Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Toilet trouble

(Warning: if you are easily offended by toilet humor, go somewhere else. And though this isn’t a “science” post, worry not, a scientific temper will be felt throughout the post, even if it is a “crap post”)

It was probably Mark Twain who said “sex is the most overrated pleasure, while defecating is the most underrated one” (ok, if he didn’t say it, sue me. At least it makes a good opening line if we pretend he said it).

But this post is not just about defecating, though “relieving one’s self” (as some more gentle readers, particularly Indian ones, might phrase it) plays a central role. This is a tale from a time long gone by, a tale of suffering and endurance, of persistence and heroism, and final glorious victory.

It all started somewhere in middle school/junior high when I joined the junior division of the National Cadet Corps (NCC) in a moment of delusion. Actually, we were given a choice between the NCC, the boy scouts, the “green brigade”, and the “students association for road safety”. My choice was made because “real boys” joined the NCC. The scouts were for softies who wanted a ton of badges, and the other two were for pansies. So, there I was, marching up and down in the Southern Indian heat, as a freshly minted cadet.

Now, as some of you might know, part of the training required that we spend time in a “combined annual training camp”. And since most of us were in the NCC for two or three years, that meant attending at least two of those camps. Usually they were held at some old army barrack or government school. The first camp was somewhere in Doddaballapura (which in the old days was 30 km from Bangalore). Kit bags in hand, our unit, filled with upper-middle class or spoilt rich kids, reached the camp. The accommodations (in some large hall) were alright, at least it was clean. The day wore on, and then of course, nature took its course, and the urge hit us (particularly after eating the muck they served). So, we had to look for the loos.

Except, there weren’t any.

The army soldiers and JCOs in charge were supposed to have prepared “camp style” loos, which basically were deep trenches surrounded by a tarp, with a plank to perch on and poop. The rule (apparently) was that there would be around one trench for 10 or so cadets. After each poop, the cadet would use the bucket of sand placed strategically close by, and cover up the results of his colon’s work with sand. This would prevent the poop from stinking (due to slow semi-aerobic bacterial decomposition), wouldn’t attract swarms of flies, and the deep trench would last for the scheduled ten days.

Unfortunately, those lazy bastards (LB’s) decided to cut corners. For the entire group of some 300 cadets (from some 6 odd schools), they dug THREE trenches. Given the time pressures involved (particularly early in the morning), it was practically impossible for each user to complete the assigned task and cover up all traces with sand. This meant that by day two, the bogs were stinking and the swarm of flies around the pits probably resembled the proverbial plague of locusts that Moses saw. The second thing those LB’s forgot was that the camp was being held in mid July or something. Now, just about every person in South India (that would be about 300 odd million people) knows that the monsoons show up in late June. The least they could have done was to have put up a tarp roof over the trench-loos. Nope, to cut corners (and save effort) they didn’t bring any extra tarps. Nature of course is merciless, and did the expected. It rained.

If you can imagine the nature of the cesspool that was created at the trench-bogs after the rains, you are one sick, disturbed individual. There came a day (that would have been day 3 of the camp) when cadets unanimously resolved to halve their food intake, and poop only every other day.

We survived.

The next year was in some ways even more entertaining. This time, the camp was held in a very reasonable government school somewhere, which DID have loos. Except, it wasn’t built to handle 300 odd cadets. Plus, in this camp there were some female cadets as well, so the JCO’s in charge decided that the loos were for the exclusive use of the girls (and the only other set of loos were for the officers in camp), and decided that the rest of us could use the nearby fields.

All was well for about three days. On day four, at around 5 am, I returned victoriously from the fields, and settled down to polish my boots, when we heard loud noises. We looked up in the direction of the fields, and there, running for their lives were a group of cadets with their pants in various stages of fastening. Behind them were a group of furious farmers, swinging their wooden staffs and chasing down these cadets with murder in their minds. Apparently, the rampaging hordes of cadets were destroying the sugarcane crop by stomping across the fields and pooping at will. The cadets survived, and escaped the beating of their lives, thanks to the intervention of some intrepid army jawans, but needless to say, alternate toilet arrangements had to be made. So, we used the fields on the other side of the camp, which were owned by some large landlord who rarely visited the fields.

After my stint in the NCC in high school, I decided I would never be stupid enough to sign up again. But my college had other ideas. For some reason (I think it was something about building character in all students) in our first year of college we had to be a part of either the NCC, or the NSO (sports authority) or the NSS (national service scheme). Unfortunately, I was told that to be a part of the NSO one had to have played some sport at the district or state level. That I had done only in fantasy, so that was out. The NSS was out because we had to know how to read and write Tamil fluently (except that I later found out the fluently part was flexible). So I ended up in the NCC again (for just one year), and had to go for yet another training camp.

This time the camp was held in a small village school in some tiny town 50 odd kilometers from Madras, which had a “famous temple” (that’s not saying much since every village in Tamil Nadu with a population of over 5 people has a “famous temple”). This school was still in partial construction, and so, unsurprisingly did not have loos. The buildings were strategically located far from the village, with a barren hill right behind it. So, by default (since the LB’s in charge decided they didn’t even want to dig three trenches), the mountain became our potty of choice.

We might have been students of engineering colleges, but we weren’t to bright (either that, or we were just so used to the comfort of our nasty dorm loos that we couldn’t think straight). The first couple of days went off fine, but with the start of day three two new problems emerged. We had taken the easy option early in the morning (it is hard going out for a poop with a torch in hand), and so had pooped at the base of the mountain. That was fine for the first two days, but by day three there wasn’t a safe, clean spot at the base of the mountain to poop in, thanks to a few hundred restless bowels. Hiking through the mess in the dark was out of the question. We should have started at the top of the mountain and worked our way down, but we were too stupid for that (either that or our bowels wouldn’t hold that far). The remaining week was spent in misery amidst a howling stench. So much so that our ordeals were immortalized in song, and the lyrics of a popular Tamil and Telugu chartbuster at the time (from a movie called Ratchagan) which went “Sonia, Sonia sokkavikum Sonia…” was altered to “Poniya, poniya, inniku poniya….” (sorry, a translation won’t work).

I lived to tell this tale.

What’s the moral of this story? Nothing. Except that I strongly advocate the principles of leaving no trace while camping, and recommend the use of well dug cat-holes while backpacking.


apu said...

phew ! that was one crappy tale !i thank my lucky stars that i didnt sign up for ncc...h

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

that's just plain traumatic.

reading all that, i meant. :p

bongopondit said...

LOL - reminds me of my own 'compulsory' NCC camp experience (1st year of college).

Fortunately, arrangements were a little better than what you described. Trench-holes were plenty and after a period of seven days, would be closed up and a new ones dug (rumor is that nearby farmers would rush to plant winter vegetables on these plot of lands!).

Still, some highly urbanized individuals felt comfortable with the arrangements and went without for two weeks !! How they pulled off this physiological feat I will never know.

Ashutosh said...

Sunil, you are a real survivor, all of you need to be given a medal of honour...but on a more serious note though, I am sorry but I find it downright disgusting and cruel to have such despicable facilities for NCC cadets. Though one might look back amusingly in retrospect, I am sure there are other far more benign ways to build character than by forcing them use such facilities.

Selva said...

Oh, the horror. Another distinguished company besides Twain on the subject of shit: Margaret Atwood. She talks about her parisian experience in Curious Pursuits (a book I recently read and greatly enjoyed): "By the time we'd been two days in Paris, where we subsisted on a diet of baguettes, café au lait, oranges, pieces of cheese, and the occasional bean-heavy bistro meal, I was in an advanced state of dysentery. We were shunting around from cheap pension to cheap pension; the rooms were always up gloomy flights of stairs, with lights that went off when you were halfway up and cockroaches that rustled and crackled underfoot. None of these establishments allowed you to stay in them during the day; so I lay moaning softly on hard French park benches, in gravelly French parks, while Alison, with a sense of duty Florence Nightingale would have envied, read me long improving passages from Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Every 15 minutes a policeman would come by and tell me I had to sit up, since lying on the park benches was forbidden; and every half hour I would make a dash for the nearest establishment with a toilet, which featured, not the modern plumbing that has taken over today, but a hole in the ground and two footrests, and many previous visitors with imperfect aims."

The last line is priceless. :-) For a review and the chapter containing the above extract see http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/biography/0,,1478824,00.html

Islander said...

Sunil- the true benefactor of our age - and the rest of human time - will be the person who finds a way to get rid of human crap without compromising ecological systems or destroying other life forms (except, maybe, parasites,dangerous bacteria and viri). Toilet humour works - because all of us (except for desperately unlucky folk) have to evacuate, and sometimes this is in nasty or vile situations...I love the story about an English High Court judge (Denniston I think) who always kept a roll of toilet paper out of public sight on his bench. When his clerk asked why, he said, 'To always remind myself I am the same as every other man."
(Excuse the sexism, but that was the quote.)
Enjoy your site a lot. Thanks for it.

Sunil said...

Apu...apart from this though, there were many good times that I had in the NCC...wasn't all bad.

Girl_from_ipanema....and you managed to read through all of this? :-)

Bongopondit...heh....in my case, at least in high school, ALL of us were very urbanized and some of my friends even had a hard time using loos in trains or public restrooms. So, you can just imagine how hard it was :-).

Ashutosh....I completely agree that there are "better ways to build character". In fact, I dont think "character" needs to be built. But I don't think ALL NCC units are this sloppy. There must be good ones. But there are plenty of scams there.

Selva.....that was an amazing story. I'm going to see if i can lay my hands on that book.

islander....I actually agree with everything you say. I also like and tremendously respect the efforts of some groups (like in India) which have focussed on improving access to sanitation, AND use technology that minimizes waste creation.

Soultan of Swing said...

Ah, the memories of the sights/sounds/smells of the NCC camp! Have to admit it was a 12-day nightmare, but I made some phenomenal friendships which are strong to this day (touchwood)!
There was a classmate of mine whose bowels froze for 12 days @ the camp!

Chetan said...

Absolutely hilarious :). Thoroughly enjoyed reading this (thank you!), not to mention sending the link enmasse to some school buddies of mine :).

Chetan said...

Not to mention my sympathies for enduring such a horrific experience.

I've had similar such experience -- not in camps (I wasn't in the NCC, thank goodness!) but right in the army quarters in Allahabad during my SSB interview that lasted a week.

Relieving at 4:30am scheduled time used to be such a mad rush to get a clean toilet (among those horrible ones) was an exercise worth forgetting. If it wasn't for the paper roll, I carried with me..

Sunil said...

heh...soultan, absolutely. Some good friendships were made, and lots of fun was had.

Chetan....yeah, the 4:30 am rush is a true sight to behold. If it wasn't that traumatizing it would be hillarious (and is now).

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Deepak said...

Hey Sunil,

Were you in Cottons by any chance. I came across your post while searching for NCC camps in Dodballapur and my experience in the NCC camp almost mirrored what you wrote. So, I was wondering if we were at the camp at the same time :-)


Sunil said...

yup Deepak...I was, a long time ago :-)

lets see....I must have gone for these camps in 1992 and 93 or something like that.

Deepak said...

wow..I was in the NCC from 93 to 95. I think you were my platoon leader/sergeant.Elphick house? Never thought I would come across a fellow cottonian while searching for "Doddaballpur" :-). God, I hated those camps.

Sunil said...

amazing Deepak. Yes, that's me. Nice to see you here. Don't think any of us really "liked" those camps, did we :-)