Together physically, virtually in another zone

Family On Sofa Using Smartphone, Laptop And Digital Tablet

During the pandemic, families are being forced to spend quality time together but each is involved in their own online world — WFH, video games and Netflix

There’s always a silver lining. The pandemic has destroyed millions of livelihoods, the economy is in shambles and the future is at best uncertain. Despite this, there are families that take consolation in the fact that this has given them a break from their busy lives, and they could spend some quality time together; some even resumed exercising and got back in shape.

It’s nearly half a year since the life we were accustomed to got disrupted, and people have been trying to get used to the new normal. And this new normal entails a lot of screen time, many are hooked on to some device or the other if it’s not shut-eye. Not just for pleasure, but also for work — work from home (WFH) being another manifestation of the new normal.

Technology that connects people, for work and otherwise, also gives a false impression that people are available round the clock. A boss sending instructions pre-dawn, or midnight text scolding and ruining sleep after a hard day’s work is a common occurrence.

All this is fine, at least father or mother or brother or sister get to stay put at home and get domesticated. “My father is a great cook,” says Tarang, 23, a student who was planning to go to Germany for an internship before the pandemic hit the world.

A resident of Saket, she is happy that her father prepared some exotic meals, rich and spicy—recipes of his grandmother. “I have never seen her (great grandmother), but the nostalgia was palpable,” she says. It was all fine during the first few weeks, but then her father got busy with WFH, and she, too, was mostly online. “I realised that though we were together but there was no conversation happening. It seems to have become a routine,” she regrets.

Srishti N, 26, is a budding entrepreneur who lives with his parents and younger brother, Kshitij, in Noida.  They all have a busy online life. Though her father has started going to work, during evenings and after dinner they all sit together, staring at their respective computer or mobile screens, busy chatting up with friends or watching an episode of Friends on Netflix.

Srishti compares the situation with that of her grandmother. “She gets perturbed when people are not around and complains that she was left alone unattended for hours even if it’s just for a couple of minutes. It’s okay with her if people are around even if they are occupied,” she explains and laughs. “The same seems to be true with every one of us in the family amid pandemic. It’s reassuring that we are together, but we don’t really need to be talking to each other.”

So the new normal as far as family quality time is concerned is to be together for hours, but it’s perfectly okay not to utter a word to each other. But some parents are worried. They don’t know what keeps their sons and daughters occupied, though they are  very much with them huddled together in the apartment.

Mansi Chug is an entrepreneur — her husband is a banker, and she has a 14-year-old son Ritesh.  He makes music collaborating with online friends spread all across the globe. They plan to form a band in California at some point in time. She’s a proud mother that Ritesh is a good musician.

But she’s also concerned about Ritesh. For music has provoked his interest in psychedelic substances. Lately, he’s reading online about the hippie movement and the beatniks of America. His favourite writer is William S Burroughs. Mansi finds Burroughs “degenerate and iconoclast to a fault.”

Because of the online classes and WFH scenarios, family members have an excuse to be online all the time

About a couple of months back, Ritesh told Mansi that he is fascinated by music fuelled by drugs. He explained to her that many great musicians died due to drug overdose—Michael Jackson, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison—the list is long. “He argued with me that their (musicians) association with drugs was not futile. It gave them the necessary inspiration. It helped them to experience things differently and express their true yearnings by way of music,” Mansi says.

As of now, Ritesh is a very bright boy, good in studies, articulate and overly sensitive. Mansi is fairly sure he will grow up into a gentleman. But she has been on pins and needles ever since her son revealed his admiration for drug-fuelled creativity. “My son is by my side, yet I feel he’s not here with me. Bad influences can jeopardise his future, and I’m not even aware. I feel he is with me but his mind is wandering in the cosmos of the internet,” she says, “and that’s an uneasy feeling.”

Ritesh allays all her fears. “I like music. And I like how music is made. Music is quintessential to the musician,” he explains.,“Admiration for people, and fascination for the way they lead their lives, need not necessarily mean I end up imitating them.”

Bursting into laughter, he adds with a sparkle in his eyes, “There’s no online equivalent of doping.” Mansi is not convinced. Putting restrictions is counterproductive, she introduced Ritesh to a friend who has done LSD and other psychotropic substances in the past, to show him the real picture of the seemingly glorious life of a musician and how any dopey endeavour necessarily ends in a disaster.

And this ability to connect with the outside world, albeit notionally, is a safety valve, which keeps families together in good humour despite being confined indoors. However, it has to be said, the recent banning of PUBG under Section 69A of the Information Technology Act by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on grounds that “engaged in activities which are prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India” has caused some serious repercussion in the family life of many.

Gaurav Prasad, 22, is aghast. He lives with his parents and younger sister in a multi-storeyed housing society in Sector 137, Noida. An engineering student, he takes online classes, which he only joins “for attendance sake” as the classes are of little help. “It’s just not possible to listen for three hours to the professors reading out of a book,” he is categorical. Three of his friends had devised a method to deal with this problem, they put the class on mute,  and instead played PUBG.

There’s also a feeling of alienation within families despite being together

Thanks to this adjustment, he actually used to look forward to attending his classes before PUBG was banned. “I understand it shouldn’t be a big deal but it’s true my online life has bearing on my family life,” agrees Gaurav, “banning of PUBG has had a more profound impact on my life than, say, rising prices of food. I’m very irritable these days,” he concedes.

Also, because of the online classes and WFH scenarios, family members have an excuse to be online all the time. It works well for the affluent families, but the lower middle-class families are feeling the brunt. Some families had to borrow money to buy a computer for the sake of online classes.

Mandira Singh is a deputy manager in a private bank and a single parent of her 14-year-daughter Rosy, who studies in a public school and they reside with Mandira’s ageing parents in Karol Bagh. She’s barely able to meet the costs, and now she was forced to buy a computer for her daughter. One of her cousins donated an old computer but it wasn’t conducive to host zoom classes.

She, though, doesn’t regret spending Rs 40,000 on a new computer four months ago. Mandira’s boss shared her Netflix password with her and she is currently watching Masaba Masaba with her daughter and describes the series as “inspirational.” She has also made her daughter join an online guitar class. “My parents think watching television excessively makes eyes weak and kills the brain cells,” Madira is bemused and points out, “but they themselves spend hours watching Hindi soap operas.”

She cannot imagine a scenario where she could have survived without a computer. “Family has people of various age groups, with a different set of priorities and interests. It’s difficult to entertain them, especially when normal life stands disrupted. Screen time is a good way to engage oneself and is indicative of how society operates and family will exist in the future,” she pontificates about the long term impact.

Like Rosy, many are using various online platforms to learn new things or hone their talents. Dancers Manjari Chaturvedi and Shreyasi Gopinath are taking online dance classes, and many of their students are from the US and Europe. “I’m learning guitar from a very good artist (who was known to the music teacher of her school) from London. It’s possible only because of the internet,” says Rosy.

Though it has a great advantage, there’s also a feeling of alienation within families despite being together. This is something new. “There’s a limit to how much you can talk to a family member who’s there with you 24×7 for months together. It’s a matter of satisfaction that all my folks are fine. But I need to engage with the outside world to keep me sane,” explains Srishti.

Mandira agrees, “Though I love spending time with my daughter but looked forward to the quality personal time when she would go to school or spend an evening with friends. I now feel tired with the constant presence of my daughter and parents. Screen time has given some respite.”

Thus, the new normal may entail a real family life engaged with a virtual society.

(Cover: The new normal entails a lot of screen time, many are hooked on to some device or the other // Credit: Getty/iStockphoto)

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