My father has a knack for embarrassing his children in front of others in ways unique to him. When the three of us were kids, he didn’t interact with us or smile much, but he would insist on randomly dropping us off at school or college for an exam. Then right before the start of the examination, he would come into the room with a big, strange smile and wish everyone in the room “all the best” in a loud and stern voice.
I would often wonder if anyone knew he was my father and whether I should be embarrassed by this public display or if they knew that he never wished us “all the best” at home before an exam. Who was I kidding, they all knew he was my father. Before leaving the room, he would call out my name, then say, “Beta, don’t worry, you will do well,” and make sure they knew he was my dad!
On one such random surprise visit to the campus – perhaps because he had the time or maybe he wanted to use the men’s room – he decided to take a tour of the entire building. At the time, I was in architecture college and certainly did not want to be the only 20-year-old in college whose father did rounds of the campus to check if all the facilities were up to the mark. But there is no reasoning with Dr Singla.
On this particular day, while he was on campus, he noticed the men’s and lady’s rooms. Since they were not occupied, he inspected each in turn. He then went straight to the principal’s office. He told the principal’s assistant that he was there to discuss something of grave importance with the principal.
He explained that he had to rush back to his duty hours at the government hospital, so he would only need a couple of minutes of his time. The assistant led him into the principal’s office. After spending a few seconds introducing himself, my father engaged the principal.
“What is the men to women ratio at this college?” Dr Singla asked.
“Very few boys take up architecture,” the principal said. “This has been a trend for many years. So, there are fewer boys than girls in recent times.”
“Why is it then that you have two men’s rooms and only one for the women?”
“This is a 50-year-old building and that is how it was designed and built, originally,” the principal replied, “because there were none to maybe a handful of women studying architecture at that time.”
“So there are two men’s rooms with two cubicles and six urinals each, making them available for use by 16 to 20 men at a time,” said Dr Singla, “and only two to three cubicles in the ladies room – I didn’t go further inside to check exact numbers to avoid intrusion of privacy – for an entire institute that has more women than men?”
“Well, we have recently changed one of the men’s room to a common room with that same observation in mind.”
Dr Singla complimented the principal, “That was a good intention, but did you check if this idea is working? The first thing seen inside those toilets is the row of urinals. Do you think women will enter if they see a man standing at the urinal,” he reasoned, “or by just the thought of seeing one they will avoid using the common restroom? There will still be men using two rooms and women will only be comfortable using the one that is exclusively for them. Unless you build a cubicle to replace the urinals.”
This was actually the case. The principal got to thinking and thanked my father for pointing out the situation. Dr Singla left it at that, before he got further delayed for work. When my father retold the conversation later, that was the first time I had heard that the other men’s room was actually for common use. None of us knew about that. The next day, I shared the news with my friends, and they too were surprised to learn this after two years of already being at the campus. We decided to start using it then, whenever ours was full, but it remained a very intimidating and unpleasant task with failed efforts. The principal retired from the chair before he could (even if he wanted to) make any restroom changes.
My class graduated three years after that and the situation remained the same. It has been 15 years since graduation, and I haven’t been back to the campus yet, but I am hoping, since the institute finally has a woman chair, things might have become more equal for all – at least in the stalls if not in the lecture hall!
Clearly, I get my love of toilets and their design (more of an obsession, really) from my father. However, as an architect, I am guilty of designing my projects with uneven distribution of women to men’s bathrooms. I was neither the one spending money to build them nor an authority on public use of such projects, so I had to drop my arguments for appropriate distribution whenever the client would debate that they were, indeed, following government guidelines. After all, it was “still an equal size for both.” They could not understand why I was pushing them to waste precious square feet on extra toilets for women.
Excerpted with permission from My Subconsciously Feminist Father, Yashika Singla, Aleph Book Company.