[NB: For those of you interested, here is an unedited, unpublished, verbose (2K+ words) tale of me and Indian toilets. I wrote it a couple of years ago. Yes, I know the last section doesn’t quite fit.]
It’s hard to feel like an adult when you’re 30 and your mother gives you rolls of toilet paper like they’re government handouts. “I just thought you might need some,” she explained as I held up the rolls in confusion. “You’ve been here almost a week.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “But I’ve been to the store.”
“Well, I just didn’t know if you had thought to buy some when you were at the store.”
I put the rolls down and executed a graceful escape. I’d be lucky if I got out of there without my mother giving me a TP demo. “Thanks for doing my laundry.”
She smiled. “I ironed your pillowcases—I don’t know how you sleep on un-ironed pillowcases.”
The same way I buy my own toilet paper: just fine.
The American devotion to toilet paper doesn’t make sense to many Indians. Why smear all that stuff around with paper when you can just spruce up with a little water and your left hand? While I never fully embraced this practice during my trip to India in 2006, I did experience a kind of bathroom ecstasy that would have made Freud proud.
At the Yoga Niketan ashram, my teachers encouraged us to shower and excrete the “yogic way.” We had the deluxe rooms at the ashram, which were equipped with Western toilets. Nevertheless, our bathrooms still had the ubiquitous—and heretofore mysterious—spigot and plastic cup. All bathrooms in India, irrespective of the type of toilet, include a low-to-the-ground, usually leaky, spigot. Underneath the spigot, overflowing with water, sits a small plastic cup—hot pink or some other outrageous Indian color. I had never understood what these things were for, even though my college roommate was Muslim and carted a large blue pitcher of water with her to the bathroom. Sitting in the stall next to her, I would hear a cascade of water pouring into the toilet and wonder what she was doing. Once, I asked her, and she fixed me with her black eyes and said, in her Karachi monotone, “washing.”
But, over a decade later, it all became clear. My eyes got big as my meditation teacher outlined the process for using the toilet “yogicly.” You pour the water…down the back…and the front? What about…I tentatively raised my hand. What about your pants? I asked my teacher. How can you pour all that water and not get it all over your clothes? My teacher was perplexed. She paused. You take your pants off.
That’s why I thought my roommate was doing her laundry.
I was scared. And so curious—a dangerous combination for a young American far away from home. I picked a hot day to go to the bathroom yogicly. The sun beat down on the yoga hall, making the long dark room feel like a sauna. We opened the windows, turned on the ceiling fans, drank lots of filtered water. And then I had to go.
During a break in our studies, I flung the screen door wide and stepped into the sun. I slipped into my flip-flops. They were hot. Shuffling down the dusty path toward my room, I felt daunted and expectant. I wasn’t sure I was up to the task of using the toilet yogicly, especially the part where I had to take off my pants. I couldn’t imagine going to the bathroom half dressed. And I was certain that I would make a mess with the water. Yet, I was ready. I was ready to think differently, to act differently—I was ready to be a different person in the bathroom.
Once untied, my fisherman pants unceremoniously dropped to the marble floor. Next, I tried stepping out of my flip-flops and out of my pants at the same time, and this maneuver proved to be treacherous. After safely getting out of my shoes and pants, I peeled off my skivvies and cleared everything out of the way of the impending deluge. And then I let loose.
Even though it’s not all that different from how I usually sit on the toilet, I felt freer sitting there without any pants on. I felt unencumbered, no longer a victim of the tangle of shoes, socks, and knickers around my ankles. A new woman, I reached for the pink plastic cup, my chalice. I stood up. And I poured, just like my teacher said, front and back. I poured and poured, the water gushing into the toilet. I poured and poured, feeling awakened and relaxed. The cool water soothed my hot body and aroused my senses. I could feel my body, and it felt alive, clean, and grateful. I would never go back. I would never go back to my toilet paper ways.
It wasn’t until the end of my stay in India that I employed my finesse with the plastic cup to tackle the rigors of the Indian toilet. In fact, it was during my last few moments in India, in the Indira Gandhi airport, that I had my most triumphant Subcontinent toilet experience. For the safety and comfort of travel-weary Western tourists, the women’s restrooms at the airport have both kinds of toilets. I didn’t know this when I first landed in Delhi and so I marched into the first available stall, ignoring the gentle protestations of the bathroom attendant. I walked in and froze. “Where’s the toilet?” I thought to myself. And then it dawned on me. Fuck. Well, I wasn’t going to turn around and leave and give that bathroom attendant the satisfaction of knowing that yet another prissy Western tourist was scared of the hole in the ground. I needed to pee, so I was going to pee, goddammit. I just didn’t know where.
Reading about Indian toilets in guidebooks doesn’t prepare you for seeing one in the flesh. Yes, they are a hole in the ground, a lovely ceramic hole. But in many Indian toilets, they are two holes, and if you are prone to overthinking things, as I am, you might get confused as to where you should be directing your business. Case in point: the women’s restroom in the Delhi airport. At the far end of the stall was one hole, but near the stall door, there was another hole from which trickled a steady stream of water. A long ceramic channel connected two holes, and the water flowed down this channel. Tiles covered the floor on either side of the ceramic channel and holes, and of course, there was a leaky spigot and plastic cup. I had no idea what to do. I don’t even know what I ended up doing, but I took care of business. I think I may have straddled the smaller hole closest to the stall door and peed directly into the stream of water, on the grounds that the trickle of water would carry my urine from one hole to the other. I liked the symmetry of this idea, so I went with it. You might say, I just let loose and went with the flow. Now, as for the spigot and the cup of water, I was at a complete loss. My best guess was that the water in cup served some sort of flushing function. In lieu of flushing the toilet, I was supposed to pour this water down the channel that connected the holes. That way, my business would be sufficiently washed away. Thus, I poured several cupfuls down the channel, and, just for affect, I drizzled some water on the tile floor and walls. I figured if I just caused a lot of commotion and splashed around, then it would appear to the attendant that I knew what I was doing.
After I had emerged from the stall and washed my hands, the attendant offered me a wad of toilet paper to dry my hands. Without thinking, I took it and began dabbing my hands with the thin paper. Immediately, the attendant put her hand in my face. Her withered, outstretched palm hovered right under my nose. I took a step back. Her hand followed, her eyes pleading. I shrugged my shoulders. “I haven’t changed my money.” This was a lie, of course. I had Rupees in my bag, but they were in Rs 1,000 notes. I wasn’t going to tip her $20 for single ply toilet paper and bad advice on which stall to use. She stared at me, her hand still under my nose. I turned my back on her and walked out the door, feeling like a terrible American.
Fast-forward six weeks, and, again, I found myself in the bathroom in the Delhi airport. This time, though, I was ready for action. I waited in line with the other women and when a stall door opened, I made my way toward it. The bathroom attendant stopped me.
“Madam,” she smiled. “Wouldn’t you prefer to wait? This is an Indian toilet.” She bobbled her head.
Did she not see the Punjabi suit I was wearing, the henna that adorned my hands and feet, the vaguely stoned look in my eyes that can only come from a month of meditating at 5am? I was legit. I could squat with the best of them. I even knew which hole to use. I was good.
I put up my hand and glided past her. “I can do it.” I closed the door. We meet again, ceramic moat of water, flanked by two holes and a bank of colorful tile. I nodded to my friend the leaky spigot and hitched up my tunic. I slipped out of my purple silk pants and placed my feet on either side of the far hole. The stall was just wide enough for me to squat and press my elbows into either wall to balance perfectly. Achilles’ tendons, don’t fail me now.
After pouring down the back and front, I emerged from my stall, clean, relieved, “rested,” as my mother likes to say. The attendant gracefully stepped aside as I strode to the sink to wash my hands. She handed me a paper towel. I slapped a Rs 20 note in her hand and bowed my head. “Namaste.”
In the Hindu tradition, Ganesha is the dispeller of obstacles. In the Indian psychoanalytic tradition, Ganesha’s story parallels the Oedipus myth. Thus, it seems germane to mention the elephant-headed deity here.
My mother wanted a shawl from India. A real, live Indian shawl. So, I bought her a shawl that boasted all of her best colors—deep red, brown, and gold. But I also bought her a statue of Ganesha because I thought she could use a little help dispelling the obstacles in her life, namely her children. In the note I sent her with the shawl and statue, I explained Ganesha’s role. She seemed appreciative. And a little weirded out.
The statue I picked out was small, about four inches tall. It’s a thick, heavy statute and Ganesha’s features are easy to discern. His ears are big and he has a playful expression of his face.
I visited my parents about four months after I returned from India. They had just completed their first move in more than 20 years. My first morning in the new house, I untangled myself from the sheets and small bed and shuffled downstairs. My parents were already awake, rustling the newspaper, cooking bacon.
“We saved you some coffee.”
I grunted in appreciation and reached for the coffee pot. I stopped. Perched on a narrow ledge behind the coffee marker sat a familiar face. Wide ears, a long curling trunk, the posture and visage of one caught in mid-step, mid-dance, the coy look of the subcontinent.
“Is that Ganesha? Is that the statue I gave you?”
“Yes!” Mom stood next to me and moved Ganesha slightly to the right, slightly to the left, a little bit forward, a little bit back, until he was in exactly the same spot as when she started. She does this same maneuver with table centerpieces; the benefit of it is not immediately clear.
“Yes,” she said again, smiling up at me. “There he is. I put him there so that I could see him every morning when I get my coffee. I’m hoping to start my day with all my obstacles dispelled.”
“Is it working?”
“No,” she laughed, again slightly moving Ganesha from side to side.