There was some good news last week: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally announced that, having provided 110 million latrines in five years, India is now officially “open defecation-free.”
There are worse ways to chronicle the history of the world than through plumbing. Archaeologists, paleopathologists and anthropologists have been writing about toilets with a sense of joie de vivre for years.
A 2016 article in Nature, for example, describes the sanitation systems of ancient Crete with the kind of rhetoric usually associated with space exploration or contestants on “The Voice”: “From there, toilet technology took off.” The article also declares that the studies of “toilets have finally gone mainstream.”
We all know that history is personal, so here is my brief “Autobiography by Bathroom.”
I’ve titled it “To Pee or Not to Pee.” Not to get all Shakespearean or anything, but the process does involve shocks that flesh is heir to, the baring of bodkins, swearing and what can feel like a sea of troubles.
Like most women, I’ve spent far too much time shuffling around this mortal coil looking for non-horror-show toilets. Few of my male counterparts partake of this quest. Instead, with the cheerful insouciance of Labrador puppies, they regard the earth as their urinal.
This is cultural training. When little boys need to go, they’re told to find a tree or a shrub, whereas most little girls will be dragged for miles to windowless concrete bunkers where they’ll be shut into stalls and then instructed not to sit on the seat — if the seat is still on, because half the time we know it’ll be ripped off or askew — or will have to wipe it off by using 628 pieces of toilet paper.
If there is toilet paper, that is.
If there isn’t, she’ll just have to hover, like a droid.
Why can’t a little girl take advantage of the great outdoors, like her brother? Because it’s “not nice” for girls to do that.
My “Autobiography by Bathroom” begins at the white sand beaches of Coney Island, which was about 10 minutes away from our house. Where there’s a beach, there’s an ocean, right? But that’s a meaningless detail, because I’m a nice — meaning prissy and pious — little girl, and therefore I insist that some adult female relative take me to the steamy, gritty, smelly public bathrooms used by all manner of visitors to Coney Island, including those who later appeared as part of the cantina scene in “Star Wars.”
There’s a price to be paid when you raise your daughter to be nice, and she’s not the only one who’s going to pay it. You’ll be right there beside her, trapped by inconvenience, inflexibility and double standards.
The next chapter involves school, which is where I discovered, at age 8, the irony of The Mamas and the Papas’ hit “Go Where You Wanna Go.” I had what’s politely called a “shy bladder,” so it was nearly impossible for me to choreograph my needs with the third-grade schedule. Because of this, I became the Princess of Hall Passes, a highly visible but not at all enviable position.
Middle chapters are filled by the sad old bathrooms belonging to my relatives. These seemed entirely lined with pink shag rug and festooned with red crocheted tissue and toilet paper holders; they looked like the digestive system of a Muppet. They smelled like that, too.
Late teens and early 20s? These were the worst, because I was at my most adventurous and my least prepared. Dark, slimy and bug-infested pub outhouses without locks on the doors still appear in bad dreams, as do bus station facilities in countries now renamed and, one hopes, wiped down.
Yet my “Autobiography by Bathroom” becomes a happy story. In my advancing years, I’ve had the astonishing good fortune to live in a house with more toilets than occupants, although at work, I still have to find a stall among the crowd. But at least now that we’re all grown up, neither my bladder nor I are shy. I’m not embarrassed or anxious when I have to relieve myself. What I am is relieved.
India’s latest latrine triumph will improve the lives of many of its citizens. Given what else has been going on in the rest of the world, any reports of currently “defecation-free” zones, literal or metaphorical, are welcome.
Gina Barreca is an author and English professor at the University of Connecticut. She wrote this column for The Hartford Courant. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com