Indian women taking part in the 2014 International Toilet Festival in New Delhi. Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

Why Bollywood is making a movie about open defecation

One in two people in India defecate in the open, but the solution isn’t as simple as just building more toilets. Now Bollywood is making a satirical comedy that hopes to change minds about sanitation.

Since I decided to write a book about sanitation, I’ve paid a lot of attention to India, because, as I always say, it has the worst and the best of sanitation. It has the worst statistics: of the one billion people who defecate in the open (in bushes, fields, by roadsides), 600 million are in India. China has a similar population to India but only one in ten people defecate in the open there. In India, it’s one in two. 300,000 Indian children die of diarrhoea every year, much of it caused by faecal particles from all that shit lying around, getting into food and water. When NGOs appeal for money for “clean water” they mean water not contaminated with excrement.

Yet diarrhoea is not only easily preventable, but easily curable with a simple sugar, salts and water solution. But finding the clean water to put in that solution is not simple. Nor, it turns out, is reducing open defecation. You’d expect that to someone without a toilet, the gift of a latrine or toilet from the government would mean you immediately stop “going outside”. Not according to fascinating research done by India’s RICE institute, which surveyed villages in five northern states in India, and found that over 40 per cent of households with a latrine still had a family member who chose to continue to shit outside.

Humans are curious creatures, and rational behaviour is often elusive. Solving sanitation is as much about understanding the human brain (software) as installing toilets (hardware). Research done in Benin into what makes people install a latrine – the same people who see their kids getting sick and dying from diarrhoea – found that the biggest motivator was to emulate the royal family. Elsewhere, reasons given for installing latrines include getting one up on the neighbours, or impressing visiting relatives. Improving one’s health, though this is the subject of most development organisation’s messaging, comes far down the list of triggers.

This understanding isn’t new. Advertisers realised this a century ago, when they started selling soap. Telling people it made them clean and healthy? Poor sales. Telling them it made them sexy and attractive to the opposite sex? Massive sales and soap bars in every bathroom from then on.

That’s why I find what India is doing fascinating. Not only that new Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in one of his first major speeches that India should build “toilets before temples”. This is an shocking and powerful thing to say in a country where many people think any association of toilets with religion is appalling, and where many people refuse to have a toilet in or near their home because they think it is religiously unclean. Not only because Sesame Street then introduced Raya, a puppet with long dark hair who is meant to persuade the children of Asia into clean habits and, hopefully, to pressurise their parents, as only children can, into installing or using latrines. But because there is finally an understanding that installing a latrine has to be a choice, not a government imposition. A toilet must be desired, not enforced, and all these steps are an understanding that to get people to change behaviour, we have to enlist emotions too.

Even so, I never thought, in seven years of writing and speaking about sanitation, that I would be saying that there will be a Bollywood film about open defecation. But it will be so. Ek Prem Katha [A Love Story] will be a satirical comedy. There’s not much more information about it other than what producer Shital Bhatia told the Times of India: that “this story is about a man who makes a toilet for his wife as the symbol of love like the Taj Mahal”. Far-fetched? Bonkers? But I can guess the storyline because I once met a young woman who lived through something similar, and who probably inspired the film.

I was once on a travelling sanitation carnival in Uttar Pradesh when someone rushed up to me. “Rose! Rose! There’s a real ‘no loo no I do’!” I immediately jumped up and ran outside to meet her. For about a year, I’d been hearing of campaigns in India where brides were encouraged to get their prospective grooms to install a toilet as part of the wedding deal. It had been dubbed “no loo, no I do”, but I’d assumed it was mostly well-meaning propaganda. But no. Here was Priyanka and her husband Amjit. She was 23, he was a year or so older. They had had an arranged marriage, but it had become a love match. The only problem was that when Priyanka left her parents’ home for Amjit’s, she was woken at 4am by her mother-in-law and told to accompany her to a nearby field to go to the toilet. She was terrified. She was educated, but this was unlit rural India and she was scared of ghosts, and snakes, and men. There have been high-profile, hideous cases of girls going out to the fields to use the toilet who have been raped, and lynched, and I am sure there are thousands more cases that are unseen and unheard. Priyanka, who had grown up with a household latrine, was appalled. She did something that in the conservative world of rural, caste-bound India, is extremely shocking. She left. Her parents were ashamed; she was ashamed, but she stuck it out. Eventually an Indian NGO, Sulabh International, which has installed a million latrines in India, heard of her case, installed the fanciest toilet for miles around, and Priyanka and Amjit were reunited. If that’s the story of Ek Prem Katha, then I’m all in favour. Not least because Priyanka is a proper heroine. But because bringing a toilet into the world, when there are still 2.4 billion people without one, is by any reckoning a very happy ending.

Photo: Prime Images
Show Hide image

The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder