I know of three men who lived in the manner of their choosing. First was Socrates, who spent his days on the streets of Athens ambushing passers-by with seemingly simple questions. Like Ghalib, he loved argument. This was not to score a victory over another, it wasn’t a debate in that sense, but to try and bring understanding, to learn. Importantly, he also wanted to spread his spirit of inquiry. The aristocrats and upper-class youth loved him (it was a middle-class Athenian jury that put him to death). Socrates wrote nothing, but his disciple Plato gave us his teaching.
The second man was Michel de Montaigne, who lived near Bordeaux. On 28 February 1571, his 38th birthday, Montaigne retired from work. He spent the day at home with his library of Greek and Latin classics. He wrote. He invented the modern essay, a short sketch on an arbitrary subject, such as the one you’re reading. He wrote 107 of them on cannibals, on cuckolds, and on smells.
The third man is Shashikant Sawant, who lives in Vashi with his dog, a stray named Mozart.
He sells second-hand books to a group of people, perhaps 25 or so. He comes to their home or office with a bagful of books he’s selected for them. It is how he makes his living. The bag is an open thaila, such as women use to shop for vegetables (“So I can easily pull one out to read on the train”). His selection is based on knowledge of the person over time. Often, as is the case with me, he has sold to them for over a decade.
Man of words: Shashikant Sawant lives with his dog, Mozart, in a room crammed with books and watched over by a Mona Lisa print. (Photo Hemant Mishra/Mint)
He is self-taught, what is called an autodidact. Because he is curious and has an open mind, Sawant is interesting company.
He can speak informatively, often penetratingly, on the importance of Warhol, the relationship between Russell and Wittgenstein, the aesthetics of the Taj Mahal, the cinema of Bertolucci and of Sanjay Chhel, J. Krishnamurti’s conversation with David Bohm, living on a diet of zunka-bhakar, the Sicilian Defence in chess and the background to the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
I have spent many interesting evenings with him, and in another culture, he would be treasured. He paints abstracts and listens to symphonic music and Kishori Amonkar on his cassette recorder.
These three men have something in common and it is that they did what they liked doing, and little else. We can catch glimpses of their freedom by doing the things that we might like, but don’t because we haven’t set our minds to it.
And so here are 11 things you must consider doing in 2012.
Know: Every morning and evening in Monticello, his home in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson measured the temperature and atmospheric pressure. He owned hundreds of slaves but this Jefferson did himself, to be aware of what was around him. We are an indoors culture and that is one reason we invent so little. Pradip Krishen wrote a book on the trees of Delhi, but few of us can identify the trees around us or the birds of India.
Cook: For the most part, India still has seasonal vegetables. Learning how they are cooked in season will give you great joy.The other realization cooking and shopping for vegetables will bring is how drastically modern farming is changing the produce available in the market. The fruit sections in particular are frightening. Where are the local fruits of our youth? Why is so much foreign? To know this, we must work with the ingredients.
Just cook with seasonal produce
Make: In the period of their intellectual maturity, Tolstoy began making shoes and Gandhi began to make fabric. These two very great men decided that the most noble thing a man could do was to work with his hands. Consider making small things, useful things, like a bench or a stool. Such work is uncommon in our culture, but Indians were once great craftsmen, so it lurks in your blood.
Tasting freedom: Take up carpentry—set your mind to the things you would really like to do
Fix: One thing that separates Indians from Europeans is our helplessness before breakdowns. Our absolute reliance on plumber, mechanic, chaiwallah and IT man means that we understand little about the way things work, their mechanics. Merely disassembling the basic parts of something and putting it together again will bring knowledge. America’s high schools have something called “shop class” where all students learn how to work with wood and metal. We don’t and must teach ourselves.
Draw:Drawing is a different thing from painting. It is more modest. Drawing is recording, while painting is art. But all great artists from da Vinci and Michelangelo to Picasso have also drawn. The artist David Hockney separates drawing from painting because of its immediacy. This means we can draw what is before us, on what we have.
Sing: Music is expression. Expression of what? Emotion. The melodic instrument—guitar, flute—evokes emotion by imitating the voice. The percussive instrument—the drum—imitates the rhythms of life’s movements: breathing, sex, threshing. In the hierarchy of musical instruments, the human voice is ranked No. 1. The Hindu-Muslim vocal tradition of north India is the single most expressive form of music in the world (this superlative isn’t true of Indian dance). Learning it will enrich your life as few things can.
Go: Of the civilized nations, India has the poorest listings pages. We have few cultural events, and almost none where the audience pays. We have great culture but no patronage of it at the individual or collective level. This will change only when we attend events and pay for tickets. If you live in Mumbai, become a member of the Symphony Orchestra of India. In 2011, the audience is dominated by Parsis and the Indian musicians are mostly Catholic. This is because that has been the tradition. We can change that with our participation.
Grow: Few things are as rewarding to man as being able to grow food, or flowers. Coetzee writes beautifully of this in his Life and Times of Michael K. Even if it is just one pot or a little patch, to plant, nurture and harvest a living organism is something all of us should experience.
Read:Learning a new language is the best way of increasing what you know, because a culture opens itself to you. Make a list of the books that you will read next year. Include the classic texts of your faith, the Bhagvat Puran if you’re Hindu. Being familiar with the texts of other faiths makes us more open-minded, true, but fully knowing our own is an even better way. Writer Jerry Pinto once said his rule was to never buy a book he hadn’t already read. This is wise counsel for those who buy acquisitively, as I do. But I disregard Pinto’s rule because I want the book to be at hand when I eventually need it. Once you make your list of 20 books, go and get them.
Write:We do not really think until we write. All other thinking is superficial. This is something only writers know, and Bryan Magee mentions this in his book Confessions of a Philosopher. Few of us can use language with the sort of skill Rohit Brijnath does on these pages, but we can all observe and record. That is the important aspect of writing. What should you write about? One: The history of your neighbourhood. Its temples, churches, mosques, and their stories. Its schools, and who built them, who passed out from them. Two: The history and memories of your family. Its origins and professions, its ambitions and achievements. Its characters and its recipes. You will have a captive, interested audience for both subjects, and the material is waiting.
Mark: Today is the last day of the Gujarati month of Magsar (what other Indians call Margshirsha), and it is the dark night of the new moon. U.R. Ananthamurthy once said “educated Indians have lost contact with their almanac”. What a devastating observation. We live by the solar calendar, but our grandparents marked their days on a lunar year. They needed to because the amount of moonlight available was important to know. The smaller festival was celebrated, the anniversaries observed. We know Valentine’s Day but not Sharad Purnima. Fortunately, since we are vaguely familiar with the major festivals and where they fall, we only need to consult the almanac regularly to understand the rhythm of India.
The new year will bring things both happy and sad. I wish you give yourself a productive and fulfilling 2012.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns