Posted by: cochinblogger | June 4, 2013

How Indian Trains Got Their Toilets


I’ve been reading a book by an Indian journalist, Binoo John, with the intriguing title Entry from Backside Only. No, it’s not about what you think (it simply means entry is allowed only from the rear entrance of the premises); it’s a book about Indian-English. It has just over 200 pages but covers plenty of ground. Binoo does not restrict himself to contemporary Indian-English; he has researched the early days of Indian-English and relived its birth pangs to give us shining examples from over a century ago of letters to the editor, entries from official government files, etc. The tone is light-hearted, but the content verges on the scholarly, and the scope is comprehensive. The subject has been examined from every conceivable angle, from the attempts of the British and the Indians to find a common linguistic ground in English to hilarious samples of Indian-English (the title itself being a prize exhibit) to a consideration of the spoken English courses that thrive in this country.

Here is the kind of curiosity Binoo has dug up for his book. This is a letter written by Okhil Chandra Sen to the Sahibganj divisional railway office in 1909:

I am arrive by passenger train Ahmedpur station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just I doing the nuisance that guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with lotah in one hand and dhoti in the next when I am fall over and expose all my shocking to man and female women on platform. This too much bad, if passengers go to make dung that dam guard not wait train five minutes for him. I am therefore pray your honour to make big fine on that guard for public sake. Otherwise I am making big report to the papers.

Binoo writes that “it is said it was this letter that resulted in the railway authorities introducing toilets in Indian trains.” Now we know what has to be done to get the railway authorities to introduce modern toilets that will treat human waste and allow for its proper disposal instead of letting it all hang out on the railway tracks: write a stinker of a letter to the railway authorities. 🙂

Binoo’s book reminded me of an advertisement by an Indian pharmaceutical company that appeared in November last year. It was one of those first page spreads that usurp the headlines and relegate them to inner wear, which is annoying enough. The language of the ad could certainly have found a place of honor in Binoo’s book:

Vicco Laboratories, which has upraised the Indian Ayurved and its nurturing, protecting and rejuvenating medicinal products and remedies from a fierce abyss of disdain and contempt to the peak of world-wide recognition, esteem and honour, has completed its tough and tedious march of sixty years and has been celebrating The Diamond Jubilee!

 “Diamonds are forever …! … very true as they say. But the real worth, beauty and value of a diamond lies in the heart of its admirers!! We solemnly trust that our loyal associates, precious customers and benevolent well-wishers have bestowed the glory of a diamond upon the Vicco Medicinal Products. For us, this Diamond Jubilee is, indeed their felicitation!!!

 Infact, this long march of sixty years of Vicco, from den to abroad, from hollow to solidity, from scorn to respect and from indifference to reverence truly resembles a boundless vault of an Eagle!

That final baffling paragraph alone was worth the price of admission.

I close with Binoo’s explanation of the title of his book, Entry from Backside Only:

Backside is a favourite usage in Indian officialdom and in the streets and has even made its way into Hindi. Everywhere, from the remotest corner of Uttar Pradesh to the upscale promenades of New Delhi, ‘Aap backside se jaiye’ is accepted usage. Indian-English has had a backside entry into the world of mongrel languages. And there it will sprout and from there branch out.

Amen to that.


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