Sunday, October 10, 2010

Toilet Training

Now that the noise (and noise it was) about our (un)preparedness for the Commonwealth Games has gone down, with news desks even predicting sone ki bauchar (rain of gold (medals)), I want to come back to a statement Lalit Bhanot, the Organising Committee spokesperson made, implying that Indian hygiene levels were in some sense inferior to those of Westerners. The wrath of a million or more Indians descended on his head, with Salman Rushdie, whose ghost permanently hangs around the Gateway of India, suggesting that he be spanked. Even the venerable New York Times which usually ignores all games where the US is not involved felt called upon to comment on it.

I would like to take a somewhat different perspective on this issue. I don't mean to imply that Indians are generally less hygiene conscious -- far from it -- though it is true that we have double standards as far as private and public cleanliness issues go. A person who would not dream of leaving even a shred of paper on his floor in his own house, will willingly sweep all the detritus out on the road and sometimes in front of his neighbour's house, or throw garbage on the road without thinking twice. Homes in India are regularly swept and swabbed daily (sometimes twice!), bathrooms are cleaned with gallons of water being poured all over. Most Indians in fact have a holier than thou approach towards these issues, particularly with regard to the West. We use water, they use toilet paper, how clean is that? -- is the common refrain. (Some Indians, after a stint in the West take to the Western way, considering it to be somewhat less messy. I even know a colleague who claims they have toilet trained their child to use water in Indian toilets and paper in Western toilet -- I think I am missing something here...).

But to return to my point. While the Bhanot statement was frankly stupid, there is an element of truth in it. Most Indian bathrooms, except the more modern ones, and despite the use of liberal quantities of water, would not appear clean to a Western eye. And the reason is precisely the use of water -- or rather the difference between a dry and a wet bathroom. Western bathrooms have a separate area (usually on one side) for a bath/shower. The rest of the bathroom is dry, and frequently does not even have a water outlet. In India, essentially the whole bathroom is a 'wet' area. A full scale bath/shower/bucket wash involves the liberal splashing of water in all directions, making the whole bathroom wet. (This is not helped by the fact that most Indian bathrooms are designed to have a bath area in the centre rather than a shielded off area to one side). The net result of all this is a generally higher humidity level causing mold and fungus to grow around cracks and crevices, to say nothing of water stains from the use of hard water. Most of these are tough to clean or even to prevent. Moreover, old Indian bathrooms had cement floors which are impossible to keep clean. In fact, this is the main reason why people are always asked to take off their shoes before entering a bathroom -- the danger of leaving muddy footprints, which would never happen if the bathroom were kept dry in the first place.

Overall, the idea of a dry bathroom is contrary to the Indian concept of a bathroom where liberal usage of water is considered the norm. Fortunately this is changing albeit slowly, and modern apartments do try and keep a separate area for a shower complete with shower curtain.

None of this excuses the fact that our use of public facilities is totally atrocious. We believe we have almost a right to pollute any and every public space -- assuming that there is always 'someone' to clean up after us. I am of the firm view that this attitude harks back to our old caste system. There always was someone to clean up after us, at least for the upper classes, and we continue in that mode. Which suggests that it will be a long time before these attitudes change.

13 comments:

Rahul Siddharthan said...

The importance of dryness is not appreciated in India. We seem to associate wetness with cleanliness: wet floors, wet toilet seats, wet plates, spoons kept in water (think even of our own cafeteria). In fact germs breed on wet surfaces (including wet hands), and drying is, if anything, more important than washing. I don't see any recognition of this...

gaddeswarup said...

I have been hearing about Sulabh Shauchalya
http://ssc.undp.org/uploads/media/Low_cost_sanitation.pdf
but do not know how widely these are used, particularly in South India.

Anant said...

OLO: is it just a matter of attitude, or is also a matter of expenditure? How much public spending is there on public facilities? Yhs.

Rahul Basu said...

Anant: which aspect are you talking about? I was just reflecting on what is considered a clean bathroom! About public spending on public facilities, these are deep and complex issues, and I have little knowledge. You may want to see the link gaddeswarup sent.

vbalki said...

Rahul, I agree with your post. I have a few things to add regarding the fundamental reasons for water over paper: endemic amoebiosis, super-spicy food, paper ignites at a measly 451F, etc.:-) I could write a whole book on Indians and toilet habits
(i.e, "ablutions", a word that most of us first encounter in a Sanskrit-English dictionary), and will certainly do so for posthumous publication (since I'm a coward). I'm sure it hasn't escaped your attention that, on any flight to (and from India), total war is declared on the toilets within 30 minutes of boarding. The toilets surrender unconditionally within a couple of hours. Six hours later, the cabin crew members descend from wherever they were hiding out, slap duct tape across the doors of the toilets,
and scrawl "Out of Order" on the tapes. After which, in true Caligula style, they serve another oily, spicy meal...

Sourendu said...

A few years ago I was looking for a room in a hotel near the ghats in Banaras: my only criterion being that the bathroom should be clean. The hotel owners generally indulged my wish to see the room before booking it. After inspecting a few of these lodgings I asked one of the owners why they couldn't clean the toilets better. The answer: "Kya kahte hain? Yeh to gangajal se saf kiya hai."

Gautam said...

Well, Sourendu, its at least a sin-free toilet .....

Rahul Basu said...

People might sneer at the topic of this post - but the sheer speed of comments arriving here is testimony to the importance such scatological
issues have to the human psyche!

Anant said...

OLO: I don't know whether it is the scatalogical nature or not, but clearly it is an item that looms large in our minds especially when we travel. Yhs

vbalki said...

In India, it's more than the importance of scatological issues to the human psyche. It is the vital matter of not stepping on the freshly laid stuff, which requires eternal vigilance when one uses our roads! Our shores are indeed golden. The gold is replenished each morning... I don't know which is the bigger curse upon India: the pernicious caste system, or the chronic incontinence of the male half of the population.

AmOK said...

OLO: Indian's own their flats but not their streets. Those belong to the Govt of India. Unfortunately the second law outperforms every other law, ie, no Govt can actually clean faster than the residents can throw. More ownership of the streets would lead to an improvement. I don't believe it comes from the caste system - it comes from the disenfranchisement of the masses by the ruling classes, especially the British and later by their Indian replacements after 1947.

vbalki said...

To AmOK: I did NOT say or imply that our lack of civic sense comes from the caste system. I merely said that I didn't know which was the bigger curse: the caste system, or the public incontinence.

BTW, I don't quite believe the lack of civic sense comes entirely from "the disenfranchisement of the masses" by anybody. Gandhiji himself pointed out that the
following idea was firmly rooted in the psyche of the people: the job of "cleaning up" (the mess left behind by everybody) was the pre-ordained job of the "untouchables". So the caste system, or at least this most unsavoury part of it, seems to be partly responsible for the irresponsible behaviour of such a large fraction of our population. But this still does not fully explain why our sense of public hygiene is so utterly non-existent.

porcupyn said...

You first say ...

"Some Indians, after a stint in the West take to the Western way, considering it to be somewhat less messy. I even know a colleague who claims they have toilet trained their child to use water in Indian toilets and paper in Western toilet -- I think I am missing something here..."

... then follow it up with this ...

"Overall, the idea of a dry bathroom is contrary to the Indian concept of a bathroom where liberal usage of water is considered the norm. Fortunately this is changing albeit slowly, and modern apartments do try and keep a separate area for a shower complete with shower curtain."

So, what is your take: which is better? Water or toilet paper?

As for me, I would go with the parent who has the kid toilet trained both ways, like ours are. They should be able to use both - while in Rome, clean your rear-end like the Romans would! ;-)