A little solitude now and then is good for the soul and good for the pen. And it is not only writers who need it. We could all do with a few hours of solitary confinement — not in a jail cell but in a room or quiet corner of our own choice. How else can we get to know ourselves?
Not everyone is in a position to renounce the material world and live in a humble dwelling on the banks of the Ganga above Rishikesh to meditate and ponder upon the meaning or absence of meaning in our transitory existence in a world that has been mismanaged by its human tenants.
Children have to be fed, marriages brokered, and cars topped up with petrol. The great saints and sages looked to the mountains for solitude. The great poets and prose-writers — Tagore, Wordsworth, Stevenson, Melville, Conrad —turned to the rivers, lakes, seas and oceans. The mountains are static, but water is always on the move, there is no stopping it.
Probably the best work in solitude was Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Here was an intelligent man who, shipwrecked upon an uninhabited island, had solitude forced upon him. Most men would have gone mad after a year or two of complete isolation. But Crusoe learnt to adapt to the conditions and even appreciate his enforced solitude. The arrival of Man Friday proved at first to be unsettling, but their chemistry proved to be just right, and loneliness became companionship.
Solitude is a condition appreciated only by a small minority. It seems to me that most people are scared of being left on their own, for almost every human activity is carried out on a crowded scale.
As a boy, inspired by Thoreau’s Walden, I sought out a Walden pond for myself, and discovered a wilderness outside Dehradun where a hot spring emerged from a dry river-bed. I would go there often on my bicycle. There were no other visitors, just occasionally a village boy grazing his cows.
Last year I visited the same spot, although no longer on a bicycle. Hotels, restaurants, a veritable bazaar had come up on the banks of a tiny stream, but of the original hot spring there was no sign. In shock, it had probably gone underground.
In order to protect yourself from solitude or finding yourself on your own you can now equip yourself with a ‘selfie’ and take pictures of yourself with waterfalls and cheering crowds in the background; but take care you don’t step backwards into the waterfall.
Strangely along the road below my mountain home I encountered a smart young person who wanted to take a picture of both of us with her ‘selfie’. I could hardly object. So we sat on the parapet, cheek to cheek, while she attempted to get us both in the frame of her camera. All she got was her pretty left ear and my red nose, but I didn’t mind, it was a long time since I’d sat cheek to cheek with a pretty young thing on a parapet wall. There’s something to be said for ‘selfies’.
And so I take issue with a gentleman on a TV programme who maintained that ‘selfies’ were a form of narcissism, denoting some form of psychological deficiency in the owner’s make-up. To me, they appear to be quite harmless fun things, provided you don’t fall off a cliff or a high-rise building.
The mirror — especially that dressing-table mirror — is probably the most addictive form of narcissism, and it has been around for centuries. “Get away from that mirror!” my aunt would scream at me whenever I lingered in front of it for several minutes, trying my best to train my hair into a puff similar to the one sported by Dev Anand or Alan Ladd or whoever was the big male star that year. Nowadays you don’t see stars with puffs, possibly because they go bald rather early. Must be all this pollution.
But to return to solitude, the only place where I can find it is in my own small room looking out over the mountains. But even here I must keep my windows closed if I am not to be joined by the monkeys.
There’s one particular monkey that has been looking at me speculatively through the window glass all morning. Being short-sighted I can’t tell if it’s a male or a female, but it makes no difference, they all have a strange desire to make off with my pyjamas. Is it because I like brightly coloured pyjamas? Or is it some sort of Freudian simian obsession which can only be explained by that psychologist on the TV channel?
Anyway, my pyjamas disappear at the rate of one a month. I have only to leave the window open for half a minute, and away goes my pyjama, over the trees and far away.
There must be a part of the forest where a whole tribe of rhesus monkeys is prancing around in my many-coloured pyjamas. They are probably having their own fashion show.