Sitting in my room, on my bed, I spent a month traveling through the world on Tinder using its virtual (and free for the month of April) passport. I could have just texted my exes, like a lot of my friends were doing. In fact, I did text one ex enquiring in passive aggressive tones about his wellbeing. But when he responded in a cold, and somewhat uncaring manner, I decided to not revisit the past anymore. The world, as they say, was my oyster. Talking to an ex could have been comforting but talking to new people came with fewer regret options and served similar if not the same purpose of making me feel wanted, and, most important, less alone.
I started with my former home of ten years, Delhi. After spending a few days swiping left and right, I moved to Kolkata. Then to Bangalore, Cochin, Chennai, Hyderabad, Indore, Pune. I went abroad to Madrid where all the gorgeous men were. To New York, and Los Angeles. A little bit of London, a little bit of Amsterdam. I spent some time in Stockholm and some in Helsinki. But, finally, came back home and settled in Mumbai.
Each city I entered looked the same. No matter where I went, no matter who I looked at, everything was painted the colour blue. “Does the world look bluer from blue eyes? Probably not, but I choose to think so (self-aggrandisement),” Maggie Nelson, who sits on my study table, permanently, whispered into my ears. Was I seeing sadness, loneliness, blueness because I was blue? Maybe. But it was the emptiness I felt inside everyone I talked to that kept me going. It perhaps was my own emptiness that needed filling.
When a virus forced the world to shut down and it became too overwhelming to talk to friends and family, I talked to strangers I found on dating apps and discovered that I wasn’t the only one struggling. Everyone was alone; every city a lonely city, and every country a lonely country.
Intersecting with depression
Loneliness might be the plague of our times, after all. All the empty messages we find in our “others” folders that get registered as spam is, a lot of times, lonely people trying to reach out. Loneliness calls out from every corner. It spams us. It screeches at us through angry social media posts. It howls at night in forms of sad music from a window, or loud music from the roads.
The day I had started working on this essay was also the day Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide. I was busy writing when my brother informed me of the news. I stopped writing to look at my brother and gave him a puzzled look. I could not comprehend the news completely. It took me a while to take it in, not because I hadn’t heard of people choosing death over life, but because I couldn’t understand why he would do that.
Didn’t he have a girlfriend? Wasn’t he doing well in his career? Didn’t he own land on the moon? Some news channel had done a tour of his house, it was big and it was beautiful, which is to say that he was financially stable. His house had a lot of books, something everyone talked a lot about after his death, as if those books made his death more tragic.
An actor who was barely a few years older than me became a victim of the biggest pandemic that never leaves this world – depression – and succumbed to it. Covid-19 will come and go; the world will finally step out of their houses and roam the streets. But this will remain. The only difference between a Rajput and those in our spam folders is visibility – whose depression gets talked about and whose remains invisible, if not mocked.
This is not to say that all loneliness is depression, but the two often intersect with each other. Rajput had the means of figuring out what ails him, and yet his loneliness consumed him. Though now the story of his death has moved so far beyond mental health and loneliness these remain invisible the way everyone expects them to be. It feels like a perfect testament to our condition.
Loneliness, Olivia Liang had said in her book The Lonely City, is a chronic disease without any redeeming features. And no one wants a beloved actor to be beyond redemption, right?
The lonely city
I have often wondered, what if the men asking for our “frandships” are actually just asking for friendships and not sex? Often, while travelling in metros and local trains I have spotted men holding hands and walking. Seeing them, so intimate, so uncaring of the world around I have remembered my childhood best friend and I walking the way these men in front of me are walking, and I have wondered if they are just friends or covert lovers?
Maybe they are both, maybe they are just friends, comfortable holding each other’s hand, uncorrupted by the harshness of the big city they have come to inhabit. Whatever they are, in this moment and for moments to come, they are not lonely the way I am. The way the men I met on Tinder are.
Laing’s definition of the word “loneliness” is the only one that has ever made any sense to me. These days, as I read her book slowly, I find myself writing poems on loneliness; a little bit can be blamed on Laing.
I often think of myself as a woman trapped
in an Edward Hopper painting. I am naked
in my lonely desires. I am dressed in my
Suburban loneliness, I am surrounded by
buildings, by people, by noise of honking
cars, the pedestrian chatter, buzzing phones.
But there is silence written all over my body.
People don’t talk in his painting, no matter
where they are. People can’t escape them either.
When you leave me, it’s where you leave me.
When you go, you really go. And loneliness,
the permanent resident of this body, comes back.
But mostly, it is because I am afflicted by this disease in a deep, unkind way. It is this disease that drove me towards Laing’s book.
In the book, she chronicles the two years she spend in New York, when she ran away from England after a painful breakup, to escape the city of her suffering. In New York, she ended up interacting with art that captured the defining feature of this century, loneliness. She writes about artists such as Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol. And the women in their lives. Each one of them lonely, and rejected.
Laing’s story, in many ways, is my story too. When I picked this book, I wasn’t choosing it consciously. But when I did, things fell into place. You see, a little more than two years back, I too ran out of the city of my heartbreak. I moved out of Delhi, when I ended my five year long relationship. You see, just like Laing, and all the people crowding her book, I too am deeply lonely, and writing a book about many of my afflictions, loneliness being one of them, of course.
Looking for a friend
Unlike Laing, though, I didn’t move to a new city but an old one. There I only had myself to interact with. And strangers found on the internet with their stories of heartbreak. A man, let’s call him Zaakir, told me about being married to a stranger who has remained so after years of being married. He was not looking for a hookup but someone he could just talk to.
Zaakir’s mother pushed him into a marriage, and he was tied to a woman who wanted completely different things in life. I wondered how lonely his wife must be. Zaakir at least had Tinder. His wife, according to his description was a genial, domestic woman, who hadn’t gone to college, had no intellectual aspirations or interests.
What I heard was that Zaakir and his wife had lived under the same roof for years, shared meals, shared a bed, but never shared stories. Never really talked to each other. Here were two strangers locked in one house, too scared to find real cures for their ailments.
Shashank, who had just returned to India after completing his masters abroad, told me he was looking for love and a serious relationship. He had been lonely for far too long, he said. Desperately lonely. I would, he said, jump into a relationship right away.
Shashank’s loneliness had roots in family history. It wasn’t just broken relationships but a product of living alone and suffering too much physically and psychologically. He wanted to be with someone so he could forget about the things that were not right in his life. A companion who could take away some of his sorrows, divide his loneliness into half.
One of the first men I matched with, let’s call him Siddharth, told me he was already seeing someone. But all his life he was a loner who stuck with the few old friends he had. He never found it easy to talk to people. But now that he was locked inside his apartment all alone, he saw this as an opportunity to talk to more people.
I asked him if it was only about talking to people – was he also matching with men? He told me that he has guy friends, but has difficulty talking to women. I did sense his difficulty while talking to him, but it became easier in a few weeks. There was no romantic exchange, not even one. Only two new friends discovering smaller things about it each other.
This is an age old problem of not being well-socialised with the opposite gender that those of us who grew up in small town India often face. And it is also rather well-known that women end up being more supportive of emotional troubles, while boys who have been asked to “man it up” end up being aware yet ignorant of the needs of emotional support. It is probably why Siddharth was looking for women friends. Lockdown was nothing if not an emotional turmoil for the whole world. And he was no different.
Laing writes in her book, “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person.” Had it not been that way, it would not have become a crisis. It would not have reached the scale of a global pandemic.
But the lockdown also legitimised loneliness. Now that a lot of us were alone at home. Now that we couldn’t leave our homes, socialise, meet friends for drinks. Now that we were cut off from the world in a dangerous way, this virus-forced aloneness was not one we had chosen for ourselves. The uncertainty of life, the fear of the virus and dying alone, the realisation of how truly lonely we were had us cornered in our own houses, our own safe spaces.
It is not surprising then that there were so many men breaking down their walls and confessing their loneliness. Confessing to our loneliness was easy now, because everyone was doing it, everyone had to do it. Phone calls increased. We started playing Ludo online. The app Houseparty became popular.
Eventually, I started video calling friends who are usually averse to phone and video calls. Old, almost dead friendships were rekindled. In a way the virus brought us face to face with the monster we were living with, sharing our bed with.
Loneliness, that monster we cannot look away from now. And I hope we don’t.
When Roland Barthes lost his mother, he poured his sadness out on paper. That sadness was later converted into a book titled Mourning Diary. In a note made in that diary Barthes proclaimed that he resists the world. “Like love, mourning affects the world – and the wordly – with unreality, with importunity. I resist the world, I suffer from what it demands of me, from its demands. The world increases my sadness, my dryness, my confusion, my irritation, etc. The world depresses me.”
What I want to say to a mourning Barthes is, I know, Roland. I know. The world depresses me too. But also, now that I am trapped inside my house, only with myself, the sadness offered to me by the world is more desirable than my own sadness. In other words, the pandemic taught me to not resist the world. Maybe you should not have either.
For the last few years, as I isolated myself more and more, I realised the addictive nature of loneliness. How easy it is to let yourself get devoured by its dark shadows. How easy it is to stop demanding love, affection, care. How easy it is to look the other way, ignore phone calls, stop communicating. And how so many of us had succumbed to these cruel habits. The pandemic told us we were extremely, desperately lonely. And we had no cure in sight. It forced us to find love.
The marketing people at Tinder already had predicted this need. The internet has isolated us. The internet will find us companions. And so Tinder opened its doors “free” for a month. Find love in that time, or if you can’t, at least get addicted to the quest long enough to start paying till you find what you need.
I didn’t pay. I stopped using Tinder after that one month. By then I had found at least a few people I was talking to on a daily basis and I had managed to get in touch with old friends. I didn’t find love. But I found the desire to escape my loneliness which was, at best, latent in my body for the last few years. I now feel exasperated. I am ready to step out of my house, finally.
“Because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.”
Laing ends her book with this warning. With everything that we have witnessed in the world, the number of people who died, the migrant labourers who walked back home for hundreds of kilometres, the death of a famous actor, the spread of the virus that began in a small wet market in China and took over the world, we know that the time for feeling will not last, we don’t have to look into our history, the present is enough.
If not this year, then the year after this one or the year after that, a vaccine will be developed for the virus. But there is no vaccine for loneliness, other than people, other than kindness. Other than love. It would be good to remember Laing’s words then, because we won’t last, and the time for feeling most definitely won’t last.