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Bottoms up to the secret world of shitting

How we wipe our backsides holds profound information about individuals and entire civilisations

Firstpost print Edition

Each day, the president of the Hanebisho runs his hands over every single one the 150 rolls of exquisite handmade paper his workers make: they must make the skin feel, the company says, “like it is being swathed in silk.”

Imported wood-pulp, and water from the Nyodo river are fused together, and then slowly baked, so the paper rises to just the right texture. Each roll is signed by its maker; temperature and humidity are adjusted each day, so no day’s production is quite the same as the last.

Then, after artisans have hand-printed the rolls with exquisite designs, they are wrapped in Tosa Washi, a special Japanese paper from Kochi Prefecture, and placed in handmade boxes, with silver leaf lining the insides.

Finally, the paper is torn—and used to wipe the shit off the backsides of those fortunate enough to be able to pay $85 for a set of three.

Tempting as it might be to mock Hanebisho, the truth is anal hygiene practices tell us something profound about civilisations: attitudes to waste, the value of hygiene, and even aspirations. It’s impossible to conceive of Hanebisho emerging in a culture other than Japan, which privileges the pursuit of perfection in all it does.

Put simply, our backsides are a prism through which we may contemplate our world.

Indians of the pre-toilet paper generation, for example, will recall the common practice of packing a plastic mug for their first trip abroad: bidets and siphons were rare in the English-speaking West, and one-litre bottles of mineral water, ready to be sawed in half, simply didn’t exist. In any case, the prospect of paying hard-to-obtain hard currency for bottles of water would have appalled all but the most élite—and they had encountered toilet paper anyway.

The globalisation of Indian abroad could be measured by their anal hygiene practices: the journey ran from the mug giving way to toilet paper, to their packing soft four-ply on trips back home—at which point it would become clear they’d crossed the point of no return, and citizenship applications were imminent.

For many upper middle-class Indians, toilet paper is now an embedded part of their anal hygiene practices: market research firm Euromonitor reported last year that the tissue and hygiene segment is estimated to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 76% till 2020.

Each civilisation’s anal hygiene habits, the work of the scholar Zulkeplee Othman tells us, has been intimately associated with its milieu and environment. Late Neolithic peoples in Scotland’s Skara Brae, for example, used seaweed wrapped over bones. The Indus Valley cities used water; the ancient Egyptians sand.

Greco-Roman civilisation used the tersorium, a sponge mounted on a stick, to clean the buttocks after defecation. The sponge was then replaced in a bucket filled with salt water or vinegar—the later obviously harsher, but a powerful disinfectant.

Interestingly, early Western toilet paper—commercially marketed from the mid nineteenth century on—was purported to be medicated, with manufacturers claiming its use would have a beneficial effect for conditions like haemorrhoids.

Pessoi, oval, rounded pebbles also used in board-games, may have had dual-use as anal hygiene implements. The playwright Aristophones has the character Trygaeus mock an arms dealer seeking to sell a cuirass, a rounded piece of armour made by melding together a breastplate and backplate, thus:

Trygaeus: Well, that one will not make a loss for you, anyway. Give me that at cost price. It will be very convenient to crap in . . .
Arms dealer: Stop this impudent mockery of my goods!
Trygaeus (placing the cuirass
on the ground like a chamber pot, and squatting on it): Like this, if
you put three stones beside it. Is
it not clever?”

“Some scholars,” Philippe Charlier and colleagues wrote in the British Medical Journal in 2012, “suggest that ostraka, small pieces of broken ceramic inscribed with names that the Greeks used to vote to ostracise their enemies, could also have been used as pessoi, literally putting faecal matter on the name of hated individuals. (Examples of ostraka with the names of Socrates, Themisthocles, and Pericles have been found in Athens and Piraeus).”

The practice of using rounded stones survives in many desert regions even today. There are stories, possibly apocryphal, of toilets on flights used by migrant labour travelling from Pakistan’s north-west clogging with pebbles. Pebbles have also been founded in backpacks used by al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, suggesting a high degree of preparedness: searching for non-abrasive stones in the heat of battle, after all, is an avoidable risk .

Like so much in the ancient world, though, anal cleaning reached its most sophisticated forms in China and Japan. From at least 2 BCE, paper is known to have been wrapped around sticks, and used to clean the anus after defecating. The scholar, painter and calligrapher Yan Zhitui refers to the existence of dedicated toilet paper around 589 CE.

In Japan, the use of the chugi, a stick wrapped in paper, was widespread by the Nara period, or 8 CE. The chugi, interesting for both external and internal cleaning of the anal canal—a practice not known to have become widespread again until the contemporary explosion of anal-sex pornography.

Toilet paper received a less than enthusiastic reception in Europe when it began to be used from 1500 CE on. The novelist and physician François Rabelais made clear his contempt for the new-flanged technology in his masterpiece, Gargantua and Pantagruel:
I wiped myself with hay, with straw, with thatch-rushes, with flax, with wool, with paper, but,
Who his foul tail with paper wipes,
Shall at his ballocks leave some chips.

From the nineteenth century onwards, though, toilet paper became the norm across Europe, appearing in the colonies as an signifier not just of status, but even aspiration. Toilet paper holders known, for example, to have been fitted in palaces like Hyderabad’s Falaknuma—possibly introduced by royals educated in the West.

Even in those large swathes of Asia, where toilet paper was until recently unknown, it is today increasingly difficult to find a hotel toilet with a siphon—let alone a mug—in easy reach.
Imposing itself in our most intimate orifices, the global influence of the age of European empire is illustrated more graphically by the rise of toilet paper than other single metaphor.

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