Forget flowers and chocolate as ways to woo women. In modern India, men would be well advised not to declare their love with flowers, but with a gift that’s much more practical, even if decidedly less romantic.

Bollywood romances are famous the world-over for their colour, their drama, their family values and their general joie de vivre, but last year’s blockbuster tackled a very unromantic topic – sanitation. With the catchy title, Toilet: A love story, the film’s plot revolves around a new bride who refuses to join the other village women in their daily dawn forays into the fields. Defying his father and the village elders, her husband is inspired to act. He delivers the immortal line: “If you want your wife to be with you, there has to be a toilet in the house.”

To western sensibilities, such a storyline may seem a little outlandish, or even comical, but in today’s India, sanitation is an issue that’s rising to the top of the political agenda.

The film’s success comes as no surprise to Sanitation First, and it has reminded us of the story of a young woman, now living in Gujarat, who used to go to the school where we installed our first toilets. She told us what a huge difference these toilets had made to her life, as she didn’t have to leave the school grounds and find a field to go to the toilet in. A few years later, her parents found her a husband, but when she visited his house she was horrified to find there was no toilet. She had no choice but to marry him and move in with him, but after two days she had had enough. She went back to her parents’ house and refused to return until a toilet had been built. Despite her husband and his mother coming to ask her to reconsider, she refused to back down.

After a few weeks, she had a visit from her husband, who had built her a toilet! They were reunited and even her mother-in-law was very excited about the new addition to the family home.

It might not be the most archetypal romance story, but this demonstrates that, in some parts of the world, the deal breaker for a potential partner is not his bank balance, his politics, or his hair, but his toilet.

So, if you do receive a box of chocolates or any other conventional love token this Valentine’s day, spare a thought for the millions of Indian women who’d like nothing more from their sweethearts than the ability to pee in private.


This article was very kindly written for Sanitation First by Tessa Harris, a journalist and editor, who has contributed to many national publications such as The Times and The Telegraph. Readers can visit her website here. This article has also appeared on and the Being Anne blog,


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