The Map of my Village

The house was in an alley, set away from the winding street, and in that house were three communists who, during my first visit, sold me a book and several magazines. This was in my hometown, Patna, in India. I had left Patna some years before; I was a graduate student in cultural studies in Minnesota; now, back home for a month, I was looking for a topic to research for a course in which I had taken an incomplete.

In one of the Hindi magazines I bought that afternoon, I read a long poem written by a poet I hadn’t heard of before, but who, I found out from the biographical note, had been living in Patna for years. The poet’s name was Alokdhanwa. He, too, had been a communist or a communist sympathizer, writing poetry about peasant struggles in the land. The poem I had come across was titled “Janta Ka Aadmi” (“Man of the People”). As I said, it was a long poem, and it started with a series of electrifying declarations on behalf of poetry, a kind of bravely anti-aesthetic manifesto, and then it set its sights on what one might call media critique, denouncing newspapers that carried everything but the news:

Woh log peshewar khooni hain / jo nangi khabron ka gala ghoant dete hain / Akhbaar ki sansanikhej surkhiyon ki aad mein / Weh baar-baar uss ek chehre ke paaltu hain / Jiske peshaabghar ka naqsha mere gaon ke naqshe she bada hai. (They are professional murderers / those who strangle to death the naked news / in the shadow of sensational headlines / they show themselves again and again the serfs of that one face / the map of whose urinal is bigger than the map of my village.)

That single line—“the map of whose urinal is bigger than the map of my village”—enters my mind every time I step into a large, clean bathroom. This happens almost always only in the West, but it was in India, in Delhi, when I was in my late teens, that the idea of a spacious bathroom first filled my imagination. A friend of mine living in the same student hostel was a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford. He was interviewed at the home of a rich Parsi industrialist who was an Oxford Blue in cricket. Upon his return from the interview, my friend, whom I’ll call S., reported that he had peed in a bathroom where there hung paintings and whose walls were lined with shelves containing countless rows of books. But wouldn’t the water spill on the bookshelves and the paintings? The idea of a shower curtain, and certainly a bathtub, was quite foreign to me; but more foreign still was the idea of a large well-lit space whose purpose couldn’t be reduced to a filthy functionality. That unseen bathroom was my introduction to the larger world that my friend was entering.

And later, during that long-ago afternoon reading Alokdhanwa’s line for the first time, I was offered a map of my own private modernity: Your class was revealed by what you had—not in the bank, but in the bathroom.


Coda: I have lived for several years now in upstate New York. It is still in writing that I find the map of the world. While reading John Cheever’s journals, I came across his critical note about Nabokov and his “sugared violets.” Cheever had written: “The house I was raised in had its charms, but my father hung his underwear from a nail he had driven into the back of the bathroom door, and while I know something about the Riviera I am not a Russian aristocrat polished in Paris. My prose style will always be to a degree matter-of-fact.” Ah, the bathroom door! That solitary nail! How it appealed to me.

Style reduced to class, and at first it strikes me as true, and then, the next moment, not. There’s so much elegance in Cheever’s prose. Coming up with a phrase like “sugared violets” isn’t a plumbing job, whatever that means. And that image of the nail driven into the bathroom door—there’s a lot more than just the underwear hanging from it.