By Chintan Girish Modi
I love children’s books that focus on telling stories in an engaging manner. If they are too busy shoving a moral down the reader’s throat, they fail to retain my interest. Neha Singh’s I Need to Pee, published by Puffin Books in 2018, is a book that I enjoyed immensely. It revolves around the adventures of a spunky protagonist named Rahi who is assertive about having a safe and clean toilet experience wherever she goes.
‘Have you peed?’ is a perpetual question on her mother’s lips. ‘Again? But you just went!’ is her brother’s typical response. This does not bother Rahi at all. She likes to keep herself hydrated with water, fruit juice, lemonade, coconut water, and fizzy drinks. I do not want to spoil your experience of reading this book delightfully illustrated by the author’s sister Meenal Singh and brother-in-law Erik Egerup, so I will not reveal many details. All you need to know is that Rahi, her mother and her brother are on a long journey from Mumbai to Shillong using public transport.
When Rahi needs to use a toilet, she makes sure that people listen to her. If they are reluctant, she pulls out a thick volume called ‘Book of Important Quotes’, and reads aloud from it. Do you want to get a glimpse of the contents? Let me share a few examples. When her mother refuses to give her water, Rahi reads, “Every child should be allowed to drink water whenever they want.” When her brother throws a tantrum, she reads, “One should not shame one’s sister’s toilet needs.” When the security guard at a hotel forbids her to use the toilet, Rahi reads, “According to the law, anyone can ask for water and use the toilet in any hotel.”
I Need to Pee is packed with humour but it also has its serious moments, which make the reader think about how the lack of clean and safe public toilets for women is no laughing matter. Halfway through the book, Rahi tells the reader, “Sometimes, public toilets can be scary. When the door doesn’t latch, when the window panes are broken, when the light switches don’t work, I get scared about peeping toms.” I hope this book is widely read by children, teachers and parents, and that it opens up conversation around an important issue that is often brushed under the carpet. This could serve as a stepping stone towards talking about menstrual hygiene, and also about gender-neutral toilets for transgender, non-binary and genderfluid students.
In the meanwhile, I bring you a brief interview with author Neha Singh. Her book I Need to Pee was recently named as a ‘highly commended book’ by the 2019 South Asia Book Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature.
What I find most appealing about Rahi is that she is presented as a confident girl who speaks her mind, and makes her own decisions. Could you please share a bit about the process of creating this character, and how she has been received by your readers?
I have two nieces. Bela is nine years old, and Rahi is six years old. They are brave, smart, articulate and expressive. They ask questions, challenge gender stereotypes, and are not afraid of questioning grown-ups. Bela is the only girl in her football coaching, and Rahi wants to be either a gymnast or a woodworker when she grows up. When they see a book with no female characters, they ask, "Why is there no girl in this book?” They don't like wearing pretty dresses or skirts because “I can't play or run or climb trees in this." I think they are the inspirations for the book -- not just how they are today, but also how I envision them when they grow up.
A lot of parents and critics thought that boys would not relate to this story. Much to their surprise, boys have taken to it as much as girls. I think, unlike grown-ups, children have de-gendered Rahi. They look at her as a ‘person’ who stands up for her rights, and has a voice which is lucid and unapologetic. They find her funny, smart and "her own person." I think Rahi empowers them to speak about not just susu, but also other topics that are supposedly taboo. In fact, just yesterday, I got to know that a young boy loves Rahi so much that he named his baby sister Rahi.
Could you talk a bit about the book of important quotes that Rahi carries around with her? It is such an interesting narrative device for readers of all ages because the tone is informal and fun, without sounding like a manual.
I see the book of important quotes as a tongue-in-cheek critique of how grown-ups are more likely to pay attention or value the written word over what their child might say. It is also a symbol of how being aware, reading books and gaining knowledge might help us in being able to stand up for our rights. The book of important quotes is a tool, figuratively and literally, that helps Rahi in difficult situations.
How has this book grown from your work as an activist around issues of women's freedom, safety and access to public space?
My friend, Devina Kapoor, and I started a campaign called ‘Why Loiter?’ in 2014. It aims at reclaiming public spaces for women by loitering in them. When we go on our loitering walks, finding good public toilets is a major concern. Issues of safety, cleanliness and accessibility often come up, and we have long discussions about them Even as an avid solo traveler, I find myself stuck in situations where I risk my safety to access my toilet needs.
In fact, I was travelling alone from Bhopal to Mumbai in 2016. During the bus ride, I needed to pee in the middle of the night. After getting into a huge fight with the bus driver, he finally stopped the bus but there was no toilet or a tree in sight. I ended up peeing in an earthen pot inside an empty potter's hut. Those few moments when I was squatting over a pot, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, with no companion around, were extremely vulnerable moments for me. When I finished peeing and got back on the bus, I decided to write this book.
(Chintan Girish Modi is an educator, writer and peacebuilder who works on gender and LGBTQ issues. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)