Sunday, June 01, 2008

“Please note: a refusal to acknowledge the several purposes of this room will be met by contemptuous stares”

(Published as "Restrooms are the Most Happening Places in Offices" in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 31st May 2008)

Having worked in ten organisations, each with vastly different functions, end-products, employees and infrastructure, I was naturally thrilled to find a thread that linked them all up perfectly. Unfortunately, it is not something I can put without a degree of incongruity into my resumé, but it is something that gives my rather psychedelic career a sense of pattern. I am referring, ladies and gentlemen, to the multi-purpose restrooms in offices.

The epiphany came as I wound my way between two women, trying to wash my hands. They were whispering, and moved a micro-inch at a time as I apologised and waited to dispose of the tissue, and then to dry my hands. I had the misfortune of dropping the tissue on the floor while negotiating the tiny crevice they allowed me, which required me to make them move again while I lifted the tissue, and then wash my hands again and then prevail upon them to give me a little more space. It was while walking back to my desk that it dawned on me how many avatars that ten-by-eight room takes.

The Escape Capsule: You’re hunting frantically for someone on a day when everything is out of control, and that person is in charge of everything that is spiralling out of control. You try calling him or her, you run outside in the hope of finding him or her on the wrong end of a cigarette, but no…the person is officially missing. You figure out where s/he has been spending the last hour when s/he makes a sudden reappearance after the commotion is over.

The Smoking Room: For some reason, the forty feet from the restroom to the smoking zone (which translates, of course, into anywhere that fresh air is available to pollute) are more strenuous than the journey from Base Camp to the summit of Mount Everest. Your nostrils are usually assaulted by fumes from cheap cigarettes, and then you walk into the restroom to find someone hastily walking out of a cubicle, where you find a telltale cigarette stub that refuses to get flushed down.

The Eavesdropper’s Paradise: I made this discovery a few years ago, when a colleague rushed up to me and said, “you won’t believe what I have to tell you!” He then went on to tell me his boss was negotiating with a prospective employer. “How do you know?” I asked. His reply was, “oh! I heard it from the horse’s mouth. He was talking to the HR guys from there in the loo!”

The Room of Flirtations: In most offices, smoke breaks are the norm, coffee breaks may be excused, and breaks for telephone conversations are blasphemous. So, when a poor girl has a boyfriend, or a poor boy has a girlfriend s/he needs to keep in constant touch with, where else does s/he go? It would help, though, if these beings in love had mercy on those using the restroom as The Escape Capsule and not as The Eavesdropper’s Paradise. When you want to be alone with your thoughts, which are usually too many to leave you quite alone, you’re quite often subjected to a detailed insight into the love life of a colleague, who either does not know or does not care, that you’re locked up in one part of the eight-by-ten room.

Bitching Central: This, of course, is the most frequent purpose the restroom serves. And gone are the days when two women caught in the middle of a bitching session would pretend to talk about makeup or work. Nowadays, they make it perfectly clear you’ve intruded into their personal space…a point that was made clear to me as I left the restroom on the fateful day which inspired this column, to catch one of them saying, more loudly than required, “I don’t know why people never respect privacy these days!!!”

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