Some washroom wisdom

A sceptical look at an officially shared national swachh concern

April 01, 2017 09:02 pm | Updated April 12, 2017 09:43 am IST

Imagine visiting the toilet for ‘No. 2’, the surreptitious euphemism for defecation, and leaving it without washing your bottom, only wiping it. With tissue paper. Ugh. What happens if some of it is stuck behind? What if some is still left inside? What about the odour? The sticky feeling?

These are latent questions in the minds of many of us regarding this washroom habit of most of the western world. More often than not, we brush them aside. Well, it’s the goras (the white people) who do it, so there must be some logic to it. It has to be better than washing your bottom after the job. One wouldn’t want to be labelled “uncool”, “ignorant of their ways” or, worst of all, “unfit to enter America”.

Maybe it is because those were cold nations and it was difficult to wash off with ice cold water in the olden days. And the habit stuck.

Whatever it is, I would be willing to bet that many first-time Indian visitors to the west would be carrying some water to the loo in some manner. Or maybe wet tissue. How can an Indian not wash off? It’s what we are trained to do from childhood. Washing it off, then washing your hands scrupulously with soap and water. And before the water jets and the liquid soap washes came, it required great manoeuvring skills to use that mug of water in such a way that the water fell more on your bottom than on the floor; then opening the faucet without touching it with your hands (using the elbows), and washing hands twice at least. Once out, you had to answer the suspicious daddy’s or mother’s inevitable question: “haath dhoya, flush kiya?”

During the routine summer village visits, the toilet was the khet , the fields. One carried a tumbler of water. Somehow it felt good, the wide open spaces, the twilight, and the feeling of having left the stuff far away from your house. Covered in mud or sometimes just left to dry. The scorching sun saw to that. And by the next day it was manure.

Where’s the water?

There was always scarcity of water, though. The aunt and the cousins rose early to fill buckets with water. The luckier houses had a handpump that yielded clean, cool water through the day. There was a small shack for the “small job”, but the “big job” had to be done outside.

Now, however, the goras are saying it’s unhygienic to leave your excreta out in the fields. That it causes underground water pollution. That it causes diarrhoea, even malnutrition. We must build a toilet within the house.

Never mind the scarcity of water — that won’t be a problem. We must build overhead tanks. We’ll pump water into them. Sure we’ll have electricity all the time to use those pumps.

Sounds good, eh? Except that, strangely enough, the villagers who are building the toilets are really not using them. I wonder now, would it be possible to keep the toilet clean after multiple uses with the limited water we have? And what of the stench, the claustrophobia?

They say toilets are required for the women of the house. To keep their “dignity” intact. So that they are not subjected to taunts and teasing when they show their bottoms in the fields? Better lock them up inside dirty toilets. It’s infinitely easier than teaching those males to be respectful and discreet. Men will be men, after all. Never mind the males doing the same in full view of all who care to see.

Infrastructure project

Now we have this government-sponsored mega-construction drive where building house toilets has become an infrastructure project like building roads and dams. ODF (Open Defecation Free) status is an ideal that every area should achieve. Fast. It is a run to change a centuries-old mindset in just a few months. Because the goras say it’s wrong to defecate in the open. And we get defensive. We rush to build toilets as though their absence was the only limiting factor. We don’t stop to think whether there is a better alternative suited to our culture, stage of development and available resources. And we berate the ‘uncouth’ village folk for defecating in the open.

We rush to take lessons in hygiene from those who, unlike us, don’t wash their bottoms. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they are dirty — just that they are different from us.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for toilets. After all, I am a city-dweller. I’m just uncomfortable with the way we are pushing it.

The author is a 1994 batch IAS officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, now Commissioner, Tribal Welfare based in Bhopal. The views are personal.

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