Long, long ago (which is another way of saying 1995 or thereabouts), there used to be people who took a conscious decision to drop out of society. They wanted to seek the ultimate truths in life, or maybe just hated the society of their fellow men. (There’s a third category of people who seem to disappear from normal society –engineering students. But they don’t really qualify because they eventually build their own worlds.) In India, this used to be a commonplace occurrence. Having led a full life, raised children and performed his duties towards his family and ancestors, the Indian man was expected to become a kind of sedate hippie and head for the hills to contemplate the eternal mysteries (such as, what is the right answer to a woman who asks “Does this make me look fat?” Have you noticed that there weren’t too many stories about women who pushed off for the Himalayas? Why should they, they’re the ones asking the questions, it’s the men who have to come up with answers!) This renunciation is not entirely unknown in modern India. Some men still close up their rooms, shave their heads, don the simplest robes and set out on the spiritual quest. Whereupon wise neighbours nod to each other and say “I knew his credit card bills were too high.”
The Western world has its share of recluses. Paradoxically, we only know about the ones who are famous, such as Greta Garbo who “just wanted to be left alone”. A recluse who is not already famous is by definition invisible, at least until he buys a 72-ton Abrams tank over the counter in, say, Wisconsin and goes on a shooting spree. Especially in the USA, some of the most famous authors have chosen to stay out of the public eye. J.D. Salinger, who died a year ago at the age of 91, had not allowed himself to be photographed or interviewed since the 1950s. He went even further in that he did not publish any of his works after 1953, though he continued writing throughout his life. In effect, he removed not only himself but also his defining talent from public view. This, I must confess, is entirely beyond my comprehension. A latter-day literary lion, Thomas Pynchon, also chooses to keep his life private, but at least he continues to publish novels. He has this option because his work is highly valued; a newly published author has to give up her anonymity during the book launch tour, the interviews, the Page 3 appearances.
Fame can be a bitter addiction, but there are some very public examples of stars who went private. If Hollywood (or more correctly, New York, where she lived for 40 years) had Greta Garbo, Ballygunge Circular Road has its own mystery. Roma Dasgupta’s last screen appearance was “Datta” in 1976. Forty years on, her mystique obviously has not waned; all of Bengal’s media ran amuk when she was admitted to Woodlands in 2009 even though nobody outside her family really knows what she looks like now. Of course, inaccessibility makes a star’s aura more enduring. But let’s be clear about one thing – whether it’s Garbo or Salinger or Suchitra Sen, none of these celebrities has abjured modern civilisation or even the urban milieu. (Garbo, for example, was known to go shopping and take long walks in Central Park, safely hidden behind oversized sunglasses.) All they have done is severely limit their social interactions so as to protect their privacy. They are still islands in the stream, just very inaccessible islands.
In fact, they reinforce John Donne’s most famous line. They cannot survive without the support systems of modern civilisation. It’s a question of economics, not philosophy. Getting away from it all is very tempting (No Rakhi Sawant! No ICC World Cup!) until you realise it also means doing without home delivery, pedicures and group mails. This brings out the difference between (a) recluses, who limit their social interactions e.g Howard Hughes, who spent most of his last years in a curtain-enclosed penthouse in Las Vegas (b) hermits, who go off into the wilds and survive on their own without a phone, laptop or ATM card (I’m not sure which of these two categories would include Bobby Fischer) and (c) exiles, who want to live in society but for some reason cannot, such as most women’s mothers-in-law or Robinson Crusoe. Boo Radley, the mysterious neighbour in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, is probably more of an exile, forced to withdraw from society. His creator, Harper Lee, is closer to being a recluse, since she did not choose to become a public figure despite the acknowledged brilliance of her only novel.
We should also be clear that a recluse or a hermit is not always a misanthrope. They may not bear any hatred for the human race, just dislike its company. We all have days like that, when we’d rather be just left alone. Not because we want to wipe out the neighbourhood, but because we want to enjoy the weather. Or soak in some music. Or just spend the day with a book and a thermos of tea. The recluse just wants this state of affairs to last forever. This may seem strange at first, but remember within every extrovert there’s an introvert screaming to get out.