One of the easiest ways to heckle or ignite an NRI, I found was to ask in the midst of a genial conversation, “Wash or wipe?” The context is unmistakable and the question goes home immediately. We all know that paper or water in the toilet is no yardstick to measure degree of patriotism but it very well could be going by my NRI friends’ discomfiture.
Looks like the conversion to a western way of life, begins with the unruly Indian tongue massaging its “r”s into doughy “zh”s and ends with the bottom demanding paper over water. And between the tongue and the bottom, there lies a long drawn process of cultural adjustment and appropriation and between wash and wipe there hovers a great continental shift in world view. However to do our Indian brothers and sisters fair, let me put it on record that they indeed held on to the water by their bottoms as long as they could before they began to need more than the daily newspaper to accompany them into the bathroom. Their transition from wash to wipe school of thought (and action) had been anything but easy for them as the article will indicate.
Starting with better adjusted candidates- Vinu Warrier from Canada insisted that the “wash or wipe dilemma is the most under mentioned problem of Diaspora”. Living abroad for past two decades he proudly asserts his dual citizenship by first wiping with paper and later washing at his tub. (Thanks for telling. When I visit you I shan’t roll in your tub.) An uncle of mine admitted that he washes in India and wipes in America. (That must be one long journey for so poor a cause!). Sathya in Australia said he wets the paper with water and uses them as wet wipes (eligible candidate for dual citizenship).
Moving on to difficult customers who wouldn’t answer the question without first berating the Indian toilet - Raghavan s(h)itting pretty in Boston delivered a stinging monologue on the state of the Indian loos before he condescended to answer the question “Wash or wipe?”
Raghavan’s erudite electricity* (bottom’s name changed to protect identity) prefers paper over water and has arrived at the choice after smelly introspection. “With the western loo,” he boomed, “you have to deal with your own ass being a little less than squeaky clean after a trip. With the Indian style loo, you are frequently wondering what exactly you are stepping on when you enter. Sometimes you are left with no doubt, thanks to the clues on the floor left behind by the previous occupant. So, given the choice between having a little of my own produce on my ass and having other people's produce on my feet (and possibly hands), I choose the former, as any rational human being would. So that resolves it, right? I wipe now. I wipe. So what??” (The hysteria was moving, really).
Pavithra in London (here I mean the great city London and not the loo which many of us Indians still call ‘London’) discussed the “yuck factor” of Indian toilets before answering the question. “Despite all the new found economic prosperity of India, we seem quite reluctant to give up our rusty iron bucket in the loo that was bequeathed to us by our grandmothers. Sometimes the rusty bucket would spring a leak at the bottom, at which time, some bright guy in the household would come up with the idea of lining the old heirloom with a coat of cement at the bottom so that the bucket may survive another generation, not to mention that it now holds less water and weighs an extra kilogram. Also, you are sure that the previous visitor, after finishing his business picked up the bucket with his unwashed hands and put it back in place under the dripping tap. I hate Indian loos. Paper is definitely cleaner, drier and undeniably better.” She concluded.
Rumi who had in one of MTVs’ programs seen among other hot hangout spots in Asia, also pictures of the Asian loo, complete with arrows and drawings detailing how to squat and do business, was very excited on her first trip to India. Sufficiently briefed about Indian toilet practices, Rumi had just one Punjabi meal in an uppity restaurant before declaring, “I now know why Indians use water in their toilet.” When the fire in her tongue subsided she couldn’t stop raving about a new contraption she found in the bathroom, which apparently was not available when her parents were still Indians. “The mini shower hose is a riot. I heard it is a new addition to the toilet accessory to ensure dry bathroom floor.” She said before adding, “My aunt visiting from the village sort of missed the whole point. She dethroned from the western closet, squatted on the floor and got her aim wrong and ended up spraying her tummy or face before she finally figured it out. Paper is most definitely uncomplicated,” Rumi couldn’t stop laughing.
The question “Wash or wipe?” indeed seems a dipstick study on where the NRI stands vis-à-vis his country and its way of life. Among many things like cleaner environment, potable tap water and wider roads, what keeps our Indians comfortably abroad is….believe it or not is the state of the Indian loos. What our friends do in their bathrooms abroad is their business, but you know you have lost yet another wet Indian to the dry west when they start needing toilet paper even when they are visiting home. The toilet paper I am afraid is no ordinary tissue- it is the final cord that permanently binds our brethren to the alien land, a string that severes the umbilical cord with their homeland, a rope that draws our brothers out of the Indian amniotic waters. But be assured the Sons of Indian soil began to wipe their spoils only after sufficient turmoil! (Sorry about the melodrama-heh heh!)
Raghavan at Boston who briefly returned to his original semi-hysteric self wistfully shared his dreams of a toilet that would go beyond the narrow continental boundaries and address the true need of the customer. “The Japanese- these innovative people really have it all figured out - the spray and dryer are built into the loo and there is a panel of buttons on the side. So after you are done, you push button number one and lo and behold a spray of water comes up and cleans you even as you stay seated. And then one more button to blow dry it all out. Usually there are four buttons on the panel - I am not sure what the other two do, probably powder and pat. I really think the Japanese have it figured out - they are truly ahead of the pack in this technology, I think. Sometimes as I sit on my own humble loo with just a roll of paper on the side, I dream about a day when every loo will spray, dry, powder and fondly pat each ass that comes its way.”
Now we know what lies in the bottom of the Non Resident Indian’s heart or should we say in the heart of the Non Resident Indian’s bottom?
* "Wash or wipe" is my very first article for Loony Life column in The New Indian Express