We share this article on the occasion of World Toilet Day (19th November) which explores the cultural differences in anal cleansing practices between Western countries and a third-world nation, highlighting the challenges faced by individuals from the latter when adapting to Western norms.
If there is anything that makes me think twice about a trip to any country in the West, it is (you will never guess!) the dilemma l face when l weigh the choices one has while attempting to cleanse one’s ‘behind’ after answering nature’s call!
I know l am using a rather strange term to describe a generally indescribable part of the body, butt (pun unintended!!) the alternatives are way worse! With a faint hope that you all have caught on to the general idea of what l am about to elaborate on, l am launching into the details.
Now in our third-world resource-poor country, for centuries together the norm has been to use a much endangered natural resource, water, uninhibitedly, for this purpose. And it holds for all religions, across class, creed and community. Whether it is Hinduism or Islam or Christianity, washing with water is the standard procedure. How that water is carried or procured may vary by region and other geographical factors. But water it is. The only difference in rural and urban settings would be the use of one’s own hand (mostly the left) in the former and of a hand-held sprinkler or jet-spray in the latter. In both cases, rigorous hand-washing with soap and water follows!
This is in sharp contrast with the near-nonexistent use of water in the West. The Europeans and Americans prefer to use toilet paper, with a selective few using bidets and spray systems.
For the regular Indian, this scenario is not only unfamiliar and uncomfortable, but in many cases embarassing and painful… a ‘sore’ topic if l may say so!
Moving around with a dry-wiped and unwashed ‘behind’ in a foreign country can be an extremely gruelling ordeal, giving rise to very ‘foreign’ feelings in us Indians.
Our forefathers were known to bathe as many times as they defecated in a day! And God forbid should one have the diarrhoea! Each motion would be followed by a bath, and bath by a motion and this would go on till either the virus or the human ran out of the elixir of life!! Literally!
Moreover, this routine of motion followed by a bath was not necessarily voluntary in all cases. There were instances in many families where rebellious youngsters were marched into bathrooms after their time on the pot on a cold, freezing night and they washed the walls of the bathroom with loud splashes of water in an elaborate act of bathing and came out thereafter to be scrutinized closely by the ruling patriarch or matriarch,to their satisfaction. Most of them got away with their flawless performances! Some wetting of the hair and some vigorous ‘shivering’ got them by!
To add to all the adventure, many homes did not allow the ‘poopers’ to bathe indoors! They were to bathe outside their homes, in the yards, by the tube-wells or hand- pumps, perform a conjurer’s trick of undressing-in-public-without-catching-anyone’s-eye and make their way indoors. Such were the times.
Using anything other than water to clean oneself after the act of defecation has happened only in times of dire emergency, when nature’s call has caught one unawares and the usual comforts are unavailable. In such circumstances, leaves of trees, grass, newspapers, even sand and stones have had to do the job! The pains of being human!! But yes, in an emergent situation, it is difficult to maintain decorum and follow protocol. One does whatever one needs to!
Intrigued by the vastly differing practices, l have been looking up the history of anal cleansing after defecation and l find that using water as a medium has prevailed in most regions and religions over centuries, though the earliest mention of toilet paper use was in China in the 2nd BC!
Why is it then that the Europeans and Americans have been inclined towards the use of toilet paper? Digging further, l find that history does not tell us much about the reasons except that dry-wiping has been traditionally adhered to in countries with cold temperatures and that it has become more of a culture, a habit, over the centuries!
Remember the panic buying of toilet paper in the West during the pandemic?! Stores were emptied faster than you could say ‘Jack Robinson’! Feels ridiculous to an Indian like me…l mean, come on, look around in the washroom! Isn’t there a liquid that goes by the name ‘water’?! What’s this ruckus all about?!
Our French and Italian friends have on occasion used the ‘bidet‘, a sink like plumbing contraption where one can clean one’s behind, as have the Western Europeans and the Japanese. But toilet paper wins hands down in most Western countries.
Personally, l am of the opinion that there are several factors that go against toilet paper, prime amongst them being the safe disposal of the paper after usage…imagine having to deal with improperly disposed feces-smeared toilet paper on a daily basis! Ugh!
Safe and prompt disposal is of utmost importance for environmental hygiene as well as prevention of spread of infectious diseases.
The other no less important thing is the niggling irritation one feels about one’s personal hygiene after ‘dry-cleaning’ the sensitive skin of the area, as it is not always possible to follow it up with a bath. Also the area itself isn’t exactly conducive to repeated dry wiping, leading to soreness depending on the energy and vigour of the ‘wipee’!
I leave the scenario of going around one’s daily life and job with an inadequately cleaned backside (possibly containing residual matter) to the reader’s imagination!
We Indians are a dexterous and self reliant people, if you get what I mean..we use our hands to feed ourselves and well, to clean our behinds as well! We do not believe in using cutlery, tissue paper and the like. Here we like to say, “Apna haath Jagannath!”.
I know coming from a country like ours, where open defecation is a nuisance till this day, all that l am ranting about will seem a little foolhardy, but l am also aware that both the government as well as the civil society are taking serious measures to address this issue…hence it isn’t as if l haven’t looked into my own backyard before taking up cudgels on behalf of the ‘back-washers!
To wind up, amongst several other reasons for not wanting to settle abroad, for me the difficulties of the behind figure at the forefront.
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Puja is a child specialist by profession and a humanist by passion, her soul is stirred by humane acts of selflessness and love. Her other interests are reading,writing ( prose and poetry ), singing, listening to music. She is a tigress mom and a fiercely loyal friend to have! And last but not the least she is a softie with a sharp tongue and a hopeless romantic who believes in all ' happily-ever-afters'!!