observations · Travel

The Toilet Woman

I was hustled through the Taj Mahal. All that exhaled breath, discoloring and destroying the marble. Mumtaz could not be pleased. Loved the beaches at Trivandrum, Cochin, Mumbai. The Arabian Sea is warm as bath water. Traveled from Bangalore to the Punjab, to Calcutta and Goa. The entire time I was in India, I was haunted by expectations of the bathroom facilities that would be available to me, especially after my encounter with the monkey bathroom on the way to Goa. That is a story, though, for another time.

After staying in every sort of hotel, from five-star to no-star, I took a flat in Delhi, occupying the top floor, with a veranda, while the landlord and his wife lived on the second floor, and the landlord’s elderly mother lived in the ground floor flat. My flat came with a gardener (to care for the potted plants on the veranda and the balcony), a housekeeper named Saraswati, and the Toilet Woman, whose name I never knew.

I was never to ask Saraswati to clean the bathroom; that would have constituted an insult. I was never to allow the toilet woman to enter the apartment, eat or drink from any of the kitchen utensils. The bathroom had a lock on the outside of the door, on the side facing my bedroom, that I was to lock and an outside entry door that I was to leave unlocked for the Toilet Woman to enter daily to collect and empty the trash and clean the sink, toilet, and shower. All of my servants were dark-skinned, so I didn’t think skin-color made the difference in how they were treated. They were all of the Shudra caste, the gardener a bit fairer than either of the women. It was the Toilet Woman, however, who caught all the hell.

Asha, my landlady, would berate the Toilet Woman daily. I never knew what wrong she had committed, or even if she had done something wrong. Asha always seemed to yell at her as the normal tone of address. I felt for the Toilet Woman and wanted to know more about her, but speaking no Hindi, this was difficult.

One day, I offered her a drink of water from one of my glasses. I asked her inside, after Saraswati was long gone, of course. She spied a chocolate cake I had sitting on the counter and indicated she’d like a piece. She wanted me to wrap it up for her, so I did. She told me, in pantomime, that she had a child who would like it. Another time, she indicated she’d like to have a pair of jeans she saw hanging to dry. Saraswati did my laundry and hung it on the veranda from lines she rigged up especially for the task. I gave the Toilet Woman the jeans.

I learned that many female workers and their children lived in abandoned, crumbling housing without benefit of indoor plumbing, electricity, or running water. Yet, every day the Toilet Woman appeared clean and freshly pressed to cart away my garbage, clean my bathroom, and catch hell from Asha, all for the low price of 150 rupees…a month. At the time, that was equivalent to about $3…a month. At that rate of pay, I figured the Toilet Woman had to clean an awful lot of toilets to make her living. Every day. After watching Saraswati clean the counter tops, dust, and mop the floor with the same dirty cloth and the increasingly dirty water, I couldn’t understand why she was considered better than the Toilet Woman.

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