The Front Porch

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Seetha Ananthasivan

For Father Jose, Josey to every one who knew him, the front porch was his favorite place to sit and have his morning cup of coffee. The time also meant a ritualistic greeting with the villagers who would pass by his home.


Everyday, in the little village in Bihar, Josey would see his neighbors walking to the bushes in groups to relieve themselves, each carrying a lotta of water. All the villagers who passed by his house greeted Josey with a nod and a quick smile but always seemed very preoccupied amongst themselves. Once, when he tried inviting them for a cup of tea, they politely refused stating, “We are in a bit of a hurry”.


The fact that the villagers did not have toilets bothered Josey. He was here to “uplift the downtrodden”, and thus decided that he would start with a project of building pakka toilets for the village folk.


In his project report he wrote, “My neighbours use the bushes to relieve themselves every morning. Before starting off on a hard day of sweat and toil, they walk together in small groups trying to find a convenient spot for themselves. Privacy is a luxury which only I seem to enjoy.”


The approval came very soon. For the next one month, day and night, Josey was busy. Plans were made for ten toilets in a circular formation, foundation was laid, high walls came up, with Indian style commodes fitted in. It was hard work. Working together with the village folk and teaching them “new ways” was always a source of delight for Josey. The toilets would help them get to work faster and earn more money.


After a month and a half, on the inaugural day, Josey managed to conjure up sparklingly clean toilets fitted with taps and walls for privacy. The whole village attended the function. At the end of the inaugural everybody was given a jaggery based sweet.


All of them gracefully took the sweet and left for the bushes in their usual groups. Nobody from the village used the new facility. Out of curiosity, a little girl peeped into one of the toilets, found a tap, filled water in her lotta and ran to the bushes. For one whole week the toilets remained unused.


Josey was obviously miffed that the village folk did not appreciate the importance of all the money spent and the hard work he had put in.


“Think about it”, he said to himself. “What are the pros and cons? The toilets are clean, neat, have water facilities, there is privacy, saves time, no fear of getting bitten by insects. What could be the cons?” He couldn’t think of any. He tried gesturing an invitation, “try using the toilet today” to some of the passer by villagers while sipping his morning coffee. But the only response he got was the usual nod and smile; the villagers continued to disappear into the bushes.


Finally one day, Josey took one of his friends aside and asked him. “Sukhiya, why don’t you use the toilets that I have built for you?”


“Arre, Father, how can I tell you this?” answered Sukhiya. “The only time we get to be with our friends is in the morning. After that we get very busy in the fields or the quarries.”


“Yes Sukhiya, but how on earth does that have anything to do with you going to the toilet in the morning?” asked Josey, hiding his puzzled irritation.


“When we sit behind the bushes we can talk and exchange information. Our women and children are usually scared of the dawn as it’s still a little dark, so they like to go in groups and talking makes them feel safe. We don’t like the small suffocating toilets with high walls where we cannot talk”.


In the next two days, Josey broke down all the walls till they were just two feet high so that his friends could continue to have their morning conversations, with just as much privacy as they needed.


The good thing about the new toilets, say his friends, “we don’t have to carry a lotta of water anymore. The taps are helpful”. Some of the villagers find it convenient to use the toilets at night and continue their morning rituals behind the bushes.In his project feedback


Josey wrote, “Perhaps we need to think more deeply before we take up  'rehabilitation' projects. Is our way always the right way?”