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An island, a rock
In a flat in Bombay lives a very quiet man. And in the universal manner of some very quiet men, he is bubblewrapped in enigma. No one in his building knows much about him, other than his name - which is there on the nameplate. In the two years that he's been living there, they don't seem to know how he earns his bread, or what his age is, what he reads, whether he reads at all, or even what he looks like up close. Not surprisingly, he is a prime candidate for neighbourly speculation. "I hope he's not a serial killer, " jokes someone, half-seriously. After all, aren't most hatchet swingers loners, as far as pop culture sketches go?
It turns out the 'would-be-hacker' Boo Radley is a middle-aged Syrian Christian bachelor, who works as an accountant with a small-time importer. He is in thrall of J D Salinger, Proust and Andrea Bocelli, and says he finds all the company he needs in them. On a Sunday, he buys a Rs 15 all-access ticket and does circuitous rounds of the city on different buses - in a crowd, but not of it.
"It's just that I like to be alone - I enjoy my privacy and solitude. What's wrong with that? Call me a recluse, " he says without breaking into blisters the way most people would if their sociability was questioned. "I'm sure people talk just because I don't interact with them or exchange niceties in the corridors. But such frivolities bore me and I am eminently capable of amusing myself, " he says, almost enjoying the nerves he has frayed in the neighbourhood. At work, too, he barters the odd word and takes his meals alone. By the time he gets back home, he'd rather spend it "occupying his imagination" than fraternising. "People don't get the fact that in this world of talkative, monophobic individuals, on whom the welfare of cafes and phone companies rely, there also exists a minority who likes to be left alone - and they're not suicidal either. "
Despite all those phony adverts that sell singularity and 'apartness', society still adores a crowd and prizes popularity. Western studies show extroverts make up three-fourths of a population. And this majority has never been able to fathom or accept the loner - a mentally sound individual with non-aligned sensibilities, who, for reasons genetic and/or nurtured, simply views the world differently, and correspondingly resides in it unlike the rest. Know man is an island, too.
Then again, because loners don't care to explain themselves to the rest, popular culture, particularly movies, have thoughtfully provided us the go-to guides - by which he's the oddball who stays aloof, bungles it with the girls, gets gravy flung in the face, and nurses private injuries to emerge in the quiet of night with a chainsaw.
"Modern culture does impute negative connotations to the word 'loner', " admits clinical psychologist Dr Dayal Mirchandani. "Especially in a world that makes much of 'networking' and 'teamwork'. Western society glorifies people who have many friends. But many scientists, writers, artists and dramatists are self-sufficient loners or introverts, with a highly imaginative life. These are people whose brains are simply structured differently, perceiving and responding to things dissimilarly. They are happier in their own company, unlike some people who are terrified of being alone and must surround themselves with people all the time. "
Anneli Rufus, author of the book Party of One: The Loner's Manifesto, writes "Nonloners can't stand to be alone. They feel ashamed. They yearn for company when they're alone. They're lonely. " She wrote the Manifesto to defuse media-lit installations that picture the loner as an unhappy, abnormal oddity. "Mainstream culture loves nonloners. Joiners, schmoozers, teamworkers, congregants and all those who play well with others scoop up the rewards. Nonloners call loners crazy. Cold. Stuck-up. Sad. Bad. Secretive. But we know being a loner isn't about hating people. It's about essence, about necessity. We need what others dread. We dread what others need. "
Dr Samir Parikh, psychotherapist and head of the mental health wing of Max Hospital, Delhi, packages the point with an example of how a loner would respond to, say, a promotion at work. "The non-loner would enjoy a celebratory party, but the loner, while happy for the advancement, would loathe the gathering. " That's not saying all loners are allergic to human contact. "There are two dimensions that inform the social ability of a loner, " he says, "the depth of intimacy with another individual and the number of people they are in contact with. But these depend on the individual's own needs. "
Those needs may ring for company occasionally, and when that call comes, loners burrow back into the crowd - or at least sidle up to a warm friend. Unlike the general feverish lot who take umbrage when a friend drops out of view, 31-year-old entrepreneur Akash Tripathi doesn't have to apologise for his long absences to his only buddy. "I call him sometimes, and if he's free, we get together for a drink, " says Akash. He otherwise sticks to his routine - breakfast, work, gym (where he sidesteps any approaching alliance), home, TV, dinner with family, bed. This seven-step programme is voluntarily interrupted once a month for a night out with the old fellows from school, a willing departure from habit. "When I do go out with them, I listen, don't talk. But I enjoy those evenings, " he says, half-grinning. His comrades accept his reticence without mockery, but there's a running joke about putting down Rs 10 every time they hear him speak.
Loners, then, are not watertight recluses. They simply choose their degree of interface with the kinetic world, stepping on and off the conveyor belt when they deem fit. Some even marry and after some initial dissonance manage to calibrate their solitariness with their spouse's extroversion. Yet, they are commonly misread as maladjusted. Psychologists and family counselors recall fretful parents and friends who elbow bewildered loners into therapy to 'fix the problem' or 'get them out of their shell'. As if they were crustaceans. A reserved child who prefers to play with his imaginary Mr Nobody has to suffer the diabolism of parents who try to force-fit the boy/girl into the hyperactive cutout of childhood. Sometimes the child does develop tentative social skills which may help cope with future social situations, and sometimes the plan misfires and the child retreats even further inside. This would explain the gaucheness of many loners, whose social manners get a bit rusty with disuse.
"Friends and family of such people need to understand their different wavelength, and let them be...unless they exhibit extreme behaviour, " says Pune-based counsellor and author of Counsel of Strangers, Gouri Dange. "I think people who enjoy their own company are fortunate to be self-contained. 'Enjoying your own company', contrary to supposition, is not sitting around doing nothing - it usually means that the person has the inner resources to simply stay with his/her thoughts, or to engage with one-on-one pursuits like reading, or working with the hands, or being with nature. This usually means non-verbal pursuits...and yes, not twittering or Facebooking about it, afterwards, " she quips.
With growing self-assertion, the aloners are staking their sanctums. Eesha (name changed on request), a 25-year-old from Chennai, says unequivocally, "I don't like people too much. They are too inquisitive, always wanting to know things about you and probing you with questions. It gets too cumbersome. " Esha has friends and is close to her family, but she says the pretence of bonhomie puts her off. "The hypocrisy of having to pretend you're interested in those people when frankly you'd rather be reading a book is what disgusts me about making small talk with people, " she says disdainfully. Her solitude has nothing to do with depression or misanthropy, she explains. "There was a time when I tried very hard to fit into such gatherings, but eventually I realised this is who I am. "
And so these internal exiles go about their lives quietly, shunning backchat and Facebook and cell phone groups - a subculture of aloners who wish people would believe them when they say it like Greta Garbo - I Want to Be Let Alone.
(With Inputs by Devparna Acharya in Chennai)
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