Milestones have a special place in our lives. Cutting the 13th birthday cake, throwing the graduation hat on commencement day, buying gifts for parents with the first salary, deciding the colour of the wedding dress, holding your newborn—these moments stand out in our “life timeline”, providing a rear-view mirror of sorts to look back on our journey. That’s why we want to turn them into special occasions, even spectacles, to bookmark them in our memories.
2020 has robbed millions of opportunities to celebrate milestones, big and small. As covid-19 wreaked havoc across the world, people suffered heartbreaks at not being able to celebrate their once-in-a-lifetime moments—what sociologist Santosh Desai calls “little markers of time”—in the way they had long imagined.
“In a pandemic, not being able to celebrate a milestone might seem like a minor inconvenience but these moments hold an important place in a person’s life. Time has a routine quality; milestones help us mark transition from one stage of life to another, and celebrating them is a way of affirmation,” he says. “People have now found surrogates in Zoom, WhatsApp, but it’s not the same as being together in one room. Will this impact us, our mental health, in any way? It all depends on how resilient we are.”
It’s not all gloom and doom for sure. Sangeetha George, a career counsellor who works with school students, believes this is an ideal year for high schoolers to apply abroad. “Many institutions have revised their usual criteria of extra-curricular activities, transcripts, and so on,” she says. “They are bending over backwards to get in more international students.”
Businesses are learning to pivot as well. “People are realigning their original budgets for weddings during the pandemic,” says Parthip Thyagarajan, CEO of Wedding Sutra, a one-stop platform for planning Indian weddings. “Instead of inviting 500 people to a reception at a five-star hotel, for instance, they are spending on exclusive food hampers that are then sent out to close friends and family who do not make it to the limited list of invitees to the wedding party.”
As the pandemic waxes and wanes, the meaning and nature of celebrations will continue to evolve. But people will always find newer ways to mark these milestones. Lounge spoke to individuals who were planning to mark landmark moments of their lives this year with family and friends but couldn’t because of the virus. Here are the stories of their highs and lows, resilience and optimism.
Virtual campus tours
For the last few weeks, Nandini Gupta’s day has been beginning at 6.30pm. That’s when the 18-year-old from Mumbai logs in for her first class of the day. By the time the lectures wind up, it’s often 5.30am. As her family wakes up, Gupta retires to bed.
But her sleep cycle is only one of the things Gupta had to reconfigure recently. “Initially, I thought I would not be able to learn properly through online classes,” she says. “But after half a semester of lectures on Zoom, I am glad to say I have been proved wrong.”
Earlier this year, when Gupta learnt she had admission offers from 10 universities in the US, she was overjoyed. She picked New York University, New York being one of her favourite cities. She was all geared for the new phase of her life when the pandemic struck. Cities went into lockdown, flights were suspended, and the US consulate stopped processing visas. A few of her friends who were planning to travel abroad for higher education decided to defer their admissions and take a gap year. “I didn’t have any specific project I wanted to pursue instead of going to college,” says Gupta. “So I decided to join classes online.”
Gupta’s experience is far from unique. Millions of 18- and 19-year-olds like her, who have just completed high school, are grappling with the ever-growing challenges of college life. Until last year, the start of college life may have involved making friends, skirting seniors, finding excuses to skip classes or flirting with crushes. But 2020 has brought in a whole new set of growing pains. Topping the list is bad internet connectivity.
“I get really frustrated when the internet trips,” says Bengaluru-based Ishaan Ghosh, who has enrolled at Azim Premji University for an undergraduate degree in economics. Instead of the usual four-six hours of lectures on campus, he is spending just a couple of hours every day on Zoom. But online classes require greater vigilance and alertness. They can be tiring in ways offline ones are not.
Once upon a time, college life was supposed to be a lark, a milestone that brought freedom from parental supervision and ushered in adult life. But the pandemic had other ideas. Ghosh, at least, had a fleeting taste of college when he spent a week at Ashoka University in Sonepat, Haryana, for a short course in 2018, attending seminars and workshops. Abhishek Roy from Kolkata, who has got admission to the same institution, is yet to see the actual university. “I have been taking virtual tours of the campus, exploring the digital library,” he says. “I am also getting to know my batchmates on WhatsApp groups. But nothing beats meeting them in real life and spending time together.”
An introvert, Gupta didn’t really mind missing the excitement of the opening month. In any case, her university has been arranging online bonding sessions regularly: From Netflix parties to cooking together with fellow students, Gupta is living it up via Zoom. “I even found an excellent mentor in one of the teaching assistants, who held an office hour for me and helped me plan my majors,” she says. “All it took was one email.”
Ishita Pandey, who has joined the computer science and engineering programme at Manipal University in Karnataka, wasn’t as happy with her first few weeks of online college. “Yes, you can join clubs and societies, or interact with your seniors and teachers online, but it’s just not the same,” she says. “I don’t feel any personal growth has happened for me since I started college.” Currently staying with her grandparents in Lucknow, Pandey has not met her parents, who work in Saudi Arabia, for almost a year.
Although the pandemic has made the prospect of an imminent reunion remote, it has strengthened other ties. For the first time in her life, Pandey has spent a chunk of time with her grandparents and cousin. Her grandfather, a civil engineer, is especially proud of her decision to enter the same field. “The day before my classes began, he sat me down and spoke to me about his experience in the profession,” Pandey says. “I would have missed out on that chat had it not been for the pandemic.”
Saving, not spending first salary
Six years ago, Vijayalakshmi Iyer made a promise to her 17-year-old self: She would restart Bharatanatyam classes the day she got her first salary. This month-end, when she gets her first pay, she will be saving most of it instead. “When we moved here from Mumbai, we were going through financial problems and joining dance classes was a luxury. That’s when I decided I will pursue my passion only with my own money,” says Bengaluru resident Iyer, who started learning the traditional dance form at the age of six.
After completing her master’s in development studies from Azim Premji University earlier this year, and months of job hunting on LinkedIn and other platforms, she got an academic editor’s position at a language service provider late October. “Now that I am going to earn money, I can’t join the classes (because of covid-19), and I always wanted to take my parents out for dinner, but that’s also not safe. I waited six years to splurge my first salary. Now I will have to listen to my parents and save. I know I can do all this with my third, fourth or fifth salary, but it won’t be the same.”
The first salary is always special. It might be a small amount but the joy and sense of accomplishment that comes with it are priceless. In Iyer’s words, “It means you have arrived, at least money-wise.” It also marks the start of a new journey, she says. “There’s a security in being a student. If I wanted something, I could ask my parents for it. With my own salary, I can buy whatever I want, whenever I want. It would have been a happier feeling had I fulfilled my promise.”
Gaurav Belwal, meanwhile, is upset he couldn’t party with his friends at a Delhi pub after getting his first salary, the way he had been planning to since last year.
“I ended up saving money. At least my parents are happy,” says Belwal, 21, who got his first job in August at a branding firm in Delhi. He had always thought too of returning home to Nainital for a weekend to buy his parents gifts of their choice with his first salary. “I always imagined that the day I start earning, I will buy my parents whatever they liked. I just wanted to see their happiness when they saw my first salary. I couldn’t do any of that because of covid. And I will never ever get that opportunity again.”
For Sanya Jain, her first salary was reserved for a dinner at a five-star hotel in Mumbai with her neighbour-cum-best friend. Three years ago, Jain and her friend made a pact that they would figure out the “fuss about five-star food” by spending their first salaries on it. “Our families can’t afford such hotels. We understood that but we were always so fascinated by those huge buildings. In February, Anisha (the friend) took me to Taj with her first pay. We ended up having only dal makhni and roti (since most of the other items were either not interesting enough or too expensive),” laughs Jain.
When her chance came towards the end of May, all hotels were shut owing to the lockdown. “It might seem like a small, trivial thing but it meant a lot for us,” says Jain, 25, who works at an advertising firm. “We have been childhood friends. We have done so many things, firsts together. There’s so much history we share. The first salary was a big milestone for us. I wish we could create another memory together.”
No Bollywood-style wedding
Smita Chatterjee’s dream was to get married in a Banarasi sari, but in the end she had to settle for a kanjivaram. And that was just the tip of the iceberg of disappointments that the pandemic brought on. In fact, disappointment doesn’t begin to describe what Chatterjee, and millions of others who got (or are planning to get) married during the pandemic, feel. A wedding is—ideally—a once-in-a-lifetime event, you want it imagined and executed perfectly.
“As a Bollywood buff, I had so many ideas for my wedding,” says the 28-year-old Bengaluru-based professional. “Mehendi, sangeet, bridal shower, photo- and video-shoots for each and every event—the whole works!” The actual event turned out to be a two-hour whirlwind ceremony rather than the all-night affair that Bengali weddings usually are. A pre-wedding shoot on the outskirts of Bengaluru preceded the actual event at the Kalibari in Electronic City—15 people were in attendance. Although Chatterjee’s parents managed to fly in from their home-town, Rourkela, in Odisha, her husband’s sisters could not join in. The gala reception her parents had envisioned for their only child turned out to be a gathering with a few friends.
In another part of the country, Delhi-based Harshad Khurana, 27, was all set to get married in April. The date had to be pushed to July owing to the lockdown. “We had sent out invites to our relatives, along with boxes of almonds and sweets, as is our custom,” he says. “Only the neighbours were left.” Like Chatterjee, Khurana too had big plans for her big day. “Apart from the haldi ceremony, mehendi night and other functions, my mother wanted to have a satsang,” he says. “I had lined up a DJ night and cocktail party, booked tickets for our honeymoon to Dubai.” Cousins and close friends had planned to wear the same clothes for one event (“Those are still lying with me,” Khurana says). His colleagues had rehearsed a special dance number. After months of heady preparation, only 50 people could make it to the event.
The pandemic has not only trimmed the big fat Indian wedding, it has also shaken up the entire industry that runs it. From caterers to wedding planners to bridal-wear designers, everyone has been hit by the sudden shift in scale and ambition of their potential clients. Ranjani Iyengar, who runs Pink Whistle Man, a company specialising in visual communication, says her team had to quickly learn to adapt to the era of Zoom weddings. Instead of sending out physical invites, there is now a move towards virtual ones. “Currently I am working on a visual-led website that incorporates AR (augmented reality) filters,” she says. “Using these custom filters, friends and family can take photographs with the bride and groom without being physically present at the wedding.”
While virtual reality cannot compensate for the hurly-burly of a real-life wedding, it is at least putting celebrations back into the frame—and into a new perspective. Khurana, for instance, is hoping for a big celebration in January (now that such parties are allowed), timed to the Lohri festival. Chatterjee is content she has found a partner she loves. “I know it’s a cliché but we are happy and we are together. Honestly, that’s all that matters.”
Memories via video
“My mornings can’t start without looking at my grandchild’s face,” says Ratnesh Singh, a management consultant in Delhi. Every day, before getting out of bed, Singh and his wife open WhatsApp to watch a video their California-based son has sent of his three-month-old. The day we spoke, they had received a video of their first grandchild splashing water while trying to hold a yellow plastic duck in the bathtub. “He’s the first grandchild of the family. All these years we dreamt of becoming grandparents; we had all these plans of holding him, playing with him, hearing the first words, see him walk, but this virus….”
Like many grandparents-to-be, the Singhs had already made a list of toys and clothes they would gift and the lullabies they would sing, but covid-19 spoilt their plans of travelling to the US in July to be with their son and daughter-in-law before the child was born. They are now planning to visit in January. “Our son ensures we are part of his (grandchild’s) daily life. He sends us videos every morning and we have our daily calls so that he knows of our existence. This is what we look forward to the most each day,” says Singh, 69. “I don’t know if in January also it would be possible to travel.”
Though technology can’t replace the actual experience, the Singhs believe it has helped them cope better. “Thank God for technology. It’s little solace but we have to compromise. We are making different kind of memories. I hope my grandchild remembers my face when I hold him for the first time,” says Singh. “I am ready to go even now, but my children don’t want to risk it.”
Aditi Ravichandar, too, told her Bengaluru-based parents and in-laws a few months ago to postpone their plans of visiting her in the US while she was pregnant with her second child. “To be honest, it was harder for me to say no because my mother was with me when I had my first child,” says California-based Ravichandar, 33, senior manager in the global brand team (dolls) at Mattel. “But it would have been selfish on my part. The quarantine would have been so difficult and what if, God forbid, they got the virus. I just couldn’t risk it, though I knew how difficult it was going to be for me.”
More than managing things, it was the support of her mother that Ravichandar really missed—something that hit her as soon as she stepped into her home with the newborn a month ago. “Once you bring your child home, things become very difficult. Your hormones are trying to reset. You are feeding the child, taking care of the house. My husband has been my rock. But with mums, it’s different,” she says. “If my mother was around, I could pay all the attention to my child, while my mother could pay attention to hers—me.”
Like the Singhs, Ravichandar’s family has also found a “way to cope”. It’s mostly through regular WhatsApp calls. “Technology doesn’t really make up for the real thing. It’s a milestone in our lives and our loved ones are not here to celebrate with us. You have made all these plans for months and just like that everything goes for a toss.”
Namita Khanna, however, stuck to her plan. She and her husband had long decided to be with their son and daughter-in-law in Jersey City to hold their first grandchild—and even the virus couldn’t stop them from going. On 12 October, they stepped out of their west Delhi home after seven months of isolation, to leave for the US. “We live in a joint family with our old parents. So we mostly stayed indoors to not expose them. But we had to go to the US because our children needed us,” says Khanna, 52, who will be a grandparent “any day now”.
The other reason Khanna wanted to be close to her children was because they were going to have the “first grandchild in the whole extended family. Everyone is so excited. Every day I am getting calls from my relatives saying, ‘Khushkhabri hai (Good news yet)?’. More than us, the people back home are excited.”
She realises that travelling during a pandemic was “not the best thing to do” but “since our daughter’s (in-law’s) parents couldn’t make it (due to visa issues), it was our duty to be with them. That’s what you do for your children. You show up no matter how hard it is.”