Nila hopped on a train to Mansoori, on a day the sun was skippy in the sky between the long ropes of clouds. Her father slid her suitcase overhead and tucked another wad of notes into her palm.
“Here, put this away safely,” he said.
“You’ve already given me enough, papa,” Nila said.
Her mother sighed and cracked her knuckles and sighed again. Her baby was going out into a world full of wolves and thieves. But Nila was twenty-three, and was only taking a two-day trip to the Enga caves in Mansoori. She had daydreamed of playing tourist since she was a little girl. Especially since her brother brought back stories and pictures from his trip to the mountains, or the waterfalls, or a new unheard of town where bat soup was a delicacy.
Nila was allowed by herself only as far as Mega’s house two blocks away and was to return by six pm. At fifteen, her father rode her to Cariappa park, and picked her up three hours later. At nineteen, she took a bus by herself to the museum and stayed out till sundown. When she came home, the house was in an uproar. The grandfather, the grandmother, her uncle and her mother doused her with threats, scoldings and warnings of all sorts. A comprehensive list of terrible things that happened to girls who went out on their own was nicely dished out.
“There, there, she’s home safe now. Plus, we’re not always going to be around to chaperone her. Once in a while, she’ll have to learn to go out on her own.” her father interjected.
“She’ll be well taken care of when she’s married and has a husband.” the grandfather said.
“Don’t you ruin her now,” the mother said.
The brother said nothing, except smirk a little and roll his eyes at his sister’s predicament.
It was the city. It was wild and free and scandalous. Small town rules didn’t apply when they moved there. There wasn’t an entire arsenal of relatives to endure or dodge. Only her mother, set in her ways, was easily outnumbered by a father who always took Nila’s side.
After many misgivings and maneuvering from both parties, a whole lot of preparation transpired. Her brother even lent her his camera and a pair of trekking shoes. Her mother packed a bunch of girl things; clean underwear, handkerchiefs, bras, sanitary napkins, so on and so forth.
“A girl can never have enough of these,” she said.
Her father brought her a new trolley suitcase in cherry red to match the color of her backpack, a raincoat, earphones, and stuffed her purse with money.
Nila set off.
Mansoori was four hours away. Nila was glad she listened to her mother and drank nothing before boarding the train.
“You don’t want to use those toilets on the train. Trust me,” her mother had said, her face crumpling from some long-ago grotesque memory. Nila smacked her parched lips and looked away from the tender coconut vendor, making his way up the aisle. Even the landscape dotted with farms could not distract her from the potbellied man opposite, gulping down large sips of orange juice from his bottle and taking frequent trips to the toilet.
Four hours stretched by. Mansoori arrived.
Nila waved a taxi to her hotel. The flutter she felt from the newness of her situation, the rush of an unfolding dream, and the swarm of strangers around her were somewhat overshadowed by the sensation in her bladder.
It was full and felt like bursting.
In the taxi, all she did was press her knees together and absently look out the window. Rows and rows of buildings, dressed in neon lights, stood brazenly in the winter night.
At the hotel, inside a clean latrine, Nila relieved herself.
It burned. The stench was putrid and steamy from the four hours of holding. The room freshener did nothing to quell it.
She went in search of ice cubes and the bed.
The day was better than the night.
She’d signed up with a local trek club that was to start at six in the morning. There was a guide, an itinerary, and four other strangers to travel with. Three men and a woman.
Excitement hammered her nerves. They took an hour-long drive to the edge of town, stopped nowhere except at a highway hotel with a decent toilet.
Then came the forest, its hills jutting upward.
The Enga caves were at the heart of a remote village twelve miles off the highway. The last time she saw them was when she was eleven, on the page of a travel book. Its shape was the deep hollow of a flower with all its petals flared sideways. Several meters in, a spring of water streamed from its roof in a shower. The sight was so stunning that the eleven-year-old Nila had sworn that she’d go there someday.
They set off in a zigzag line, while the sun was just waking up over the forest.
As planned, she carried a small bottle of water, from which she took measured sips only at points of severe exertion. She was worried for Stuti, the lean girl with strings for hair, who pulled out an enormous bottle of water and often drank from it.
“You’ve done this a lot?” Nila asked.
“All the time,” Stuti said.
“So…how do you go?”
“You know when you have to go…to the toilet?”
“You just go,” Stuti laughed. The small-town girl’s eyes got wide with bewilderment.
“But…isn’t it difficult to find privacy?”
“You do your best, but when you can’t, you can’t. Many a man has seen these buttocks.”
She guffawed, tapping her backside.
Nila started her horror complete. It made Stuti laugh even harder.
“It’s what we have been doing since the beginning of time. Even now, you see these women working in the fields, going off into the woods to do their business.”
“But isn’t it uncomfortable…for the women?”
“No pain…no gain, darling. At least we can afford wet wipes.” the girl shrugged.“All this pee talk is making me wanna pee.”
Then she stomped off into the thicket, as casually as she was going for a stroll.
The men often scurried behind bushes or trees unabashed.
The day was simply delightful, apart from the constant tinkering of dread in some corner of her head, the dwindling of water in the bottle, and the mild swelling up of the bladder. The company was quite pleasant. The tall, burly man introduced himself to everyone and recollected his previous exploits aloud. The stringy fellow with a nose mole did a lot of small talks. The short guy with a nice face was both quiet and shy and spoke a total of six words on the entire trip.
They made their way up the foot trail and inched towards the line of hills where the caves lay. On the way, a flock of jungle fowl made a special appearance, as did a rainbow and a rock python. The sun was well up in the sky when they reached the caves.
It was spectacular.
The sheaves of rock fanned out at the mouth of the cave, and its tunnels were a stunning color of pink and grey. They footed into it with the awe of a child, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, and mute. They spent the whole day there, trod every inch of the place, took pictures, posed for pictures, ran their hands over the jagged edges, and tasted the spring that came from the roof of the caves, sweet and crystal clear.
Nila had a request to make of Stuti throughout the course of their stay.
“Can you watch while I go, please?” she asked.
“Of course, kiddo,” the girl guffawed again. The small-town girl’s inexperience was amusing.
Each time, Nila tucked her churidar pants into a tight ball, squatted right, and angled herself. Approaching footsteps or voices made her start. Her full bladder wouldn’t release. The fear of being seen throbbed at every nerve ending. When the job was done, she cleaned herself with a borrowed wet wipe and dressed.
“Wear pants next time, girly,” Stuti chided. “Saves time.”
The day wrapped up at the hotel, and everyone seemed satisfied with how it had unraveled. Nila went to her room and gulped down a whole bottle of water and let it cleanse her inside out.
The next day was kinder. She bought a pair of pants with a zip at the front and felt more comfortable wandering off into hiding to urinate.
It was time to go home.
This time, in a minibus.
All sixteen seats were full. The man next seat was short and familiar.
“Hello!” he said. He was her trek mate from the previous day. The short, quiet one. He said his name was Wilson and that he, too was going back home. After that, they didn’t talk much. The highway sped by with the forest, villages, and towns on both sides. Two hours in, there was an urgency to urinate, but not too badly. They made a stop at a highway latrine.
The men got off. Most of them wandered off into the nearby bushes and didn’t use the latrine. All of them were men, except another older woman.
It was war in Nila’s head. Should I get off and go or not? After a five-minute tussle, she decided no.
The bus took off. Two more hours to go. She’ll manage like she did the last time, she told herself and began twiddling her toes for comfort, then her ankles, then her whole leg. She glanced at the other woman and wondered if she had a similar discomfort. The woman simply glared out her window with a straight face, so it was hard to tell.
The stench of urine. It came from her memory of women in the marketplaces, the crowded bus stands, and the busy pavements. From the poor hard-working women, carrying vegetables and fruits from their farms to the city, bricks, and cement in the construction sites, selling homemade beads and powders on the pavement. They came by the swarms among the men and fought for space in the crammed nooks and crannies of the towns.
They always smelt the same.
Sweat and urine.
They stood still on the sidewalks, carrying loads of goods and children. Urine trickled down between their legs and sunk into the sand and grime. The yards of saree wrapped smotheringly around them, soaked it up. As if everything was okay, they adjusted their burdens on their heads and upon their arms and walked on. The latrines were as dirty as the men who loitered about the ladies’ toilets and stared.
They were broken too. Taps didn’t work, doors didn’t close, the latches were kaput; the commodes were smeared in shit, puddles of urine lacerated the floor. And when you went, where would you keep the goods? Or the children?
So they walked on, the urine drying upon their legs, crusting over and itching.
And that smell!
The pressure mounted within a quarter of an hour. From then on, it got worse by the minute. The ache turned searing. She bit her lips and clenched her fists. Tears started in her eyes and fell.
“Are you alright?” Wilson asked.
“I’m okay,” she lied. But the tears didn’t stop.
Six more tormenting minutes and it was too much. A gush of urine wet her inners. She held back, tightening her muscles from betraying her.
“Can I help you?” Wilson asked again, hearing an audible shudder.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” she said, wincing.
Wilson got up, strode to the front of the bus, and asked the driver to stop for the lady. The boorish man refused.
“I just did half an hour ago. Why can’t she have gone then? How many times do I stop, I need to keep my schedule,” he snarled.
“Stop the goddamned bus right now!” Wilson yelled, his voice thundering out of his small frame and startling everyone who heard him.
“Alright!” the driver said, “A toilet is only five minutes away.”
It was indeed.
And it was horrific. Nila stood over a soiled latrine, pausing her breathing. But inside ten seconds, she gulped in a blast of the putrid stench.
She went standing. Urine dribbled down her legs and into her shoes. She cupped her hand under a dripping tap and let a bit of the water take away the sting. Then she walked into the bus and sat in her soggy underwear.
“Are you alright?” Wilson asked.
She nodded, mute with shame.
He left her alone to recuperate. When the bus was well on its way towards home, he cleared his throat and said.
“Forgive me if what I say offends you, but I only mean to help. There is this device for the ladies. It’s disposable, you see. My sister uses it when she travels. It helps you go standing. Did you know?”
Nila gasped from the discomfort of her situation and the man’s words. But she nodded. Humiliation colored her face red. She turned it away, faced out the window and stared.
And waited for home.
At home, they clustered around her.
“How was the trip?” they asked.
“It was just wonderful. I had the time of my life,” she said and tramped to her room to change, bathe and rest.
“See, you worried for nothing,” father was saying.
“Don’t encourage her, girls ought to be safe and comfortable at home,” mother was saying.
“Rubbish, my girl is tough as nails,” father was saying.
“You’re going to ruin her,” mother was saying.
There was a lot of saying.
In her room, Nila stretched out upon her bed. She thought of what Stuti, Wilson, and her father had said. Finally, she thought of the travel book.
Tucked between the Western ghats, it flung itself nine hundred feet down the mountain and fanned out into the Kashvi river. It was two days away from home.
Nila switched off the lights and went to bed.
Home felt safe and comfortable, but it didn’t always feel free.
Next month, Papyara falls it is.
Prarthana JA, lives in Bangalore, India. She quit her job as a corporate writer to take care of her babies, a feisty toddler and her first novel, which she hopes to finish soon. Her screenplays for award winning short films, The Wedding Saree, Opaque and Spiral, are up on the internet. Her short stories have appeared in The Indian Periodical, Defenestration, The Potatoe Soup Journal and Emovere, an anthology.