The politics of toilet styles and cleanliness


By Garga Chatterjee 

I was in a conference on visual perception in Barcelona recently, when I encountered a problem I haven’t had in a very long time. Where I was staying, the latrine room had a commode, a toilet paper roll but no other external water source. I am a Bengali, born and brought up in Bengal, in a home and a family, where after passing “doing the needful”, I have learned to use my hand and some water to clean myself up and thereafter clean by hand with water and soap. In certain situations, especially earlier in my ancestral village, I have been taught to use coal ash in place of soap. That was the training. Till about age 12, I had never sat on a commode. I was used to squatting.  Around 12 years of age, we moved to our new place in the same neighborhood.  That new place had 2 bathrooms – one had a commode and the other had a squat latrine. I have always preferred squatting but at certain times I did use the commode. In my early commode days, I used to prefer to squat on the plastic flap rim of the commode itself and once I did fall down unable to maintain that delicate balance on a thin rim not meant to squat upon. In time I learned to use the commode well. I sat on it ‘like a chair’ but didn’t squat. The water supply was there. So was the water mug and nearby tap. Things were fine.

 The first time I went to a place that didn’t have any water source for cleaning myself up, I didn’t know what to do. What I did was that I took a huge amount of rolled paper before I got into the act, got outside and drenched the paper in water, and then cleaned myself up with that very moist sloppy mush of toilet paper, hoping to do a clean job.  The problem was that at times some tiny bits of paper stuck aound adamantly after I did this. I would only get to clean up with water after I got home. Since this no-water, only-paper scenario happened very, very rarely, it wasn’t really a problem. Nor was it a problem in airplanes where the drench method worked in cooped up mid-air privacy. It still does. I also went to Japan where they use water like us Bengalis. They appreciate the value of water near their latrines. But that didn’t prepare me for the USA.

When I went to the USA to do my PhD, things changed radically. In my first year, I lived in the PhD student dormitory of Harvard University, where the floor had a common bathroom-latrine complex for men.  The latrines were separate stalls but since the footfall was high, I was embarrassed to take this glob of drenched toilet paper into the stall with me. This embarrassment came from standing out, may be of being looked upon as an uncivilized brown that did weird things in the latrine, may be trying to ‘fit in’. Looking back, I feel that trying to fit in and integrate has never been popular in the USA, which integrated with native tribes by conquering their lands combined with physical annihilation – one of the least talked about genocides of the recent past. As a mark of their “integration” to the new continent, the English named the slice of land that they had newly grabbed, as simply “New England”. Very imaginative and integrationist indeed. But I digress. I tried to do things the dry way, with the nagging dirty feeling making me scrape harder than I should have. I ended up with an infection leading to a very painful fistula that required 2 bouts of surgery and a long convalescence period. I had learnt my lesson. From 2nd year, I lived off-campus, in a place that had a latrine with a nearby tap. I look upon those “dry days” of mine with horror. When I had discussed this issue with a friend who was trying to get ‘civilized’ at break-neck speed, taunted me and said “You want to go back to squatting?” with a tone that put me as a crouching chimpanzee and him as an upright not-yet-but-soon-to-be white man. I had gathered up my brown confidence and said, “Yes”. One of the things that Europe was introduced to, due to the Crusades, was soap! I wasn’t going to take cleanliness lessons from paper-people.

Now I work in Bengal. My workplace has both squat and sit options, both with strategically placed hand-held water nozzles. I have always preferred the squat latrine over ‘The Thinker’ sitting latrine. My parent’s new home has only sitting option. After a lifetime of squatting, their muscles are now not strong enough to sustain that. I am thankful to my workplace for providing me with choice. Most ‘diversity’ totting, cosmopolitan places don’t. But this Euro-American cosmopolitanism has always been a way to gate-keep malleable coloured folks from the rougher ones. To some, the distance of their behind from the floor is a measure of progress, class, refinement and upliftment such that once ‘uplifted’ and ‘papered’, they can’t dream of choosing to squat down and water up. The personal can be political.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here