In India, solitude is an alien concept. A subcontinent bursting at its seams with over 1 billion lives, it is tough to escape the busy chattering, impatient honking, loud celebrations and fumes of sweaty bodies. Our cities are constantly expanding and mutating to accommodate the influx of eager souls with dreams to make it big. It’s common to see families huddled under flyovers, silently watching revelry of the young and the impetuous, drunk on life. Enterprise flourishes in all shapes and forms, in every nook and corner – from children peddling magazines to the memsahib in her chauffeured car, to the hawker stands that feed the hungry and the tired, to the glitzy shopping malls where the trendy head for a good time.
Even if you are living alone, with your family pining for you in a far off city, your newspaper-wala, milkman, home delivery guy, cleaning lady will make sure your bell is always ringing, their smiles, and inane talks filling the silence of your one bedroom apartment in a high rise.
In India, the concept of loving and caring is sharing your moments of sadness and elation with your hundred odd relatives and friends. A wedding ceremony is less about the couple about to begin a new life and more about guests who are out to have a good time. A battalion of Tais, Buas and chachera bhais, who appear in droves only during celebrations and mourning…
You can be lonely but never alone.
It’s only when you move out of your country, you experience solitude, until unless you were one of those who went to the mountains or hid in forests to seek the true meaning of life. As you step into the First World splendour with your Third World aspirations, the first thing you notice is the complete absence of noise.
When I travelled to Chicago some years back with my daughter to spend our summer break with my husband, I remember gasping at the picture perfect beauty of its suburbs. So pristine and beautiful that you could stand near the French windows for hours gazing and then wondering – why are there no people on the roads? Rows and rows of identical houses overlooking pretty gardens on tree lined avenues but not a single soul to behold!
Back in Delhi, all I had to do was step on my balcony to be engulfed by sights and sounds of life in its myriad emotions – the vegetable vendor surrounded by a bunch of women haggling in all their earnestness, the neighbourhood kids running around aimlessly, the chaat-wala announcing his arrival in a sing song tone, the local Romeo following the pretty young thing with his eyes; it was as if a blockbuster with the perfect blend of melodrama, action and romance was constantly playing outside your door.
Now in Brisbane, as I sit on my living room couch, occasionally looking up from my scribbling to stare at the river that shimmers and froths at its sandy banks, sailboats anchored in the middle of the river, bobbing up and down, the cars on the imposing Story Bridge moving noiselessly, all I can hear is the hum of the refrigerator and the sound of my breathing. No noisy neighbours, no loud clank of utensils being washed, no smiling face outside my door waiting to deliver veggies I had ordered on the phone….
Only this time, I have become comfortable with the silence that surrounds me. I do not look at the old lady with purple hair and a bent back walking on the streets alone, with pity in my eyes. Nor the elaborately made up Marilyn Monroe, sipping coffee at Starbucks, staring at nothing, a smile playing on her lips. You know they are alone, with no family to go back to, yet they don’t seem sad. In India, most of us tend to look at the lone man at the theatre or the girl sitting alone at the café with sympathy, wondering - in this city of 17 million, how is it possible the she has no one to talk to? Rarely stopping to think that it could be out of choice and not compulsion!
When we move to a new country, we leave behind everything that was near and dear to us and carry only their memories. Home is no longer a place but a state of mind. What we took for granted becomes a luxury. But like our great cities, we expand and transform, learn and unlearn to adapt to new accents, customs and cuisines. Away from friends and family, we face terrible periods of loneliness. But it also makes us eager to make new friends who become our family to share our little joys with.
This is the first lesson we learn – getting used to change which becomes the only constant in our lives. Because we know the sooner we get used it, the happier we will be.