It's just after dark at the Nehru Stadium, a few scattered rays of twilight still illuminate the sky to the east, but it's lost in the glory of the labyrinth twinkle lights adorning the stadium's main gate and the sign above letting everyone know: "Diwali Mela." One night only. Beautiful women come and go in lehengas and sarees more gloriously adorned than the gate, sleek men in kurta pajamas on their arms.
Just outside the ring of lights a girl stands, like a lone Cinderella, wondering if she was invited to the ball...
All week long I've been thinking about what to write for this column. Wondering, at times, aloud. And I've collected so many ideas I could easily regale you through the New Year. But the most surprising suggestion was also the most obvious one: "Write about the best things to do alone in Delhi," my friend said lightly, taking very literally the title, "Single in the City."
I hesitated, a little unable to place my uneasiness at this. "I don't know if people do things alone in Delhi," I said. My more alarmist mind was imagining the Indian parents who would censure me for encouraging their daughters to go out alone. But a very real part of me was also afraid that no matter how much I advocated solitude as a key aspect of the experience, no matter how beautifully I described the venues... no one would take me up on the offer.
It's not that I don't trust you, dear Reader. After all, I don't know you. But I know me -- I know the girl who stood in the darkness on the eve of Diwali, blinking back tears. Wanting so badly to be at the gala, but afraid of going alone.
A few years ago I took a culinary writing class by extension, because I needed to learn how to write restaurant reviews. It was the most fun I've ever had in either a writing or distance course, but one of the requirements was that I have dinner at a different restaurant every week, and it had to be alone. I balked. "That may be one thing if you live in New York," I wrote in a never-sent email to the professor. "But I live in New Delhi..."
But since it was a requirement of a course, I resigned myself to gutting it out for seven weeks, seven restaurants. And because I don't usually talk about my writing (when I'm not polling for blog ideas), these dinners for one became a secret part of my weekly routine. In fact, talking about it seemed to betray the very solitude of it, though I desperately wished to explain away the anomaly to the concerned waiters.
I was once stood up (on my birthday!) by my brother, who had gotten lost in Los Angeles's maze of highways. It was the most awkward hour I've ever spent at a restaurant, eating the complimentary chips and ensuring the waiter that I really was expecting someone. Now this had become my hobby?
I grew. Not just in my ability to put to words the ambiance of a café, the incongruity of a menu, or detail what was lacking in a soup. Putting space around me created space within me. I mused on Jean-Paul Sarte's words, "If you're lonely when you're alone, you're in bad company."
Till then, I thought I knew how to be alone. I had eaten alone before, traveled alone, created alone, even briefly lived alone. But in all those years I had this inkling in the back of my mind that time not shared was a part of my life that didn't really exist. I filled it up with entertainment, read books, drowned my inner self out with music, started conversations with strangers.
I spent a strange day alone in Oxford where, gregarious as I am, I befriended a band of street magicians, who I still keep up with by email. And that was in the days before smart phones and a global SIM card meant I never, ever had to experience anything alone. Now everything is instantly sharable, tweetable -- hey, I'm blogging about this right now! I don't even have to remember these things anymore; I can relive it all with TimeHop, from the chips at that Mexican restaurant in LA that I can never go back to, to the slight-of-hand move my friends in Oxford never managed to teach me.
But now I was learning a magic trick the street magicians couldn't have taught me, I was learning the difference between being by myself and being with myself. I was learning the magic in letting parts of my life be invisible.
And not just the bad parts -- the really good parts. A perfectly foamed cappuccino will still be as good if it's never seen on Instagram. A funny story can still be enjoyed even if it’s only you who ever laughs at it. The value in a life experience is not its bloggability, and the moments of your life are more than a Facebook status could ever contain.
We know this, of course. But how often do we experience our own lives before letting the world experience them? Do we let events impact us, or just ricochet them into an update somewhere?
If I were going to enumerate the best things to do alone in Delhi, I might tell you about this little French kitchen I found in the alleyways of Shahpur Jat, tucked behind a vintage-style boutique. I might talk about my hideaway from the most brutal days of summer heat in the National Gallery of Modern Art. I could let you know that Delhi actually has fantastic libraries and a planetarium! I would want you to learn the secret of getting into Humayun's Tomb in the early mornings before the crowds of tourists, when Lodhi Gardens is still thick as a Delhi traffic jam with exercise nuts. I'd insist that you try the fresh produce from the Jor Bagh farmers' market...
But those are my things, and I have no wish to share them. My challenge to you is that you find your own. Maybe you will forsake Humayun's Tomb for Sunder Nursery next door (I've heard it's the hidden gem of east Delhi). Maybe you are far away and couldn't take me up on my suggestions even if I wanted you to.
The very nice thing about going alone is you can go anywhere. You might take seven weeks at seven different restaurants, you might just leave your phone at home and go for a walk in your neighbourhood. The Diwali melas are over now, but the Christmas melas are soon approaching... you might see me there, but you probably won't see it on my Facebook timeline.
What experiences have you had in doing things alone or hidden from social media? Write your experiences or recommendations in the comments below.
Photo Credit: Sippanont Samchai via Flickr cc
I was forced to do things alone, when I had gone to Bangalore for work some years back. I even saw a movie by myself and discovered that I began to enjoy doing some things alone. I love going to coffee shops alone to read and work, almost a regular at Starbucks now! I even like shopping alone 🙂 Now to attempt to do them invisibly!! Thanks for sharing Emily!
Well said! We seem to have lost the ability of savoring life's moments without tweeting or facebooking them. And how many such moments have escaped us because we were busy checking others' updates and tweets?
Thanks for the post, Emily!
Thoughtful. And I agree with your conclusions.
Lovely post Emily! Completely agree. We don't have to share every single minute detail of our lives with the entire world. Sometimes recently I've been feeling overwhelmed by all the voices/noise being bombarded at my mind. I've desperately needed to just be quiet and have stillness soothe my spirit. It's something that doesn't come automatically these days, I've realised, which makes it all the more important that I make a conscious effort to slow down and capture it. Thanks!
Thanks for your post...I am from Australia and just got back from a trip to New Delhi. India is a beautiful
Country. Anyway...here is my response
Everytime I do something on my own for the first time I feel kinda odd and really self conscious. Like some loner who has no friends. It felt like that the first time I went to a coffee shop by myself, or the first time I went on a bike ride or a walk by myself...the first time I had dinner by myself. But soon enough I have not only learned to thoroughly enjoy these times but they have become a real treasure to me, a time of reflection and rest..There is nothing more calming than sitting in Gods creation just watching and listening...there is nothing more refreshing than sitting in your favourite coffee shop reading and writing into your journal. Whenever my spirit is downcast...I know it's time to grab my bible, my diary and withdraw...be by myself...with my father. So not really by myself
Yes, I love your thoughts! Thank you for sharing! I really believe that the big victories in life come from those times of getting away with God. We cannot be anything in public that we haven't already been in private. Every time I study the life of Jesus (who was from a very communal culture) I'm impressed by many times he went away to find a solitary place. These usually come before his greatest times of testing or victory. He was able to face the cross because he had settled it alone in the garden.
Thank you for visiting our beautiful city, and our blog. I hope you'll come back and share more!
I know what you mean by enjoying your own company and I do mine! Not all the time, but it's a very comfy feeling, like I'm sitting in a big armchair, just being, you know? This comment is extremely incoherent
Absolutely loved your post Emily, you have woven everything together so beautifully. There were definitely a few things there which made me to think and reflect on questions like, when is it that I am with myself, I might be by myself mostly during the day but rarely WITH myself.
I wonder sometimes that why has it become so integral to our lives to tell the world about our whereabouts. In the midst of all this, we really seem to losing ourselves.
And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? Mathew 16:26 (NLT)
I am really encouraged. Thank you.