Much is being made of the toilet paper crisis but there could be profit in this plague
“Why don’t twittering birds
Find their repeated notes boring?
Are humans the only ones
With a limit to enduring
The idiocy of sages
And clichés of all ages?”
-- From Permatma to Tempatma by Bachchoo
In the 1920s, Katherine Mayo, an American, wrote a critical travelogue called Mother India. It attacked the decadence of some traditions of the country without placing any responsibility on the one-and-a-half-century British colonial rule.
Indian critics characterised it as an attempt, during the growing Independence struggle, to demonstrate that India was not ready to govern itself and the departure of the Raj would bring chaos. Mahatma Gandhi called the book “the gutter inspector’s report”.
This phrase was used again when in 1962 V S Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness was published. His vivid descriptions of Indians excreting in the open, and freely defying the notices on walls urging passers-by to “COMMIT NO NUISANCE”, by urinating against them, were quoted as evidence.
Vidia never read reviews of, or reactions to, his books. Decades later, discussing his writing on India I quoted the Mahatma’s phrase and told him that it had been used to describe or condemn An Area of Darkness.
He thought about it and said words to the effect that inspecting the gutters is one of the things one has to do when examining wounded civilisations – by which I think he meant all civilisations.
Which remark, gentle reader, affords me the licence to do a bit of gutter-inspecting myself. You see, in the last two weeks, apart from the panic about deaths from the coronavirus, about the plummeting economy, about the fatal consequences of isolation, there has in Britain been a panic about toilet rolls. People are filling their shopping trolleys with them, fighting over them in supermarket aisles, carrying them away in car-boot-loads…
There have been shortages of other commodities. Eggs have been in short supply and so has macaroni. But the media haven’t reported mayhem or riots over the supply or demand for artichokes or anything else apart from this acquisitiveness and aggression over loo rolls.
Allow me to deviate. My grandmother who spoke very little or almost no English and was not familiar with British ways, had yet one English phrase and an expressed opinion on a cultural matter which have, though she died when I was eight years old, remained with me.
When discussing with other Parsi ladies, sitting out on verandahs in the evenings, she and the others would list the possible betrothal of the neighbourhood’s young women. They characterised girls whom they assessed as virtuous virgins in the English phrase as “innocent ney ignorant”. It was a high compliment.
She was born in 1902 and so lived for 45 years under the British rule of India. But such was the remoteness of the rulers from the local population that my Bombay-Parsi grandmother had very little knowledge, or possibly even curiosity, about the ways of the white folk.
The one thing I did overhear her saying, perhaps to my aunts who wanted to install loo rolls in our lavatories, was that the British didn’t clean themselves with water after using the toilet, but used this paper instead to wipe themselves. How paper could clean one she didn’t know and characterised those who used it as unclean and distinctly uncivilised.
Having used water for the same purposes throughout my childhood and being carefully instructed to wash my left hand thoroughly with soap and keep it in my lap when eating with my right, I wasn’t unacquainted with toilet paper till my teens and even then regarded its use as unclean and contrived to wet it if no water-container were available.
The invention of the bum shower – which, they say, came from Japan, though today it’s probably made in China – sorted that dilemma out for public places in Indian cities and incidentally for myself who requested one for each house toilet some years ago from those who offered me Christmas presents.
Now it seems that the rush on toilet paper may cause a famine of it soon. The uncertainty of the duration of the corona crisis and the possibility that it could deplete the workforce of toilet-paper factory workers, may spell very long periods – months? years?
The only recommendation in that eventuality, gentle reader, is what we shall have to call “reverse cultural appropriation”. One will have to re-educate the whole nation, if not the whole continent and perhaps America on how to use water to clear their posteriors of the deed.
The Indian way of restricting the action to the tips of the fingers of the left hand is, to my mind, the most commendable. The government of Boris Johnson is being called upon from all sides to implement this or that measure to overcome the spread of the virus, to keep people alive, to minimise contagious contact, to pay workers who isolate out of government funds and to take measures to alleviate or to substitute for the commodities that will be in short supply.
The obvious way forward in the toilet paper crisis is to require every TV station to make demonstrative advertisement programmes showing people how to use their left hands to wash their backsides – with perhaps a coda on how to wash that hand thoroughly with soap and keep it in your lap at meal times if you are not eating with cutlery – of which, of course, there may be a shortage when Sheffield cutlery manufacturers close their gates.
A small off-shoot of this necessary educational programme which I have now patented is the idea of producing small statues in wood or ceramic, like those of the See-no-evil-speak-no-evil-hear-no-evil monkeys, demonstrating how the washing works with a shower or with a plastic jug or even an old milk bottle.
There could be profit in this plague – though I’m seriously thinking of charitably sharing the proceeds with bankrupt hedge-fund-wallas!