“Watch out!” yells Amit. I step back in the nick of time; had it been a second later I would have been knocked down by the motorbike that was speeding by. I yell at the driver “What the HELL, I am walking on a pavement. YOU are supposed to be driving on the road!” But he has already sped away. I sigh and think –“This is Pune’s traffic at peak hours!” I look around as if watching the scene in slow motion after hitting a rewind button on a DVD. I am in one of the side lanes of Laxmi Road, the busiest street of the old part of town in Pune. The heat, the dust, the smoke and the clusters of shops in a typical Indian street are all there. But it is the noise of incessant honking and the screeching brakes of scooters, motorbikes and a few odd cars jammed together in the narrow lane that overwhelms. There is a tea stall and a giant garbage load right in the middle of the road (or so it seems) and there are people in a hurry everywhere. Amidst it all – a lone cow who sits comfortably unperturbed, despite all the vehicles bellowing away at her. I, the sleep-deprived and harangued person that I am, envy the cow – which seems to have found peace in all this noise and chaos.
Amit yells – “Are you coming in or not?” I look back with a start and rush towards him. We are part of the college magazine’s editorial team, and find ourselves on a Sunday evening outside the printers, for the third time that week. We are eager to finish the task at hand, but it seems to be a problem like to a multi-headed monster – shooting one head only gave rise to two others. The week long stress and chaos had begun to take its toll on my health and appearance and I find myself thinking – “I need a break, I just wanna break free from all this noise!”
A beautiful photograph, that is the wallpaper on my laptop, speaks to me. Every time I see the picture, I see myself in it as a Seeker. A seeker of solitude; a seeker of some kind of inner peace to become a person or being that is free, joyous and independent. It is a 4×6 inch photo of a silhouette of a girl knee-deep in water to the right of the frame, looking towards the sun as it is slowly setting into the hills, which is to the left of the frame. Her hands are on her hips, her back is straight and her head is held high. The hills are different hues – but always a darker or lighter shade of grey. The sun’s rays add brightness to the grey landscape, and a faint glow against her face that is almost about to cast a halo above her head. There are little bits of sunshine that sparkle and gleam in the waters below. The picture tells me a story – of a young girl who has a decision to make, and she is someone who has the strength and determination to see it through. But the overwhelming element in the picture is that of how the girl is enjoying the scene before her in the stillness of that moment. She is someone who is enjoying the solitude, aware of that moment that is hers and hers alone. She is aware that the beautiful sunset before her is not something one sees every day and so to cherish it that it may be etched in her memory forever. As Nathaniel Hawthorne once said “Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”
‘To sit down quietly’ – that is what I have truly begun to appreciate recently. I came by an interesting article lately that was published in ‘Psychology Today.’ While I have never been keen on psycho-analysis or self-help guides, this was one which hit the nail on the head. The author writes “As the world spins faster and faster—or maybe it just seems that way when an email can travel around the world in fractions of a second—we mortals need a variety of ways to cope with the resulting pressures. We need to maintain some semblance of balance and some sense that we are steering the ship of our life. Otherwise we feel overloaded, overreact to minor annoyances and feel like we can never catch up. As far as I’m concerned, one of the best ways is by seeking, and enjoying, solitude.” I realise that this is simple advice that emanates from deep wisdom – to be alone and enjoy some moments of peace and quiet each day.
Before I elaborate on the matter, there is an important distinction to be established right off the bat. There is a world of difference between solitude and loneliness, though the two terms are often used interchangeably. Loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation. It is possible to be with people and still feel lonely – a bitter feeling of being lost in a crowd. Solitude is a state of being alone without being lonely. It is desirable, a time that can be used for reflection, growth or enjoyment of some kind.
Two weeks after that stressful Sunday at Laxmi Road I find myself in the lap of an idyllic paradise and solitude. I hit the ‘Play’ button on my IPod but in the serene darkness, even the song is too loud when played through the earphones at the usual level I listen to it. I smile and think – ‘In the absence of the daily noise, the music needs to be softer!” I adjust the volume and lay back against the white lounging beach chair, to watch the full moon above and its glossy reflection in the waters below. Suddenly, there is a gentle breeze and the fragrance of Frangipani envelopes me. I close my eyes and enjoy it. It feels like a soft caress, blowing through my hair and the folds of my long white wrap-around skirt. I smile again and think – “There I was, in that noise and chaos – wishing for a break and now, here I am, enjoying a tropical midnight breeze on a silent moonlit beach, at the Full Moon Resort, Maldives!” And then I open my journal to the page where I had written about the events of the day. There is only half an inch of space left, so I enter the time and place; 12.13AM@ Laguna Beach, Full Moon Maldives and pen down “I am here- sheer bliss!”
That was March, 2008 when my mother decided that I deserved a long weekend at the Maldives as I had won an award at a Harvard Conference the previous month. Unlike our usual budgeted travels, my mother decided that we could splurge this time and booked a beach villa at a five-star resort, on an island to itself. The colour of the water is so distinct, a vivid and bright turquoise that sparkles in the sun, that often artists call it a ‘Maldivian Blue’. The resort was amidst magenta and red flowers, white sand, leafy foliage and there was a pleasant buzz of birds, butterflies, bees and other smaller creatures. Here was a noise of a different kind- but it offered solace, instead of chaos!
A bright white building housed a lobby and dining area which opened further to a pathway that led to the beach cottages, cottages-on-stilts, the spa, restaurants, the snorkelling lagoon and a small forest. Within minutes of settling into our room, I had begun to explore the place. I was told that I had been snoozing, even snoring, the entire travel time from Mumbai to Colombo and then onwards from Colombo to Male. But upon landing, the crisp air, lush greenery and the obvious vivid blue waters gave me this sudden burst of energy, that I wanted to run along the beach, shout and scream and splash about, climb trees, swim or do something exhilarating like flying as if I were bird freed from a cage. That night was when I did not want to sleep at all. I only remember wanting to feel a sense of total release and freedom – to forget that I had those deadlines, long nights and stressful days. It was my one night ‘out’ after what seemed a forty-eight hour day – but the exhilaration was such that I decided every minute of that weekend ought to be spent in exploring the island, rather than falling asleep.
I had spent most of the time outdoors and alone that weekend; my mother who had come down with a migraine, needed to stay indoors and rest. I was seen about the island with a cloth bag carrying a pen and journal, a camera, sunscreen, swimwear, my IPod and a bottle of water – either chasing a chameleon, capturing the gorgeous sunsets on camera or climbing the trees of dense bougainvillea in the day. Nights was when I would fill my journal with a bunch of ideas – some so crazy that someone might presume I was high on grass or under the influence of something stronger. But all I can call it, was a ‘high’ of feeling free for the first time in a long time.
Solitude is my time for some deep reading, critical thinking and creativity. I am inspired by great writers like Ralph Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who took some ‘time-off’ from their daily lives to find a quiet place to enjoy the beauty of nature in solitude. As part of a movement in American literature and philosophy in the late 19th century called Transcendentalism, they were critics of their contemporary society and its unthinking conformity. One needed to break away from the sense of ‘organised chaos’ they lived in, to challenge it.
Would they have felt a sense of freedom to write and express themselves better, minus the pressures of family, societal norms, work and the usual noise? Did they seek solitude just to see the phenomenon that is nature and life around them – flowers that bloom, seasons that change, butterflies fluttering by or a gentle gushing of a gurgling stream? I certainly believe so and seek that same sense of self-awareness that may be attained by a mere allocation of some time in a busy day to sit down quietly in a corner that is clean, green and quiet. Somewhere deep down, I realise that I have been a seeker of this awareness and solitude ever since that very moment outside the printers on Laxmi Road, having escaped death by an inch in space and time. I seek the means of enjoying the quiet and whatever it brings that is satisfying and from which I may draw sustenance. Solitude is refreshing; an opportunity to renew oneself. In other words, it replenishes each of us.
Hara Estroff Marano “What Is Solitude?” Psychology Today. 01 July, 2003 Web- last reviewed on May 31, 2011.
“Transcendentalism” – Stanford Academy of Philosophy. Web First published Feb 6, 2003; substantive revision Mar 7, 2011