CS Sharada Prasad | Research
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Alexa, wash my ass!

Washing my bum makes me feel cleaner than wiping it. But it is not an option in many places in the US or the Western nations in general. Japan is an exception. As you might know, they have really fancy toilets. Now a days, you can upgrade your existing toilets by buying something like Toto’s WASHLET® C100. Priced at 600 USD, this Washlet is more expensive than what it might cost to build an entire toilet in low income countries. But we are not here for such comparisons. We are here to understand how we can integrate such devices with Alexa for a much more hands free interactive experience.

WASHLET® C100 – Elongated, Source: Toto USA

Features of a Washlet(from TotoUSA website)

  • Gentle Aerated, Warm Water, Dual Action Spray with oscillating feature
  • Adjustable water temperature and volume
  • Warm air drying with five variable temperature settings
  • Automatic air deodorizer
  • Convenient arm control panel
  • Docking Station Easy to Install and Clean
  • Heated Seat with Temperature Control
  • Water Premist™ of bowl before each use

Now let us think of a situation where all these features could be controlled through Alexa instead of using that convenient arm control panel!

Sharada: Alexa, I need to take a dump!

Alexa: Give me a couple of minutes and I will prepare the toilet for you.

(after a couple of minutes)

A: Sharada, Toilet bowl has been premisted for you and its seat has been heated to your preferred temperature. Toilet is ready for your dump to slide.

S: Great! Here I come!

(I sit on the toilet and get done with my business.)

S: Alexa, I am done. Wash my ass now!

A: Sure. Here is gentle aerated warm water coming right  at your asshole!

S: Yes! That feels good. Wait, make it a bit colder, Alexa.

A: Sure.

S: Aah, that’s nice. Aim the jet slightly to the left with more water volume, Alexa.

A: To the left it is. More water coming up!

S: Perfect. Can you increase the pressure a bit?

A: Of course! How do you like it now?

S: Lovely. I would like the spray to be dual action

A: I understand

S: Oscillate it a bit more please… more yeah! … Please don’t stop!

A: I can do this as long as you want me to do it. I am glad you like it!

S: That was incredible… (I catch my breathe) Alexa, dry my ass. Be gentle!

A: Drying your butt with warm air.

S: Lovely! You know me really well, don’t you?

A: You bet!

S: Ok, stop. I am done. Thank you!

A: You are welcome. I look forward to washing your ass next time when you feel like using the toilet again!


BTW, here is a link to a DIY alexa toilet interface

An ode to my pit latrine

Pit latrines safeguard the psyche of humanity in their depths and darkness
Pit latrines safeguard the psyche of humanity in their depths and darkness

Dear pit latrine,

Many a times I wonder what might be your opinion of me as a human being, considering how I treat you. I shit into you; I throw all possible things – condoms, liquor bottles, needles, syringes, sanitary pads – right into your heart. I sometimes worry whether you know me too well! But mostly I find solace in the fact that someone knows the true side of me.

To many in this world, you provide the necessary privacy to relieve themselves with dignity. For me, you also provide a kinship. Your depth and darkness is a reflection of my own personality. Because of you, I not only shit in peace but I also live in peace. Your silence keeps me sane and your acceptance makes me feel human.

Character is what lies in the dark. Mine lies deep inside you!

Thank you for being part of my life.

marginalized human

Raised toilet seats – what do they really mean?

Erect toilet seat
Erect toilet seat is a symbol of perverse exhibitionism

Whenever I see a raised toilet seat, I not only think about the insensitivity of the man who used it before me, but also his perverse exhibitionism. I feel that the person who left that raised toilet seat behind also left his erection back for others to witness.

The practice of leaving erections behind is pervasive and is not limited just to public toilets. Men seem to stand and spray even at homes. They don’t seem to care and lower the toilet seat even if they share that bathroom with women.

Even if we end up finding that sitting and peeing has no real health or other benefits, I think that having a toilet I can enter without the worry of stepping on a floor or rug sprinkled with urine is a good enough reason not to stand and pee.

If being a man is about peeing standing and not putting the seats down, may be it is time for men to  stop being men . Masculinity has done no good to this world. It has only brought war, misogyny and sprinkled toilet seats! So, please put it down!

PS: If touching a toilet seat sprinkled by a stranger’s urine is disgusting, how must it feel to have been forced into a social and financial compulsion to clean a stranger’s toilet or scoop poop without wearing any safety gear from a dry toilet?

What can we learn from Pitcher plants?

Pitcher plants stay in one place but hunt moving creatures by their art of lethal attraction. Some of the pitcher plants consume small rodents, snakes, and insects in whole. But not all of the plants nitrogen needs are met by the food it consumes. Hence it has evolved to attract tree shrews and some species of bats to use pitcher plant as a toilet bowl. The plant does not feed on these creatures as it needs their poop, a great fertilizer.

Hope the plant inspires us to rethink about the nutrients present in our own excreta.

Open Defecation – Government is the culprit

Delhi Metro is an ambitious project costing thousands of crores. Yesterday I walked out of IIT-Delhi hostel gate and saw a group of workers working behind the barricade of Delhi Metro, near the flyover. It was about 6:15pm. I walked to the group of workers who were getting out of a huge pit. A brief conversation with them revealed the following.

They are migratory workers (nothing new). They have been living right next to the work site in tents. Contractor provides only water and electricity but no toilet facility. They defecate behind the nearby shrubs ( which is at least 400-600 meters from the tents they live in). I observed that one of the workers was living with a woman and a year old child. I just could not imagine the hassle the woman has to go through.

I tried speaking to the contractor. His name is Sohanlal. He did not answer any of my questions stating that he is too tired and that I should visit him during the morning hours. When I asked him whether I can take a picture of the workers and their family, he said, “Why don’t you go and take pictures of other poor people? They are everywhere in this city”

Laursen and Toubro is the main implementing agency for Delhi Metro. It is accruing profits while the people who work for it are not getting access to basic sanitation. Last time when I was in Delhi, I saw a constriction work at the swimming people. Even the workers there did not have access to toilets and had to defecate in open. Government should stop its double standards. It should insist in all its contracts that basic sanitation be provided to all the workers working on any project funded by the government. Only when the government shows that kind of commitment can a country flourish. Superficial acts will not help.

Delhi is a reflection of affairs in this country – inequality, injustice, violence, rapes, poverty, drugs, prostitution, and religious politics. Delhi has to fix its own problems first before venturing to fix the problems of rest of the country.

I belong to the roads!

I started my fieldwork in January 2014 and I halfway through. Since then I have travelled to two countries and more than 25 cities, close to 12,000km. The best part is, all of this is by road. Not even a single flight.

Yes, travelling by road takes time but gives you back a unique experience. Time allows to absorb the landscape around you, observe your fellow passengers, see the world where you really belong to, up close!

I prefer waiting on a railway platform to waiting in an airport. In an airport, I am surrounded by snobs who are upset with flight delays, long check-in lines, and cumbersome security checks. In an airport I am surrounded by disappointment. But on a train platform, I see hope, I see support. When I travel by road, I see how 90% of India really lives. On an aircraft, people wear earphones to avoid conversations with fellow passengers. On a train, people share food and tea with fellow passengers.

Trains - The lifeline of India

Trains – The lifeline of India

I usually travel alone. That pushes me to trust people. I leave bags with strangers when I go to use restrooms or buy something to eat. There are still trustworthy people out there. World has always been bad and cunning. In the recent days, media is more focussed than ever on highlighting crime. This has made every traveller suspicious in in the eyes of other travellers. As long as we can trust people, there is joy left in living, and there is peace left is breathing.

I have six more months left. More travelling and bonding with the earth and its people. I am grateful that my fieldwork has given me ample opportunities to travel by road and interact with people who keep this country going. Every mile I travel, I get to know India a little better.

India, I LOVE you!

Open defecation inside IIT Delhi Campus!

This morning I went for a run inside IIT Delhi campus. While running on the south side of the campus, I saw a person emerging out of the bushes with an empty plastic bottle. Considering that it’s 6:15am in the morning, I had a strong feeling that the person was defecating behind those bushes. I immediately looked around to see any informal settlements. I saw a large camp of people. I thought that they must be there working on some temporary maintenance or construction project. Not to embarrass anyone, I just continued running without striking any conversation with any of those people.

I went in search of that camp during lunch time and found another large camp of 30-40 people right by the side of the main road, next to the swimming pool. I went inside the camp hoping to speak to someone. A guy in the camp greeted me and we started chatting.

People in the camp are from Bihar, a state with large dalit population. The people in the camp don’t have access to toilets or washrooms. Everyone, including women, bathe near the water pump and defecate in open. Fortunately, they have access to water and electricity. They run tiny fans inside their tiny tents to get some reprieve from the heat of Delhi. I walked through the camp-site into the construction site. The huge hole in the wall led to into the swimming pool premises. No surprises here. No worker, other than the people who were cleaning the pool, wore any safety gear; not even the guy who was using a big demolishing driller. No goggles, no gloves. I took some photographs and returned to the campsite.

I am more concerned with lack of sanitation than lack of safety gear. That brings us to this question of – Why are people defecating in open inside IIT campus? My guess it this. When the contractor hires temporary / migrant workers to do the job, he does not account for the proper living conditions and facilities. These workers are compelled to live in shanty houses or tents without basic amenities like water, toilets, and electricity. Contractor either makes more money by not paying for these services or charges less money and hence appears competitive by not providing these basic services to his workers. The administrators at IIT Delhi, one of the technologically forward institutes in the country, should insist on providing better living conditions to these informal workers inside its campus.

What is the result of all this? Ordinary public thinks of migrant workers as dirty and shameless people. While the reality of the situation is that these people want to live a life of hygiene and dignity. But it comes at a cost. Construction and maintenance of toilets costs money, washing and bathing costs too – cost of water, cost of storage container, cost of soap, and cost of the washroom structure itself. The builder is not willing to pay that cost. The helplessness of the workers makes them take up jobs even if those jobs don’t provide any basic services.

The hot and humid climate of Delhi is a killer. I am staying in one of the boys hostels. A fan inside a badly ventilated room does not provide any respite from the heat of Delhi and IIT students are not allowed to have coolers (not AC) inside their rooms, unless you bribe the security. If a student cannot sleep well at night, he cannot be alert and productive in class during the day. But that room is any time better than the tents in which those workers are living in this heat. The bathrooms of the hostels with broken doors and dysfunctional taps are any time better than defecating in open. I am grateful for what I have but I am deeply troubled by what is provided to the workers inside the campus.

Apathy is deeply embedded in Indian society and IIT administration is no exception to that. The double standards of Indian government is appallingly visible in its own institutions. At one end, the government talks about safety regulations and total sanitation campaigns. At the other end, the same government is not providing any basic facilities or safety gear to the construction workers working inside its own premises.

I don’t know what happens in other government projects. But I am deeply disappointed with IIT Delhi. A premier institute in the country should know better and set an example for rest of the country. Every human being has the right to be treated with dignity. Exploiting the helplessness of the lower class in a society is social and political, tyranny.

Upset with the situation, I started walking out. I stumbled across a woman preparing pakoras.

“They smell good. I am sure lunch is going to be delicious” I said peering through the tent.

“Come, eat with us,” she invited me with a bright smile on her face.

“No no, my friends are waiting for me. But thanks”

I started walking towards the entrance of the camp and I saw a guy carving a lotus out of a sheet of foam. Two kids were staring at the process with complete concentration.

“Wow, that looks beautiful. Who is this for?” I asked. The kid standing next to the guy raised his hand. Another kid ran inside the house and fetched a large bird.

“Look at the peacock he made for me,” said the kid raising his hands to show me the bird. His prideful face was hiding behind the bird.

“It’s so big and colourful,” I replied.

“Oh it’s getting late. I should go and get something to eat,” I said looking at my watch.

“Why go somewhere, eat with us!” the kids said earnestly

“My friends are waiting for me. I have to go,”

“Come some other time then”

“Sure,” I said with heart filled with gratitude.

Here are some photos for you all

Pissing tanker, I piss on you!

Please watch the below video and make a note of your reaction.

Either you were amused by it or you felt a pain deep inside your heart.

Who are the people who pee in public? It’s mostly the people who work in the informal sector i.e. people who don’t work in offices or inside any building for eight hours. 94% of India’s workforce is linked to informal sector which includes construction workers, rickshaws pullers, coolies, courier boys, drivers, roadside vendors ( the list is endless) . The people who laugh (mock?) in the above video might not have engaged themselves in any activity that keeps them outdoor 8-10 hours in a day. They all appear to be either middle or upper class Indians who have the luxury of toilet access both at their residence and workplace. If empathetic enough, one can see harassment, borderline violence rather, in the above video instead of the intended amusement.

In a country with 400 million people working in un-organized sector, public toilets must be found within minutes of walking distance. The problem with urban India is that sanitation is never a priority. The municipality or corporation has no pressure from the public, especially middle class and upper class, to maintain the existing toilets, and has no money to buy/rent  space in a newly developed financial neighbourhood to install toilets.

Even the toilets in railway stations and bus stations are not well maintained as there is no accountable structure in the organization to provide basic sanitation services. You will not see the phone number of any officer who is responsible to keep the toilets clean. The officials hide behind the thick veil of bureaucracy.

Yes, providing good sanitation facility comes at a cost. But lack of provision costs much more to the society. The social and health cost of lack of sanitation is not borne by all sections of society equally. The poor mostly bear the burden while the middle class or upper class insulate themselves from such woes. India cannot come out of the mess of lack of sanitation in public areas unless there is focus on accountability and enough political pressure from upper and middle class.

Dear “Pissing tanker” – Your understanding of public urination is distorted and your actions perverted. Please stop making fun of people who don’t have access to toilets. Your insensitivity towards the helplessness of people is appalling. Most people who are peeing in public are already vulnerable. You don’t have any right to humiliate those people further. If you can, please give them directions to the nearest decent public toilet, if you can find one. If you are so inclined to pee, try peeing inside a public office instead of aiming water cannons at people. You might get the attention of right people!

It’s a shame!

I always thought I can get by with my Hindi in Nepal.  Nepal, though a small country, is culturally rich and Nepali is very different from Hindi. I can understand few words here and there when people speak Nepali. People do respond to me when the interaction is limited to buying things or asking for directions. People involved with commerce know Hindi more than other people. My interaction is with farmers and septic tank cleaners. They don’t seem to give a damn about Hindi as my interaction is about my research related to water and sanitation. Knowing local language not only helps me with my research, it helps me connect better with local people! I am sure any human being will appreciate the effort one puts into learning a local language! Also, Nepal is a country I will keep visiting my entire life! The country and its people are simply wonderful!

I was listening to David Sedaris’ book “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” where the author talks about his travel experiences and mentions Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, and Lonely Planet phrasebook. He makes an excellent point – these days we don’t even give a second thought to the fact that English is not an universal language. We expect people to speak English everywhere, which I would like to call it as linguistic oppression! When people of the new country do put in an effort to communicate in a language which we know, we rarely complement them by saying “Your English / Hindi is good”!

It is time for me to start a new venture – Learn Nepali! Yes, after my fugacious affairs with German, French, and Spanish, it is time for me to pick up a bit of Nepali. Nepali script is same as Hindi and Sanskrit i.e. Devnagari. There are many common words shared between Hindi and Nepali. I am hoping that Nepali will not be as difficult to pick up!

Nepal Course book and Kathmandu Map

Learn Nepal and roam around Kathmandu!

I went to Saraswati book Center (north of Pulchowk, west of Krishna Galli) and picked up the above book “Nepali in context, a topical approach to learning Nepali”. Nepal has very good maps. Since it is a country whose economy is very much aided by tourists, the options for maps is numerous! I just decided to start with a pocket map of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Though there were several options, I decided to go with this “Sadhu smoking Ganja” version! There are many Nepali radio channels to help me hone my language further! The adventure is about to begin! Stay tuned!

My first visit to Nepal

Nepal, though one the neighbouring countries, is never an immediate travel destination for most of the Indians. May be the skin colour of the people is not as exotic as the people of the West.  I decided to go there this summer to study the businesses that support fecal sludge reuse (the human waste that comes out of septic tanks of households) in agriculture. But Why Nepal? Nepal is closer to India but is not like India – it is marred by a different level of poverty and administration. Unlike India, it is landlocked and is in a geographically challenging terrain. Though Nepali is the main language, I can get by with my Hindi, unlike in Sri Lanka.

There is no direct flight to Kathmandu from Bangalore, though Bangalore is one of the preferred education destinations for most Nepalese. My flight was via New Delhi. The Air India staff denied the “through check-in” facility for my baggage. So I had to go through the hassle of claiming my baggage and checking it in Delhi – I lost one hour of my time and I was not too worried. But the lady next to me was really exacerbated by the situation she was put into. According to me, these are the challenges we should willingly accept. Situations like these build character!

I went through the security check only to find that I was carrying an exacto knife and a Victorinox multi-tool in my carry on. Somehow the Bangalore security had missed it. I had to forego those knives though I had an established record of not using them to threaten any passengers during the flight from Bangalore to Delhi!

I had reserved a window seat to enjoy the beautiful views of the mountains of Nepal as the flight entered Kathmandu. But my c0-passenger wanted his aid to sit next to him and hence requested to me to sit in 31E instead of 10A. I agreed, thinking of my old parents and the people who had agreed to give up seats to allow me to sit with my parents during the long flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco. As soon as the plane took of, we hit an air pocket and the flight seemed more like a bumpy ride in a jalopy.

The flight lasted for 1 hour and 20 minutes. The beautiful green mountains surrounding a huge plain came into view when the flight descended to 4000 ft. The landing was smooth but the braking was hard. It could be because of the shorter runway. We taxied to a concrete patch. Weather outside was 29 C.  A red decrepit Air India non-AC bus picked us up and dropped us to the entrance of the building which was just 200  meters away. The red bricked building had narrow passages connected like a maze. Blue pennants announcing Nepal glory welcomed us – Nepal – The country with the second largest water source, the country with the largest number of world heritage sites, the country which was never under any foreign rule ! The emigration officer just looked at my passport and let me in without any stamp on my passport. Indians do not need any VISA to visit Nepal.

Going down to the baggage claim, I realized that Nepal airport is not a fancy place with air conditioning. It had fans running everywhere. It took a long time for the bags to arrive while I made some small talk with a lady from Bangalore on her Manasa Sarovar pilgrimage. She insisted that I visit Manasa Sarovar during my stay here in Kathmandu as it would save me a lot of money (INR 1,25,000 to be precise). I am not sure whether I will be able to find any free time even to do any short hikes, if not a grand hike to Annapurna circuit or Manasa Sarovar.

At the exit of the airport, the currency exchange centre had put out a board listing the conversion rates – 87 nepali rupees per dollar, 1.55 per INR. I went to the prepaid taxi booth and asked for a ride to Jhamsikhel.  775 NPR. I had only USD and some INR on me. Paid 520 INR instead of 10 USD I was asked for.

I got out of the airport to get into a rickety white taxi. The driver asked me to hold the lid of the boot while he loaded my bags.  I sat in the front only to realise that there is no way to clamp my seatbelt. The car rode into the town with jerky movements  through the haze of the dust and smoke raised by the vehicles in the front.  A few people were walking or riding motorcycles wearing masks over their nose and mouth to prevent the ill-effects of pollution. Soon, a  rally led by about 40 motorcycles with red pennants blocked the traffic. The taxi driver honked, veered through the oncoming traffic and finally made it to PulChowk.

Kathmandu valley comprises of three cities – Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur. My accommodation was located in Jhamsikhel region of Bhaktapur. The roads in Kathmandu region are narrow and are being widened at places. I heard that many buildings will be razed to make way for asphalt. Addresses in Nepal are as abstract as they are in India. The driver had to call the guest house twice to get the directions to reach the place. The directions were all landmark based! It reminded me of my friend Ayan Ghosh’s statement:

I think the reason I love old cities is they have more crosswords. Each crossroad asks questions, makes you stop, take a decision and stick by it. In every lane we discover new things and think what did I miss on the other lanes? I must come back. I must give more time. This is why I have never enjoyed planned cities. They are too linear, too defined. You just walk from one end to the other and you have seen it all. But life is more like an old city than a highway.

I finally reached my guest house located in a narrow alley.  It is a residence converted into a guest house. The adjacent houses are so close to one another that I could  hear the sound of dish washing, TV, children playing, and my neighbours gossiping. It’s a shame that I don’t understand Nepali 🙂

Photos related to my stay in Nepal can be found here on Flickr