I have recently got a taste of things to come, and frankly speaking, I don’t like it much.
There’s a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Alone is being just by yourself; lonely is when you long for company and can’t get it. One often wants to be alone; indeed, there are times in everyone’s life when one yells at other people ‘Just leave me alone, will you?’ I have needed a lot of alone-ness in my life, always: when I am reading, writing, thinking, watching movies; even, sometimes, when I only wanted to sleep. My family has always been good enough to me in that regard – they have respected and granted my need for private mental space. If anything, I have had too much of alone-ness, which means loneliness; not wanting to be alone but having no choice. One can be very lonely in a crowd, mind you; indeed, one philosopher has aptly described the denizens of all modern metro cities as ‘the lonely crowd’…
Most people always need company; some prefer to have much more of solitude. I guess it makes me kind of weird that I have always had an equally strong desire for both. So on the one hand I have long avoided socializing, and on the other, I love teaching primarily because it gives me the chance of getting warm and close with so many people, new people year after year, and forging ties with some that last a long time. In the process of reaching out I have tried to be as intense as genuine; certainly far more than any other teacher that I know. It has scared some, exasperated others, made some suspicious and wary, while others have laughed, or simply ignored me as a crank. No matter. While there have been nasty surprises and bitter experiences and heartbreaks galore, the rewards have been deep, many, and diverse (indeed, if I told all, most people of my age would think it’s a fairy tale!): I wouldn’t change it one jot. And I am still hungry for more.
The job of a news reporter on the beat is always irregular and hectic, without a time-bound routine, and requires running around to all sorts of places most of the time. I got a taste of it and gave it up early in my career: I decided I liked to spend much more of my time at home, and at my own will, than that kind of life permitted. I am glad I could make up my mind early. Those who have bad wives and in-laws at home are glad if they can stay away most of the time, but I know too many men who live far away from home simply for the sake of having to make a living, and hate it. I am gladder still that the next job, at which I spent fourteen years, was that of teaching at a school, and that too, barely ten minutes driving from home. It was hard work, teaching school in the daytime and giving tuition at home in the evenings every day, but it gave me a lot of time at home, that was the important thing. And once I got married, things became even nicer, so I wanted to be at home most of the time: in fact, soon after learning that my wife was in the family way I stopped going to other people’s houses to take classes, and that’s been 17 years now. Once my daughter was born, I was only too happy to devote most of my time to the hearth, and God knows how richly I have been compensated. What made my life very unusual was that when I gave up that last salaried job eleven years ago, my daughter was barely past five, and ever since then I have been a complete home-body. Which means that, given my intense instinctive desire for and efforts to make a joyous family life, my wife and daughter have seen and got more of me than most wives and daughters do. I have enjoyed every minute of it – eleven years have flashed by like a dream – and I trust and pray that they have, too.
There have been bad patches every now and then – which family doesn’t have some? – but there has also been fun galore, chatting, reading, discussing books, watching movies together, playing games, making things with our own hands, going travelling all over the country again and again, planning things to do, swimming, shopping (yes, shopping too!), dining out, handling trouble… we were so close-knit a unit that we didn’t really need anybody else to stay occupied and happy, not even relatives, in all these years. The best proof of which is that even my wife and daughter have needed to socialize far less than most people do. And in between there have been so many connections built up with old boys and girls, face to face and over the phone and via internet, that my life has always been full. Which is why it is nothing less than weird that I keep aching for company. Shakespeare said of one particular and very exceptional woman that ‘she makes hungry where most she satisfies’. I can say that about all humankind – and that, despite all the worthless and disgusting and disappointing people I have known.
There can be no more telling fact about how much of a home-body I have become than that in all these eleven years there has been one solitary occasion when I went somewhere out of town without wife and daughter. And this despite their urging me again and again to go visit people I love and care for who live far away – not just in this country but abroad if I so wish. I just never felt a strong urge to do that: nothing else stops me, really, I know. My door is always open to anybody who wants to see me, as thousands of people have found out, but I rarely visit anyone, nor go to clubs, parties and festivals, unless my wife and daughter drag me along, which rarely happens… and all this time, I have been content.
So what about the line I started with? Yes, I’m coming to that. My life is at a turning point once again, I think. And that is because my daughter is going away.
A few people already know; to a lot of people it is bound to come as a surprise. That is why I put that line in a paragraph of its own, and put such a long preamble before it.
She’s grown up now, of course, and it would have soon been time for the fledgling to leave the nest for good and make her own way through the world. I had been struggling to reconcile myself to the thought for quite some time: after all, intellectually speaking, I have only scorn and derision for parents who refuse to let their children grow up. I know just how grown up I was at 16! And besides, I live in an obscure one-horse town anyway: there have never been any prospects here, so all but the stupidest and laziest of my students leave, never to come back, because there is neither a chance of a good education here nor decent jobs. This is neither Delhi nor New York that I could have sensibly asked her to stay back all her life. Only, she’s decided to speed things up a bit. She’ll go to college in 2015, so I thought I still have some time, but now she’s planning to go off to Calcutta already, and that means, of course, that the missus is going to be there much of the time too, and it’s going to happen within a couple of weeks, and though this has been the talk for several months now, I find myself all unprepared. “I suppose in the end the whole of life becomes an act of letting go...” says the eponymous narrator in The Life of Pi played by Irrfan Khan, and I understand. Eventually, as I have observed in my Meditations, you have to let go of your own life itself. But training for it is hard, especially when you love: Vidyasagar makes the sage Kanva weep when his foster daughter Shakuntala is about to leave for her husband’s place, ‘bujhilaam sneho oti bishom bostu’ (love – in the sense of strong affectionate attachment – is an awful thing indeed). As I was telling someone I also love with all my heart, the French say to part is to die a little.
Oh, of course, Calcutta is just a few hours away, the two of them keep assuring me, and they’ll keep coming over, and then there’s always the phone and email and sms and video chat, and I have my work cut out every day of the week, so why should I be lonely? Does anybody understand why? And does anybody have words of consolation or advice for me, things not in the nature of useless platitudes?