98. Being Alone but Never Lonely

Being Alone But Never Lonely: The first time it happened, I was certain I was being solicited for prostitution. The guy who said it was coasting alongside me on his rickety, ancient Indian bicycle, as I walked the streets of Amritsar in the northeast state of Punjab. He pulled up next to me, asked me my name, asked me my country of origin and then, with a smile that I read as sly but was in fact no more than curious, he said it.

Are you lonely?

I told him I wasn’t lonely, that I had a girlfriend. He asked if I had friends in town with me. Certain that he was still trying to sell me a prostitute, I rattled off the kind of evasive counter-lie that Asia has trained me in. “I’m traveling with several friends and they’re waiting for me now.” I started walking a little faster. Three pedals later he waved at me and said goodbye.

I cannot walk or sit alone in India without a shy parade of men and boys sidling up to me to ask my name, my country’s name and how long I’ve been here. They ask in whispers, in excited shouts, in dreamy-eyed hushes and sometimes, most amusingly, they ask with a kind of robotic monotone that sounds as if they deliver the same inquisition a hundred times each day. Sometimes these three questions are the whole of our conversation and sometimes I end up spending an entire afternoon with a new friend. Mostly the experience is something in between, a thirty-minute question and answer session, as was the case with the inset group at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. One of these guys, near the end of a very innocent conversation about American cinema and the color of my eyes, he said it too.

Are you lonely?

And then, standing in the wide reflection of their collective arm-in-arm gape, I got it. They were asking if I was traveling alone. It makes perfect sense that in this bubble of a billion people, the words lonely and alone would be synonymous. In a country where you are rarely, if never, alone, the concept of loneliness is as foreign as my blue eyes. In a country where men are so closely bonded to one another that they don’t think twice about holding hands on a stroll through town or in a crowded movie theatre, my traveling alone is as exotic as it is baffling. Close friends your age are brothers. Don’t you miss your brothers? they ask. Older men you respect are your uncles or even a baba, informal Hindi for “father.” Where is your father? they want to know. This isn’t just a charming affectation of a foreign culture, it’s a survival mechanism. Even more, it’s an indication of how good Indians are at loving one another.

A country of this many people, of bodies living on top of bodies, so many lives playing out amidst unimaginable squalor, a country like this would not function without some enormous measure of mutually shared love and respect. Days spent scraping by with little hope for improvement or escape would be unbearable without these intense personal connections, an infinite supply of peers who love you, who help you, who need you as much as you need them. Love is the most important strand that binds and makes possible the functional chaos of Indian society. Someone said that although the Italians may have invented love, the Indians have perfected it. Two months here and I believe this is true, if only because it explains away so many of the impossibilities of this place. I love India. I also wonder, more than ever, who the hell bothered to invent loneliness.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Beautifully written. I do wonder what the reaction to a gay traveller would be? Or even if that way of conceptualizing ourselves would be comprehensible in such a different culture (outside of the cosmopolitan cities).

  2. Anonymous says:

    number 98, about love in india, just might be the best thing i’ve read in this log….and i’ve read every single entry
    thank you for keeping this up
    and letting us know
    it’s warmed my cold heart
    in 100 degrees in portland

  3. Sloan says:

    Thank you J – I keep meaning to tell you that your music makes long, rough Asian road journeys pass more gently.

    To the first, Amy and I were both fascinated with the homosexuality issue in India after seeing how physically affectionate straight men are with each other. Just how close is their bond, before they marry and settle into a traditional life? Homosexuality exists as a concept here mostly in so much as it is understood to be taboo, as dictated by religious texts. It’s also criminalized (under an old British era statute, no less). You can be certain that outside of large metropolitan centers, which do actually have small gay scenes, the concept is largely unknown. So a gay couple in India holding hands wouldn’t draw much attention, until it was known that they were gay, when they would draw too much attention. Anyway, all of the India guidebooks advise that gay travelers be very discreet. Two anectdotes:

    In the lates 90′s, there was an Indian film made about two sisters-in-law who live together and become lovers and partners. When it was released, cinemas that showed it were regularly firebombed and rioted. When I was in Kolkata, I had a lunch conversation with a new Indian friend who gushed about Elton John’s Bangalore concert in 2002. It was, he believed, the most important musical event in India’s history, yet his memory of it is now marred by Elton’s marriage in 2005. “My country wept when we learned he had married a man,” he said. “Why, why couldn’t he just marry a woman? We don’t understand it, we just don’t understand it.”

  4. Anonymous says:

    Your insight and empathy are inspirational. Thank you for sharing. as usual, well written.

  5. kate says:

    Anyone can compliment your writing. I went and nominated you for a Thinking Bloggers Award.

    Stay gold.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The first comment above shouldn’t be from anonymous, it’s from me, Byron . . .that anonymous label sounds strangely closeted to me. By the way, I agree with the other posters – wonderfully written and worth that Thinking Bloggers Award for sure!