium.
This was my first time alone on an Indian street and I understood why my friend Scott had once asked me when I told him I was going to India, “Have you ever set your head on fire and then put it out with a hammer?”
I knocked on the gate. No one answered. I knocked again. Still nothing. I pushed a bit and found that the gate was unlocked, so I wedged it open a bit more and slid myself through the opening. There was no one immediately evident inside. I walked in a few more steps and hazarded a “Hellooooooo . . .”
Sensing no one about, I walked around the corner of one of the interior courtyard’s buildings. Sitting around a large wooden table underneath a sheltering stretch of lamina were about a dozen men, doing nothing. This seemed as if it could be the markings of a sanitation center anywhere in the world. Other than perfunctorily offering namastes, they paid me no mind at all, so I walked further into the large, oddly campus-like compound.
Past the second building I saw something that I absolutely did not expect to find in a sanitation center — a group of ten absolutely stunning young women, all in saris, practicing a dance. They giggled when they saw me, but continued dancing slowly with their hands extending like vines toward one another and then rising over their heads like blooming flowers. I could swear that one of them batted her eyelashes in my direction. They were all as fresh as roses and I fell in love with them in an instant.
But as I was intruding on their dance, I retreated towards the first building and the idling sanitation workers who hadn’t moved. I headed for the gate. Whatever this place was, there was no museum here.
As I backed toward the gate, I nearly stepped upon a small man who asked if I was there to visit the museum!
I said I was.
The man was Sanjay Kumar, Assistant Curator, International Museum of Toilets.
Sanjay doesn’t get too many visitors, but he spoke quite passable, if idiosyncratically endearing English. “Namaste, Mister Sir!” Sanjay said as he unfolded his hands from in front of his chest and graciously took my right hand in both of his. Sanjay was a small man and his skin was wrecked by something similar to smallpox, but with much larger, deeper scars. Bigpox? His nose seemed to lose, in parts, almost a quarter of its depth. He was cratered, but he radiated joy and thankfulness about everything: his life, my life, all life, any life — and boy, did he love his toilets!
Sanjay led me to the museum room (pictured below, left) for a guided tour. Our first stop was at an exhibit on what Sanjay called the “ancient toilet culture” of India. I tried not to crack a smile, but one slipped through. Happily it was met by an even more radiant smile from Sanjay. “Yes, yes!” he declared, “The toilet culture of India proceeds backwards to the Indus River Valley civilizations, 4,500 years ahead in the past!”
He walked me to the Indus River Valley exhibit — little more than a few posters on the wall — and explained that back in the day, ancient Indusians sat upon toilets with fresh water flowing through pipes that led to a central sewer system, which eventually led out of the cities to be released back into the river far enough away to prevent the outbreak of waterborne parasitic diseases in the urban centers. My guide emphasized that there were four lessons here. First, that sanitation is crucial for the development of complex urban civilization. (“Many, many more people have died from the cholera than the war in all of the past times.”) Second, that it is far easier to have a working sewer system when you live in a low-population-density city near a constant source of water rather than in a desert or in the middle of a crush of humanity. Third, that public health is ensured best if human waste is removed from the consumption streams of all citizens. And fourth, that these lessons can be lost.
The next exhibit appeared to hurt Sanjay spiritually and physically. He steadied me for it by taking my hand. “And this . . . this is the primitive toilet culture in use in the Goa of my country during the time of the Portuguese, four hundred years ahead in the past.” He was shaking his head in sadness as we stood in front of a large photograph of a “dry latrine.”
It was pretty basic, and awful. In essence, it was a stone chair with walls for legs on the sides and in the front. Placed underneath the chair was a bowl, which Sanjay explained to me, had to be cleared by human hands, and not those of the Portuguese. Rather, by Indians who were at the very bottom of the caste system — the Bhunghies. It was probably about here that my visit to the International Museum of Toilets started to veer from “wacky side trip,” to a disturbing-but-ultimately-enlightening experience. Still, there was far more strangeness to come.
Sanjay spoke, “As you know already from your past history learning, India has the castes. But what you might not know historically yet, is that India also has many non-caste castes below and on the bottom of the caste-castes.”
I looked puzzled.
“There are castes that are not really caste-castes below the real caste-castes.”
“Like, worse than the worst caste?”
“Yes! No! Yes! Worse than the worst caste, yes! But no! That is the thing. They are not bad people. They are very, very good people! Not the worst! Not worst than the worst! But yes, the worst.”
“And these are the people who had to clean the toilets of the Portuguese four hundred years ago?”
“Yes, but no! They have to now.”
“There are Portuguese still in India?”
“Yes. Of course. But no. Not the toilets of the Portuguese. But still many, many people, Indian people of a high caste, still use these horrible toilets. And the Bhunghi still have to clean them by hand.”
Sanjay went on to explain that the Bhunghi are part of what are known as “excluded castes,” what we know as “untouchables.” But culturally, the excluded castes are more than untouchable, they aren’t considered fully human by those who hold to traditional standards. According to Hinduism, one’s caste in this life is a reflection of how faithfully one performed the duties to caste in the previous life. How well you perform their duties to caste in this life will determine your fate in the coming cycle of life. The duty of the Bhunghi is to cart the waste of those above them in this system. Though this system was outlawed in India generations back, it still carries enormous inertia.
Barefooted and barehanded, the Bhunghies, to this day, clean dry latrines, and then carry the filled buckets on their heads to the dumping ground outside of their community. The work is intentionally demeaning, a constant reminder to the Bhunghi that they are, on a symbolic and spiritual level, below even the waste of the rest of humanity. They are the lowest of the low.
Sanjay shook his head while explaining to me that there are still over 600,000 Bhunghies living and working — cleaning dry latrines — in India today. And he told me, taking my hand and returning to his gracious and radiant self, that it is the mission of the Sulabh Sanitation Project to liberate them all.
Yes, Sanjay Kumar was the assistant curator of the International Museum of Toilets on his resume, but in his heart, he was a freedom fighter.
Before I could ask him about his quest for Bhunghi liberation he was on to some of the more odd pieces held in the collection.
“Come, come. We can talk and talk for tea in the very soon. But now you must see our treasure. We are very, very international! We have pieces from the toilet culture of many, many places and many, many times! Look, look here. This is from hundreds of years ahead in the past!”
We walked up to what looked like an ornately carved wooden toilet with a very high back.
“This is the ‘privy throne’ of King Louis the XIII of France! Or, actually, it is just a model — but an exact model! It was donated by the French government. You may sit on it if you would like. Very comfortable! Very, very comfortable.”
I did, and asked Sanjay to snap a photo, as you can see pictured above and to the left.
“And over here! Here is a gift from Canada. It is almost from the future. It is a microwave toilet!”
The thought was rather revolting, but Sanjay was so excited he told me that I could pretend to push the buttons, but not “really, really push.”
The microwave toilet never caught on, oddly enough. Maybe because when it was first marketed in the 1990s its unit-cost was $20,000 per crapper. Sanjay explained that it worked by placing a paper liner in the bowl, then being used. When finished, you would close the lid, lock it, and push the button (the one I was allowed to pretend to touch) and in a matter of seconds, the waste was reduced to a small pile of ash. NASA bought a few, but the company went belly up in short order.
Sanjay then led me to a life-sized model of a “bookshelf toilet,” a humorous sidebar to several hundred years of war between the British and the French. The toilet was carved to look like a stack of books written by the authors of the opposing side, of course. When you flipped the lid, the bowl was lined with verses of offending poetry. Thus, a wealthy and patriotic Frenchman could piss on Shakespeare, while an English cabinet officer could make merde on Moliere, if he so desired. There was something about the manufacture, by the same company, of these toilets that made me smile. It seemed to say, “Let the fools make war, we’ll mock them and make a buck while we’re at it.”
He then took me to a poster on the wall of historically humorous anecdotes. He said they were all funny. As it turned out, they were also in eye-punishingly small print. Sanjay pulled my attention to one in particular and waited while I read it, practically unable to control his glee at the humor unfolding in front of him. It was the story of an Englishman who tried to divorce his wife on account of her terrible gas. The Church denied the annulment, declaring that upon marriage man and wife are “the same flesh and blood” in the eyes of God.
When I finished, Sanjay looked at me proudly and said, “An American like you was here many few weeks ago. He taught me a joke when he read this thing. He said that they couldn’t get a divorce, because the God said that the man had both ‘smelt it AND dealt it!’”
He nearly doubled over in laughter.
Between breaths, Sanjay said “He had to explain to me many, many times how one deals like that. I still do not know.”
While he was still laughing, I noticed an exhibit in the center of the room. It was a pair of high heels on a pedestal. I walked over to them and Sanjay followed. I asked him what they were doing here, and he explained, again with mirth, that such shoes were developed in Medieval Europe when it was common practice to dump “night dirt” out of city windows and onto the streets.
When I mentioned this story to a female friend shortly after my visit to the museum, she suggested that platforms would have been better suited to the task. I had to agree.
The museum room is actually rather small and after half an hour or so, we’d exhausted the entirety of the static exhibits, so Sanjay led me to the door. I thought that was it, but he reminded me of his offer to have tea.
“Come, come. You will meet my brother in the lab!”
“The lab?” I said.
“Yes, yes. The laboratory. Come, come. For tea and to meet my brother.”
It was on the walk to the laboratory that I finally clocked the size of this place. It was huge, seemingly a full city block, with several large buildings clustered in three or four groups. On our way to the lab we passed by what looked like a series of prototype outhouses, which it turns out, they were.
In the lab, Sanjay introduced me to his brother, Vijay. Vijay wore a white lab coat and glasses. His skin was unmarked by pox, big or small, but the family resemblance was immediately apparent in his smile. The lab table at which he was working was cluttered with beakers and test tubes. A pot of tea steeped on a platform above an extinguished Bunsen burner.
Vijay stood from his high stool, pressed the palms of his hands together in front of his chest and gave me a namaste.
“Namaste,” I replied with a slight bow.
Feeling comfortable with Sanjay, I asked him what that meant. I’d been saying and hearing it since landing in India, but hadn’t a clue as to its meaning beyond hello or goodbye.
He responded, “It means hello. It means goodbye. But it really, really means that the God inside of me recognizes and honors the God that lives inside of you.”
Sanjay said it again, with his hands pressed together in front of his chest, “Namaste.” So I namasted him. Then Vijay. Then Vijay namasted me.
The God that is inside of me, recognizes and honors the God that is inside of you. Wow.
Sanjay encouraged Vijay to explain to me what he was doing, and Vijay grabbed a beaker full of cloudy, brown water that had sprigs of some kind of plant inside. He said that today he was experimenting with something called duckweed to determine the right amount needed to detoxify feces-polluted water.
“Public defecation is a great problem in India,” he said while gesturing to a poster on the wall that read, Open Defecation, Social Curse.
I snapped a rather poor photo of the poster as Sanjay handed me a cup of tea. Vijay then passed me a small, dried piece of mud, about three inches long.
“What is it?” I asked.
“What does it smell like?” Vijay responded.
I held it to my nose and sniffed.
A bit confused, I responded honestly, “It doesn’t smell like anything. There is no smell.”
Vijay and Sanjay looked at one another, smiled and nodded their heads proudly.
I caught on. Oh, god . . .
With one hand holding a cup of tea, and the other holding this small cigar-shaped object, I said, “Is this . . .?”
“YES!” Sanjay erupted. “Yes. Yes, yes! It is dried human excrement!”
Oh, God, oh, God . . . that is exactly what it looks like, I thought.
It was here that Vijay came to the central purpose of the Sulabh Sanitation Project. “The museum is for our guests. But for us, our work is here.” He gestured grandly, “And out there.”
Noticing that I was unsure of what to do with the piece of dried poop in my hand, he held out a tray. I set it down and brushed my hand against my pant leg.
They invited me to join them at three stools set between two lab tables. Once settled, they explained the many purposes of the project.
Vijay leads a team in the research and design of methods to reduce the environmental impact and increase the recoverability of human waste. They noted that half of homes in India have no toilet, and that people rely on public facilities (which are not nearly plentiful enough), or resort to using public areas.
Get that. In India over 600 million people have no toilet facilities in their homes. More people have cell phones than toilets.
“We try to help keep India clean, clean,” Sanjay said.
“But it is very hard,” said Vijay.
“Come, come,” said Sanjay.
Setting down our tea, we walked out into the courtyard with the outhouses we had passed on the way to the lab.
They were all quite similar in design. There was a standard privy structure with a channel coming out of the back of the facility. That channel ran at a slope for about two feet and then branched off into a “Y” of two channels, each proceeding to a circular pit, covered by a capstone. Walking around from the twin pits to the outhouse proper, Sanjay opened the door, his enthusiasm for toilets having returned to levels of exaltation.
“The bowl is revolutionary! See the very, very high angle in the receptacle.”
This high-angle design, he explained, allows the user to hand-pour only two liters of water down the pipe to flush away the waste.
“Remember lesson number two,” Sanjay prompted. “India is the very, very high-population density country. Many, many people. And it is dry, dry, dry. A desert in many parts. It is hard to build the toilets that will work for the people in this place.”
He noted that most western toilets use between 15 and 20 liters of water a flush.
Vijay then took up the design story, “There is also an S-pipe below, which forms a water barrier for the next user. Not much smell!” He said proudly.
I could envision the ad campaign with Vijay and Sanjay smiling and giving the “thumbs-up” sign while standing next to the outhouse with the tagline below, “Not Much Smell!”
Honestly, it would probably work.
We walked around to the back again and Vijay explained how they have units of different sizes: a smaller one for couples, larger ones for families. He pointed out the different models. All that was different was the size of the capstoned pits.
Each pit is designed to be used for two or three years, then, when one pit is full, the family changes the channel and directs their waste to the other pit. The pits are built to aerate into the soil, so the gasses can escape and the waste can dry. Two to three years later, when the second pit is filled, the waste in the first pit has lost 85% of its mass and all of its water. All bacteria have gorged themselves and died of whatever the bacterial version of starvation might be, leaving behind uncontaminated fertilizer rich in nitrogen and other minerals. The resulting product is what I’d been handling with my tea a few minutes earlier.
Holy shit! I actually thought, These guys are brilliant!
But these outhouses were for the country people, Sanjay explained. “We have big, bigger problem in the cities.”
We walked to a large white building that clearly faced the street on the other side. I hadn’t noticed it when I came in, as I was looking for a museum. It was a public toilet facility.
“We charge one rupee to use the facility. Everyone has one rupee!” Sanjay said. “One rupee to use a clean toilet. It is so, so worth it.”
“And we reclaim everything,” Vijay put in.
And, in fact, they did.
Somewhere in the bowels of the building they had placed machines of the Sulabh Organization’s own design that captured the biogas of 1000 bottoms a day while drying the rest of the waste. The mush (Sanjay’s word, not mine) passed through something called an Excreta Fed Digester, which passed on the separated vapors for use in the Human Excreta Based Biogas Kitchen, as the sign above one door read. The gas could also be used for heating or as a communal fire on cold winter nights. They sparked one up in the courtyard, and while the methane smell was rather reminiscent of . . . well, farts, it would keep you warm at night and allow you to heat water to bathe.
Truly impressed, I asked them if this was their only facility in India.
Sanjay replied, somehow humbly, “No, we have over 7000 in the whole of India.”
Incredible. As it turns out, the Sulabh Organization, founded in 1974 on the concept that a public toilet facility should be pay-for-use (at a very low price), proved a revolution in the history of Indian sanitation, its “toilet culture,” as my hosts would say. There had been previous attempts to build free public toilets, but they were not self-sufficient, and generally avoided due to unhygienic conditions. But the Sulabh facilities are operated by professionals, provide separate areas for men and women and have separate laundry facilities, as well. They currently serve ten million Indians daily, providing a revenue stream of approximately $60 million annually that has allowed for community development, educational opportunities and job training for the children of Bhunghi families.
We’d returned to the courtyard where, upon my arrival, the young women had been dancing. They were now seated at desks, receiving a history lesson in English.
“These children do not want to do the jobs their parents have done all their lives. But no one wishes to teach them, so we teach them here, and at our schools around the country,” Sanjay explained. “We teach them English, but also we have good, good teachers in mechanics and cosmetology with the make-up, and more.”
This stopped me for a moment. These girls were Bhunghi. I wondered if “the God that lives in me would have seen and honored the God that lives inside of them,” had they been dressed in rags and carrying human waste upon their heads. I wondered if I would have seen them at all.
“We’ve liberated 60,000 children from this life already. But there is much, much to do still.”
“60,000?” I repeated, stunned.
“I know, it is not enough. But we have only had 30 years.”
Sanjay Kumar and his brother Vijay (and all the people who work for Bhunghi liberation) are honest-to-God freedom fighters, liberating the world’s most easily discarded children with duckweed and toilet design.
Sanjay was thrilled (and taken quite by surprise) that another few guests had trickled in to the compound. He excused himself, saying he needed to “do his duty.”
As he left, I gave him my first fully-formed namaste, and he rejoined in kind.
Vijay invited me back to the laboratory to learn more about duckweed and water purification, and to share another cup of tea. I gladly accepted and as we walked together through the compound he said, “So, what is the toilet culture like in America?”
I had to admit that until my visit to their museum, I’d never before considered the question.