I tried to imagine and visualize as to how a person would experience and cope with isolation for long periods. One day I requested my close friend Surendran to pose behind a partly closed door and took a photograph with a borrowed camera. When I described this to Mr Krishnan in the photography section at JIPMER, he was intrigued by it and helped me to take a print of it. I titled it ‘From The Shelter Of Silence’. Encouraged by him, I sent it to the All India Intermedical Youth Festival at AIIMS where it received the first prize and a commendation.
During the period of enforced lockdown due to COVID, I was wondering whether I could get hold of the journal kept by Xavier de Maistre and was fortunate to locate a copy of it, ‘Voyage Around My Room’. It was a fascinating read!
In 1790 Xavier de Maistre was punished for having gotten into a duel and was put under house arrest for forty-two days. de Maistre adroitly took advantage of his sequestration, finding within his own four walls a wealth of material to dwell on and kept a journal. Physically, de Maistre could not roam far and so most of the travels were, indeed, leaps of the imagination -- but he did find a surprising amount of material in his fairly comfortable room. He invites us to join him… “we will travel in short marches…yielding merrily to our imagination, we will follow it wherever it pleases to lead us”. He slowly leads the reader around the room, describing the pictures on the walls, the vistas and prospects within and beyond the room, exploring and dwelling on objects that are otherwise taken for granted. And what he sees brings back vibrant memories and leads him to look at things anew. The room is "that enchanted realm containing all the wealth and riches of the world".
At one point, de Maistre, is startled by what he sees outside his window: “A heap of unfortunate folk, lying half naked under the porches of those sumptuous apartments, on the point of expiring from cold and misery. What a sight! I wish this page of my book could be known throughout the world; I would like it to be known that, in this city—where everything breathes opulence—during the coldest winter nights, a host of wretches sleep out in the open, with only a boundary stone on which to lay their heads. Here you see a group of children huddling close together so as not to die of the cold. There it’s a woman, shivering and voiceless to complain. The passers-by come and go, quite untouched by a sight to which they are used”.
de Maistre proceeds at a leisurely pace and the journey is non linear, offering us rich insights as to how a person in confinement can cope with isolation through heightened perception and vivid imagination. Written in the form of short chapters, each one is like a polished gem.
de Maistre’s work springs from a profound insight: that the pleasure we derive from our journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a travelling mindset to our own rooms and confined spaces, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than the world outside.
In this world of hyper-chatter, we are less likely to observe and hear ourselves and unwittingly COVID has provided us with such an opportunity…
It is a break in our everyday busyness in which we immerse ourselves. The first thing we experience is silence the moment we retreat from the outside world.
The roots of the English term “silence” has its antecedents is the Gothic verb anasilan, a word that denotes the wind dying down, and the Latin dēsinere, a word meaning “stop.” Both of these etymologies suggest that silence is bound up with the idea of interrupted action. The pursuit of silence likewise begins with a surrender of the chase, the abandonment of efforts to impose our will and vision on the world. Not only is it about standing still, it is also a step inwards from the tussle of life.
My first experience of immense silence was when we spent a night in the sand dunes of Khuri. The silence of the desert took hold and overwhelmed me. It was the deepest silence I have ever known. There was nothing to hear. It was absolutely still, absolutely silent. The desert night was not very dark and the sky was deep – the stars did actually ‘twinkle’, and I had a sense of their distance – even distant stars seemed near, as well as larger or brighter. The starlit sky was an infinite space and one could gaze at it forever. Underneath my hand when I reached out from the dhurrie, the sand was made of tiny grains, very cool and clean, fine-textured, soft against my fingers. It was probably the most profound silence I had ever engaged with. Perhaps this is the silence that hermits seek in the desert.
Glimpses of the magical sandscapes of Khuri are at: photos.app.goo.gl/PyRP2rSB88Pt84w8A
We all live very noisy lives. Our silent spaces in cities have become constricted. It is not surprising to note that the word “noise,” derives from the Latin root nausea! We probably do not need a pervasive silence—desirable as this might seem. What we do need is more spaces in which we can interrupt our general experience of noise. We must also aspire to a greater proportion of hushed stillness in the course of our everyday life. And realize that many of the major physical forces on which we depend are silent – gravity, electricity, light.
We have not been locked away; we have been given an opportunity to silently discover a range of unfamiliar, sometimes daunting experiences, to maximize the connection with our inner worlds. It has given us a space to appreciate a great deal of what we generally see without ever properly noticing them. As Thoreau suggested we will have to become “our own streams and oceans; to explore our own higher latitudes.”
After these transformative few weeks we will recover our freedoms. The world will be ours to roam in, once more. As we resume our journey in the garden of life, hopefully we will see it from a different perspective than that we were accustomed to…
As Seneca commented long ago,“We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden.”
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