The Beautiful Room Is Empty | Verve Magazine
India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
February 25, 2018

The Beautiful Room Is Empty

Text by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

Learn how junking the excess — a glamorous big-city life, top-ticket parties — allowed the bestselling writer to return to his own most authentic self

When people ask me what I do, I struggle to answer. The stock response is, “I’m a writer.” Or, now, I say I help out with an arts foundation in Goa — I kind of curate shows. I also make homes — design narratives in form. Yet, none of this feels entirely true. It feels a little like dressing up for the job, it feels like make-up, it feels like I’m angling for the ticket of an employable person with a semi-important public designation. To be honest, most days I’m on the beach. Or I’m travelling. I’ve never held a desk job. Even as I read this, I’m scared: for I can see my future — I’ll be selling pressure cookers on a home shopping network and date night is only ever going to be with my cat.

Yep, folks, my future is really not very bright. But my present is semi-excellent.

This is because a few years ago I consciously decided to live in delight of the ordinary, and in exhilaration of less. To do this, I quit much of my life in Bombay, because one morning I saw photographs of myself online, huddled with a bunch of glamorous strangers, and we all looked amazing but also like we had rehab on speed dial. The hashtags were horrific — #friendslikefamily, #partee, #amazing. This wasn’t me. These weren’t my real friends. What’d I been drinking last night, and why was I pretending to be a teenager with butt acne and Snapchat cat ears? Slap me, someone. I started with my own two hands, and when I was done, I ended up in Goa.

Folks in Bombay said my life had flopped. They were right, in a sense.

Failing is a kind of freedom.

Failing is also the purest form of decluttering: you’re ridding yourself of the junk of things that you believe define you, in order to be not defined by them. Of course, when it’s happening — when you’re smack dab in the great clearing out — it’s not a party. Actually, it sucks. But once you’re done — once the rubbish is gone or marginal — the cleanliness is a lifeline. Decluttering feels clean. And clean is where wisdom hides: it means you take things out to see what there is. You do accounts: what do you need? What can you do without? Why are you here? All the people I’d known in the society circle were wonderful. But almost none brought meaning to my life, which had become essential in my quest to live a life that registered on the authenticity graph. Of course, the question remains: what is meaningful to you, and how does removing the excess help with this? Deep inside, you know what’s meaningful to you — your work, your love, the book you were meant to write. By removing litter, you simply become more aware of what you need to be whole and perhaps happy. You enroll into the monastery of experience, an ascetic seeking some truth, some beauty.

This sounds swell on paper. How does it translate on ground? My own life, to some, might seem successful. I’ve written two books; I head an arts foundation; I am invited to speak at important events; it is not difficult for me to get a table reservation, no matter how busy the restaurant; my lawyer always calls me back. But that’s not success to me. Success to me is recognising that once I let go of the excess in my life, abundance followed. Success to me is that I do not have a desk job but a beach office — where I work long, hard hours, I meet with artists, curators, I haul my computer and write — in fact, I wrote part of this piece there. Can you taste the sea wind in my words?

Everyone has to work. But I am privileged to get a decent view, and when things decide to go pear-shaped, I go swimming. At Sunaparanta, the arts foundation I head, over 30 fine artists participate in the festival I co-founded in 2014 with my family friend and Sunaparanta founder, Dattaraj Salgaocar. The theme this year is ‘The End is Only The Beginning’, which examines how the conclusions in our life become apertures for commencement. We have artists as seasoned as Jitish Kallat and Yamini Nayar, Prajakta Potnis and Michael Müller; we have the mesmeric Devdutt Pattanaik extolling on life and death; the astonishing Mithu Sen will don a new avatar as DJ; and on opening night, Sufi musicians from four countries will send out beautiful prayers that will bless our trees, air and water. How did this happen? How could something so profound and true come flaring into existence? I believe it was because I simply had to let go of what was superfluous, for the significant to take its place. When I began this show at Sunaparanta, the walls were bare.

There was nothing.

Slowly, I have grown aware, and come to prize that this nothing as everything, and that the rooms often look most beautiful when they are empty.

And that the real work I have been trying to do all along is to come home to myself.

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