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It has started raining in Mumbai and the pleasant climate after three months of scorching heat, enlivens the spirit. Will attempt to write a few words about this book.

Since I have been staying alone for the past few years in Mumbai, I have gone back to “Sitar” which I could not practice in NY for a couple of reasons: Firstly, I missed the space needed for practicing any instrument. Staying with two other guys in a flat was not particularly conducive to playing an instrument without distractions. You have to actively seek out “No Distraction time” so that you don’t cause any distraction to others -:) . Well, work + academics + programming left me with little energy to pursue “Sitar”. Secondly, I could not afford a teacher. Self-study / Self-training in any field requires you to be skillful up to a certain level/ be an apprentice for some time, after which you can be in a cruise-control mode in exploring stuff. I wasn’t anywhere close to that stage and a Sitar teacher was imperative to my practice. Some quick calls to a craigslisters revealed that they were too costly for me to even think of regular classes. Thanks to my decision to head back to India, I found two things in my life needed to play any instrument, a certain level of solitude & a teacher. The former, I deliberately opted for (don’t know how long I can be in this state), the latter,”finding a teacher”, happened out of a chance conversation with someone.

I don’t know why I am writing about “Sitar” when I had meant to give a quick summary of this book. May be, I associate solitude with two activities, “Playing Sitar” and “Doing Math/Stats”. I have found that these two activities demand alonetime, atleast for me. I really appreciate people who can do these activities despite the distractions in their lives. In the process I have actually started enjoying solitude. In fact it has become addictive too!(don’t know whether it is harmful or harmless).

Ok coming back to the book; The book has been on my mind since quite some time. It recounts the experiences of Doris Grumbach, an American Novelist , who takes up solitude for 50 days. Well, actually it is a “forced “solitude. The “forced” word here refers to the situation when the author’s companion Sybil , goes away to procure books for her business to another town for an extended period of time.

Instead of filling it with regular distractions, Doris Grumbach decides to embrace solitude and see what that leads to. When asked in a Charlie Rose interview, why she decided to do so, She said, “ I wanted to spend time alone as I had never spent time alone for many decades. Parents, spouse, kids, neighbors, etc put innumerable covers on me and I never had a chance to look at what kind of person I am, once those covers fell off. How many layers that are not me that I have covered up? How much it is in me that can sustain me, without any human contact? . I was seeking answers to some of these questions”.

Cutting off human contact is unthinkable for many. Reminds me of the words of Anne Lindbergh who says in her book “Gift from the sea”:

We seem so frightened today of being alone that we never let it happen. Even if family, friends and movies should fail, there is still the radio or television to fill up the void. Women, who used to complain of loneliness, need never be alone anymore. We can do work with soap-opera heroes at our side. Even day dreaming was more creative than thisl it demanded something of oneself and it fed the inner life

For 50 days, Doris Grumbach cuts off human contact, TV, newspaper to a large extent and explores the experience such a state provides. She restricts herself to books, music, writing and an occasional NPR news diet.

I found something ironic in a way she mentions at the very beginning of the book that knowing that this solitary period was only a temporary phase helped her embrace it . So, does one have to think that “this solitude has a termination date” to make it easy to enjoy it? In fact I think it is contrary to that kind of thinking. A frame of mind that you will be alone for a week(for example), and all the noise and clutter will be back in to your life in a week’s time Vis-à-vis A frame of mind where you are prepared to be face solitude for as long as you please give vastly different experiences. So, may be the author is cheating her mind to get in to this mode where she can make allies with silence and solitude. In the Charlie-Rose interview, she mentions her time alone as “seductive way of living”, the reasoning being that you tend to appreciate art / beauty/ little things much better in solitude.

This content of the book is pretty random and is reminiscent of a person facing solitude for the first time in life( whose thoughts & actions are very often desultory). It takes one some time to settle in to solitude. In the same way, this book made me feel that the author is trying to grapple with the alonetime and trying to find sanity in this situation of “forced solitude”. The book is interspersed with a good collection of reflections that makes this book a worthwhile read. Some of them that I found interesting are:

  • Order, Sequence is the secret of being alone
  • The true purpose of art is not to create beautiful objects. It is a method of understanding, a way of penetrating the world and finding one’s place in it, and whatever aesthetic qualities an individual canvas might have are almost an incidental by-product of the effort to engage oneself in this struggle, to enter in to the thick of the things
  • The reason that extended solitude seemed so hard to endure was not that we missed others but that we began to wonder if we ourselves were present, because for so long our existence depended upon assurances from them.
  • Loneliness is the poverty of Self, Solitude is the richness of Self
  • In the context of painting : It is only when an object exists in our lives for no other purpose than to be seen that we really look at it
  • In what odd places, we must go to find solitude!. A physician, I know told me that he did not mind one whit having an examination known as MRI, a diagnostic procedure most people hate because the patient is encased for so long, lying still in a machine that is almost tomblike. He said it was the only quiet time he had had in a long time, and he was able to think very well in the stillness and silence the examination provided
  • I realized how much more I was aware of my vices(envy, gloating, egotism) when I was alone. In the presence of others, it was possible to ignore them , or even deny their existence. In Solitude, they are there, omnipresent and bountiful , unable to be dispelled by the unknowing flattery of kindly others
  • I learned that there is softness about being alone in the country, even the frozen, snow-filled country. The city is a multitude of rigid right angles forced down upon each other. But the country, even in the dead of winter , is composed of the circles and arcs and ovals of blessedly unpopulated, almost empty space
  • People who cannot bear to be alone are the worst company
  • The less one talks, the more one thinks? Is thought internalized speech rising from and then directed back, soundlessly, in to oneself? Talk uses up ideas, although others have told me that they find it profitable to talk out their ideas and plans for a story because it clarifies their intentions. Not I. Once I have spoken them aloud, they are lost to me , dissipated in to the noisy air like smoke, Only if I bury them, like bulbs, in the rich soil of silence do they grow.
  • “We live, as we dream – Alone “ – Joseph Conrad

The book ends with the author, a novelist well past her age, finding her creative muse again, and getting back to writing non-fiction.

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