The “Incinolet” is a sinister looking waterless toilet that resembles an alien spacecraft. Once you’ve finished on the loo, you press a red button and your business is microwaved to the size of a pea. This was just one of the peculiar sights I uncovered at the International Toilet Museum in New Delhi, India.
There are a few things that are synonymous with travelling to the developing world, none more so than the inconveniences of Montezuma’s Revenge, the Aztec Two-Step, the Karachi Crouch or Delhi Belly.
The average person spends three years of their lifetime on the toilet. This statistic resonates with me a lot on the streets of New Delhi, with its bubbling curries and street food, a kaleidoscope of herbs and spices hiding the secrets of the sub-continent.
On a sticky Indian afternoon, with a bit of a gurgle in my stomach, I find myself at the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets on the outskirts of New Delhi. The museum is a tranquil oasis of bowel memorabilia sheltered from the chaos outside.
Standing at the gates my enthusiastic guide, Dr Pathak, greets me dressed in beige and sporting a pair of eyebrows that would make little Johnny Howard envious.
Dr Pathak and I stroll around the manicured grounds, my guide stooping every now and then to admire the row of prehistoric squat toilets that guard the entrance to the museum like sunken gargoyles. As I jump over a gruesome contraption from the 9th century I look up to see my portly little guide hitch his pants up and demonstrate the most popular squatting position of contemporary India.
“Do you know who invented the toilet, Mr Ben? It was the Indians of course!”
he proclaims with a vaulting of his brows.
The first toilet is believed to have been built in 2500BC in Gujarat in Western India. It used the sit-down model, and dealt with the waste with a series of covered terracotta pipes and manholes.
Throughout the Middle Ages all sorts of latrines were developed to satisfy the fancies of the rich and famous. Dr Pathak places his hand on a throne and explains that King Louis VIII decided that getting up to go to the toilet was too much of a hassle when he was holding court. As a remedy to this inconvenience the king had a trapdoor inserted in his throne to allow secret defecation (I wonder how secretive it really was though?).
As we walk through the “French” section of the museum he looks at my feet and smirks. “Are you familiar with stilettos, Mr Ben?” He smiles. “And do you know why they were invented?”
I shake my head as he smiles again.
“Back in the Middle Ages in France when people still relieved themselves on the streets, cobblers came up with the stiletto so that well-to-do ladies could avoid the cesspools in the streets!”
I’ll never look at a pair of three-inch heels on a Saturday night quite the same way.
We wander through the poetry section of the museum; there is an entire wall devoted to poems, anecdotes and ditties on defecation. My favourite is the piece that details all the medicinal benefits, including the prevention of pleurisy, as a remedy for haemophilia and when horse dung is mixed with rose petals it is a cure for epilepsy (not too pleasant for the patient though).
Dr Pathak and I sit for a moment to soak it all in. For his final story he tells me of the man behind it all, the unfortunately named saint of sanitation, Thomas Crapper, a plumber for King Edward VII, who was the genius behind the first water closet.
It seems quite ironic: the invention of the toilet and the most majestic collection of lavatory paraphernalia are placed right in the middle of a country that disregards most of its conveniences.
Something isn’t quite right though. I look around the museum at the space age dunnies, secret thrones and ancient thunder boxes, and I’ve just got one last question: “Where is a toilet that I can actually use?”
Dr Pathak laughs and points down the corridor as I shuffle off holding my stomach and the curse of the Delhi Belly.