Bathroom

Buddhadeva Bose

Translated from the original Bangla by

Hanne-Ruth Thompson






My bathroom is tiny. So tiny that even a small person like me may feel that a little more room for stretching arms and legs would have been nice. If God had built me like the honourable Chesterton I would touch one wall with my stomach and the other with my back, and stretching out my arms sideways I would be able to touch the other two walls. Apart from that, because there isn't much space anywhere else, pots and pans are scrubbed out in here, and the place is not always as clean as one might hope. From endless sloshings of water the floor has become permanently damp. In winter a biting northern wind blows through the room. In the hot season it's sultry - as soon as I have finished my bath I am covered in sweat again. Tolstoy, owner of a whole kingdom, once came up with the arbitration that a human being needs only a six feet measure of land. These days in this crowded city many of us have to make do with Tolstoy's recommended space. I give thanks to God that these six feet are available to me but I must admit that just occasionally I can't help wishing for just a few more inches of space in the bathroom.

I am a man of moderate temperament. My imagination is so unrestrained that, in order to keep a balance, I have very few needs on the physical level. I can make do with very little. To tell the truth, as long as I have a room where I can sit and lie down, a few books, and food, water and tea available at the usual times, I can spend my days happily. I have no need for going out, for seeing new things, for entertainment or distractions of the mind. In the world of today so many luxuries are available to so few people that, like many others, I could have become dissatisfied and unhappy. But the inherent limits of my desires saved me. It is not that the blows of the world don't touch me but they wash over and off my skin they don't leave a mark on the inside.

But I have to confess my own weakness here. In one area, there is a gaping big greed in my mind. There is one place where my desire for luxury is untamed and cannot be suppressed. God knows everything so there is no point in telling only half the story. I long for one worldly blessing and the fact that I am nowhere near getting it makes me feel bad at times.

If ever a huge fortune came into my hands the likelihood of this, as far as I can see, is of course very slim but if it so happened that a fortune from an unknown dead relative should by a circuitous route fall into my hands, or, for example, if some publisher, lying on his deathbed in terrible fear at the vision of hell-fire suddenly before his eyes were to bribe fate by writing out a big cheque in my name, if, by a fortuitous alignment of the stars, a big sum of money suddenly came to me, then first of all I would build a good bathroom for my house. Let the other rooms remain as they are, there will be not one flaw in the bathroom! It will be of a good, generous size, like a small living room. There will be a window to the east with opaque glass to let in the light. On the west side there will be a high, sloping window for good ventilation in the summer. And there will be a foreign-made enamel bathtub, where I will immerse myself in water up to my neck, where I will read some book of poetry or smoke a cigarette and think about whatever I like or make colourful drawings in the first few white pages of books, the kind of drawings that will have no resemblance to any ghosts or any living creature or thing of today's world. No one else will have a claim on this room. I will be able to stay there as long as I like and be there alone, separate from the world.

This! Just this! This is not too much, surely? But even if I give my imagination free rein, it can't dream up a greater worldly bliss. It's not much, nothing special, but how can I explain what happiness, what amazing happiness comes into my mind at the thought of this spacious, beautiful bathroom, this total sweet solitude?

But in today's world there are not many people who die without any relatives or who leave a big fortune. And today's publishers are made of such stern stuff that even their last breath is not likely to raise a conscience in them. So my dreamt-up bathroom is not likely to ever become real. Never mind, I thank God for any kind of enclosed little space with walls around it, where I can be completely alone.

A man has to be alone from time to time. Even we people of today who run cars and are run over by cars, we the designers and the victims of machines, even we need to be alone sometimes. And where in this town, in which distant outskirts can we find an obscure little alley where we can look around and say: "Now I am alone"? People and more people, the whole place is stuffed full with people, the town is bursting at the seams with this mass of humanity. In the streets and on buses, in the shops and parks, on the open roads and along the bank of the Ganges, however far you want to go, even if there is no-one around, someone can turn up at any minute. You can't think even for a minute that you have escaped the eyes and ears of others. At every moment you have to behave according to the rules of civilised society. To give vent to any mere whim or impulse is already a violation of other people's rights. Imagine if on a bus you suddenly felt like singing, you wouldn't be able to do it. If on the way back from the market your feet wanted to dance, you would have to restrain yourself and walk home slowly and sanely like a gentleman. And if on a solitary walk you say a word out loud, the youngsters hanging around the shops will clap their hands and start following you I dread this!

But people need to sing or dance, even those people who can't sing or dance! Sometimes we need to say something to ourselves, even out loud. So now and again we need to go and put ourselves beyond the reach of all ears and eyes. Occasional solitude is our most sacred birth-right. And that's why for today's people nothing, not cars or radios, or a holiday twice a year, not hospitals and court rooms or newspapers or vitamins, is as necessary as a bathroom.

And where else, where else can we really be alone apart from in a bathroom? Where else can I be completely myself? Where else can I go and, without fear and hesitation, close the door in the teeth-baring face of the world? Here I can forget everything: all the hassles, the embarrassments, the little accumulated hurts and injuries that come with survival, all of these get washed away with the water I pour over my body, get wiped off together with the superficial dirt on my body. Here living is free, pure and sacred. I don't have to look at anyone else's face, I don't have to consider anyone else's feelings. Here and only here can I do what I like. There is, in the whole of the civilised world only this one place where one doesn't have to be alarmed at stepping on anyone else's toes or annoying anyone. For instance, just as I have the right to sing, so others have the right not to have to listen to this dissonant disturbance. So when my mind fills with surging joy I have to keep my mouth shut. But at bathtime I have supreme independence. Here I can sing at the top of my voice, knowing that even if some of the sound should carry through the walls it will be drowned out by the rush of water. Because it is true that even those who can't sing have to sing occasionally otherwise the air will be choked out of their lives.

The days go by with various work and talk and thoughts: On such and such a date this has to be finished. Would it have been better if I hadn't said that? If I had followed my original instincts, this problem wouldn't have arisen. People come, they sit and talk, they go away. Whichever way I can I try to fit myself to their individual needs. What someone expects of me I try to deliver. The whole day long, in all honesty, I don't get chance to be myself. Always I have to hide behind one or another of my social masks. When I am on my own I am not really alone. Even then I can't throw off my social awareness, even then I am still in the world, a part of human society. At night when I lie in bed suddenly the grimace of the world appears as if out of the darkness, reminding me of the confused patterns of the whole long day and the thread carries on to the expectations of the next day.

But the moment I enter the bathroom and close the door, off with the clothes comes the social finery. What freedom then, what joy, what peace!
The water pours in a small stream, in a fine jet, in a curved line over the whole of my body. With my body glistening in the water I remain quiet for a moment, I laugh about what comes into my mind, I tell myself something and in the next moment contradict myself. My mind is quite as naked as my body all the layers of clothing, of necessity, of social rules and courtesy have peeled off. Just as I can muster the courage to look at my naked body, I am not afraid to indulge my unrestrained and free mind completely. The door is closed, thank God; for once in the face of the whole world the door is closed. As long as I don't open it myself, no one will touch that door. Here everyone will allow me to be alone. I am beyond all aggression and contagion. Here I am alone, I am absolute, I am king. And this is my kingdom, these few feet of wet space, my secret castle and in the whole world there is not enough concentrated force to break these walls down. The long, the endlessly long, arm of greed cannot reach me here. Not only of greed, of human cruelty, of stupidity, of all the little things in life that exhaust us, make us old and kill us.

Some of my opponents have at times referred to my writings as bathroom literature. In their minds bathrooms are associated with dirt and by saying this they want to express their heartfelt contempt for me. But sometimes the truth comes out by accident. Sometimes when we want to say one thing we end up saying the exact opposite. Clearly if my writings are bathroom literature then they must have some value. Whatever writing in this world deserves the name literature is bathroom literature. What isn't bathroom literature you can pick up, you can cast your eyes over it, you can read one or two lines of it and then you fall asleep. You can't do anything more with it. The bathroom is the sacred, enclosed temple where a human being is naked, free and alone, the root of all literature. For even though we read books in clearly printed letters, in beautifully bound volumes, the creation of these books requires uncertain shadows of thinking, secret whisperings and much dazed amazement, much idleness, lethargy and waste. Writing a book takes up a lot of space: for whatever is written, even more is not written, and the unwritten part is also of great value. What emerges out of the murky sea of unwritten stuff, the precise and bright form that appears is a book that can be read again and again and never be finished because every time it is new and just born. The words we see shining before our eyes come from a huge place of concealment, vague and shady and unknown to anyone but the writer, and he himself will soon have forgotten about it. How many thoughts were there in his mind or not even properly in his mind. He thought about something and suddenly he saw before him the soft sheen of a young girl's cheek. Day after day from the shady tunnels of memory such a light comes shining forth. All of this has been stored up in his mind and streams out from his porous heart. And whatever is left is transformed through some kind of magic and becomes the book. His thoughts have been broken up into little pieces and scattered everywhere. Up until the last moment the writer himself does not know what will be flung into the void and what will be lifted up into the book. He has given out so much, generously and abundantly, and suddenly in an unexpected corner a new light has started burning and taken him by surprise. And when we reach this dense, secret, glorious state then, at that moment, we enter the bathroom. If writers were able to remember fully and recount accurately, we would undoubtedly see that a lot of what they think they wrote through fire was actually first conceived in the confined humidity of the bathroom. All writing that is rooted to a source and writers are not always aware of this comes from the dark, from secrecy, from the bathroom.

Somehow or other, in whatever shape or form, may we have a bathroom. And if it is not a bright, lovely room equipped with all sorts of gadgets, at least let it be a small, miserly place all our own. So that we don't give away all of ourselves to the world but reserve a space where we can be alone, where we can sing, where we can talk to ourselves and where we can quietly look at the colourful, disorderly flow of our thoughts.



©Hanne-Ruth Thompson

Translated from the original Bangla "Bathroom", included in Hathat Alor Jholkani, and also in Prabandha-Sankalan by Buddhadeva Bose, Vol.1, Pg.213.

This translation was first read at an evening of celebration and readings for the Buddhadeva Bose centenary which took place on May 16, 2008 at the Nehru Centre, London, UK.



Published January, 2009

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