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Self in the city

Last week, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, I was at a bookstall in Janpath when it started raining. Everyone rushed into shelters. I rushed out into the emptied street..., writes Mayank Austen Soofi.

entertainment Updated: Sep 25, 2008 16:23 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi

Last week, on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, I was at a bookstall in Janpath when it started raining. Everyone rushed into shelters. I rushed out into the emptied street. The rainwater tapped on my head, trickled down under my tee, and soaked my jeans, making them cling tight to my legs. But I just walked and walked and walked and walked. The whole city seemed to be a room of my own.

However, who needs unexpected showers to discover one’s aloneness in this city where everyone looks at you but no, nobody actually looks at you. Here we have crowd, but no people; noise, but no conversation. I like it this way. Big, big cities let you be You. Unknown and anonymous. We are reduced to a single-digit number in a statistic of thirteen million. Perfect solitude.

But pity those who flee the city to seek seclusion. These honest, hardworking Delhiwallas patiently wait for the weekend, brave a Friday evening jam to Old Delhi railway station, spend a night rattling in Kathgodam Express.

In Kathgodam, they hire a cab to Nainital where they flee from fellow Delhiwallas (yes, there are many of them during weekends) by clambering higher towards the mountaintops. Once there —jungle, stream, cold wind et al, they try spotting a bird called solitude.

But oh, forget the bird. It is time to rush back. By Sunday night, our solitude seekers are back in their suburban apartments in Dwarka or Vasundhra — hungry and bone-weary. By Monday morn, the poor dears are back struggling with office politics in the high-rises of Nehru Place, Connaught Place, Gurgaon, Greater Noida or whatever.

My quest for privacy in a crowded world, however, doesn’t pass through Nainital, Mussoorie or Shimla. No, I don’t go to Lodhi Garden to have an urban communion with the trimmed and pruned nature. I instead wade deep into the heart of urban Delhi.

I board a Mudrika Blueline, claim a window seat, switch off the mobile, open a trashy novel (no one knows me on a bus so I can read any book), sit back and relax. The bus rolls down the Ring Road, people get up, get down, the scenery changing from AIIMS to Lajpat Nagar to Sarai Kale Khan to Kashmere Gate to Delhi University to Azadpur Market to Britannia Factory to Pitam Pura to South Campus to AIIMS to Lajpat Nagar… After a point, the book, the views outside, the people inside, the heat, the noise, nothing matters. The ride lifts you to a state of emotional isolation.

Professional rivalries, Gmail chats, car loans, romantic disappointments, mobile phone bills, familial commitments grow distant. For those scared of Bluelines, there are other ways of finding solitude, too. American writer Sue Halpern in her book Migrations to Solitude says: “Place is of consequence only to the extent that it encourages or demands the confrontation of the self by the self, which is solitude’s true vocation.” I agree.

Yesterday in my office, I walked past a small conference room. No one was there. The afternoon sunshine was slanting its rays through the thick curtains down onto the tiled floor. I quietly sneaked in, sat on the revolving chair, closed my eyes and, once again, spotted that bird called solitude.