“I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden. Solitude is something most creative writers and artists crave for, and yet when it is forced on to you — how does one cope?
As a poet and literary writer, and as a person who works from home (unless I am travelling on work), ‘self-isolation’ is nothing new, abnormal or unusual. Over the last three decades, I have spent most of my working hours happily and voluntarily self-isolated and quarantined, cocooned in the world of ideas, surrounded by books and literary artifacts in my office-study. The only ostensible ambient sounds — rustling florets of neem leaves outside, assured metronomic ticking of an antique clock, soothing sounds of running water from a clay Zen water-fountain, familiar scratch of graphite point at the end of my sharpened pencil, and the seamless score created by the soft tap-touch of my fingers on the laptop keyboard.
I have never needed external causes to internalize and live life solitary and indoor. Wherever I am, I’m always at once at ‘home’ and in the ‘world.’ Perhaps this ease of simultaneity comes from a sense of rootedness. Like a large banyan tree with tertiary trunks and branches resembling fused stalactites and stalagmites — the veins and arteries of ideas flowing omni-directionally at all times. And yet in this isolation and solitude, there is an inherent yogic sense of centredness, where being with oneself is both wholesome and multitudinous. It is a precious zone for philosophical and creative thinking, a space for silence and “stillness” (as Pico Iyer says) that allows an inner voice to be heard.
The idea of ‘white’ space has always been important to me, both in my art and living. In an increasingly noise-polluted world, it is a space of calm, silence and solitude. Khalil Gibran has said: “You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts; And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime. And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered. For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.”
In white we have the entire spectrum of colour and beyond, beyond infrared and ultraviolet. In poetry, art or photography presented on a flat surface — what is left out of the frame is equally important to what is inked-in as words and images. Without the silence of the white space — the work’s overall entirety would never be balanced. The visible and the invisible act as a yin-yang with a calibrated fulcrum providing the mood and texture to tonality’s subtle equilibrium.
This theme often finds expression in my writing, as in my poem, ‘Silence’ (from Fractals): “Silence has its own / subtle colour. / Between each breath // pause, heat simmers / latent saliva — / tongue-entwined lisp. // Here and there, / errant clouds wait, / yearning for rain. // Desire melting / even silence to words — / word’s colour bleed // incarnadine, as your lips / whisper softly / the secrets of your silence. // Your fine chikan blouse — / white, sheer, / and almost transparent — // cannot hide the quiet / of your heart-beat / on your wheat-olive skin. // The milk-white flower / adorning your hair, / sheds a solitary petal, // just one. In that petal / silence blooms colour — / white, transparent white — // pure white silence.”
I have grown up, worked and lived for many years at a stretch, in some of the busiest cities of the world — Delhi, New York, London and Dhaka. In India’s capital city of 26 million and a country that hosts 1.6 billion people — I have got so used to the cacophony and external sounds that I can instinctively tune them out, at will. Whether I am in a packed train, or in a café, or walking on a crowded street, I can — if I choose to — just detach completely and go into my own zone of blur, which within seconds turns to a calming silence. Through years of untutored regimen, this process has become second nature, like any meditative practice.
Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays wrote, “In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.” At one level, as a poet, one can often feel out-of-sync with the pedestrian conduct of the world at large. Being alone and confined is often a refuge from banality. Whichever way one looks at it, I must confess to being more than a little amused (even though I understand it), to see the world enter the phase of ‘social distancing’ ‘self-isolation’ — an idea that some of us have known as a lived reality for a very long time. So one carries on with the day as usual, the week, the month, the rest of the year, and more — without any fuss, distress or alarm.
Throughout history, writers have sung paeans in favour of isolation and solitude. Aldous Huxley: “The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude”. Albert Einstein: “I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.” John Milton in Paradise Lost: “Solitude sometimes is best society.” Thomas Mann: “Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous — to poetry.” For me, ultimately everything begins and ends with the poetics of solitude — poetry is omniscient, poetry is life, poetry in its widest sense is a way of living. The unipolar focus on what one is engaged in, both centripetal and centrifugal, is the key — a well-made, well-worn universal key that is robust and resilient enough to open up any vista you can imagine.
(Sudeep Sen is a poet, writer, literary editor and translator. His prize-winning books include: Postmarked India: New & Selected Poems, Rain, Aria (A. K. Ramanujan Translation Award), Fractals: New & Selected Poems | Translations 1980-2015, EroText, and Kaifi Azmi: Poems | Nazms )
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