By Katie McGarr
Written on Jan. 6
I have been in India for twenty-five days. Twenty-five days, and going to the bathroom is still a trivial matter, and I would even go as far as to say my biggest challenge. Most toilets in India are very different from the ones in Western culture — I like to call them squatty potties. They are exactly as they sound, you go into a stall and squat over a hole. Admittedly, this is not the most difficult part. It is the post-excretion ritual that gives me the struggle. But wouldn’t someone of Indian culture find themselves struggling to adapt to the Western bathroom ritual?
Did you know that Indians generally find the Western wipe to be unsanitary? Westerners wipe, using paper, usually with their dominant hand. That toilet paper either ends up in the septic system, which makes it harder for bacteria to break down the matter, or it ends up in the garbage where it becomes part of a land fill or ends up in the dump thus adding to the already unsanitary conditions. In Indian culture there is no paper waste, allowing for the bacteria to properly break down waste and thus makes Indian toilets more environmentally friendly and sustainable. In Southern India, one uses a bucket of water, or a hose in rare cases, and they use their left hand to clean themselves. As a result, the left hand is considered “impure” and you will never see an Indian eating their food with that hand as a result. Indians cannot fathom why someone would the same hand they eat with, to wipe themselves after going to the bathroom. This leaves the major question—which method is actually more sanitary?
Sanitary is relative, and the answer may surprise you, as it did me. During our week of NGO visits, we had a special lecture from Dr. Lucas, a man who has devoted his life to poop. He would argue that the Indian toilet culture is more sustainable and better for the environment. You may ask, but using paper creates a buffer between your and the waste, decreasing the chances of fecal matter getting on your hands and spreading illness. Most fecal –oral infections do not come from mishandled food but rather, eutrophic bodies of water, hypoxic seashores and nutrient-poor soil— a problem that conventional methods of sanitation causes. Septic systems in India are more sustainable, as mentioned before, and in less time than conventional septic systems, the waste turns into highly nutritious soil that can be used as fertilizer.
It is uncommon for Indians to have a bathroom located inside of their house. This is not a totally foreign concept, but in today’s Western society it is seen as outdated. The mindset is, why would one go to the bathroom in close space and proximity to the kitchen? Many Western living quarters admittedly do have bathroom and kitchens located right next to each other. This is related to the Indian concept of “in” and “out”. Indian’s believe that the “in” which is your space–be it your body, living quarters, etc—should be pure and clean. Anything that is dirty, is placed “out”, which is why anything associated with waste is usually placed outside (garbage, toilets, etc.).
So while convinced the Indian ways of going to the bathroom are hygienic and more sustainable for the environment, having toilet paper is still a necessity. Can a middle ground exist, where all cultures meet in harmony, in one single gesture? My trip to India made me think very hard about the idea of poop. Maybe Dr. Lucas found the solution that not only provides harmonious, sustainable comfort in the bathroom, maybe that solution still remains to be invented. In any case, I stick to my toilet paper, thank you very much.