I look up “self-isolation” in the online Merriam-Webster dictionary because I’m wondering what the provenance of such an ugly term might be. Physical dictionaries are redundant now, but I still have my two-volume OED. I don’t bother to consult it, because surely “self-isolation” is too recent a coinage to appear in a book that’s thirty years old. Besides, the OED is heavy. However, the Merriam-Webster website says that the term was first used in 1834. It doesn’t say how or where. “First used,” and, maybe because it’s so bureaucratic, without any of the grandeur and human simplicity that “isolation” has, cast aside for almost two centuries until now.
The internet also specifies that the difference between “quarantine” and “self-isolation” is that the first is relevant to those who are infected, or exposed to infection. They must sequester themselves, or else will be sequestered. “Self-isolation” is prophylactic: it pertains to those who cut themselves off from others in order to prevent the possibility of illness.
What distinguishes “isolation” from “self-isolation” is that the first is a condition that might come upon you at any time, while the second is an act of your will, and is voluntary. “Self-isolation” is a measure, then, that both the isolated and the sociable are advised to undertake. In a sense, the isolated are forced to become less purely isolated as they partake (voluntarily, of course) of a communal measure: self-isolating.
I now can’t remember if I began to become increasingly isolated when I was 17, or whether I opted for self-isolation, or whether it was a bit of both. At 15, I’d emerged from school in Bombay with mediocre grades in my Indian Certificate of Secondary Education exams, with the option of either continuing for another two years in the same school to take the Indian School Certificate or moving to a proper college to do so. The ISC classes in Bombay colleges were called “junior college,” and they had the irresistible advantage of allowing you to cast your school uniform along with what remained of childhood to history, and to wear jeans and T-shirts or whatever your teenage preference was, and transform into that sexualized, political being: the student. Of course, junior college students weren’t of voting age; but in other ways we could take on, prematurely, the manners and eccentricities of student life. My chosen apparel was a torn kurta, frayed jeans, and, of course, Kolhapuri chappals. I did without restraint what I’d been penalized for in school: I grew my hair.
School, from my first day in kindergarten, had been unspeakable misery: I’d plotted escapes and feigned illnesses, and was grateful I had a congenital heart condition to fall back on as an exit from sports. Only in my last two years, as my grades and behavior dipped, did I become gregarious. I carried some of that gregariousness over when I entered Elphinstone College in 1978 as a 16-year-old. I also began to carry over my acoustic guitar, which I’d begun to play when I was 12. At 15, I’d started writing songs, the first being an anthem called “Armistice Hour,” which—since I knew nothing about politics—was a protest against everything. Emboldened by my college environs, I did something I’d never done: put my name down for the college talent competition, maybe because it was to be judged by a singer I admired: Nandu Bhende, who’d played Judas in Alyque Padamsee’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Recklessly, I chose to sing a song I’d written recently, called “Shout.” Reckless, because the two-hundred strong crowd was waiting for covers. In fact, the word “cover” hardly had any existence in that milieu: the idea of the original composition was so sacrilegious that “song” and “cover” had been conflated into a single sacred idea. When I announced the name of the song I was heckled with cries of “Shout! Shout!”; but later the crowd, which was mercurial, exploded with approval. Nandu Bhende gave me first prize. In Elphinstone College, I became, as the old saying goes, a star overnight.
I was unfit for stardom, and the old school habit—of self-isolating and wanting to be at home—lingered beneath my guitar playing and recent sociability. But the talent competition had an outcome. Someone—I think it was Sanjoy Ghose, a proper student with political affiliations, a small but flamboyant man—introduced me to All India Radio, which gave me a periodic slot to sing my own songs. AIR was a behemoth that by then was entering hibernation. The song they first broadcast was called “Untitled” and began with lines that indicated that love songs weren’t my forte:
Only the madman came
Walking inside his brain
I knew he was mad
I knew he was old
He wanted to die
Only the passing time
Deep in the madman’s mind
Makes him think of death
Of dying in sleep
Of God being blind
Something else happened around then: I encountered, and became obsessed with, North Indian classical music. As with Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Brown, Hindustani classical music had been sitting before me in a figurative train compartment, and, without our necessarily acknowledging each other, had suddenly brought into being a series of questions in my head. Woolf rejects Arnold Bennett’s notion of building lifelike characters brick by brick, but—in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” her parable on social distancing—conceives of “character” in terms of “impact”: that is, an unlooked-for incursion into, even an encroachment upon, the imagination by a person or personality. Hindustani classical music became a Woolfian “character” for me in 1978, in that it inadvertently started making inroads into my existence. Then it consumed me. The principal catalyst was my mother’s new music teacher, Govind Prasad Jaipurwale: an extraordinary singer of the purer classical forms as well as of devotionals and the ghazal. Tentatively, I began learning ragas from him, and plunged into a regime of practice.
There were two other developments that year. My father became chief executive of the company he worked for. We moved from the flat I’d grown up in to an immense twenty-fifth-story apartment in a recent development on Cuffe Parade. I became, through no fault of my parents’, overwhelmed by a sense of futility. I loathed that bit of Cuffe Parade, which comprised several clusters of tall buildings on reclaimed land: the first contagion of the property boom that would take over the city and its outskirts in the ’80s. As a paean to the boom, our building, Maker Towers B, had been named after its builder, who was called, tautologically, Maker. In spite of hating the new apartment, just as, in a different way, I’d hated school, I began to spend a lot of time in it. The ostensible reason was to practice. But it was also to withdraw from Bombay, a city that had formed me but whose cosmetic “Westernization” I’d always judgmentally distrusted, and which I now took against intensely. I was ashamed, too, of privilege. I started to hide at home. I eased myself out of Junior College without making a clean break. I convinced my poor father to let me take A Levels with a view to traveling eventually to England to study literature, and to study literature purely with a view to eventually publishing my own poetry. I was unaware of not missing my friends. I created a new set of friends, my mother chief among them. I found there was more to her than her short temper. Bai, the maidservant who had by then been with us for more than a decade, arriving late mornings, going home to Mahalakshmi in the afternoons, had long been a close friend, but now she, along with other players who formed the staff during those days at home, grew very familiar, becoming, finally, eavesdroppers and commenters on my music regime. I could never befriend my mother’s music teacher, who soon became my music teacher—he was too busy, and I was in awe of him—but his brother, the tabla player Giridhar Prasad Jaipurawale, and especially his brother in law, the errant, beedi-smoking dance teacher and harmonium and tabla player Hazarilalji, became guides and accomplices.
Between 1979 and 1983, when I went to England, I dawdled over my A levels, practiced for hours, read and wrote poems without fully understanding the poems I wrote or read, entertained—more predictably—both romantic and sexual fantasies, and composed ten or more songs for one of my few appointments with my old world: the All India Radio broadcasts. I didn’t see Sanjoy Ghose after 1980: in 1997 he would return to my consciousness when (by then he was an important rural development activist) he was kidnapped in Assam by United Liberation Front of Asom and killed in captivity.
Despite going deeper into Hindustani classical music, I didn’t at once abandon my Yamaha guitar. I continued to write and sing songs on the twenty-fifth story, with no audience in mind, notwithstanding the All India Radio. I saw my unhappiness and isolation—I’m not sure which came first—as, simultaneously, the curse and the cure. My sense of excitement that I was in my nascent phase as a Hindustani classical performer must have been colored at least slightly by a premonition that I’d entered my last days as a Canadian singer-songwriter (which, given the importance Neil Young and Joni Mitchell had for me, is how I would have seen myself), and that this drawing-to-a-close was related to other things ending in that world. While the raga took me toward joy or ananda, in my songs I returned to sadness, bereavement, unrequited love—all the things I’d never truly experienced. There was a purity to the fictionalizing of emotion in one’s late teens whose intensity would never be substituted by the actual experiences to come. It’s that fictional world—besides the flat in Cuffe Parade—that the songs inhabit.
“The Trouble With Being Lonely” was one of the very last songs I wrote before I set aside my guitar and traveled to London. I kept the tune simple, because, through Meera’s bhajans, I was newly drawn to simplicity. It’s the result of—and its subject is—the self-isolation of about four years. My interest in bhajans, or devotionals, made me slip in the word “Lord” in my quasi-devotional but secular appeal, in a way also sanctioned by the likes of James Taylor. I think it was broadcast in 1981: pre-FM days in Bombay, so that you can hear the static. All those AIR broadcasts were taped on a Panasonic two-in-one. Soon after, the producer asked me, as if he’d suddenly woken up to what I was doing, if I’d sing some well-known numbers in the future. I had grown arrogant, and said: “No, I only sing my own songs.” After then, I had no more invitations to record.
Here are the words.
The trouble with being lonely
is that you think you’re the only one sometimes
living in the universe.
And if it rains upon the glass
you think the rain will never pass
and nothing will get better now or worse.
Oh it’s dark inside my mind
when I’m feeling blue
Oh Lord at such a time
Who have I got but you
The trouble sometimes with waking up
is that you feel you’re breaking up
and yet the light shines in from the new day.
And yet the morning seems like night
and yet you feel that nothing’s right
except the wish for going far away.
Oh it’s dark inside my mind
when I’m feeling blue
Oh Lord at such a time
Who have I got but you
Well though my world is full of friends
sometimes I wish their love would end
sometimes I wish that they were never there.
But the friends I want to see again
are the friends that only brought me pain
they are the friends for whom I really care.