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A conversation with silence in the hills

"Up in the hills they don’t have a context to you. Being uncontexted is life’s greatest blessing," he says
When I turned 51 in July last year, I decided that it was time for me to live a life that I wanted to live.
When I turned 51 in July last year, I decided that it was time for me to live a life that I wanted to live.
Interiors by Sreya Seth of Photographs and styling by Namrata Datt of Maison 15

Swapan Seth   |   Published 16.11.19, 02:42 PM

Every gentleman is aware that in the pedigreed process of having a drink poured for yourself, it is critical to assess the precise moment at which one must whisper, “when”. Life is no different. The “when” is vital. A process of both evolution and evaluation, it is that full-stop of sorts, that moment when you calmly switch off the ventilator of compulsions that are critical to living as most of us know it.

When I turned 51 in July last year, I decided that it was time for me to live a life that I wanted to live. Doing the things that I enjoyed doing. And moving to a place of immense beauty and exquisite calm. In his brilliant work, The Art Of Stillness, Pico Iyer said: “One is reminded at a level deeper than all words, how making a living and making a life sometimes point in different directions.” But God, clients and Jio (in no particular order) have been kind to me. Thanks to the business that I am in, where I am is largely as immaterial as who I am. Geography is history for me. I am therefore fortunate to be at a place out of which I can make both a living and a life.

My Jio dongle takes the licking and keeps on ticking. My signal, up in the hills, is more robust than perhaps yours wherever you are. People who are told that I live in the hills, often tell me: “That’s a big step.” “Brave of you.” I find it strange. Is rationing your time, spending time with yourself and your wife, seeing the mountains the moment you wake up, breathing an air that is pure, planting flowers and vegetables, cooking meals, shining some brassware, writing some ads, watching some fab films, reading some terrific books and listening to Charlie Siems, a big step?

You have to choose the preservative you want to bottle yourself in.

Leonard Cohen once said: “Going nowhere isn’t about turning your back on the world. It’ about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”

Have I renounced the world and got into some cashmere robes? Hell, no. I have my children, my workplace, my home and some fabulous friends in cities. You work in a city and head to the mountains for a break. I will do the opposite. It is the kaleidoscopic effect that they taught us at HTA. The glass pieces are the same. It is just the pattern that changes.

Living by yourself (yes, we have no neighbours. Aside from a few geese and some cattle that come by. Invariably uninvited.) requires a certain comfort with yourself and the one you live with. In the 23 odd years that Sreya and I have been married, our days have been cluttered with work, home, the boys, responsibilities and obligations. In such a situation, you spend time with a person. But you don’t make a life with them.

You need to be centred about your life

There are other lessons that I am quickly learning.

Patience: There is a landslide and therefore you will be caught up in a jam for an hour. You don’t need to burst your circumflex artery over it. No bhindi is available. Anywhere. All the time. To access tonic water, you will need to travel for two hours. The geyser is not working. It’s a Sunday. And the entire town is shut. It’s all about the Stockdale Paradox: Deal with it.

Anonymity: I have always overdosed on it. I believe the world is made up of two kinds of people: The Who’s Who? and the Who’s He?. I am the poster-boy of the latter. Up in the hills they don’t have a context to you. Being uncontexted is life’s greatest blessing. There is no society that you belong to. Just a tribe of people. We spend a lifetime trying to benchmark ourselves. Putting a ladder against our life. The terrain in the hills is not conducive to placing ladders.

Stillness: I have spent days listening to the buzz of a wasp or the call of a bird. You don’t hear anything where I am. The silence is deliciously defeaning. You listen to every breath you take. You listen to the rustling trees, the gentle breeze and the occasional thud of a fruit falling from a tree. There is a lot you can hear in the silence. You don’t play the music loud or up the volume while watching a film in your deck. You feel as if you would be violating the calm. It was Thoreau who once said: “ In human intercourse, the tragedy begins, not when there is a misunderstanding about words, but when the silence is not understood.” That has been my greatest thrill. I have learnt to have a conversation with silence.

Amazement: Progressively, as a world, we have ceased to be amazed. We have seen it all, heard it all, read it all and know it all. But where I am, I have an uninterrupted, 180-degree view of the mountains. When you see a cherry blossom tree grow by your side, when you look at the sun setting for a good 30 minutes, changing from a fiery red to an adamant orange and finally a shy pink, you are simply amazed. When you train your telescope to the skies every night and see the stars, you are mesmerised. To be amazed is to be alive.

How did I arrive at this decision? By watching a TED video two years ago. It was about the perennial question: “How much do I need to live my life?” If you flipped the proposition to find out “how little you need to live your life”, the math changes. And with that the choices you have to make. I am fantastic at eating off the streets. I am good with a fancy meal as well. You need to be centred about your life. Once you are centred, you can decide what matters to you when. Once you have cracked it, life’s a bowl of cherries.

Have I stopped working? No way. I would die without work. You go to your office. I find a spot in the forest to set up my workstation. On another day besides a stream. Do you send mails and do your work? So do I. Do you make new business calls? So do I. Do you watch Netflix and Hotstar? So do I.

In his brilliant convocation address at Princeton some years back, Jeff Bezos spoke about the “choices we make”. I believe in that.

It was a choice I made.

Swapan Seth worked in advertising. Blissfully unaware of what he works in now. Collects arts, books, music and thoughts. Lives is Naldhera in Himachal Pradesh. Chokes up in Gurgaon once a week to meet clients and bills. Write to him at Only, if you must.

Interiors by Sreya Seth of Photographs and styling by Namrata Datt of Maison 15

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