We lived in a double track of online and offline time. Now, stopped in those tracks by a pandemic, with no one to find us but ourselves, can we ask how we plan to change?
The meditative quiet of my current physical isolation is regularly punctuated by the soft cha-chings of Calendar notifications. As I clean coriander, slice onions, wash the mixie and attend online meetings at home, an Other Me of the notifications, roams around the world — Birkbeck College panel, Morocco conference, Delhi seminar. Your flight is delayed. It is like watching myself in a parallel dimension. To this always heading somewhere me, I used to sing the Paul McCartney song, “The other me, would rather be the glad one. The other me would rather play the fool.”
But where was the time for that — and was it even an option?
For a couple of decades now, we have imagined ourselves as travellers in a world of choices. We have played with time, a double track of online and offline time, in several places at once. We were always heading to a future, to a more successful version of ourselves, consuming experiences and sensations and keeping as many options open as we did apps on our phones. Tinder bios said “collector of moments, not things” as if that made us unworldly. But the truth was, that thought tethered you firmly to the global enterprise of optimising time, getting the most out of it as a consumer experience. Hence time always seemed endless, yet never enough, our dil was always supposed to mang-o more.
Now, we are stopped in those tracks. We find ourselves joined together across the world, in waiting for Covid-19 to reveal our future. But it is a perverse oracle, revealing only our pasts, the disparities and distances between us and within us. Time is smiling to itself, refusing to be planned, pushing us to ask ourselves not whether time is enough, but whether we are enough for the times.
Liberated from the calendar, I do not lack for deadlines. There is a writing challenge deadline — 500 words at 5 pm (numerology is the thing this year) in response to a prompt posted at 9 am. Sometimes only the players read each other’s entries, sometimes many other people do, but we are so caught up in writing we aren’t measuring the numbers. I have my niece’s art challenge to do with her on WhatsApp video call every evening as we watch the sunset from her window — her materially, I, virtually, yes, still online and offline at once, but joined, not parallel. Last weekend I also had a singing video challenge my mum coerced me into. Result: showered with blessings from many senior citizens.
Some of our choices are coming home to roost. From afar, they looked like starlings; but up close, turns out they are saale kabootar. A friend says, “I’d rather die of corona than my neighbour at this point.” Someone tweets, “How strange to see your spouse in work mode. Did not know I was married to a ‘let’s circle back’ guy”. Will this bring them closer or drive them apart. I wonder.
Many of our tasks now are about subsistence, not profit. We cook and clean. We ask for help as help and don’t disguise it with marketing jargon like “collaboration” or “partnership”. One of the things that has emerged from this is a Facebook community called Simple Recipes For Complicated Times, which has grown from one person’s post into a 2,000+ group. People post pictures of wilted baingans and forlorn laukis and other people suggest what they should make. Gourmet-level types, cooking newbies and regular enthusiasts all contribute tips they have learned. Stellar successes, utter disasters and iffy experiments are duly reported — the star of which was, surely, a roti-making exercise, which, let’s say, did not work out. “Was the tawa hot enough?” someone asked the cook. “Tawa?” was his puzzled response. We share, we laugh at ourselves, we recognise our good fortune without virtue signalling.
As a friend and I discussed the group on the phone, I said, “It feels like the old internet, no?” “It really does,” she agreed. “It’s so nice.” The old internet where those who weren’t in a hurry to go places used to play the fool.
The new internet? It’s like this. When I was not on Twitter, I used to be mystified by a friend who pounced on random oneliners, “Oh, I’m stealing that line to tweet — since you’re not on Twitter.” Perhaps it was flattering. But it also aborted the possibilities of conversational chemistry, this mining it for tweets. Another friend would interrupt every conversation bubbling with ideas, with, “Oh you could write five columns out of that one paragraph!” The new internet, where you had to be a fast moving consumer good, where someone was always choosing, had been hard with this insistence on performance and appraisals, pretending to be relevance. A bit like school with mean girls and toppers and backbenchers, where play is work and politics is only meaningful if the hashtag trends. The same goes for you, connected to everyone by competition, hyperlinked by hyper-capitalism.
In such a world, choice becomes not just a buzzword, but something of a compulsion. It is a next-is-what behaviour you are constantly supposed to enact and signal in full view, rather than a political and personal process of consideration and commitment. Or, as they say on Tinder, keep swiping, love-shove is for losers. The more choices you have to play with, the more matches to choose from, the higher on the ladder you are. Connect, don’t commit. The destination is always known. To point out that this makes the journey feels tedious makes others feel criticised and you seem churlish. In that world, to be alone, to commit to an open-ended journey, was to be lost. And now suddenly, that’s where we are. A little lost, with no one to find us, but ourselves. And then ask that Other Me, how they plan to change.
Obviously, we will do a lot to avoid this confrontation.
Rich people are apparently looking at themselves (when didn’t they?), judging by all the privileged mea culpas around. Sighing about the Camembert in their omelettes, the good reds on their table, laid by their live-in help. Oh the class divide we live in, they cry, but we have no plan to end it anytime because, after all, what’s the use of making any plans in this time of Corona?
Other privileged people kept celebrating the return of nature — the dolphins of Venice — as if nature is also a home delivery app. A lot of this turned out to be fake news. But so tempting to fast-forward to a post apocalyptic resurgence without thinking too much about what you will choose to do differently.
Some of us prefer to rewind, to a prelapsarian era before choice paralysed us. A childlike return to Doordarshan dramas and mythologies from a time when you couldn’t choose what to watch, led by instructions of 9 minutes at 9 and 5 minutes at 5, as if we are children who don’t have to make choices. Do as we are told and everything will be alright.
But we are not children. This is a moment, where we are being asked to grow up and take responsibility for our actions, to think about ourselves along with others. If we have seen the apocalyptic sight of workers walking home without food and water, of doctors begging for ventilators, we have to confront that we have more because someone has less. That less and more are not the same. We may want to endlessly outsource caring to someone else, donate to PM CARES, without asking cares for whom, in order to be absolved of caring even for ourselves. The clanging of plates and lighting of lamps may offer a fleeting illusion of connection, but don’t the noise and darkness make it a little hard to see and hear what lies before us and commit to a way ahead in kinship and connection, not competition?
We are a bit out of practice at that. It seems scary. But here is a not-fake note from nature to give you courage. Last week, Jalandhar woke up to the magnificent sight of the Dhauladhar mountains on the horizon, visible without the fog of endless capitalist, consumer-nation endeavour, otherwise called pollution. It must be true then, on a clear day, you can see forever.
Paromita Vohra is a filmmaker and writer