Saturday, March 27, 2010

On Bathrooms, And Trains

toilets; aesthetics of

Thanks to a winged friend who shall remain nameless, I have recently come into possession of one book by name of In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. It is fairly short, more a long essay than anything else. I first heard about it in the preface of What is Good? and the couple of paragraphs that Grayling quotes was enough to whet the appetite and shamelessly ask said winged personage to lug one copy across the Atlantic and the Eurasian landmass.
The essay consists of 16 sections that discuss traditional Japanese aesthetics in contrast with change. Comparisons of light with darkness are used to contrast Western and Asian cultures. The West, in its striving for progress, is presented as continuously searching for light and clarity, while the subtle and subdued forms of oriental art and literature are seen by Tanizaki to represent an appreciation of shadow and subtlety.
I have finished reading about half of it, and so far so good. Tanizaki does tend to get a little too hi-falutin' about the Japanese way of life, a mildly annoying undercurrent of "Oh it was all so nice in the good 'ol traditional days..." permeates the thing. And he is a little too critical of "Western progress", but beyond that no major cribs. Some parts are just lovely. And when he gets into the aesthetics of toilets I am, of course, spellbound.
The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe the sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, "a physiological delight", he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.

As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kanto region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones.
And so on he goes, for a good 2-3 pages.

The whole thing immediately whisked me back to holidays at the grandparents' house in Marx's own country. Some of the toilets there were outside the house, you had to walk through the garden/grove/plantation (vaLappu for the Mallu unchallenged) to get to it. In June and in the winter, the ground is wet and squelchy all the time, and every nook and cranny is just crawling with life in every form imaginable on 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10++ legs (and sometimes slithering greenly over the undergrowth on its belly). A trip to the loo was a minor expedition, and once safely ensconced and enthroned inside, you could watch a patch of blue sky, framed by the tiles of the eaves and by coconut fronds and betel nut leaves. Or watch the rain come down in a din, sousing all of existence.

Of course, this is all a 20-20 hindsight thing. As kids I think we mostly hated this whole business of having to go outside the house, and having to put up with assorted insects and amphibians while abluting (yes, it's a new word). Why couldn't we just have vitrified tiles and a flush and all that city stuff, we wailed. Going to the loo at night was an endeavour that scared the bejesus out of us. It was bad enough that you had a decent probability of copping it from snakebite, but when assorted relatives had filled you with stories of the brahma rakshas (The Ghost Formerly Known As Strapping-Young-Namboothiri) in the temple peepal, you were, so to speak, emitting bricks, as opposed to what you wanted to in the first place.

Photos of ye olde countryside house are appended for your kind information.

toilets; cleaning of

There is only one secret to cleaning a toilet (or any bathroom, in general).


You must desire it deeply, uncompromisingly. With the sort of steadfastness that only an Ekalavya type can possess. When you have decided to clean a bathroom one morning, it must seep into every pore, and take over your being. A whole morning, nay a whole day is nothing. You are willing to give up the brunch with friends, the afternoon snooze, the curling up with the book, the checking email, the cup of filter coffee, the long run, or whatever it is that is floating your nautical vehicle at the present time.

You have it in you, or you don't.

I have it.

Note carefully that this is very different from a general desire to keep bathrooms clean on a regular basis, which boatloads of people have. Even I have it, in a very general and non-obsessive way. We are speaking here of a primeval urge to clean. Scrub. On hands and knees. The mildew. Off every fucking tile.

This doesn't happen often. In my case it approximately coincides with return trips of Halley's comet. Nevertheless, the point is to DO IT. And DO IT SUPREMELY WELL. No amount of chemical help is enough. It's a mind game, it's a marathon. And the wall is really a goddamn wall that is laughing in your face.

My autobiography will be called It's Not About The Bathroom Cleaning Chemical Thing.

Indian Railways; obsessions hereto and thereunder

It is impossible to praise IRFCA too much. Pure treasure trove of information. I recently hopped onto their hyper-active mailing list. And I thought I was train obsessed. These guys take it to the next level. For example, here is the story of one thread that I followed. A couple of days back, a new train from Vizag to Kurla (more properly VSKP-LTT) was started.

Several days before this historic event, people on the list had begun to conjecture on

(i) What will be the composition of the train?
(ii) How will it get to Kurla, i.e. which locos from which loco shed will haul it on which stretches?
(iii) Mother of God, is it possible that the thing will be pulled by a diesel engine all the way from VSKP to LTT?!!!!!!
(iv) Taking point # (iii) further, is it true, oh-please-Lord-Laupathgamineshwara-make-it-so, that the same VSKP shed WDM loco will be used all the way to Kurla? I mean, will we have a darshan of diesel in Dombivili? That too an ECoR, VSKP diesel?

et cetera

And sure enough, when the train was flagged off, railfans showed up at stations along the way to gaze lovingly upon this miracle (this is just an ordinary superfast train, mind you) whizzing over the permanent way, past the platform.

In BZA (Vijayawada to you rail challenged), Jayakar took a photograph. In BMT (Begumpet to you all !$#@!%), Vrij actually filmed the train.

And from Kurla came a breathless email, the VSKP diesel was used all the way to Bombay!!!!

Regular readers will be aware that I am the sort of person who will die of joy upon seeing a VSKP locomotive in far off places, but what a joy to find a kindred gang. I love these guys.


Space Bar said...

any book (and post) that discusses loos has my whole-hearted approval. but you railmadmen are beyond comprehension.

i have discovered a very cool god for trains. will mail you.

wv: firdism - the worship of locoavians. but this definition is allowed to change.

kbpm said...

are you, per chance, into cleaning of train bathrooms. the motivation must stare you in the face (especially in the olfactory component thereof), strongly.

Kalyan said...

I've had experiences similar of the loo kind here in Chennai and only think of them as nightmares

Anonymous said...

While reading your write up, I recalled Josie Dew's book " A ride in the Neon Sun". She had described Japanese Toilets , in detail, with great humour.

Wish we too had them here in India.


S. said...

Oh I LOVE "In praise of Shadows"! :-)Tanizaki Jap fixation aside... It irked me as well... but I guess you need to live with it after a point because he's arguing for a wabi sabi kind of ethic that is so different from what the "West" imagines of beauty.

He also does this with his fiction, but a little more tolerably... his stories deal with societies in flux and the changing nature of (very warped) relationships and that kind of thing, and you can't help but be slightly sympathetic to someone who wants to hang on to the past.

Ludwig said...

Well, it's only been a year since the blog post, so I might as well respond.

[SB] I don't think you have vouchsafed the cool god.

[Bunkportmaine] No. Like I said, it is not about randomly wanting to wake up at 3 a.m., go for a short long run, and return to keep everything clean, plan everything etc.

[Kal] Isn't it? Somehow the pleasing gloss of a childhood memory cannot obscure the terrors of the outdoors...

[Vetrimagal] Whither art thou?

[S] It is a nice essay, but he is a bit too ooh-aah about things Japanese. This did not strike when I read the bit from Grayling, but only when I read the whole thing. But you're right, living with it is what is perhaps required.

It is one screwball odd un-parseable country, aesthetics-wise. As I had occasion to think (cough, cough) when I saw the garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto and later saw pink teletubby type things in museum shelves... I have thus far carefully avoided his fiction (mainly because I didn't know till now that he wrote any), Murakami provides enough delight and weirdness in one handy package.

S. said...

Still, you cant deny that a sense of aesthetics is deeply ingrained into the odd screwball :-p I like it.

Murakami is nice, but Jap fiction has so much much much more to offer. Tanizaki is right up there, fiction wise. He's much before Murakami's times and he doesn't write fantasy. He doesn't even write as minimistically as you'd expect of a Jap guy (Kawabata for eg). In that sense, he's probably not what you'd identify with "Jap" Jap fiction... if it weren't for his gorgeous, dark, completely warped stories of human relationships that somehow seem naturally Japanese. If you go on the look, then Naomi was my first, and I still like it the best.

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