Last summer, I learnt that milk that’s left unrefrigerated overnight would turn sour. Its dewy, stale smell seeping into the long forgotten corners of a house mostly left uninhabited. As a people, we have a tendency to familiarize with nooks and corners, and find our security in returning to them with the soft cushioning of routine. It’s a similar story with a house you live in alone. There’s a false sense of accomplishment that comes with carrying out everyday tasks with precision, akin to returning a library book, or checking your email or making sure you put the milk back in the fridge.
There is a restorative innocence to waking up and realizing that something has changed overnight. Like the first drizzle of the season; a slight wetness that coats metallic rooftops and shines off grass and fills your senses with a heady nostalgia. Or, the title of the book that comes to my mind and I need to locate it in my scatter of everyday living, the droop of plant leaves begging quietly for care, always, always leaving the chai on the stove for too long, all these things take on a new meaning, an almost comforting whisper in the background noise. A rare, brief harmony in the consolidation of me. The only person who might interrupt my thoughts is me. A world contingent on my mood, sometimes posed as a question, sometimes in the voice of a child pleading. Sometimes said as a bait to needle me away from an unrealized me. So, living alone, more than ever, claimed a sturdy affirmation. Me.
When you travel, they say, you discover that you do not exist. Ever since I moved into a one bedroom apartment in late July, the glaring heat making way to a persistent monsoon, I chose to stay put. To do the opposite of not existing and acclimitize myself to, well, myself. Even writing these words, somehow, seems like a radical act. A large part of me has always been hinged on someone else’s idea of me – a daughter of a separation (with her own cautious and stubborn interpretation of what that meant), a child that never quite reveled in the traditions of childhood, a demanding best friend (and her eventual appetite for sentimentality, for shared music and emails written in the confused twilight of missing somebody, for asking “what did you have for lunch?” when what I meant to say was, “I love you.”
I was also someone’s girlfriend and subsequently, the emotional commerce of being someone’s ex-girlfriend, or the girl you say hey to but secretly dislike, or the person stuck between a plant and a kissing couple at a stranger’s party.
I had been a roommate to a series of people. Older friends with a bad sense of humour and a moody disposition, I had been a reluctant half of the kind of friendships that grow out of circumstances and quiet evenings spent in balconies.
I was a loyal friend but also, the girl who would never answer her phone but text immediately: sorry. everything okay?
I was the girl who held your hair up as you threw up with abandon on the kind of nights there’s no point remembering in retrospect. Just hours back, scruffy and polished men alike had swiveled their heads in unison when you passed them that knowing smile that you do as you walked by, your hips swaying with confidence, and me following you spilling my drink on me.
I had been the woman whose hugs were awkward but whose thighs had cushioned your head when hangovers had worn on off on groggy Sunday mornings.
All of these relationships, as crucial as they were, seemed to accelerate involuntarily. Being someone’s someone is cosy in theory – a snug image. Unfortunately, I was feeling little of that snugness. I’d sculpted myself into what felt nearest to the apparatus, a piece of equipment that was increasingly capable of delaying my desires. Of slow drip longing. There was always tomorrow, I told myself. Or, the uncanny extent of the next summer day. Or, winter. Winter where the evenings get longer, courted only by the stiffness in your limbs. Winters lit by the arbitrary glows of orange lamps and a candle or two. Winters where the coldest draughts wiggle into the deepest recesses of your blanket. Winter, where breathing’s a bit easier when you have the curve of an arm to loop into, I chose to find the bluesiest approach to myself, which by nature is the easiest to deny. There’s something equal parts pathetic and charming about skipping dinner because it’s too cold to climb out of your blanket.
I have, from a very young age, never been young. I care too much or sometimes, not at all, I am never quite at ease being with a large group of people, I judge too quick and I’m slow to correct my judgments, I oscillate between the two extremes of not giving a fuck and craving appreciation till it fills the pit of my soul like I imagine a hot coffee on a freezing winter morning would. Because I let myself get comfortable with the idea of pain as a part of experiencing anything in its entirety, I developed a high reaction for the swell and plummet of the moods of others and in doing so, whittled myself away.
I’ve been for most of my life confusing the meaning of words. I confused privacy with keeping secrets and caring with giving and mine with yours but now I have a better understanding of what they stand for: mine to share if I so choose. They dangle with a sense of pride and gut like a bracelet I beaded and hold up admiringly: look? Isn’t it pretty? I made that.
In the past, my response to a conflict was, bogus math. Prescriptive, as though the advent of apology was, I was convinced, my first move. Figuring myself into the equation would come a close second since I had disciplined my definition of ‘relationship’ into rationale. Ensure he feels proud of his work before you focus on yours. Read little into what she said last night. Listen. Master listening.
Living alone is the opposite of mastery. It’s a series of little indignities like stubbing your toe or scuttling away from your unused kitchen cabinet in surrender. Since living alone, grievances occur in silences. Deep, shallow thoughts court me like deep, shallow breaths.
My life, before having lived alone, was one very long practice session. I’d been avoiding myself with such ease that when an obstacle presented itself – like the pained limits and the unmistakable distance of a friendship that had run its course – my immediate response would be to adapt to it the way we circle street constructions, as if the balls and sockets of our hip joints, anticipating these detours, swerve so as to save ourselves from falling into crater-sized holes.
Avoidance can be elegant. Certainly, because elegance (like restraint) is a spectacle that assuages. Even the word – assuages – smooth as if meant solely for cursive’s sleek lines, a speedy unthinking gesture like one’s signature.
I count living alone, in a manner of speaking, finding interest in my own story, of prospering, of protest, of creating a space where I can repeat the same actions everyday, whetting them, rearranging them, starting from scratch but with variables I can control, or appeal to their chaos. I can approximate what time it is on sunny mornings by glancing at the frontiered shadow that darkens the building adjacent to mine. There’s an orange lamp at the side of my room, and on nights I come back home navigating the slumbered mauve and moon-lit darkness of my space, I know the lamp welcomes me. Maybe, the darkness does too.
Living alone, I’ve described to friends, is akin to waking up on a Sunday morning and realizing it’s a Sunday. That flighty jolt. That made up sense of repartee with time. The weight of the duvet somehow vanquishing all accountability. Staying by myself had yielded a sharp sense of clarity as from the first few sips of red wine, or the wash of sunlight on your face on a cold winter morning.
Living alone, I soon realized, was less about being and more about becoming.
Becoming is precarious terrain. I had, perhaps developed in solitude, an acute distrust of myself. Seeking, I’ve learnt since, is okay. How many women have woken up one morning and been greeted by a stream of tears, glancing at your face in the bathroom. A brief audit: red cheeks, a running nose and eyelashes clung to each other in starfish shapes. Shook, by the unpredictability of the unforeseen, but I learnt how to accept the inexplicables that came at me with a suggestive force. I was a daughter with parents to call. I was also someone’s girlfriend during the formative girlhood-spun-sovereign years. Surely, all this I’ve carried with me.
There’s, however, one problem. Nothing quite catches me off guard like suddenly, sometimes maddeningly, seeking the company of another.
In these moments, the whiplash of loneliness can impose temporary amnesia. How did I end up here? Had I lectured myself into a false and smug state of solitude? Was this akin to the emotional moat I construct around myself as I listen to the same song on repeat? No, not exactly.
I tend to forget, or rather, rarely cash in on, the proximity of people. I could, if I wanted to, walk down the road and find a friend. A friend who is experiencing the coincidental gloom, blahs and Sunday doom because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about New Delhi friendships, is that they are intertwined time and again by emotional kismet. We’re all just here, bungling this imitation of life, finding new ways of becoming old friends.
Living alone is akin to standing next to a boiling coffee pot, smoking the day’s first cigarette and thinking about your last orgasm, or cruelly and shamelessly envisioning the funeral of someone you love. I experienced self-voyeurism, self-narration, self-spectatorship, more sharply than ever. Eavesdropping on adult tensions was no longer an option.
Living alone has brought together two women, the one who’d go out on a Friday night and not get back home till Sunday morning and the one who’d cancel all plans to stay in, switch her phone off and watch reruns of Girls, into a one-woman show that I star in and attend, that I produce and buy a ticket for, but sometimes fail to show up to.
Living alone, I found the time and space to reflect on the vocabulary of kindness. Somebody who finds time to reply to your message after midnight during moments where your head feels light and breathing comes in short gasps signaling the onset of a slight panic attack, that you quickly rush to drown in a cadence of words and silly jokes. How my mother, who no matter how many times my phone has been off, would find a way to ask me if I’ve had dinner or coax me into finding the time and energy to arrange dinner, or the friend who drops by unannounced with fruits when I’ve been sick, the neighbour who wordlessly hands me a cup of chai on a cold Winter morning when my gas has run out, it’s in these moments I understood the testimony of kindness. Kindness felt, even before it, by the nature of its mutual construction, even exists. Kindness at its most honest.
On the first morning of this year, I woke up with a throbbing hangover and proceeded to clean my entire house with all the remaining strength in my body. The thing with living alone is real intentions blur with artificial intentions and sooner rather or later, more choices than not, like cleaning your entire house one day, seem decisive. Indicative of purpose, and if you’re lucky, then peace of mind too.
*Original idea borrowed from Durga Chew Bose’s article in http://www.hairpin.com