Come Into My Parlour

S Upendran

Welcome to my drawing room cum loo? Two rooms that are an integral part of every house/flat in India are the ‘drawing room’ and the ‘bathroom’ – sometimes, referred to as the ‘loo’. No matter how big or small an individual’s ‘residence’ is, these two rooms are a permanent fixture. The importance of the bathroom is understandable, but does one really need a ‘drawing room’? We Indians seem to think so because no house is ever complete without one. It is not uncommon for the proud owner of a new flat to say, ‘This is our drawingcum-dining room’? When you hear such a comment, how often have you been tempted to ask, ‘Really? I know for a fact you don’t draw, so why the heck do you need a drawing room?’ Quite often, I imagine. Unfortunately, instead of yielding to temptation by popping the question, we merely choose to bottle up the imp inside us.

Coming to the matter at hand, have you ever wondered why a house requires a drawing room? After all, how many of us actually draw? Even among those that do, how many use the so-called ‘drawing room’ for this purpose? Hardly any, I should think. What then is the function of this room? It is generally used when we entertain guests. If that is the case, why do we call it a ‘drawing room’? To understand this, we need to go back in time to 16th century Europe.

During the times of Shakespeare, when guests were invited for dinner, they were served their meal in the ‘dining room’. Men and women sat around a table, ate together, and made polite conversation. Once dinner was over, husbands and wives went separate ways. The men would either remain at the dining table or retire to the ‘smoking’ room. Here they would light up their cigars, drink something strong, and entertain one another by telling dirty jokes – something which etiquette prevented them from doing in the presence of ladies.

The ladies, on the other hand, went to another room where they could gossip; this room that they retired to was called the ‘withdrawing room’. They withdrew into this room after dinner. With the passage of time, ‘withdrawing room’ was reduced to ‘drawing room’.

While we are able to see the connection between a ‘withdrawing room’ and a ‘drawing room’, none seems to exist between a ‘bathroom’ and ‘loo’. To make the connection, we need to go back to Europe once again to a time when indoor plumbing was nonexistent. In India, during the good old days, when someone had to answer the call of nature, all he did was to fill his ‘lota’ and walk in the direction of the nearest field. Unfortunately, people in Europe couldn’t do this for two reasons: the cities were too crowded, and the cold weather made it impossible for them to saunter off into the fields to do the needful.

So what did Europeans do when they had to go? Instead of taking a walk, they stayed inside the house and deposited the contents into a big pot called the ‘chamber pot’. Once the pot was full and the rich smell of the unmentionables permeated the house, what did they do? You would expect them to dig a hole somewhere nearby and bury the contents in it. But this is not what the Europeans did. This race, which now gives us lectures on cleanliness and hygiene, used to throw the waste material out the window. Even people living in big cities like Paris and London sent human waste flying out the window. As a warning to those unfortunate pedestrians who were walking under the window or somewhere nearby, the person emptying the chamber pot shouted, ‘gardez l’eau’ – meaning ‘beware of the water’/ ‘guard against the water’. As soon as the people heard this, they beat a hasty retreat. If they didn’t, they got a pot full of… you know what! Later the warning was reduced to ‘l’eau’ meaning ‘water’. When indoor plumbing became a permanent fixture, the bathroom began to be called ‘l’eau’. Later, it changed to ‘loo’.

S Upendran teaches at the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad. He can be reached at [email protected]

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