Alone, not lonely

Veena Venugopal | Updated on August 14, 2014 Published on July 25, 2014

So I sat, as the mist rolled in and out, and read my book   -  Shutterstock

Veena Venugopal

In order to acquaint me with myself, I headed up the hills to Mukteshwar, far away from life

Last weekend, for the first time in my life, I went for a holiday by myself. The whole exercise began when a friend and I decided to head out for a weekend ‘soon’. But then we could never arrive at a set of dates that was suitable for both of us and as the promised weekend kept slipping away, I just decided I would go on my own. My first thought was to go to Goa, a place I know well, where even though I would be alone, it was unlikely that I would be lonely. But then, I thought, if anything, I should be practising being lonely.

My refrain in my daily life is that I have too many people to manage. A kid, a nanny, colleagues, friends and the assorted set of characters who are a source of both convenience and annoyance. Yet, of late, I have been fretting that I will be 60 and alone. It isn’t that I am worried that I’d be discovered dead days after the event, when neighbours complain of a foul smell coming across the corridor. (If that happens, I only hope I'm dressed well and my hair looks alright.) No, what worries me is that I would be alive at 60 and literally, just bore myself to death. And so it occurred to me that I shouldn’t go to Goa, where I know residents and restaurant owners and where I can follow my own footsteps from many trips past and stay within the realm of the familiar. In order to acquaint me with myself, I headed up the hills to Mukteshwar.

The only aspect of the holiday I planned for is what I would read. Memoirs, I decided, and packed Joan Didion, Joanna Rakoff, Lynn Barber and Karl Ove Knausgaard. The rest, uncharacteristically, I left to chance. My first stab of joy at being alone was when I was held up on the road for two hours as the Public Works Department removed a fallen tree from the road. If I was travelling with the child, this would have been a source of endless stress — “when are we going to get there”, “I’m hungry”, “I’m bored”, “I need to use the bathroom, and now”. Since I had nothing to do and no one to meet, I just sat in the taxi and read my book, without once craning my neck to see if the traffic had begun to move.

When at last I reached my hotel, it was to a beautiful view of a green reserved forest in the foreground and snowcapped mountains in the back. There was no one around for miles and because it was a wet weekend, no one else in the hotel either. It rained endlessly on the first day, which absolved me of even making a pretence of going out for a walk. So I sat, as the mists rolled in and out, and read my book. When I paused, I could, it seemed for the first time in a long time, actually hear myself think. Since I was so far away from it and because I had nothing else to do, I could pick my life apart and truly analyse it. I discovered, to my surprise, that there was no aspect of my life that I disliked.

In fact, in the city, the real problem is the utter lack of solitude. It isn’t now just family and a set of close friends that you have to deal with. It’s the 1,200 people in the phonebook, 800-odd Facebook friends and the thousands of Twitter followers, all of whom have a story and an opinion, which you are privy to, whether you like it or not. With media and social media, everything seems too close to home, every event something you need to discuss endlessly. Without second-by-second accounts of terrorism, wars and rapes — there was no reason to feel the general sense of helplessness at everything that’s going on in the world, which to be honest, was beginning to be my default state of being. I was tired of having to feel and express my outrage, exhausted by manufacturing an opinion on everything from Gaza to Ghaziabad. Left to myself, I discovered, I was more than okay, I was happy.

In the library at the place where I was staying, coincidentally or otherwise, I found a book called Solitude: A Return to the Self. Its author Anthony Storr writes, “many ordinary interests and the majority of creative pursuits involving real originality continue without involving relationships. It seems to me that what goes on in the human being when he is by himself is as important as what happens in his interactions with other people.” In a world that is now over-saturated with interactions with other people, I dare say, the former is in fact, more important.

Even though mine was a relatively short spell with it, I am a convert to the ‘renewal’ aspect of solitude. After four days, when I arrived back in Delhi, introduced as I now was to myself, I felt surer of my motives and actions. And, certainly, much calmer. Which is why, I won’t end this by telling you about the man I elbowed because he tried to grope me at the Delhi railway station and instead will leave you with these lines by Wordsworth:

When from our better selves we have too long

Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,

Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired

How gracious, how benign, is Solitude.

(Veena Venugopal is editor BLink and author of The Mother-in-Law. Follow her on Twitter >@veenavenugopal)

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Published on July 25, 2014
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