Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | The new-found insularity of social-distance learners
Photo: ANI
Photo: ANI

Opinion | The new-found insularity of social-distance learners

It is somewhat satisfying to observe how people who could not understand why the socially distant actually needed their solitude are themselves starting to like it

A while ago, someone who was #StayingAtHome sent me a photo of a cup of coffee she’d made for herself. Topped with a blob of latte art that looked like a twisted face. “Tried to recreate Edvard Munch’s The Scream," she offered by way of explanation, revealing the DNA of the prominent painting in context: this is the season for sentient beings to clasp their face, screaming in anguish.

It was timely caffeine-induced wisdom. Because if I were to transpose the acoustic on myself in current times, I realize I feel like screaming “Leave me alone" most of the time. I mouth it (silently) when (almost always) voices or faces at the other end of a phone line or video link begin sounding or looking too concerned: from “Are you alright?", “How are you keeping yourself busy?" and “Is sleep eluding you?" all the way to “Did you manage to make dinner?" and “There’s a self-help book you should definitely read…"

It’s gotten so bad that I feel like screaming “Leave me alone" even when WhatsApp or Signal or Messenger showcases tokens of alleged affection or humour on loop… or calls for a Zoom call. I try and ignore most renderings, I’ve changed settings so others cannot see me online, have put all notifications—including calls—on silent, and I’ve wriggled out of a few voluble groups.

What starts out promising to be an easy tête-à-tête ends up acquiring morbid hues. “Do you know no one is allowed to go near a dead body? Corona has taught us we are truly alone." It’s a terrible thing to say, I know, but I wanted to eyeroll that one; instead, I sent a weepy face emoji, while I muttered darkly, “Can you shut up and leave me alone?" at the WhatsApp screen.

It’s a bit needless, even gratuitous, to be wanting to be left alone, I guess. Corona has made it clear we’re all on our own. But I still need more and more me-time to deal with the demons in my head, grapple with news that keeps repeating itself, mull over life’s frailties, watch bad movies in an attempt to be distracted, and seek attention with inanities on Facebook.

Perhaps I should be brave enough to stridently vocalize my need to be left alone, but, then, I don’t want to be branded an antisocial since I am already socially distant in the real, physical sense.

It was good to hear of somebody else I know exiting four family groups — I’d be too socially-correct to do that—before she was re-inducted back to two of them. She went on to narrate an eloquent snatch from her lockdown journal: “The lockdown hollowed out time to fill as I pleased. I liked that. It force-allowed me more interior time, to indulge my own pastimes, trivial or not, and better tuned me to my own thoughts, my own noise… one aspect of the pandemic I enjoyed was freedom from putting on that chatty face."

Much before we’d heard the word “corona", the loneliness epidemic had set in. It was, reportedly, a symptom of modern times. But what’s happening now is not an invigorated onslaught of loneliness. It’s insularity, and the ensuing gracious or compelled acceptance of it. As another friend pointed out, “For me, covid has accentuated aloneness. Do I know I am alone in this? Yes. Do I feel lonely because of that? Not yet."

For me, personally, the sense—and, in a way, the magnificently lop-sided grandeur—of alone-ness has been magnified during the pandemic. For years, I’ve lived alone, totally disregarding the catches in tones whenever others remarked, “Isn’t it lonely to be living alone?" I never bothered to demystify the “loneliness versus solitude" discourse, and would simply say, “Naah, I love living alone, it’s the best way to be."

So, it was sweet, and poetically justified, to hear one of the most outgoing women I know—who would earlier say she couldn’t bear to be alone, “not for a single minute", for the fear of missing out, and used to wonder aloud how I managed to—now claim she’s actually comfortable being with herself. What’s more, there are people who inhabit the same premises as her, but in her mind, she’s by herself. “You know what? I’m alright with it—never thought I’d live to see this day! I want to be insulated."

The alone-ness and the safety blanket of insularity has managed to be a great leveller. My father, for instance, invariably talks about how he is all by himself. Literally. He used to do it in pre-corona times too. “But tell me," I asked him. “Would you have really wanted to be with someone during this time, being tossed a clutter in your private space?"

There was a silence. And then, he said, “No, you are right, I’m better off being alone."

He and my new-found certitude derived from the institutionalizing of social distancing as a virtue have fortified me enough to indulge in my favourite bit of role play in the “alone saga". When certain irritating characters keep hammering it home with a syntax-like use of “I’m all alone", I say, with barely-concealed glee, “You’re not alone in this you know, we’re all alone."

Smoke the peace pipe and enjoy the solitary splendour

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

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