Solitude has been defined by several thinkers, but perhaps never so profoundly as Rabindranath Tagore in a 1903 essay, Vision of History. At a time when India was reeling under British rule, Tagore termed solitude a “national heritage”, an essential attribute “of the spirit that characterised Bharatvarsha” that enabled the nation to remain “secure in its expansive solitude” despite foreign invasions as “nobody was able to inflict injury to its soul”. A century later, the spiritual heritage seems endangered. Prompted by the blistering pace of data that has tied people in an invincible bond with each other, a bond that often appears a shackle, the last decade has seen formidable assaults on an individual’s solitude. The digital matrix has dented the sanctity of our lives and made professions and relations look like a performance, a spectacle.
Barely able to afford the solitude requisite for their evolution, few relationships are now sacrosanct. You simultaneously engage with a staggering range of people on your phone screen—often in the presence of somebody else. During a conversation over coffee with a friend, you pull out the phone without any apparent reason, do a quick scroll across apps, before resuming the conversation. A message to one’s lover about the evening plans, a tweet expressing outrage, a professional reply to a colleague about work, a peek at the likes generated on the latest Insta post—all this gets accomplished simultaneously, in less than sixty seconds, with someone curiously staring at you.
Solitude is wrongly perceived to be the prerogative of an artistic life; a privilege, some believe, ordinary people can’t afford. Contrarily, a large number of people yearn for a private space to deposit their untold joys and sorrows, and emerge resurrected. Perhaps solitude is more significant for women. It’s their hard-earned right, a gift of modern life. Pre-modern societies rejected private spaces for women; solitary women were treated with suspicion, condemned as witches. Even the path to spirituality was not easy. India has had a large number of male saints and sages, but an ascetic woman didn’t get an easy social validation. The late scholar, Vijaya Ramaswamy, noted in her masterly study on women saints, Walking Naked: Women, Society, Spirituality in South India (2007), that while male asceticism was “taken as a spiritual quest, female asceticism as deviance/defiance; female as sexual and male as asexual”.
Women earned their solitude, a room of one’s own, after centuries of struggle. Their frenzied presence in the digital world does increase their social capital, but it may also snatch away their solitude. If all validation must arrive via Insta reels and cheesy tweets, it may leave you more insecure and dependent than ever. The digital matrix has turned our lives into a fake melodrama. It’s not uncommon to find people who are diametrically opposite to their online projections. I appear infinitely more shallow, coarse and trite online than perhaps I am otherwise.
I entered journalism in 2008 and joined Twitter next year, FB a year later and Insta only recently, but remained inactive, until last year I was prompted by friends, editors and publishers, to increase my ‘digital reach’. “You need to promote your work. Your publishers can give you only limited visibility; it’s your individual reach (read, follower count) that will determine your worth,” came an earnest suggestion. For someone who never cared about finding an audience for his writings, who revelled in the joy of being a faceless reporter, who so far believed that promoting one’s own work or retweeting praise is an act of obscenity, I suddenly found myself searching for that elusive entity called the reader. Soon, I was trading into clickbait posts, hollow outrage and inanities, seeking external validations—refuting the ideals I had held dear to me. I frighteningly found my life getting mutated in ways I couldn’t have fathomed. I was now worried about the possible reaction to my posts. Not long ago I went to bed with an idea incubating in my head, and woke up to find it having bloomed into a lovely sequence inviting me to pen it down. Those were the restless nights that seamlessly segued into epiphanic mornings. As I’ve become active online, my mornings begin with an anxious search for the phone and the perusal of my notifications.
I’ve maintained regular diaries since my teenage, noting down the minutest details of my life. As I now foolishly and cruelly try to reduce my emotions and experiences into a social media post, the pristine space of the diary, the space most intimate to me, has become a victim of my lust to have a greater digital reach. I’ve found myself abandoning my greatest asylum, a source of solace that never ceased to embrace me in totality. Where is the mental space to write down a series of notes and memoirs in the diary in fresh ink about your first visit to Calcutta—the city of Tagore, Satyajit Ray and Rani Rashmoni—if you can pulverise your ethereal experiences of four days to a few posts? And since you don’t record your emotions in the diary, they are soon lost in the labyrinth of life.
Perhaps it was Ashis Nandy who once said that for a large section of Indian middle-class the only source of intellectual activity are the op-ed pages of English media. The only source now seems to be social media posts. It may appear that the consumer, receiving the world on her phone screen, is now supreme, but do we need such a torrent of information? Are our minds prepared for and capable of processing this information into knowledge, into a solid mass of memory, emotions and incidents to be cherished and recalled and retrieved? If we are merely scrolling down, stopping mostly at provocative material, how much do we stand to gain—and lose? If most information evaporates before the blink, rarely forming a memory; if it stirs no chord within except a momentary outrage, are we gradually sliding towards a state of collective amnesia? If memories mark the hedge against tyranny, solitude acts as the incubator for memories.
In the womb of solitude, impressions and incidents are transformed into memories. But if there’s little mental space to faithfully live your sorrows and joys, if all our emotions are essentially for public display, if from every moment of our lives we are found extracting an Insta post or a tweet, nothing remains sacred and solitary. Since the digital matrix dulls our senses, drastically diminishes our concentration, makes us flit across windows and thus reduces our will and strength to seek any substantial change; since our duties as a citizen get conveniently fulfilled through the online outrage, has it also contributed to the continuation of the tyrannical rule India is currently witnessing?
We have often been warned against the cessation of solitude. The philosopher, E.M. Cioran, who voiced the existential crisis Europe had been facing after the two wars, wrote in his seminal work A Short History of Decay (1949): “Each of us is born with a share of purity, predestined to be corrupted by our commerce with mankind, by that sin against solitude.” Note his lament when he says that “the world has infested our solitude; upon us the traces of others become indelible.”
But who commits that sin? Who else but us, with a careful lid over one’s consciousness. I have made myself believe that I write for myself, my own joy; that I want to live by what William Faulkner had wished for himself—let there be no trace of mine except my words. Even my journalistic writing that investigates and uncovers various wrongs and offenses is essentially addressed to a deeper part of mine, the innate need to narrate a story, not a frenetic and insecure search for the reader or public validation.
I received a slap a few days before when I called the great literary critic Madan Soni to wish him on his birthday, December 22. Once Nirmal Verma told Arundhati Roy that a lot of people have written about her novel across the world, but the best essay was written in a language, by a writer she’d perhaps never get to read. Verma was referring to Soni, the man who taught me that a work of criticism must turn inward. As you examine a text on a given parameter, you must also allow your parameters to be examined by the text. Since then, I have strived, I believe, to always engage with my inescapable other in my writings. Little did I know that the other had quietly begun consuming me. During that phone conversation when I asked him about his New Year wish, Soni said: “I wish you would write more for yourself. Of late, your words are increasingly addressed to a fictitious reader. It is distorting your expression. Agar tumhen kuch sarthak likhna hai to in sanskaron se mukt hona hoga (If you want to write anything meaningful, you’ll have to free yourself of these samskaras.)” I stood silent. He had perhaps seen some of my social media posts, aimed solely at gaining traction. He knew that it’d gradually invade, perhaps has already so, my entire desk and corrupt it irredeemably.
There’s a school of thought, a perfectly legitimate one, that your words are always meant for others; that you essentially write for the reader. But a desire for the elusive audience, intensified manifold in the digital world, can also push you to fakery and forgery, can take away your solitude, can make your words betray your soul. A great artist perhaps always performs for herself, the spectator lies in posterity. Walter Benjamin names two greatest images of a solitary European artist—Michelangelo on a scaffolding, painting the Creation on the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel; Marcel Proust on his sickbed, consecrating “the countless pages…to the creation of his microcosm”. The images in Indian culture, Tagore has already told us, have even a greater spiritual value. As most writers now seem frantically building their reach, seeking novel ways to woo the reader, are we on the verge of losing that solitary space? Is that the reason the shelf life of most recent works appear hopelessly limited?
Perhaps all this is the cry of a member of the older order, of someone yet unable to grasp the new skills, unable to enjoy the virtues of being an online influencer. That I am the sole sinner, the sin against solitude. I want to believe that my colleagues have seamlessly fused their digital version with their life elsewhere; that the rift has been solely within me. Unknown to me, a distinct streak of solitude survives in their digital life that nests dreams and arts in genres I am yet to witness. I await the new dawn.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Life In A #ashtag")
(Views expressed are personal)
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a journalist and author, most recently of The Death Script