In which the householder decides to relinquish her family, the duties of daily life and retreat into the woods, if only for the little while
I can’t wait to go into vanaprastha, that stage in life when you are entitled to say “what goes of your father” to household stuff and live in a zen world. Where you don’t have to do collective bargaining for all manner of decisions — what to eat, where to holiday, what colour to paint the walls, should the dog be allowed to sleep on the bed, should bedsheets be vibrantly patterned or in boring pastels and so on. In order to prepare for it, I have been taking a vacation all by myself, once a year, where I live untidily, wake up early to watch sitcoms and not worry about being slothful, and have cereal, toast and egg in the evening because quite simply, it is a much more pleasant time of day to enjoy a leisurely breakfast.
I have forever fantasised about getting old and becoming my own person again and running only my life, for me. One of the fantasies had me living on the top floor of a sprawling bungalow with the rest of the family living downstairs; entry was not with prior appointment, but by invitation only. I did manage the not-so-sprawling bungalow which I built with my brother. His explanation of what the legalese “share of undivided property” actually meant made me change my mind quickly. He said: “If you plan to dig a grave for yourself on this property, remember that for every square inch of it that is yours, there will be another square inch of it that is mine.” I do love my brother very much but the thought of sharing alternate square inches of my sunset years with him did not provide me any sense of calm.
So I hunted some more and started building a little cottage near a jungle in the middle of nowhere, for my vanaprastha. It’s called Shangri-La. Of course, it will have an internet connection and a satellite dish and the cell signal — all human interaction would be digital unless I desire otherwise. The rest of the family sniggered and is still sniggering, albeit a little more enviously, as the cottage is now nearing completion. They are placing bets on whether I will actually end up managing to live there in isolation. I have my secret fears as well.
I remember going on one such vanaprastha training holiday to Ladakh many years ago. I told my daughter, “Maybe I will find a Buddhist monastery and stay there, because running this house and coping with all of you makes me want to run away.” She was young enough to be distressed at the thought of home with no mom in it, and she asked her dad worriedly whether mama would actually carry out her threat. He said, “Don’t worry, she has too little discipline, she won’t survive a monastery for more than 10 minutes”. I was miffed when I heard this. It so happened that I did visit a lovely monastery in Ladakh, and as I was on the terrace at noon admiring the view, the gong went off and I ignored it. An old monk came up the stairs and bolted the terrace door that led to the stairs. I panicked, shouted to him as I saw him go below that I needed to get out. “Wait till 3,” he gestured.
The thought of being marooned on the terrace of a monastery for three hours, with no food and not a soul in sight, had me in tears. A toothless young boy in ochre robes saw me on the terrace shouting frantically and he came up, unlocked the door and let me out. I didn’t tell anybody at home or even remind myself of this story for many years. But now I believe that I am older and wiser and emotionally ready to walk my talk.
“What will you do if Modi wins?” I had asked my husband, before the election results. “Take vanaprastha,” he promptly replied. “Where?” I asked suspiciously. “In Shangri-La,” he responded cheerfully. Then my daughter messaged me and said the endless television talking heads yelling at each other and the reruns of hectoring speeches and the Facebook posts from NRIs, who suddenly wanted to be a part of the voting action, were wearing her down. She ended with, “And can I take vanaprastha with you in Shangri-La?” I think if they are all headed that way, it makes sense for me to stay on in grihasta. As we used to say during my days in a market research agency, “market research is so much fun, if only it weren’t for the clients”.
Rama Bijapurkar is the author of We Are Like That Only and A Never-Before World: Tracking the evolution of Consumer India
I have fantasised about getting old and becoming my own person again and running only my life, for me… entry not by appointment but by invitation only