Thursday, September 03, 2009

Of Baths and Rooms

My earliest memories of a bathroom, are of a first floor house, with a half terrace (that ran the length of the house), at one end of which was what would today be called a "bathroom complex", but was really just a bunch of Indian Style WC's and a bathing room. Much of a school day morning would be spent banging on bathroom doors, shouting at people to come out, while simultaneously enjoying a pleasant nippy morning on the cool terrace, admiring the just emerging mango blossoms, new roses flowering down in the garden, or even sometimes , admiringly watching the neighbor's tenant's daughter go off for badminton practice, shorts and all, accompanied by her Dad.

All of us children had to do Surya Namaskars (Sun Salutations), before we could have breakfast, and one didn't worship the Sun unclean; hence all the noise outside the bathrooms. Bathrooms in our time, and even today continue to be very simple and basic. One thing that people were earlier very particular about was the separation of Toilet and Bath. You never had a largish enclosure with a toilet , a bath area , and mirrors etc. It somehow took away the from the "pure" aspect of the bath, to have a gaping toilet next to it. The benefit of all this was, that we never had situations of one person locking up a bathroom with an entire family outside banging on the doors.

Pune, the place where I grew up, had fairly cold winters. Things like "central heating" etc didn't exist. Neither did running hot water although running cold water was plentiful. Most of our bathrooms then , held an ancient contraption, made out of copper , which was a rudimentary boiler, referred to as "bamb". It had a cylindrical body with a tap, around a central concentric cylindrical part, and a place at the bottom to put and burn hot coals in it. The entire thing stood on a tripod.

Before we children landed up for baths, someone would have got up, cleaned and started the water heating in this thing, charcoals glinting on a pan at the bottom, wisps of smoke emanating through the chimney-like central tube, and the water heating in the copper would give off a typical mild aroma. Soap was considered a special thing. Nobody really believed in it, but our bathroom always had bowl containing a paste of special turmeric (ambehalad), garbanzo flour (besan), and fresh cream. Cleaning your body and particularly your face, with this was highly approved, had depilatory uses, and you even felt great after you washed this off. Those scheduled to wash their hair had to wait, and do their stuff after we left for school, and that was done using a concoction of shikekai (soap nut powder)boiled in solution.

There would be a huge stone cube set into the bathroom floor of Shahbad stone, and one sat on this, and had a bath. There were no tubs, and showers were yet to appear on the scene. Then , like today, we filled a bucket with hot water from the "bamb", mixed cold water with it to our convenience, and had a great bath with a single bucket of water. Water was also important in the toilet set up; certainly for flushes, but more so, as toilet paper was frowned upon, and everyone washed clean with water from a tap , mug and bucket suitably placed. Of course the Indian style toilets , which are actually a healthier alternative, allowed this method in an easier manner.

No candles, no sprays, no choice of perfumes, but once the day's human cleaning was over, the bathroom would would have a wonderful smell, a mix up of charcoal, copper, turmeric, oil, shikekai, and of course sunlight soap, which would be premixed into a bucket of water where worn clothes would be immersed for the daily washing, done around mid morning, and hung out to dry on a clothesline on the terrace. Petticoats and sarees flying in the breeze merrily with assorted pajamas never bothered anyone, and if they did, then you looked down on those people as unnecessarily nouveau riche.

The ash generated from all that charcoal, was collected and used along with coconut fibres , for cleaning the daily cooking and eating utensils.

It has been an interesting life, seeing people of the old school (of bathrooms), adjust to what may be called International bathroom life. Elders from the family who travelled to the US to visit immediate family, abhorred the business of washing machines. You washed your clothes everyday, and while everyone else contributed to the twice a week laundry, grandmothers could be seen washing their clothes daily, and hanging them out to dry on the clotheslines, luckily available and "allowed" (that's a subject for a separate post, but i fail to see the connection between locality rules, prestige, decor, and clotheslines in the sun) , where they visited in California. When the elder son designed and had his house built many years ago, he had properly separated and segregated toilet and bath sections in his bathrooms, so his visiting folks would feel comfortable.

Tubs don't impress. The idea of washing and rinsing with the same water , doesn't hold, well, any water. And in a typical Indian family bathroom, rugs on the floor would be a complete disaster. The floor is much cooler, and easier to clean. Most normal middle class house will today have 1-1.5 bathrooms. The "bamb" has given way to the electric geyser. Children who swear by the lauryl sulfate in beauty soaps, designed to put a glow, get allergies if they use the garbanzo flour paste. Times change.

If you think about it, the attitude towards baths across the world is different. Bathing here, is a necessity, like brushing your teeth, washing your hands, and the attitude is all about getting on with it and finishing, so someone else can use the bathroom. I have seen my mother kind of speechlessly skeptical after seeing a bathroom with vases of flowers, photographs, paintings, a book and magazine rack beside the toilet, a radio playing music to clean yourself by.

But this often happens in societies where the bathroom has an owner attribute. It is possible to talk about 'my bathroom" and "her bathroom". We are still OK with "our bathroom".

While I have always wondered , historically, how bathrooms came into vogue, there is an interesting story about how and why, the British, who introduced the Railways in India, actually decided to introduce bathrooms in trains.

Okhil Chandra Sen wrote this letter to the Sahibganj divisional
railway office in 1909. It is on display at the Railway Museum in New Delhi . It was also reproduced under the caption "Travelers' Tales" in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

"I am arrive by passenger train Ahmedpur station and my belly is too
much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just I
doing the nuisance and that guard making whistle blow for train to go
off and I am running with 'lotah' in one hand and 'dhoti' in the next
when I am fall over and expose all my shocking to man and female women
on plateform. I am got leaved at Ahmedpur station.

This too much bad, if passenger go to make dung that damn guard not
wait train five minutes for him. I am therefore pray your honour to
make big fine on that guard for public sake. Otherwise I am making big
report to papers."

This graphic report has historical value.

It led to the introduction of toil
ets on Indian trains.


  1. new perspective on something so 'everyday'... am used to 'all in one' bathrooms with 'gaping toilets'. yet can appreciate why it could be not so pleasing. ...

  2. This 'boiler' took me back many years. This used to be a standard fitment in my grandmothers place.

    And, especially so, that aroma that flowed from using of the 'boiler' ( as it was called )

    And that passage had some graphic historical value !!! Indeed !


  3. I remember this :bamba" in most homes in Pune- never saw it in Mumbai when I was growing up. And yes, using the ash with some coconut fibres was used to wash containers- so much for reusing and recycling.
    We could learn so much from our own past to make this environment sustainable!
    Of course you don't talk about using patraavalis and drona, kelichi paana to eat when one had too many guests and then feeding the cows the leftovers, plate and all. Talk about recycling withing our small worlds!!! Sigh!!!

  4. you took me back in time.Banging on the bathroom door was fun wasn't it?as for gram flour and turmeric my mother insisted that my daughters shall not use soap till they were at least 4 years of age and we bathed them exactly as you've described.And ash does clean utensils better than all these dish cleaning stuff and one's hands did not turn sore despite tha amount of washing done.

  5. I had to smile, because bathrooms are decorated and such - it's how I grew up. I don't care for baths, much prefer showers, because bathing in dirty water - makes no sense to me either.

    While on vacation, my sister-in-law showed Mom and I how to use bidet. Roda was so happy to see it, but we were a little surprised. She said she never used toilet paper until she came to the States and then claimed it to be unsanity.

    Different views and different lifestyles. I love learning new things and your blog always opens my eyes!

  6. What a lovely post! I just wanted to go into that bathroom you talkd about and take a bath with the ambehalad-malai-besan paste.

    And that misspelt letter sure had fire. But one should avoid too much ripe jackfruit on journeys, bathroom or no bathroom.

    I really enjoyed your fast(ing) food post also, almost as much as I love having sabudana vadas, but Blogger prevented me from commenting.

  7. I loved this, Suranga....because believe it or not, I love Indian baths. I love the cleanliness of the Indian bathing mood, and find it one of the finer aspects of the culture. Your post brought back so many memories of my first bathing experiences in India nearly 20 years ago....all wonderful :)

    And yes, I still have bucket baths... :))

  8. Nice story.
    have you noticed how we Indians have always given personal cleanlisness whatever it takes, but when it comes to public places, we treat it like S***.

  9. I found myself smiling at every line and saying "isn't this the bath room in my mom's place she is talking about!'
    But I do love those fancy bathrooms in fancy hotels never mind the fact that I am scared of dirtying them.
    And I fell off the chair reading the letter.

  10. When I traveled last year to China and Tibet, I came to deeply appreciate the American bathroom.

    It is all in what you are used to!

  11. Truly, Suranga, you have the amazing ability to write an extremely interesting post on any topic!

    Where on earth did you find this letter that made them introduce toilets on trains? It is hilarious!

  12. eminently readable blog.
    you have a way with words.
    keep writing.

  13. I love your posts about your country and this one was not only very interesting but funny and, yes, you do have a wonderful way with words!

    Enjoy your day!


  14. I will be back to comment on this. At the moment, I am putting out a Meme which feel free to ignore,

    I was tagged for a Meme and am tagging you. If you wish to play, the rules are at Rainy Day Thought.

  15. I love the indian style bathrooms and the cleanliness that you explained...but i love the idea of 'personalized' bathroom...when i discussed this with my mother with the idea of changing the current set up...i got the standard answer that i get when i try to change the standard practices of my home ; 'Do what ever you want when you have a house of your own!' i have reserved my idea of decorating the bathrooms for future !

  16. Wonderful writing!!

    BTW, in the B&W photograph, is that a 'rahat-gadge', or just 'rahat', in the background?

  17. Suchismita Thank you

    Kavi Aromawise, the geysers and stuff are not a patch on the "bamb".... And about the letter; I would have thought the British would have provided bathrooms in the first place, without fellows having to run like this..

    Ananva How nice to know that you are from Mumbai ! And yes what you say about recycling as a way of life in the old days is so true....

    HHG Sometimes I wonder what made us change from those wonderful green habits, to those that simply enable MNC's to rack up profits...

    Aleta I am smiling too. Tell Roda, I absolutely agree about the toilet paper.....

    Sucharita Totally gratified to learn that the post inspires baths ....:-) Thank you.

    Braja Thank you. And I didnt even mention chanting of stotras pertaining to Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati while bathing.... Bucket Baths ki jai ho !

    Indian Road Romeo Welcome to Gappa. And thank you. Your observations are spot on...

    Usha Thank you. I too fell of the chair when i first read the letter. :-)

    Lou So true. One needs to define the origin of one's coordinate system.....I myself enjoy the American bathrooms , though everything there is so predictable...

    Manju Like Salil Kulkarni said on yesterdays Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, things from your daily life need to inspire you....therefore, bathrooms !

    And yes, this letter was posted on one of our institute newsgroups...

    Sudhir Kekre Thank you.

    Sylvia, Rain,Radhika Thank you.

    samc I guess the gadge are those earthern pots that are attached to the horizontal bars on the rahat. Not terribly clear from this photo if the gadges are there. If this "nahani ghar" was adjacent to the well, the gadges would probably be there. But off hand, i guess its just the rahat.

    The picture with the text was taken from the Net. But thanks for asking this clarification...