It was an unusually pleasant September afternoon in Delhi. The circular Connaught Place shopping arcade was beginning to fill up with people.
We decided to have a quick lunch at the vintage United Coffee House in the inner circle. The restaurant was quiet, despite being full of diners. Ours was a table in a corner, on the first floor.
Seated right below, under the gaze of two large chandeliers, a group of foreigners savoured bowls of Indian curries and the accompanying breads.
I ordered a vegetarian khao suey while my friends had their staple fill of prawns, mutton and fish. The nine-day Hindu Navratri festival forbade me from consuming meat or alcohol, including food cooked in garlic and onions. I wouldn’t call myself a devout Hindu, just an occasionally dutiful son.
As we waited for our food, I noticed a bespectacled young man – probably in his 20s – dining by himself. I thought he was in a hurry as he ate his meal. Perhaps a tad self-conscious of what others thought of him, “this pathetic lonesome diner, bereft of company!”
Maybe he wasn’t feeling so. Maybe it was my perception. I’ve been in his place too – dining alone, one evening, at a bar, and catching a film, thereafter, also by myself. That evening, I was greeted with pity or smirk as I sat by the bar. To my surprise, I enjoyed my meal, which was a bowl of vegetable rice, a spicy chicken curry and a few pints of chilled Hoegaarden beer. The film, a Bollywood comedy, turned out to be unbearable. Nevertheless, it was a Friday well spent. A degree of independence never lets you down on many occasions, I realised.
What is it about eating out or watching a film alone that makes one look like an alien or a loser? I find the whole practice grossly abused, looked down upon and severely under-rated, too.
Yes, it’s great to sit by yourself in a QUIET restaurant after a toiling day. You may want to remove yourself from all possible communication and that may not necessarily be inside the four walls of your room.
Dining solo is meditative. In other words, if you’re comfortable being a solitary person in public, it is a mental tranquilizer. Of course, it would be silly to hop into the loudest pub in town to spend time with yourself!
But as humans, we’re programmed to communicate and mingle with the world. We crave company, sometimes intimate, especially after a hectic day so we can unwind.
So dine out alone, only if you have to or want to. On solitary tours, make friends. But it sucks to be dining alone and feel miserable about it. Also, no how-to-dine-alone manual can compensate for a nice fellow diner sitting across the table sharing a meal with you.
In a narrow-minded Indian context, the solo question can get a little tricky, especially if you’re young and single, and worse, a woman. Your existence then becomes the shared responsibility of the society. Going to the movies or travelling alone may sound like a courtroom trial at home, to begin with.
That conflict of mindsets and the complimentary burden of accountability determines a lot about your private space. And mostly, if you’re not a full-time rebel, you would junk the idea. No?
I wouldn’t, however, blame the unexacting elders for our lack of venturing out alone. We’re just not used to it. Period. I have rarely seen solo Indian travellers and I haven’t done too many such trips either. Brought up in families and continuing to live with them, whether large or small, we’re accustomed to breathe in the cushion of someone around us, always. (I know of many people who sleep more when they’re spending the night at their parents’ than they would at their rented apartment, for instance.)
It’s a fine transgression many of us are not willing to cross, for reasons best known to each one of us.
Here, read this article and you’d know what I am talking about – the joy of discovering yourself and, with it, the omnipresent realisation of your being.
Earlier this year, BBC wrote about the rising trend of solo diners in the U.S., with the stigma attached to them slowly beginning to “dissipate”. In India, that might be a far cry.
You can share your thoughts in the comments section below.
(On Twitter, I am @Ankush_patrakar)