Those who live alone in Delhi, whether too young to marry or single by choice, have a particularly tough time when the pandemic leads to restrictions on movement and lockdown. Spare a thought for them.
The year has begun with night curfew, then weekend lockdowns. Now, the possibility of lockdowns stretching from weeks into months into eternity strikes a note of terror in the hearts of those who live alone or are in self-isolation due to contact with a person experiencing symptoms of flu, not knowing whether it is the common cold or the deadly virus. In Delhi’s biting cold in the month of January, many people are suffering from throat pain, running noses or fever and that raises the panic level at a time when Omicron is known to be highly infectious.
Across Delhi, there are so many people living alone – single by choice or after divorce, too young to marry, too old to remarry, those who choose not to live with grown-up children, those who can’t – the numbers may seem insignificant statistically but they form a vital part of our society. They are the exception to the rule of social conformity. For them, lockdown is nothing less than solitary confinement, except that they have at hand all the tools for entertainment and for social engagement that the internet offers. And yet, that is poor compensation for outdoor activity or human contact.
“How will politicians or bureaucrats understand our plight?” asks Vishnu, a 32-year-old independent journalist. “Right through the pandemic, they have been working, sometimes from home. They have a purpose in life and financial security.” For people like Vishnu, on the other hand, their staying power is under severe strain, not just career-wise but emotionally. It is inevitable that he is plagued by uncertainty about his career that continues into the third year running.
Delhi has never been a city where you warm up to your neighbours enough to while away your idle hours in their houses. Yes, you may develop a nodding acquaintanceship with them, appeal to them for help or exchange news about RWAs and a little bit of gossip. But people living alone are not welcome to mingle with families, as their very singleness makes them seem strange. They stick out like sore thumbs in a society where family is everything, and even fraternizing with somebody of their own age in a larger family would make the family uncomfortable. Of course, they have colleagues, ex-classmates and soulmates in various parts of the city, but the long distances in Delhi frustrate any attempts at meeting up or hanging out.
“No, I’m not depressed,” protests a retired professional who is now 58 and decided at a young age never to marry. “After all, I’ve lived alone all of my adult life.” In the middle of 2021, she slipped in the bathroom and fractured her leg. She called the guards in her gated community on the phone, but both the balcony door and the main door were locked from inside. She was unable to raise herself to open either of the doors and they had to be forced open from the outside. A surgery had to be performed and she spent the recovery period with her sister, who is divorced. Still, the two sisters did not decide to live together and now, whenever she falls ill, the whole nightmare of the fracture plays on her mind. She may not suffer from depression but the anxiety syndrome is evident.
For the self-employed, there is no activity which automatically becomes part of the long tedious day, no motivation to get out of bed on a cold winter day. There are no calls for meetings, no instructions to follow or give, not much work being commissioned because commercial activity has stopped or is in limbo. Supplies are not flowing in to run businesses.
Thus a travel writer, whose entire work has dried up due to the pandemic, has nothing much to do but post selfies and hope someone makes a comment. An author feels uninspired, listless, wondering if the moribund publishing industry will ever rise from its coma. Even the domestic help does not come to provide some kind of human touch or provoke some semblance of social interaction.
Over the first weekend lockdown, people living alone were more frustrated than others. A researcher could go to his library, there was no brightly lit mall where you could do a bit of shopping or pick up a bite to eat, no café where you could hang out with your laptop for an hour or two. “I gave up the comforts of home to make something of yourself, to pit myself against my peers, to meet challenges, to get ahead in life,” says Samakhya, who arrived in the city in December to take up a new job. “Now I am sitting alone 24×7 as we have been told to work from home till the third wave subsides. Of course, I know this is temporary, but when you are young you are also impatient, not so mature that you can easily put your life on hold because there is a virus lurking in the streets.” Her younger brother is supposed to join her when college reopens but there is no word on when that is likely to be.
It’s true that parties and social interaction are the essence of life in the city, where twenty-somethings come to work, leaving their families behind. “Since I have just started my career and am not able to support myself on my meagre salary, I have asked my parents to send me a monthly allowance for at least a year. I feel embarrassed, and want to assure them that it is just temporary till I get an increment or find another job,” says Tarika. “But now I wonder if the economy can support even my small dreams.”
A middle-aged executive put it more poetically: “You are living in a bustling metropolis but feel the stillness of an abandoned village where there is nobody to cast stones on the pond. This is not the Delhi I know, where frenetic activity used to be the order of the day.”
So the plight of the loners stuck in their small spaces certainly evokes sympathy. But wait: Is it better to be alone or stuck in a small apartment with someone who irritates you? Who blames you for passing on Covid? Who is always by your side, whether you like it or not? Many years of marriage go by in the busy routine of raising kids, sending them to school, planning their weddings. In the end, many couples are alone with someone who was there through thick and thin but whose company they never learnt to enjoy. In short, being alone may be a form of mental torture but even a twosome might fight the lack of other company unbearable.
The grass is always greener…
(Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals interviewed)