The current wisdom these days is that adults should be independent. A corollary of this is that they should move out of the parental home and experience living alone.
Many of us grew up hearing tales of the fabled Westerners who kicked their children out of the house at 18 as a result of which they had no love or closeness with their parents. Now the idea seems to have come to Indian shores.
It crept up on us quite stealthily. Mostly, people moved to another city to study or they got jobs outside the cities their parents were based in and they moved for work. Some ended up living with roommates, and sometimes eventually on their own. They learnt to set up and run a house themselves. A definite new stage of life seems to be emerging for a slice of young Indians.
And so we hear bandied about the idea that everyone must have this experience or else they have somehow fallen short of discovering themselves. And that if you don’t like living on your own, or actually would rather just live with you parents, there must be something wrong with you.
I agree that living away from one’s parents can be a life-changing experience. A lot of growing up happens. The change is particularly impressive in Indian men who suddenly discover the wonders of making a cup of tea for themselves. Even for some Indian women like myself.
What happens if you try it and don’t enjoy it though? What if you’d really just rather live with someone else, anyone, in the house? What if you don’t like coming home to silence?
Do you persist regardless of the unhappiness and loneliness? Do you crawl back to the nest? Do you acquire a roommate for the sole purpose of having some clatter around the house?
We are constantly being exhorted to be self-reliant and this translates into reducing not just our physical but also our emotional reliance on others, including the company of others. Those who do not manage to do this feel somewhat crestfallen as if they have failed in some important rite of passage.
My experience of living on my own – sort of – was when I did uni in Hyderabad. I had the option of living in the hostel or with my cousin and uncle in their house. I took one look at the hostel loo and decided on the house. In retrospect, this might have been a bad decision. I might have got used to the loo with its dim flickering light and Indian-style toilets and had a richer college life had I stayed where the thick of the action was. At my uncle’s place, we had all the conveniences of home but the huge house was often silent and empty. I was so not prepared for that and it scarred me in a big way. The entire experience of my two years of uni in Hyderabad did not pan out as I envisaged it and it’s a period that still gives me the shivers.
Although we lived with my uncle and had a fall-back plan in that sense, my cousin and I had to take care of a lot of the running of the house. Supervise the maids (fail!), plan meals (pass! I did eat a lot of chicken 65 from the cart across the road though), stock up of groceries (pass!), ensure that the water tank was filled (mostly pass!), take care of the dog (pass!). So that was a learning experience and a good one.
Those lessons learnt, however, I do not desire to replicate the experience. Hong Kong is a much easier city to be alone in and I am not the kind of person that enjoys the company of people in general, but I need the noise of people in the house. I hated it when V travelled. Waking up to Benji throwing his toys around at 6 am is much better than waking up to silence. I like short stints of alone time – a morning here, an evening there, but not extended periods.
Because I have children, I have company guaranteed for another 20 years or so. But had that not been the case, what living alone taught me is that I don’t want to do it. I will move cities with my family (V and my kids) or not at all. I will not move without family to places where I don’t know a soul. I know the odds of me being happy discovering myself in the peace of my own apartment are slim.
And I refute allegations that I am somehow less evolved for this.
For centuries, people lived around other people from birth to death. Tribal adults rarely leave their clans. Even in India, people went from living with their parents to living with their spouse, sometimes still living with their parents. I do not see this as a problem in and off itself. I think it becomes a problem because the individuals that we are today, we no longer suited to adapt to this kind of living with other people’s parents, which is perfectly reasonable.
I think living on your own might be akin to learning how to cook. It’s nice to know but you need to think about the likeliness of being in a situation where you need to cook for yourself. If you can make arrangements to almost never be in that situation, then maybe it’s a skill you need not force yourself to master? Is it okay to acquire mediocre skills in the art of living alone so that you can fend for yourself till more suitable arrangements can be made? Must one be an expert it in and enjoy it or else? Would it be possible that if you were forced into the situation you would adapt? Must one have a training period on the off-chance that lonesome living strikes?
The curious thing about living alone is that, for all its much-touted goodness, I have met very few people who actually enjoy it, and even less women. And by living alone, I mean in a house/apartment sans human accompaniment. The people that technically live alone seem to be constantly filling their lives with people who don’t live with them. They actually spend very little time on their own. When their lives are not full of the comings and goings of friends, they are as bereft as those of us who declare living alone is not all that.
I used to think that going abroad to university is an extremely fun thing but now I’ve heard several painful adjustment stories from people who did not live in a dorm. It seemed a lot like convincing oneself to love that life because that’s what one had chosen than actually slipping into it naturally. And noone seems any happier for having gone through that.
So then, why? Why valorise the whole thing, I mean?