March 1, 2014

The Indian Toilet. ~ Alli Sarazen


In 2001, the National Association for Continence concluded that the average American spends about one hour a day “on the commode.”

Although this is a statistic about Americans, an American abroad is a different breed: Oily food, parasites, and all other bowel-aggravating things considered.

Discussing this statistic, American journalist Buck Wolf comments:

“But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. In an increasingly complicated, demanding world, the bathroom represents one of the last bastions of unfettered solitude. The warm, misty embrace of a morning shower may just as well be listed in the Constitution as an inalienable right”.

Buck Wolf is an American journalist. I wonder if an Indian journalist would ever dare allude to the “embrace” of a morning shower as an “inalienable right”? Would this even translate to the vast majority of an Indian audience?

Although categorizing the development of countries via remnants of antiquated Cold War verbiage is, in and of itself, problematic, with the intention of clarity, I will say that many would consider India a third world country.

As an American coming to a place like India, it was immediately apparent to me that time in the bathroom is no longer a moment of rejuvenation and relief where the nostrils are graced with the scent of chemical-laced, yet relatively pleasant, Apple Cinnamon air fresheners but rather an often stressful, smelly reminder of the vast disparity between American standards (or expectations) of health and comfort, and those of the less-developed “Third World.”

The Bathroom, even as a euphemism, could hardly be applied to the average Indian toilet that we experienced on an excursion to Himanchal Pradesh. Fully aware that even the term the Indian toilet is itself euphemistic, from here on out it will serve as a nod to the dry-pits of Comic and Demul, the side-of-the-road port-a-loos (when there is no other viable option), and the toilets of the Dharmsala train station that are piled with seemingly ancient and fresh feces alike. All of the aforementioned types of bathrooms bring their users to an understanding of the word stench that they had never before acquired back home.

My retrospective claims about the Indian Toilet as an allegorical token of socioeconomic variance throughout the world, this term (the Indian toilet) will be exclusionary to those facilities that grace the homes of relatively affluent natives—or the expensive hotel rooms of India mostly frequented by foreign tourists.

So, although the average Indian toilet I came in contact with does not initially inspire refreshing relief, but instead a reminiscent longing for a middle-class American girl’s toilet experience, what is the relationship between people native to India and these toilets?

I am willing to bet that every time a mother in Comic or a child in Delhi goes to relieve him or herself, he or she is not consumed with thoughts of how uncomfortable or unpleasant the experience is.

The whole ordeal probably affords an aspect of utility to these hypothetical characters—and that is all. How can you want if you do not know what you do not have?

At the conclusion of a private, traditional Spitian music concert in Tabo (performed for a group of American students in a hotel that had sit-down toilets), musician Tenzin Chopl asks his audience if they think Spiti is a hard place to live.

How does one answer that sort of a question? How does an American student, who comes from a life of overwhelming privilege and convenience relative to that of most people born in India, tell someone who lives in the middle of a desert valley in Himanchal Pradesh, “No, life does not seem difficult here to me.”  How could I say that to someone from a place that is isolated from the rest of the world for at least 4 months out of the year because of intense and oppressive winters and one treacherous roadway out and in? A place where a potential global warming has been reducing yearly crop yield at an aggressive rate thus altering the economy in a detrimental way. A place where many people have alcohol abuse problems. A place where there is only one small, short-staffed, under-funded medical clinic for at least seven hours in both directions that can barely refrigerate medicine or conduct critical medical testing of its patients due to the Indian government’s unpredictable, inconvenient decisions to turn off electricity for huge sections of Spiti at unannounced times. How could I explain that I grew up in a place without these problems?

Of course, there is a stark contrast between the convenience of life in America and Spiti. So how does one answer truthfully without making he who posed the question feel inferior or undeserving? Whether or not I was being overly cautious in my approach to Tenzin Chopl’s question isn’t the important thing; I did not want to plant seeds of lacking in the mind of this inquisitive Spitian man. So I decidedly side-stepped the question in the way only a girl brought up in a culture where politeness is valued over honestly can:

“No, I don’t think Spiti is a hard place to live. The colors of Tabo remind me of places at home.”

Broadcasted over news networks like CNN, the BBC, and Fox News in Spring of 2013, reporters quoted a text message sent from an American woman to her family:

“The room smells like an outhouse, there’s no air conditioning…cold water only. The toilet hasn’t worked in three and a half days.”

No, this is not an account of an American girl in India. This is a message sent by a passenger of the infamous Carnival Cruise ship that lost power due to a small electrical fire early last year. The power loss rendered an absence of what passengers considered basic amenities for the four days it took for the ship to conduct its “emergency” journey back to port. The whole ordeal catalyzed outrage amongst the passengers, their families on land, and the American people in general, as well as bringing to light significantly detrimental, international publicity for Carnival as a luxury cruise line.

What does it say that the week of the Carnival Cruise ship incident, the story was not once but perpetually covered by many major news networks like the BBC, CNN or Fox News?

Many comments (overheard from the peanut-gallery of American critics about the situation) categorized the incident as “absolutely unacceptable.” Imagine. American luxury cruise ship passengers without relief from the heat or hot water to bathe for four days! Yet, looking at the daily media reels, there is inarguably an absence of overwhelming international outrage over the fact that three billion people in the world are living in extreme poverty—under the same conditions as the Carnival Cruise ship passengers.

To these news networks I ask:

“Where is the coverage of those circumstances that are the same as the Carnival Cruise ship situation, with crippling tribulations like hunger added on to the suffering? Why are you not so impassioned by the exponential, detrimental disparities of health, socioeconomic realities, and basic survival needs that half of the world faces on a daily basis?” 

But who is lacking? I would venture to say that it is those who have been pre-exposed to comfort and are bombarded with the harsh realities of the world the moment they fall into a toilet on a Delhi-bound night-train. Those who have grown up conditioned to the Indian Toilet have not been plagued with the potentially consuming, unproductive thoughts which compare standards some might consider “better.” If one has spent his or her whole life squatting over a worm-infested hole and he or she did not know what a “Porcelain Throne” was, chances are he or she has inadvertently alleviated the suffering that stems from longing for degrees of comfort…degrees of comfort that would be unimaginable to some, but perceived as necessary for others.

What are we willing to gamble when it comes to a global recognition and development of compassion that could inarguably even the playing field a few formative degrees—not only for hygiene, but also for economy, education and health?

I believe the comparison of toilets in the developed world to that of toilets in the developing world is a descriptive analogy that points to the very real global disparity among living conditions.

I do not so heavily consider the Indian Toilet because I want all the world to know the luxury of a disinfected, flushing, white commode or the embrace of a warm morning shower. Rather, I bring it up as a wake-up call for humans everywhere to stop sleepwalking through the convenience and comfort of their own lives and turn their attention to a human society absolutely racked with poverty.

Do the Egyptian cotton towels and shining marble floors of the financially rich of the world serve as emblems of apathy?

Is the Global North, First World (or whatever nomenclature tickles your fancy) satiated by luxury, blinded from the reality of other human beings by the shine of our 5,000 dollar designer bathroom fixtures? Or is it blinded by the year-round accessible roads, ever-present electricity, or two-ply toilet paper?

I know I’ll raise the world potential composting material—and even a small degree of progress for socioeconomic equity—at the risk of sacrificing a few smelly, squatty minutes over a dry pit any day.


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Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons

Photo: Wikimedia Commons user Ajay Tallam


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