Set foot on Japanese soil and you know right off the pot that it’s a fast-paced metropolis where hyper-kinetic design meets sophisticated gizmos. Toilets here are largely high-performing, in-control cats. The seats are anti-slam. Just give them a friendly pat and they shut.
The bidet is all about options: Do you want a light “feminine” stream, a warm current or a more substantial wash? Are you prone to embarrassing noises? Just press a button and the sound of chirruping birds or tinkling wind chimes will drown any performance anxiety you might harbour while er…getting the job done.
Is the odour stifling your lofty thoughts as you peruse the latest Adiga novel? Fret not, there’s a button to be pressed, close at hand.
Flushing worries A traveller visiting Korea admits defeat in face of the growing complexity of toilet design, “I’m one of those people who finds it difficult to locate “here” on a map. I never know how to activate the flush or how to work the bidet. The new-fangled bathrooms daze and confuse the simple-minded with their dazzling complexity. A mysterious setting here. A push button there. I had to watch an instructional video to be able to use the toilet successfully.”
I don’t know about you, but I never expect the bucolic scenes and slogans on my packaged food to correspond to reality.
Neither do I expect a toilet with a clean exterior to be clean on the interior. Especially not in Germany where the older toilets have a dry flat shelf right beneath your rear.
A cyber expert complains bitterly on the travails of defecation in such a design, “It just sits there for the entire performance, smelling up the joint. Several flushings are required to wash everything down the drain, and it leaves a skid mark as a souvenir for the next person.”
A German expert, defends this older model, “The design of the pan is commendable as it avoids the gigantic splash erupting in American toilets. Furthermore, if the product needs to be inspected clinically for health purposes, this is entirely possible.” He shakes his head in fierce disapproval when I tell him that the Americans have a specially-built round toilet seat that can support upto 900 kilos. “Too much McDonald’s,” he says with an unhappy waggle of his finger.”
In a quaint French village, Mr. Pierre Vincent confesses over a rather bilious-looking tea, “The loo is the shrine of my existence. It is the best place for a contemplation of life in its bare essence.” He leads me into the squatter toilet that I’ve seen in Asia, France, Italy and Turkey. Alongside the bowl on the floor, near a bucket of water, I spy leaflets on Godard’s cinematic style.
Close at hand, he has installed a bookshelf inhabited by thinkers from Voltaire to Amartya Sen. Before I can express a wish to borrow something, Mr. Pierre hustles me out of his sanctuary of escape and enlightenment.
In many places, toilets have been elevated to a position of symbol. The idea of the loo as refuge from an irate spouse is vouched for cross-culturally. I bump into an American in an Italian café in Barcelona. With the usual American forthrightness, he tells me, “A loo for me is not just a loo. It’s my friend. I probably spend more hours in its embrace than I spend with my girlfriend.”
In a photographic exhibition of old-fashioned toilets in Britain, I see an ancient toilet bowl with green flowers spattered across it. A wave of nostalgia for past designs creeps over me. I imagine someone greeted every morning of the year 1850 by this cathartic natural sight.
I buy a postcard to hang on my bathroom wall. On my way out, I spy an image of Roman public toilets dating back to 100 AD. People squatted companionably next to each other over openings on a common platform. Just as people shared public baths as a matter of course.
Reminds me of the Goan community toilets up to the mid-twentieth century. Mrs. Petronella Fernandes says sadly, “Like other traditional catalysts of community living, this loo came under attack from misguided modernisers and youngsters with marketing degrees from new universities.
They have converted these wonderful community bathrooms into solitary environments for singles only. In the good old days, while squatting side-by-side, I could not only catch up with the day’s news but listen to yesterday’s gossip, while a pig satisfied his cravings several feet below.
“But did you never feel uncomfortable,” I probe? “What’s the big deal,” she retorts, “It’s just a natural process. Who has ordained that it be a solitary activity? Along with sleeping, eating and watching soap operas in the afternoon, it’s something all of us do.”
When she's not lecturing at St Xavier's College, Sonia can be found brandishing pen and camera as she travels around India and the world.