Rony Patra Socializing and social distancing April 30, 2020 https://www.nakedtruth.in/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Socializing-and-social-distancing.jpg

During this lockdown, my supposedly-endless stay indoors has been punctuated by three things—sleeping, working from home, and guzzling endless libraries of movies and shows, thanks to the wonders of online streaming. I’ll confess here that I’m just trying to get through an endless backlog of stuff I wanted to watch, but didn’t find the time for.

A few days ago, I finally got around to watching Kheya Chattopadhyay and Aditya Sengupta’s made-for-TV 2019 Bengali film Shesh Mess (The Last Mess). It deals with a staple of Bengali urban life—the messbaari or boarding-house, that has been a long-standing trope in Bengali popular culture. At the core of the messbaari lies the principle of various people from diverse backgrounds sticking together irrespective of the hardships of life.

In Shesh Mess too, the challenge for the boarders of the last mess may be to withstand the onslaught of demolition for building apartments, but the central theme of the film is the safeguarding of the sense of physical and emotional togetherness fostered by a common space—the mess—and an overriding sense of nostalgia.

In fact, most movies and shows being watched during this lockdown thrive on the spectacle of physical proximity in performance, which mimics real-life situations and behaviours. Our need for togetherness—whether physical or emotional—is determined by our collective sense of nostalgia.

In a rapidly changing world, we subconsciously look for anything to tie us down to our roots and our pasts. Our psyches yearn to get back to a time when socializing could be done without any compulsive need to get back to work. It is the main reason why we choose to lose ourselves in the memories of photographs and text messages. It is also the reason why we crave for the chance to socialize at the next available opportunity.

Technology has brought down this need for physical proximity, somewhat. Credit to social media, we can stay connected with each other, even if there are physical distances involved. But the need to stay connected, or rather, the desire to stay connected, is perhaps fuelled by the casual observation that physical encounters can happen whenever we want them to.

At the back of our mind, we somehow know that in case we get tired of WhatsApp chats and video calls, we can always seize on the next available opportunity and meet up with someone, face-to-face—whether they are parents, relatives, friends or lovers. The “See You Soon” messages fly thick and fast, because we take it for granted that we will meet the people we are virtually interacting with, at some point.

What happens when the certainty of meeting someone is taken away from you suddenly?

How do you deal with that?

Why do we choose to lose ourselves in the memories of photographs and text messages? Why do we crave for the chance to socialize at the next available opportunity?

As COVID-19 has “entered the chat”, it has dramatically reshaped our expectations of communication practically overnight. All of us stay indoors in a seemingly-interminable wait for the resumption of normal life, and are now forced to confront the realities—and even consequences—of social distancing. Our lives are now confronted with a keen question to which we are all fumbling for answers—is the age of meeting someone face-to-face over?

One could argue that this anxiety about the need to meet someone may be an issue of mental health, arising from boredom and loneliness. A more precise way would be to see where all of us are in the five stages of grief. If one goes by everyone’s reactions on social media, the verdict is pretty clear—we are all hovering between bargaining and depression.

We may not realize it, but we are still mourning the loss of a normal life-style, where we could go out for work, vacations, parties, amour, and so on. We keep telling ourselves—and others—that everything will be all right. The economy will bounce back, there will be better vacations and glitzier parties after this, our cities will be cleaner, we will have acquired so many other skills, and so on. And we keep posting proof of what we have done so far on social media.

In spite of our obvious dependence on the internet and social media for anything vaguely resembling news and entertainment, one may argue but it must be kept in mind that we only put out our best selves on social media. For us, the grass always looks greener on the other side, but the fact is that we are all struggling to redraw our societal boundaries here, due to the pandemic. And, we try to project an image of self-confidence to everyone around us.

I keep noticing how people write on social media about how they are going to celebrate festivals with renewed vigour once the lockdown is lifted. Nothing is bigger in West Bengal than Durga Puja, the festival embodying the victory of good over evil, celebrated with feasts, public processions and family visits, during which cities, towns and villages all become Woodstock. A lot of people are already mourning the loss of the habit of pandal-hopping this year, saying that “the Pujas just won’t be the same”. It’s a problematic argument, because it signifies that our celebration of festivity is driven more by commercial considerations rather than any real sense of devotion.

It is a well-established fact that festivals are a huge part of any culture, but to say that festivals can’t be celebrated “in the proper spirit” is taking things too far. In this age of social distancing, perhaps large congregations and opulent celebrations won’t be a reality. Perhaps our habit of going to other people’s houses for parties on Diwali, Eid or Christmas will be a relic of the past. Perhaps watching that much-awaited blockbuster on Eid at the nearest cinema won’t happen, at least not in the near future. Instead of going to places of worship, our prayers and rituals will have to happen at home.

But will it all be doom and gloom? It may be wishful thinking, but maybe all these will finally force us to look in the mirror and examine our habits.

Our lives are now confronted with a keen question to which we are all fumbling for answers—is the age of meeting someone face-to-face over?

Social distancing may ironically push us to socialize with people who have long lost touch with, albeit virtually. Our hangouts with friends may be limited to Zoom and Google Duo, but at least the bonds will still be there. The idea of using cinema tickets or restaurant meals as a crutch for social interaction might not be possible in this day and age. But maybe socializing will be redefined from relying on distractions and hashtags to actually connecting with people and their emotions. As I’ve said before, listening helps.

And here’s the thing—we’ll be fine with it. We’ll survive and thrive. There can be a no bigger celebration of life than humanity itself, right?

unsplash-logoDominik Bednarz

When he’s not busy watching old cricket matches and reaction videos on Youtube, or marvelling at how bad screenplays in Hindi cinema can get, this guy teaches English literature at a university in West Bengal, besides taking an interest in Indian (not just Hindi!) cinema, popular culture and global media industries. He can be reached on Twitter at @ronypatra, and on Mastodon at @ronypatra@mastodon.social.

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