It was one of those lazy days that we had dreamed about when we decided to live in Bangalore for two years. The thought of having all the time we needed to do exactly what we wanted to do was part of the wonderment that preceded our trip. Right at this moment as I settled into my couch with the local newspaper, doing nothing was high on my to-do list.
Our apartment was comfortable in a very basic way. One nice feature was that it was very large. I had never lived anywhere before where there were three bathrooms. The interior of each of the bathrooms was almost identical. In a space measuring around four feet by five feet, there was a very small sink; a toilet, cozied up to and almost under the sink; and the shower, heated at the source by an electric water heater, that the Indians call a “geezer.”
However, all of these bathrooms had one major failing. When we took a shower in any of the bathrooms, everything got soaked—toilets, sinks, and of course the floors. Even the toilet paper, whose holder had a metal cover, would get damp.
When I first saw the placement of the drains, I thought that there had been a huge mistake when the bathroom was built. Why was the drain in front of the sink instead of under the shower? It seemed like the showers were an after-thought and the bathrooms had not been originally planned or built with showers in mind. I would have preferred having fewer bathrooms if one had a contained shower with some kind of enclosure or curtain; but this wasn’t a big deal. We certainly didn’t come to India for comfy showers.
A few weeks ago the geezer had gone out in one of the showers and my attempts to fix it had been supremely unsuccessful. It had appeared to me that since the shower was not on, I could carefully join two wires that seemed to have gotten disconnected. Just as I attached the two wires, I heard a loud explosive sound from somewhere down below, coming in through our kitchen window.
This window opened onto the center shaft of the building. The shaft allowed every sound from any apartment or other part of the structure to enter our space as though we were in orchestra seats of an acoustically perfect concert hall. Shortly after the thunderous blast, I saw smoke rising up the shaft. This sent us scurrying down to the ground floor. There, we met the property manager and his little dog. He was attempting to deal with the situation.
“Mr. Singh, what’s happened?” I asked.
“Someone has over-burdened the electrical system and we have come very close to a major calamity,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I responded, turning a bright purple with the realization that I might have been the offending party.
“What I mean, sir, is that we almost had a building fire. I have been able to limit the damage.”
“I’m sure it’s a coincidence but around the time of the explosion I was working on one of the geezers, connecting two little wires.”
I just blurted that out in the excitement of the moment. I’ll never forget the look on his face. It was a bit off-putting since he was holding a large rubber-handled screwdriver that looked like a potent weapon.
I was the cause of the electrical problem, he assured me, if I had any doubt. He then, rather meanly, said, “You must never do anything to repair your apartment without first calling me or the maintenance man.” I swear that his little dog, thankfully on a leash, lunged at me as he spoke.
The maintenance man was the older man who slept in a little 10-foot square room in the basement, with his young wife and baby. I had actually tried to have him help me with other problems in the apartment, but he spoke no English and didn’t seem to understand my normally effective sign language. Every time that I knocked on the door to his little abode, he was sleeping. His wife would answer, and then shake him awake. He would drowsily get up and give my attempts to communicate the barest attention.
Since that embarrassing, almost tragic electrical event, and after the deafening blast from the utility room, the daily sounds of music, crying children, yelling mothers, kitchen noises, and bodily functions that drifted into our kitchen window seemed insignificant. Insignificant that is, with the exception of the coughing and spitting sounds emanating from the apartment just below us every morning, punctually at 6:30 a.m.
Today all of the showers worked and the building’s electricity was functioning perfectly. I lay on the couch, reveling at the page 1 stories of the local newspaper that always seemed to set me to giggling. This was partially because of the strange subject matter of these stories, and also because of the colorful use of English.
Suddenly, an urge to purge came over me. It seemed that my toilet “habits” had changed a bit as a result of the fiery breakfast food that we had each morning. Particularly, it was the hot, hot soupy sambar that accompanied and made the breakfast idli wonderful. We had become habituated to these fermented rice cakes. Almost every morning we’d walk to our breakfast place, Tivoli Gardens, for some idli and chai.
We had just returned from breakfast and the sambar was doing its thing. Which bathroom should I use this morning? Selecting a bathroom was a small substitute for the little luxuries that were missing from my life since we had come to Bangalore. Many things that we had taken for granted in the United States were replaced by alternatives that were more troublesome or time-consuming, though nothing was horribly difficult. A typical example of this was the elevator in our building. We lived on the fifth floor and it only worked half of the time.
There was a qualifier to my freedom of choice. Louise had taken one of the bathrooms off the game board. I didn’t feel very good about this squeezing down of my opportunities; but since she didn’t use either of the other two bathrooms, I was still on the plus side of things, toilet wise.
I went into a deep contemplation, using all my resources to make a fast but well-reasoned choice of throne. There was the bathroom in what we called the guest bedroom. And there was another more centrally located bathroom just beyond the dining room. I hadn’t used that bathroom for some days, preferring the more private guest bedroom location.
There was no window in either of the bathrooms that I used; so they were always damp or musty. Today, because of my early morning shower, the guest room bathroom was soaked, so I opted for the closer and less used toilet near the dining room.
When I sat down on the toilet, newspaper in hand, the toilet seat buckled and cracked under my weight. The seat had always been a little slippy and slidy. I would often have to center it over the bowl. When it cracked, I felt the whole seat give way beneath me. I lost my balance for a moment and felt as though I was about to fall into the toilet. Just then, it seemed as big as Lake Tahoe. I yelled out in surprise and pulled my bottom up from the abyss in the nick of time.
My newspaper had flown out of my hand and distributed itself all over the bathroom. The whole bathroom looked like one of those urinals in a bar, where the daily sports section is posted, at eye level. I don’t appreciate this feature because, for some reason, I’ve never been able to read more than the headlines.
A defective, cracked-in-two toilet seat is not something that one expects in life. I’ve never contemplated a toilet seat of mine failing, especially when I am on it. I was getting used to the many Indian toilets that don’t even have toilet seats. Probably every toilet seat in India, at one time or another, has cracked in two, just like mine. No one has bothered to replace the darn things.
When I recovered my balance, I resorted to the other bathroom to finish my business. Then I went back to take a look at the broken toilet seat. It was a paper-thin, flimsy piece of molded plastic. It had cracked through and was almost in two pieces. I easily unhooked it from the rest of the toilet and while re-living my close call, brought it into the living room.
“Honey, the toilet seat’s broken.”
“The toilet seat’s broken?”
“Yes. It’s a piece of shit.”
“Did it just break of its own accord or did you jump up and down on it? Were you doing something funny in there?”
“Make fun if you have to, but this is serious. We have a toilet crisis on our hands. Where are we going to get a new toilet seat? I can’t even find where to get toilet paper.”
“Isn’t that a bit melodramatic and besides, totally untrue? Also, I’d appreciate it if you’d amend your question to say ‘Where are you going to get a new toilet seat?’ I’m not into shopping for toilet seats just now, dear. Catch me in a few years though. Maybe I’ll have a change of heart.”
“You probably think that I’m overly worked up about this situation. We can’t have our main dinner guest-bathroom be without a toilet seat.”
“We can’t, what?” She was incredulous and sarcastic at the same time.
“How unwelcome that would be to our guests. Isn’t it you who’s adopted the Indian way of treating our guests as God?”
“What guests?” she responded.
* * * *
“I’m happy that you decided to join me on this adventure. Or is it a quest?” I said, as we optimistically waited for the elevator to take us down to street level. I had wrapped the old toilet seat up in an opaque plastic bag but, as I held it under my arm, I was aware that it still looked like a toilet seat and I felt uncomfortable. We already felt unusual when we walked around Bangalore. It was a new experience being a minority in the place that we lived. Carrying the toilet seat heightened my feeling of being separate and different from the people who belonged here.
We decided to go up to Commercial Street, the very well-named street a few miles from our apartment. During our last visit to that street we saw that anything we could possibly want was available there as well as on the side alleys and parallel streets nearby.
As we got out of our tuk-tuk at the entrance to Commercial Street, we heard a low deafening roar coming from the street. When we entered the street, we saw that the noise came from hundreds of generators sitting on the sidewalk, one in front of each of the stores. There was obviously an electricity blackout in this neighborhood. The generators had become the back-up electricity source for the stores. Electricity outages had been a daily event since we arrived in Bangalore. In fact, in the neighborhood where our apartment is, there’s a conservation plan afoot to cut the electricity every day for a couple of hours.
“Can you believe this!” I said. “It’s completely chaotic and the heat from these generators is almost unbearable.”
“I can’t stand this noise either,” Louise said, turning to walk away from Commercial Street, in the opposite direction from the roar of the generators.
“We’re here now, and I want to get the seat, so let’s give it a go,” I quickly responded.
Louise shrugged, most likely re-evaluating her decision to come along.
While I could barely stand the din, I wasn’t going to be daunted from this crusade.
Commercial Street and the surrounding smaller streets and alleys were arranged so that all the stores selling a certain category of product were lumped together. Clothing stores were all clustered in one section, as were furniture stores, hardware stores, etc. The problem was to figure out who would sell toilet seats. Would it be plumbing supplies, or a hardware store or a bathroom shop, if such a store existed.
After some inquiry, we headed for the hardware district. This area was off the main Commercial Street and in a narrow alley that took us a little time to find.
Inside one of the bigger hardware stores, I pulled out the toilet seat from its plastic bag and asked the man behind to counter, “Do you know where I can find one of these?”
He looked at me with what seemed to be a mix of disgust, amusement, surprise, and total understanding, and said, “I wouldn’t be knowing that, sir. Would there be anything I can help you with?”
“Yes, I’d like to buy a toilet seat like this one. Where can I find it?”
He just shook his head in that Indian way. I interpreted this to mean he didn’t have a clue.
“Can you tell me where there are stores that sell toilets?” I asked.
He shook his head again, only a little more vehemently. I gave up and was ready to move on; but then someone who was a few feet away spoke to me. “Sir, I would suggest going to the plumbing supply stores that are closeby. You will be finding toilets there.”
Then, I noticed that, in the few moments that we were in the store, a small crowd had surrounded us. Everyone seemed to be leaning towards us, intent on listening to our conversation. To say that the Bangalorians were an inquisitive lot would be a major understatement.
“Thanks. Where are these stores located?”
“Very near. I can take you, please follow me,” he said. Without waiting for a reply he walked towards the door and we gladly followed.
The alley was so narrow that I could almost reach across and touch stores on both sides. It was filled with little businesses that were in spaces very similar in size to one of our bathrooms. I must be in the right place. We thanked our guide. He smiled broadly and walked away.
We walked into one of the small stores with a faded sign over its door, which read, “Super Sanitary Stores.” The proprietor, a pudgy Muslim man, wore all white with a knitted skullcap and a henna orange beard. The shop was filled with unopened cardboard boxes of varying sizes. They were stacked against the walls and squeezed into every bit of floor space, leaving a very small area where the three of us could stand. There wasn’t one product on display. Except for the sign on the door and the fact that we were in the plumbing district, we might have thought that this was a cardboard box store. We were delighted when he told us that he carried a complete line of toilet seats.
“Will you please have a seat.” He motioned to one of the boxes, big enough for two. “How sir, is it, that you have come here to buy a toilet seat?” I’m sure he’d never had a non-Indian, or possibly even an Indian, bring a broken toilet seat into his shop, given the many toilets without seats that we had already encountered. This store did not cater to the casual shopper and was probably more for people in the building trades who already knew what they wanted when they arrived.
The merchant seemed so jolly and interesting that we forgot for a while why we were there and settled in for a vibrant, interesting chat. It seems that the residents of this wonderful city are always ready to give a lot of their time and energy to connect with us, even a bemused owner of a toilet seat store.
An hour later, after some tea and good conversation, we left his shop with a new but seemingly very fragile seat. We felt sure that we would be shopping for toilet seats again with further opportunities for wonderful conversations with the merchant.
Joel Wallock is an attorney living in Aptos, Calif. He and his wife spent two years in Bangalore, and they can’t wait to return.
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