My first toilet was a cloth nappy, a white isosceles triangle with cords attached at two corners and a loop at the third. If the loop or a cord tore, my mother would use a safety pin to hold the nappy together—in those days mothers didn’t mind placing sharp objects next to their babies’ skin. Babies’ poop is very yellow and looks like a paste of turmeric and water (I remember my brothers’ poop and my babies’ poop though not my own).
Poop is important to a mother. “Humans, as a rule, hate poo,” says this BBC article. “Our love for our children generally outweighs our aversion to their bodily waste, but nobody actually enjoys changing a dirty nappy.” Perhaps my mother’s love for her fourth baby didn’t outweigh her aversion for its bodily waste: there are no photographs of me as a baby, and only one before I turned four.
When I was seven, we moved into a house with many toilets in Visakhapatnam on the east coast of India. We were a large family—nine humans including my grandmother, and a dog, a cow, and a calf—and all of us but the cow and her calf pooped indoors. The dog’s toilet was a corner of the orange-and-green oriental carpet in the sitting room and was never occupied when she needed it; for the rest of us, the toilet we used when the others were busy—the toilet of last resort—was one with a blue door located outside the house. It was also the first toilet I feared. Growing up, I was afraid of many things: the headmistress and the swing of her ruler, destination my knuckles, being sent home from school because of my messy handwriting and not being allowed in because of my dirty entry pass, waking my father when he was sleeping and my oldest sister when she was awake. Large families breed fear. There are many people in a large family but no one quite there for you.
The blue-door toilet was close to a long room that ran the depth of the house, which my grandmother used. My grandmother had antiquated beliefs and habits. She cooked her own food and ate it sitting on the floor—she considered dining tables to be unclean. After she ate, she’d wipe the floor with yogurt and turmeric, a combination that struck me as an unlikely cleaning agent. She didn’t use soap when she bathed or to wash her clothes. I remember the musty smell of her skin and her clothes, and that her left foot was permanently swollen due to a bout of filariasis she’d suffered decades earlier. My father dearly loved his mother. He’d tell us things about her—that she was widowed in her twenties, that she was extremely hardworking, that she raised two boys all on her own—but the person he described didn’t sound like the person in the long room. So I was silent and cautious around my grandmother, as I might be around an odd neighbor—and I was afraid of her toilet.
Research indicates that we fear things that might be dangerous, uncontrollable, unpredictable, or disgusting. I was probably afraid of the toilet because I was disgusted by it. It was a squat toilet, as opposed to a Western toilet, and required you to elongate your haunches in an ungainly, uncomfortable way and get close to the floor. The flush jangled, the pull was rusted, the tap leaked, the bucket was broken. The pit of the toilet was always dirty because my grandmother couldn’t see well and wouldn’t let the maid clean it. The cowstall nearby added smells of dung to the smells of toilet. Even then I knew that a place is safe if it’s clean and looks nice and smells good.
A toilet is a place, too, like a seaside resort or a centuries-old city is a place. A visit to a toilet bears recounting, too. A toilet is a handy object to mark your life by because you always need a toilet. You are usually alone in a toilet and can inspect everything carefully. (To clarify, I use the word “toilet” to refer both to the room that contains the toilet and the toilet itself.) Then one of three things happens: you fall in love with the toilet, you fear the toilet, or you are indifferent to the toilet.
A toilet accurately reflects the sensibility and income of the people it belongs to. People with more money have better toilets as do countries with more money. The taps don’t leak, there’s enough shelf space for toiletries, the drains aren’t clogged. People with the most money even have a wall between the bath area and the toilet, while poor people suffer the rumbling of the plumbing in thin walls, or have no toilet at all. You can’t mistake a poor toilet for a fine one even if it’s clean—the towels will be threadbare, the fittings mean.
We moved frequently when I was growing up; each house reflected my father’s fortunes as did its toilets. After the house with the blue-door toilet came two houses with toilets that were probably bad but in unmemorable ways. Then came a house with the most beautiful toilets I’d ever seen.
I was fourteen when we moved into this house, a large pink bungalow on a raised piece of land. My father had changed jobs and was earning more. My mother bought real silk curtains and took long naps in her air-conditioned room, the only time in her life she had an AC. There was a garage for the old blue Fiat, and a room above the garage in which I slept. There were three flawless toilets: two large ones with flowery blue and green tiles, and a small one with pink tiles. The fittings didn’t leak, the flushes worked. The pink one, which I used, had a cute toilet, the seat lower than that of a Western toilet but higher than that of a squat—a clever, quirky, noteworthy toilet. Some girls never forget their first party dress; I’ll never forget my first good toilet.
While many of us find using public toilets mildly or moderately distasteful, some of us have stronger feelings towards toilets in general. Google “toilet phobias,” and you’ll learn that they include the fear of being seen or heard while in a toilet, the fear of relieving oneself in a public place, worries about bacteria and contamination.
Merriam Webster defines the word phobia as “an exaggerated, usually inexplicable and illogical fear, of a particular object, class of objects, or situation.” I’m not sure that fear of a toilet is illogical or inexplicable. We’re very vulnerable when we are using a toilet. We must get at least partially naked, often with people nearby. We rely on mysterious laws of physics to keep us safe, trust that concrete and wood will absorb the rays of light bearing images of our seated selves and stop them from reaching eyes outside. We trust the sturdiness of locks, and that no one will think of us naked even when they hear us.
We lived just one year in the house with the beautiful toilets, after which my father moved to Bombay to a house with not-so-good toilets while I moved into a dormitory with toilets that were also bad but in different ways. Later, I lived and worked in towns and cities all over the country and traveled extensively by train and bus. I used hole-in-the-floor train toilets, bus stop toilets at midnight, toilets with tin doors and latches that didn’t work. If I had a toilet phobia, I was forced to overcome it.
Once, when I was still in college, my father wrote to say he was going to quit his job and move to his village—I would have to move, too. I was shattered. I cried for days and days: I wouldn’t be able to finish college, I’d turn into a bumpkin, my life was finished.
My father’s village was two hours by train from Visakhapatnam. The earth was red, the hills low. My grandmother still owned the house in which she’d raised her boys. I knew the house well. It was gloomy inside, and the floor was cold and grey. The toilets were outside the house, far away, and had tin sheets for doors. The toilet itself was a hole in the ground with rough concrete slabs on either side for the feet. There was no roof and no running water. You drew water from the well and took it with you. The iron pail clanged and disappeared into the depths of the well. Sometimes the rope broke, and the pail got lost. Parents have a power over their children that they are unaware of and that is unearned.
While some of us fear toilets, others fear the people who clean toilets.
Ideally, nothing—floors, bodies, clothes, toilets—ever needs cleaning, or if it does, it cleans itself. In the second most ideal situation, no one cares if a thing is not clean. In the third most ideal situation, we all clean up after ourselves.
In reality, we often hire others to clean up after us. Official estimates place the number of people employed as domestic servants in India at more than four million, unofficial at fifty. In America, there are over two million domestic workers (according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance,) more unofficially? That is, people everywhere will get out of cleaning if they can. Then they look down on the people doing the cleaning.
When I was growing up, we employed a special maid, who belonged to a caste defined by the members’ occupation, to clean our toilets because our regular maid wouldn’t do it—one of a set of caste rules that our family, like others, passively observed. I remember this maid slinking in and out through the back door to avoid my grandmother, who adhered to far stricter rules and believed she needed to bathe if she set eyes on the maid. I remember my grandmother recoiling if she saw her by mistake, as if she radiated toilet particles.
All good toilets are alike; each bad toilet is bad in its own way. My dormitory toilets were bad because I had to stand in line for a free one, water flowed from the taps for only an hour a day, and hair that wasn’t mine clogged the drain. Train toilets were bad because one’s waste—sometimes one’s money or watch—dropped straight down on the rushing tracks, there was no soap, and everything smelled metallic. (This was back in the nineties. Now many trains in India are equipped with bio toilets, which decompose waste on the spot.)
One bad toilet stands out among all the bad toilets. It is THE toilet, the toilet of my nightmares, the toilet I’ve been running from, the reason I’m writing about toilets.
I was traveling from Bangalore to Guntur to attend a friend’s wedding. I reached Guntur at night and visited the toilet at the train station before going into the town. I couldn’t find a light switch by the door so stepped gingerly into the dark space and slid my fingers along the wall until I found a switch. The light revealed that the floor was covered with feces, thick in parts; I’d walked a distance of perhaps twelve feet in it. A person or persons had pooped on the floor and cleaned themselves and/or peed, which explained why it flowed everywhere. I gagged and vomited and threw away my open-toed sandals. It’s more likely I neither gagged nor vomited but went to the wedding like nothing had happened and didn’t speak about it, because people might pity me for having walked in shit.
The memory festered. Of course I was disgusted, but I wasn’t only disgusted—I was filled with shame for myself and for the person who’d done it, even with a toilet available. Who? A child, but where were the parents? Someone ill? Someone who preferred the floor? Lots of people go in the streets in India. The way I shrank inside lit up the line that separated me from the person responsible and those like him or her, yet another way in which people are divided.
In a recent Hindi movie titled “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha” (Toilet: A Love Story), a city-bred woman marries a village man whose house doesn’t have a toilet, leaving her with no option but to go to the fields at dawn, mug of water in hand, traveling in a cluster with other women to keep off human predators. (No walls or doors in a field: These women surely should be excused any number of toilet phobias.) In the movie, the woman’s husband loves her enough to have a toilet built for her, but all women aren’t so lucky.
Millions of people in India, the highest number in the world, have no access to a toilet. Google “toilets in India” and you’ll net many articles on the subject. You’ll learn that not being able to afford a toilet is just one hurdle. The belief that bodily waste must be kept away from areas of worship is another, as is the lack of running water, which means someone, like the maid who cleaned our toilets, must do the job of emptying the pit. Scientists are designing toilets that can turn waste into clean byproducts, thus eliminating the need for running water and human toilet cleaners. Bill Gates funded one such project; he can be seen here drinking a glass of water generated from waste. The gap is closing but slowly.
Naturally I dream about toilets—scary toilets that my brain creates because I no longer have scary ones in my life. I walk into a stall in a public toilet. The door is see-through, the foot slabs are far apart and narrow, the hole is deep. I place my feet on the slabs and strain to maintain balance. My back prickles with the stares of the people coming in and out.
I now live in America, land of fine toilets, where I’m less likely to be let down by a toilet than the parts of my body I use while sitting on one. I’ve given birth to two children; muscles in certain areas have become slack. I watch advertisements for adult diapers with foreboding—the smiles of the users don’t deceive me. I note where these things are stored at the drugstore, as if preparing for when I’ll be a customer. I’m healthy and not that old and any such debacle is far away. Yet I’m fearful—I’d prefer to not leave this earth in the leaky state in which I arrived.