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Public Places For Private Pleasures

26/04/2016 8:35 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Signage for a Sulabh International Social Service Organisation office is displayed on a building wall in Hirmtala village, Haryana, India, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Clean India' campaign includes a pledge to build 50 million toilets by the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth in 2019. The effort aims to halt the contamination of groundwater that causes illnesses such as diarrhea and cholera, costing the nation about $54 billion a year, according to the United Nation's Children's Fund. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I've spent a good amount of time in rural India. Part of the maddening routine I had to endure was the daily walks I'd take from the farm to the village. On the final stretch, just before entering the village, I'd always be treated to a full view of the contents of the locals' bowels, deposited on the sides of the road. Not that it was a shock: I'd seen plenty of human excrement in Mumbai, be it on train lines, beaches and certain corners of the city.

As I tried to change the habits of the villagers, I realized how tough a challenge it was. For many women, it was a social experience. Grabbing a water bottle and travelling to the fields with friends or other female relatives meant a break from the duties of the kitchen, the home, the animals they raised. For men, it was less social but more about a routine. Whether lighting up a cigarette, having a packet of gutka or chatting on a mobile phone with someone, they too saw their outdoor ablutions as a break.

[M]asturbation is never openly discussed. Yet here at 5.25am in the morning were a line of men along the seashore, pleasuring themselves.

Then, my life brought me back to Mumbai. As I lived very close to Juhu Beach, rather than run on the roads like I used to, I opted to head to the beach early morning. And then it was déjà vu. I saw many auto-rickshaw drivers, fishermen and local residents do their big business on the sand.

As I ran past the line-up of nude buttocks, I saw the tide pick up and the water come to shore. Countless men quickly stood up from their squat positions and ran back further onto the beach to ensure they didn't get drenched. While I had seen their backsides, I now enjoyed a full view of their front as well.

Numerous men were sporting erections and many of them were actually publicly masturbating. This was something that I had not expected.

While sex is spoken about in India, albeit in hushed tones, masturbation is never openly discussed. Yet here at 5.25am in the morning were a line of men along the seashore, pleasuring themselves. What's more, there is a certain camaraderie between them. They don't disturb each other and some arrive in groups to release multiple discharges from their body together.

This shouldn't really have come as a surprise. For years now, my medicines have required frequent releases. As a result, my travels in Mumbai have landed me in one too many public washrooms. While most urinals unload quickly, I've walked into many that stay constantly crowded despite the seemingly odd location. Of course, as it turns out, these locations happen to be daytime hubs for self-gratification.

I've walked into many [urinals] that stay constantly crowded despite the seemingly odd location... they happen to be daytime hubs for self-gratification.

It didn't surprise me then when I saw that many men subsequently engaged in collective group activities. This was something I knew existed worldwide but I must say initially I wouldn't have expected its frequency to be so high in an otherwise reserved India.

As a patient, I often took advantage of the cancer patient compartment of local trains in Mumbai. Honestly, it was the only possible way I would have ever been able to travel on the train and even that compartment often filled up. So at times, especially at slow hours of the morning and evening when my safety was more important than my comfort, I'd hop in the regular compartments of the train. Here too I saw abundant amounts of self-pleasuring and unforced interactions amongst men-- I was taken aback by the openness of their behaviour.

So after all these public displays of personal pleasures, I wondered... is this a kink that many have or is this simply reflective of a harsh reality? It didn't take much extrapolation to understand the obvious--the lack of space for release.

Most men and women live in joint families and space is limited. At times, even washrooms are shared and/or also visible to others. It is only when literally releasing bladder or bowel movements that the individual actually has true privacy. In that most intimate of moments, there is an assurance that no one will disturb.

Whether it's a village field, a train track, a local beach or a public restroom--these spaces provide the space and time necessary for release.

As a result, perhaps this is the golden opportunity for self-gratification because the excuses of being exposed, of being occupied and of being naked are all warranted. Whether it's a village field, a train track, a local beach or a public restroom--these spaces provide the space and time necessary for release.

I think about these things in depth, and many of my friends have wondered about my fascination. For me, there are two key reasons. First, it involves my interest in health. Looking at the actual physicality of someone's stool makes me wonder about the person who produced it. Our stool can be a wonderful indicator about our overall health. Most doctors believe monitoring it can prevent numerous diseases from becoming more serious. As I pass the stools of the locals, no matter where, I always want to reach out and find the individual to tell them about their movements, especially if there is reason for concern.

Second, the cultural significance of this form of behaviour for a society interests me. People in Mumbai are often squeezed in together. The lack of space plus the yearlong humidity create a perfect storm of hormones. Releasing tension that builds up becomes a must for many, especially young adult men. Given that sex is seldom discussed and space is impossible even for the single individual, there is barely any opportunity for sexual release. It is therefore a physical need that has to find an outlet somewhere.

Sometimes I wonder if the confined spaces and the conditioned daily routines are actually a public safety benefit.

Sometimes I wonder if the confined spaces and the conditioned daily routines are actually a public safety benefit. Think about it, if there were outlets for release, perhaps the sexual heat and frustration that seems to manifest itself in many parts of the country wouldn't be as much of an issue. Could this be the reason why gang rapes are not as common in Mumbai?

For me, the personal pleasure of individuals in public spaces warrants a conversation because it is something that exists for a reason. Getting over the 'ick' factor provides perhaps an avenue whereby we can find strategies for dealing with sexual harassment and assault. Remember, these activities are not happening behind closed doors, so as far as I'm concerned, we've left our rooms open for debate.

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