Home / Opinion / Columns /  Covid has altered the kind of nostalgia we indulge in

Facebook has this feature that I used to find annoying: ‘Memories’. Here’s a photo—or an articulated post—from three years ago, five years ago, or (horror of horrors) 10 years ago, a database-sifting algorithm deadpans, so why don’t you relive your past by sharing it with friends? This nudge happens on a daily basis.

I don’t think I’ve ever risen to that bait and “shared a memory" to pander to Facebook’s algo persistence, but, earlier, I used to wonder, like Dr. Dog: “Gosh, has it been three/five/ten years already? Where’d all the time go?"

These days, whenever FB tosses me a memory like a bone, I’m more like, “Hmm, so this was what life used to be once upon a time—not so long ago."

Photos of friends mimicking a soccer huddle. Family members standing cheek by jowl (not even 2mm worth of separation) after a wedding dinner or a weekend lunch. Me at the airport check-in counter, looking bored stiff because it’s my third trip in the same month, probably wondering why I cannot ‘stay at home’ more often. A few of us sharing a plate of biryani. Two of us under the same blanket on a nippy afternoon in a tent next to the river. A restaurant table without a hand-sanitizer centrepiece. A post on trial-room tribulations. One more on striking up new friendships while watching a game at a sports bar. Close dancing with a stranger on the dance floor, lost in the music, not a care in the world.

Nostalgia. A sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past. On any given day, as a brand property, it can be a separate, viable vertical in the world of business models, with an assured return on investment. But in the aftermath of covid, it’s on a bull run. I don’t have to look at a carefully-shot 1940s’ black-and-white photo of my grandparents sitting in the room which, in the 1980s, was converted into my study, and feel dewy-eyed anymore. I only have to look at my own photos dated January 2020, doing something utterly impulsive and eyeroll-worthy—like holding up a glass of Chardonnay in a Khan Market café that has an alcohol licence—to experience nostalgia.

Looking back at a different time zone versus looking back at a different way of living. The time that was, versus the way we were. That’s how covid has changed nostalgia.

On social media a few days ago, a friend posted a photo of her with a couple of colleagues without masks in a “safe zone" type of hangout. Many of the comments, I noticed, were semantic variations of “Is this pre-covid?" and “Oh, how we miss those days". My friend had to jump in at that point and clarify: this is now. Immediately, there was a flurry of “Why aren’t you guys wearing masks?" and “You are standing so close to each other!"

There’s a reason why people assumed it was a pre-covid photo. Most ‘social’ photos or videos being shared today are ruminations on how life used to be nine months ago.

As a coping mechanism to deal with the non-feasibility of travel back to the “hometown", an expat friend of mine has formed a group on WhatsApp where he has invited other hometowners, scattered all over the world and unable to undertake their annual or bi-annual pilgrimage, to share remembrances of their city. It was quite poignant, I thought, rustling up memories, staying connected and seeking comfort in anodyne commonalities.

Sometime back, I read a National Geographic piece titled, The Surprising Way Nostalgia Can Help Us Cope with the Pandemic by Nicole Johnson. I came across this paragraph which immediately hit home, given that I have been in stream mode since our lockdown began: “In one recent study tracking the effects of covid-19 on entertainment choices, more than half of consumers reported finding comfort in revisiting both television and music they enjoyed in their youth. Online, virtual cast reunions for shows such as Taxi, Twin Peaks, and Melrose Place offer a return to beloved characters from the past."

Which is why when I re-watched the entire series of Friends yet again, I felt it was different. The earlier re-treads were for its timeless engagement factor; the covid re-tread was because I wanted to be in the midst of friends, drinking coffee at the drop of a hat.

As and when the era of covid recedes, and as and when we emerge gingerly out of a time warp that started in March 2020—with or without post-traumatic stress disorder—will we ever experience bouts of nostalgia for a period that held us hostage to an undefinable ransom?

I’m thinking, yes. Not because of Stockholm Syndrome and capture-bonding and all of those masochistic streaks, but because we’d have created some genuine memories: Zoom parties and home cooking and working from home in boxers and tees.

Ten years later, when Facebook throws me the “memory" of ‘Me, Masked’, with a caption that reads, “Going against my grain, I became a fan of online shopping and bought myself a face bandana", I’m sure there will be a twinge of wistfulness.

I will be nostalgic.

Sushmita Bose is a journalist, editor and the author of ‘Single In The City’.

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