National

Solitude: The Searing Tranquillity Of Solitude Is A Constant Companion

A woman shopkeeper in a busy city uses loneliness as a metaphor to deliver a message full of wisdom: even those who are not lonely are lonely, writes Roohi Dixit

Solitude: The Searing Tranquillity Of Solitude Is A Constant Companion
info_icon

“Loneliness is the worst disease, my girl” she announced as she sipped her mango drink noisily. All day she sat in her shop selling odd things. Cigarettes. Maggi noodles. Mouth fresheners. Orange sweets. Peanut chikki. Cold drinks. Sachets of Nescafe. Chips. Biscuits. Key chains with coloured hearts on them. Photocopies. A4 sheets of paper. And ballpoint pens. Like she had figured out that is all she needed to make the dreary solitary moments of yet another day a little less lonely.

Her hand doled out things in exchange for coins and murky currency notes from morning till late evening. But at night, after she shut the shutter on her hole-in-the-wall shop she wondered if the things in the shop whispered quiet nothings to each other. Did they say things to each other? In things language? Lying together and yet apart in a dark little shop? Did they miss her? She certainly missed them.

Sometimes, she wanted to take the shop back home with her, with all its things. She felt attached to her things. Maybe, they felt lonesome, abandoned like kids do in the dark. Or maybe, they were scheming rascals plotting against her when she wasn’t there. She thought these silly thoughts while walking down the street. Back to her rusty gate. Up the stairs. To her musty smelling house. Dark, forlorn, reverberating with emptiness. Ever present. Its lock waiting to be opened.  Its quietness dense with familiarity. To more things that awaited her return.

The TV was helpful. she said, simply because it went on and on. Like an old friend who never tires of recounting the same old stories. She liked to turn it on as soon as she reached home. Only then would she walk into the kitchen to wash her lunchbox. The stale smell from the lunchbox lingered on without fail, but because she couldn’t complain about it to anyone, and there was no one else to complain about the smell back to her, she made up for the chatter by putting on the radio. She set it on a volume so low that the frequency of the channels often seemed like bickering voices from another life. Mixed with the noises from the TV, it filled the gaps enough for her to fix a plate of dinner from the fridge and stick it in the microwave later.

All the houses along the street were bustling at this hour of the evening, except hers. She hated the noise, she said—children screaming, utensils rattling, guffawing of families, dogs barking in the courtyards. It was too much. She had learned to be one with the searing tranquillity of her house. She liked it like that. All the objects asleep. The crochet threadworks of the doilies on the sofas. The plastic flowers in dragon-shaped vases. The shoe rack. The writing desk with a set of six smiling Russian dolls. The slowly humming ceiling fan. The money plant entwined with the window grills. Things that stayed just how she left them every morning. The calligraphy pen, a pair of red chopsticks, unused crockery, a set of shining glasses, all in their place. They all were her trusted companions. They knew each other. She knew them.

She said, ‘The body is a weird thing my girl, it needs food even when it doesn’t have human company, it growls and craves it.’

Even the mirror in the bathroom, she said, knew her face well. Though one eyebrow was lower than the other, mouth slightly crooked and the line on her forehead getting deeper as the days went by, the mirror was an old chum. It held her face and all her troubles. Between the half-squeezed tube of toothpaste and the moisturiser that stood on the shelf attached to it, she could count the days of the week. Her life was so easy. Six days for work, at the shop. Seventh for rest. That day she would cook curries in large utensils and pack them into small boxes for the coming week to eat by herself, alone.

She said, the body is a weird thing, my girl, it needs food even when it doesn’t have human company, it growls and craves it. Like there is an animal sitting inside, waiting. She said she fed her animal three times a day, but it was always hungry when the new day came. When she fell asleep on the sofa in front of the TV, which was often, this animal always woke her up with a start. Her back slumped and stomach raised up, it is this animal that made her get up and walk. Quietly telling her to mechanically switch off the lights, empty the ashtray of that one cigarette she smoked without fail every night with her glass of port and rum. It pushed her to wash her plate and drag herself to bed. “But as soon as I hit the bed, the animal steals all my sleep,” she complained. Not a wink!

She goes on to tell me that the routine on most nights was to “drink water and go to the washroom”. Even when the last of the noises from the neighbourhood quietened, it did not help. She couldn’t get even two seconds of rest for her dry eyes.

She said that she craves sleep. But sleep just does not come. On such nights, she tells herself repeatedly to sleep. Trying to remember old lullabies. Tossing and turning, she rocks herself gently. Holds the pillows close to her. Tells herself that a day had ended. The work was done. The animal was fed. The kitchen was clean. But the lack of sleep deprives her of rest, playing truant for hours on end. She said that when it becomes absolutely clear that sleep won’t come, abandon the bed and walk to the window to look through the lace curtains for the moon. An ancient ritual reminding the body that it was night. Often, as a last resort.

‘Honestly?’ She looks me in the eye. ‘Tell me, girl, who is not lonely in this world? Even the ones who aren’t alone are also lonely.’

The moon always hidden behind the cluster of gawdy buildings, but it would face her at a certain angle. That’s why she knew the phase it was in. Straight in the line of her sight. At those times, she allowed herself to wonder if there was anyone else on the moon who looked back at her. But she knew that that was a stupid tale. There was no one. Just her. Alone. Looking at just another tube light in the sky. Nothing more, nothing less. And if she thought too much about it, she would certainly drive herself insane. She had to remain sane. She often chided herself that she wasn’t a little girl, “fantasising about the moon, of all things!” But somehow, seeing the same moon shine consistently, year after year, all her life up until now was a reminder that she would get through the sleepless night. And that the sun would take the moon’s place in the morning.

Advertisement

The shop would be there. Waiting. She would open the lock, switch on the fan, set her basket in the back on a shelf next to all the things waiting to be sold. Then, she would look for rats, and it was a good day when she didn’t find one. After that, she would sit on her cane chair and do her crossword in the paper, waiting for someone to come by.

She knew that even though she did not know them, she would see those familiar faces again. The coffee seller on his cycle would come by and give her a cup of coffee. The street cleaners would gather around her shop to drink coffee with her. The young colleagues who smoked cigarettes together would arrive to buy loose cigarettes from her. She said, “They buy only two but talk a lot about their boss.” The girls who lived across the road would saunter in their pyjamas for a loaf of bread and Maggi noodles, talking to their boyfriends on the phone. The courier delivery boy would park his bike and take a cold drink like always, before rushing to the next stop. Young boisterous schoolboys would take some chips and sweets and make a ruckus. The shy girl from the admin department of the old office would jangle her heart-shaped key chain as she parks her bike across the shop. The writer once out of pens would come again to buy some more. Middle-aged men and women would always pick up mouth fresheners on their way back from lunch. Passers-by would buy a snack of peanut chikki to satiate their appetite a little. Those on the fourth floor always run out of paper, the office boy would come to get a stack. She will see new faces and old as she photocopies their documents. Their passports, their ID cards, their notes, their books, their papers. They will call out to her: Aunty, give me this! Aunty, how much is that? Aunty, I have change! Aunty, I don’t have cash… And Aunty would oblige. Sometimes, she would even give them some freebies. All the things in her shop, alive in her hands, in the light of the day, full of purpose. Like her.

Advertisement

It was enough to thread another day into existence.

As I finish my free mango drink and gather my bag of odd things from her shop, I gently ask her, “So, are you lonely, Aunty?”

“Honestly?” She looks me in the eye. “Tell me, girl, who is not lonely in this world? Even the ones who aren’t alone are also lonely. It’s like living inside a balloon. One day the balloon will burst. It will be all over. It’s not endless, this life. It’s just days. That’s why every day I try to be a little less lonely. The only way to beat the disease. Watch out for it. It can creep up.” She winks at me and casually takes my empty mango juice carton and chucks it into the bin.

Advertisement

The dipping sun has diffused its pinks and oranges across the horizon. The moon has started to peek from behind the cell phone tower. The evening traffic is mounting. Aunty gets ready to close her shop. She waves me a cheerful goodbye and walks away, leaving me with her wisdom.

It’s just days. And another one has come to pass.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Abyss of Loneliness")

(Views expressed are personal)

Roohi Dixit is an award-winning filmmaker, screenwriter and director

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement

Advertisement