Indian bathroom etiquette

My host-father hands me the empty canister, a plastic bottle with the top hacked off. It’s pretty grim. In Gujarati he explains – I suspect – that I should take the container to the floodwater lake, scoop up some water, find a concealed bush in the middle of the hilly landscape, and do my business. It’s that time of the day when business is done. It’d be much easier if the horizon wasn’t dotted with shepherds and their cows.

This was my first problematic toilet encounter in India, nearly one year ago. I’d mastered the traditional Indian toilet fairly quickly; but in rural India, the Indian toilet is behind a bush, preferably one that hasn’t been used before.

I suppose there’s bathroom etiquette for every location, even back home; a restaurant, the workplace, a public restroom or a friend’s house. It’s just to me, those come naturally. The best way to use my container of floodwater – which I have no doubt was laden with cholera – should have been explained to me; the training delivered with video instructions and a pictorial pamphlet that I could keep handy for moments like this.

Luckily I have a bathroom at home which contains all needed amenities; a bucket, a jug, a toilet and a tap. This works for both toileting and showering. So for most of the year I’ve coped just fine, taking time to master the art of washing myself (with the left hand) while fully clothed without getting everything wet. When I haven’t been at home, it’s usually at an Indicorps’ retreat or in a train along the route, where the same basic facilities are provided (although in the case of the latter, best avoided).

So we fast forward to the last few months. I made a promise to myself to visit more villages before I left; where I can stay with friends or their families and get a healthy dose of the ugly side of conservative Rajasthan. It pays to be bold and rather hardy about it, and it’s a great learning experience; particularly for my bathroom etiquette.

Last week I stayed in Mehagaw, a village in the heart of the Thar Desert in Nagaur district; it’s about 150km from home. I was there for a large shaadi. The village is untainted and the language is pure Marwari – the local dialect – so I don’t get very far in conversations. On the occasion I ventured to ask someone to speak in Hindi, they replied that they were speaking Hindi. So asking for directions to the toilet wasn’t easy.

Luckily, there’s a universal sign in India for the two modes of toileting. Number one, as we call it, is expressed by extending the pinky finger. I’m told to go behind the bales of hay, next to the cows, at the back of the grazing area behind the house. Simple enough.

The next morning, despite my best efforts to hold it in, I need to go for a number two. I find an inconspicuous young man, somewhere between the age of 12 and 18, and ask where I can go to the toilet. He’s totally confused by what I’m saying, but that doesn’t matter, he’s ridiculously excited that I’m talking to him. I revert to sign language. Using my most subtle manners, I extend my first two fingers like a half-Vulcan hello.

He nods in agreement and runs off. I only hope he’s gone to get me an empty canister and is not telling the family what I’m doing. With relief, he returns with the container – this time an old paint pot – full of water. He directs me out the gate and into the wilderness. I ask how far, and he points into the distance and says something I don’t understand. Trying to be polite and not wanting to draw attention, I wholeheartedly agree and head off on my merry way into the wild. I’m almost skipping.

This wild is a bit more barren. Instead of cows, there’s goat grazing on the scraps of thicket and cactus that are strewn about. I walk for a fair while, but there is still the odd farmer about and every time I see an appropriately sized bush, it’s already ‘in use’ or being eaten by goats, with whom I do not want to share my sacred toilet break.

Eventually I find a spot beneath a steep hill, it’s fairly concealed, although a path runs not too far on one side. I’m quite sure this is prime real estate for snakes and scorpions so I try to make it quick. The canister contains just enough water, and I head back.

I spent the morning painting newly plastered walls with a shade of blue that didn’t match the other walls. It’s also 45C, so I’m sweaty and desperately needing a shower before the wedding.

Showers are simple enough; a bucket, some cold water, and a jug. They’re always in private too, at least behind a wall or with some half-hearted gate to preserve your modesty. On rare occasion I’ve showered in communal showers, but even then I’m among company.

This was a special shower occasion. Bhagchand showed me the spot where I would clean myself. It was in the back, opposite the kitchen areas, next to what seemed to be a make-shift crèche complete with mothers, aunties, uncles and fathers. It was not in the least bit concealed. It was a slab of paving with a dug trench to carry the water away. In fact, I’m quite sure it was optimized for amphitheatre audiences.

Now, I’ve done some observation of how this is done, and you’re supposed to shower in your underwear. I didn’t want to make a fuss, so I stripped down to my underwear and got wet. I ignored the spectators, who were by now gossiping, presumably over the way I wash myself (which is completely normal, I assure you). Some of the children that I’d befriended bought their friends to sit by me and watch.

I threw water at them. It only encouraged them. So I refocused on the task. Now from my observations you’re supposed to wash your private areas underneath your underwear, and then thoroughly rinse your underwear afterwards. I did all that (in record time) and moved onto drying.

I’m somewhat in relief that I have a towel around my waist and the spectators have been placated – somewhat. But I still have to perform the most arduous and skilled task; replacing my wet underwear with dry underwear without availing my modesty or dropping my towel. For an Indian man, this trained skill takes seconds. For me, it took about five minutes. I tried to keep my cool, but no doubt people were wondering what on earth I was doing. My sole paving slab was slippery and the delicate balancing act required to get this right is no easy feat. But it worked out. The children went back inside. I was clean and dry; and eventually, clothed.

Yes, bathroom etiquette in India is a whole new level of understanding. Showering is difficult, but clean and comfortable. Toileting is rather more awkward; throw in the infamous Delhi-belly and you can be quite befuddled, as I found two days ago in the village of Mandawari, where I was visiting my friend Sagar.

I’d spent all day travelling with diarrhea. It was made worse after the first – and only direct – bus crashed into a central reservation on the motorway and destroyed a wheel. So I patched the rest of the route together over three buses. When I arrived at midnight I was desperate for the toilet – but that had to wait until after food. By the time I used the bathroom I was beyond waiting. Unfortunately, the bathroom was rather too close to the living area where the family were sitting and the door was riddled with holes, presumably for added bass. I’m not normally loud, but this time I outplayed an orchestra. I sat in shame for a while before plucking up the courage to rejoin the family.

That set the tone for the rest of my visit. Sagar’s cousin did, however, tie a rakhi round my wrist before I left, so maybe my musical talents did impress one of them.

I suppose average awkwardness in a western bathroom, whether public or at home, will be simple now. Maybe my ease with it will make other people uncomfortable. Maybe I’ll be one of those people who is so at ease with my own bowel movements I feel compelled to start conversations over the cubicle doors.

I really do hope not, though.

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8 Responses to Indian bathroom etiquette

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