To the editors:
Cecil Adams’s recent response to a Baltimore reader on the topic: “Was there life before toilet paper?” [August 22] was not quite the rest of the story. Perhaps he’s gotten a little behind in his research, but there are at least a billion folks in South Asia and elsewhere who have never had their tush in contact with Charmin, Cottonelle, or, for that matter, page 207 of an old Sears catalog.
I became aware of these cultural differences on an early morning trip to Santa Cruz airport north of Bombay, India, many years ago. In dawn’s first faint glow, and halfasleep, I peered out the window of the airport bus to view a vast field covered with what appeared to be thousands of storks, or possibly giant egrets, apparently awaking. A closer inspection, however, revealed not birds but thousands of white-clad citizens, clutching their dhotis and saris as they stooped to perform an act common to all humankind. They had, as far as I could see, no folded pieces of paper, no catalogs, nor half-rolls of toilet paper, such as I prudently carried in my briefcase. Rather they carried-, with them small brass pitchers filled with water. These folks, I might add, were inhabitants of tiny, makeshift hovels clustered around Bombay’s outskirts- squatter’s settlements, so to speak.
Later in my trip I sought the services of an Indian physician for a persistent problem of an alimentary nature. He wanted, after I had described my symptoms, a sample for microscopic inspection. Observing my furtive glance for a handy roll of tissue, he sternly lectured me on the unhygienic way we Westerners tend to these matters in contrast to the Asian way of using water and the left hand. Thank heavens, since I am somewhat ambidextrous, I remembered to use my right hand while fishing in my billfold for some rupees to pay him and in shaking hands on leaving.
This addendum to Adams’s column may not end debate on such an important issue. But some readers may have felt he was trying to paper over the topic by confining his analysis to American and English experiences. More could be added, particularly on the muscular coordination and dexterity required to perform in the middle of an open field without, for example, rocking back on your heels-or something even worse and unspeakable. Practice, I gather, makes perfect. For further insights on these matters of physical coordination, consult Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar.
Since I am not sure whether you may want to use the above as filler, I did take the precaution of typing this on lighter weight paper just in case other uses came to mind.
Philip A. True