Sex, romance and the dirty toilets

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Syeda Hameed ought to try a hand at dastangoi, this writer concludes. There was a shy drama in her reading from the Daastaan-e-Amir Hamza, a joyful nudge-wink in her voice when she picked out an unabashedly sexual nazm to read out loud.

An elderly lady in the audience objected mildly, asking why Hameed could not call the text ‘romantic’ rather than sexual. It was a damned distraction of a question for this writer began to think about whether (and why) lines devoted to descriptions of chests pressed against chests and tongues in mouths etc, are romantic.

It is hard to think seriously about panel discussions if you start the day with that. But Hameed and her co-panelists Zakia Zaheer and Musharraf Ali Farooqi did brush past a serious matter – that of representation and gender equality embedded within certain literature. The Dastaan-e-Amir Hamza has both male and female magicians. In this most beloved of stories, women fight, kill, seduce, shape-shift just like the men. And men need rescuing as often as women.

The idea makes her feel warm. But there are few warm feelings on display in the next tent, the session called ‘Whose Legacy is it anyway? Land People and Development’. Tata Steel’s HM Nerurkar was complaining about how everyone had a right to land, which is to say, corporations had as much of a right to it as farmers. And Shoma Choudhury was making the very make-worthy point that land is taken from people without proper consultation. Then Tarun Das said that in the nine years he was at CII (Confederation of Indian Industry), land acquisition was not a big problem.

Most people don’t know most things about displacement, but the writer doesn’t like to stand around listening to blatant lies spoken from a stage. Off she goes, to a long lunch in the sun, but before that she has to get bar-coded. This is the fifth time her pass has been examined and its bar code read by volunteers. This incessant bar-coding is starting to distress her. Earlier in the morning, a volunteer had stopped her at the entrance saying, “Madam, your bars?”

Outside the venue, young boys hang around, complaining about needing ID, and raving about the sort of girls who are going into Diggi.

She had to stop at a medical store en route to Diggi Palace, which should have been alright since the SMS hospital is right across. But right outside the row of stores, there’s an open sewer and garbage. The stink makes her think of what awaits her inside Diggi at the end of the afternoon. Long queues for the toilets.

What malaise ails this nation’s toilets, she wonders? This world-class intellectual faffing, poetry and tie-dyed aesthetic – none of it changes the fact that the toilets are as dirty as toilets in cinema halls, or ageing shopping complexes. This surprises the writer. She likes to believe that readers of books are better people than frequenters of posh malls. Her faith is now being shaken.

On the other hand, wipe the seat with what? Often, there is nothing to wipe with. And no dustbins inside the stalls for ladies, so used sanitary napkins must perforce be piled on the floor.

However, when one must go, one must go. The next time she stands in the toilet queue, the writer thinks of Zakia Zaheer reciting a line from the famous Urdu couplet: “ek aag ka dariya hai aur tair ke jaane hai.”

No, it’s not going to be easy.