Traveler’s Journal – Freedom-Fighting Brothers at The International Museum of Toilets
Sanjay and Vijay Kumar
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 . . .”
Still nothing.Page 1 of 5