On Valentine’s Day, you might have expected a post with hearts, flowers and chocolate – but when novelist and journalist Tessa Harris told me a little about how, in India, women want to be wooed in a more practical way, I knew it was a story I’d really like to feature. Find out more about the way to an Indian girl’s heart…
Bollywood romances are famous the world-over for their colour, their drama, their family values and their general joie de vivre, but last year’s blockbuster tackled a very unromantic topic – sanitation. With the catchy title, Toilet: A love story, the film’s plot revolves around a new bride who refuses to join the other village women in their daily dawn forays into the fields. Defying his father and the village elders, her husband is inspired to act. He delivers the immortal line: “If you want your wife to be with you, there has to be a toilet in the house.”
To western sensibilities, such a storyline may seem a little outlandish, not to say almost comical, but in today’s India, sanitation is an issue that’s rising to the top of the political agenda. The film’s success comes as no surprise to Madeleine Knowles, the communications officer at a small, UK-based charity Sanitation First. Based in Bath, Sanitation First has been working with communities in India for the last thirteen years. In that time, it has installed over 3,000 ecological toilets, which not only provide schools, families, and communities with sanitation, but also produce natural, high-yielding compost.
Madeleine tells the story of a young girl living in Gujarat, who used to go to the school where the charity installed their first toilets. She recalls:
She told us what a huge difference they made to her life, as she didn’t have to leave the school grounds and find a field to go to the toilet in. A few years later, her parents found her a husband, but when she visited his house she was horrified to find there was no toilet. She had no choice but to marry him and move in with him, but after two days she had had enough. She went back to her parents’ house and refused to return until a toilet had been built. Despite her husband and his mother coming to ask her to reconsider, she refused to back down.
After a few weeks, she had a visit from her husband, who had built her a toilet! They were reunited and even her mother-in-law was very excited about the new addition to the family home.
It might not be the most archetypal romance story, but, says Madeleine:
This demonstrates that, in some parts of the world, the deal breaker for a potential partner is not his bank balance, his politics, or his hair, but his toilet.
So, if you do receive a box of chocolates or any other conventional love token this Valentine’s day, spare a thought for the millions of Indian women who’d like nothing more from their sweethearts than the ability to pee in private. As Madeleine says:
The typical romantic narrative that we have been fed in the Western world is relatively closed-minded and idealistic, and doesn’t reflect the true situations that people all over the world find themselves in.
For more information visit the Sanitation First website.
Tessa, thank you – smaller charities must find it so very difficult to get the word out about the excellent work they do, operating on a shoestring, and I’m really delighted to be able to draw attention to the work of Sanitation First. Others might also have seen the BBC documentary by Sue Perkins on the Ganges that first drew Tessa’s attention to this important issue, and the need to prioritise the safety and security of women and girls in India: for more about the Bollywood social awareness dimension, there was an excellent article in The Guardian.
About Tessa Harris
Tessa Harris is the author of the acclaimed Dr. Thomas Silkstone Mysteries, including Secrets in the Stones and The Anatomist’s Apprentice. Tessa’s latest book, The Sixth Victim, the first book in a new historical mystery series, is out in paperback in March: the next Constance Piper Mystery, The Angel Makers, is out on May 29th, and available for pre-order. A graduate of Oxford University with a History degree, Tessa has also been a journalist and editor, contributing to many national publications such as The Times and The Telegraph. She has also acted as a literary publicist for several well-known authors. Readers can visit her website, and also read more about The Sixth Victim here in her earlier guest post.