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Finding unusual friends in the time of covid-19

The pandemic has forced us into our homes, cut us off from our friends and loved ones—but it has also opened up possibilities of forging new friendships

The biggest casualty of physical distancing was the stuff everyone had always taken for granted: unfettered access to their families, loved ones and friends.
The biggest casualty of physical distancing was the stuff everyone had always taken for granted: unfettered access to their families, loved ones and friends. (Illustration by N. Jayachandran)

Illustrations by N. Jayachandran

On 11 March 2020, as the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the covid-19 outbreak to be a global pandemic, life as we knew it changed. Most of the world woke up the morning after realising they couldn’t leave their homes unless they had a compelling reason to do so. Offices moved online, as did schools, colleges, supermarket deliveries—you name it. But the biggest casualty of the physical distancing rules was the stuff that everyone had always taken for granted: unfettered access to their families, loved ones and friends.

In a situation of stress, the body’s instinctive response, as any psychology textbook will tell you in a neat phrase, is “fight or flight”. But physiology, especially its links with psychology, isn’t as tidy. Far less spoken of is another equally primal instinct—to “tend and befriend”, as writer Lydia Denworth points out in her recent book, Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, And Extraordinary Power Of Life’s Fundamental Bond. Deprived of that weekly ritual of coffee with a friend, drinks with your office pals, or that long-anticipated trip with a college roommate, people began to explore other avenues to “tend” to one another—birthday parties, cocktails and dinners on Zoom, or, in a grimmer context, funerals and mourning rituals conducted remotely. Not surprisingly, people found new ways to “befriend” others as well—as the stories that follow show.

Also Read: Rediscovering home in the pandemic

The weeks-long lockdown last year was a test of fortitude for millions. But it also opened up whole new worlds for many—realities they wouldn’t have paused to notice, or engage with, had the pandemic not forced them to slow down, pay attention. “What we have missed is a feeling of being seen (by our friends),” says Mumbai-based clinical psychologist and Lounge columnist Sonali Gupta, whose daughter Aneira shares her story of lockdown friendship. “As we make new connections, they become new ways of pausing and looking at ourselves and our lives,” Gupta adds, a sentiment all the people Lounge spoke to would agree with.

Take Gunjan Rathore, a law student in Bengaluru, for instance. When she flew back home to Udaipur, Rajasthan, last year to spend the lockdown with her parents and brother, she had no idea their tight-knit family would welcome a fifth member—a stray puppy from a litter which endeared its way into the household. The Rathores called it Raju, only to eventually discover that Raju was a “she”. By then, it was too late, and the name stuck.

“She was our part-time pet,” Rathore says, “but integral to our lives.” In the middle of the lockdown, Raju had a terrible health scare and had to be ferried to the vet—a nightmare. After ups and downs, Raju vanished one day, as “part-time pets” often do. But she hasn’t left Rathore’s heart. “I never thought I would be able to love another creature as much as my family,” she says, “but Raju proved me wrong.”

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Delhi-based jazz musician and writer Shreya Ray, who happens to be a former Lounge staffer, also adopted a canine friend—a German Shepherd puppy called Isabella—though it was prefaced by the loss of her dog Elsa on the first day of the lockdown. “I went into a shell,” she says. “I wasn’t keen on Zoom calls or catching up with anyone.” Then, one day, out to get essentials from the local market, she was confronted with an amusing sight. At a Tibb’s Frankie franchise, next to Ray’s regular grocer’s shop, the storekeeper had placed giant teddy bears on a purple sheet to ensure social distancing.

Ray struck up a rapport with the convivial store manager, Uttam, who promised to have her orders delivered home. Soon, she was a regular customer. “My mum would call up Uttam and ask him to send my usual order—he was so familiar with what I liked,” Ray says. “Then, one morning, before the market had opened, I was walking by, and Uttam, who was having tea, saw me and offered me a cup, as a purely social gesture. For me, in that moment, his presence registered as a form of friendship.”

Friendship, as Denworth writes, “carries emotional weight, signifying something about the quality and character of a relationship that is based on history and the content of repeated interactions”. The definition bears out in Ray’s experience, as it does in Mint staffer Ramesh Pathania’s—he forged a singular bond with a tailorbird which came to his balcony every morning last winter. He fed it breadcrumbs and biscuits, left water in a bowl. “One day I gave him some idli,” Pathania says. “He liked it so much he came back four-five times that day!” In due course, the bird brought along a partner and built a nest on a ficus tree nearby to start a family. “These days, he comes once a week or so,” Pathania says, “and not really for the food either.”

Friendship with animals can be rewarding in ways that it isn’t usually with humans.
Friendship with animals can be rewarding in ways that it isn’t usually with humans. (N Jayachandran)

Friendship with animals can be rewarding in ways that it isn’t usually with humans. Nimisha Srivastav, a freelance professional who was locked down in her hometown Pune, Maharashtra, decided to foster a kitten. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle the responsibility of having a full-time pet,” she says. But Jhumpa, the kitten she got, changed her mind. “Cats have high emotional quotient, they are elegant, and not needy,” Srivastav says. “I wish I could develop healthy boundaries like her with the people in my life!” Employed full-time back then, Srivastav found Jhumpa’s routine of feeding, playing and napping grounding. “After a day of corporate inauthenticity, she was the most real thing in my life,” she says. It’s perhaps the best compliment you can give a friend, and the biggest service they can perform in your life.

Here are six other stories of unusual friendships which may never have taken off had it not been for the long days of the lockdown.


Architect and photographer, Kutch, Gujarat

Nipun Prabhakar’s life was one of constant travel, documenting the world with his camera, before the pandemic pushed him indoors. Stuck at home for weeks during the lockdown last year, he felt a need to connect with friends, document the strange times they were passing through in their mental islands. So he embarked on a unique visual project, made possible by the blessings of technology. He decided to photograph people remotely, by using the video-calling facility on a mobile phone.

In the beginning, the exercise was confined to familiars. “I would make a recce call on WhatsApp or FaceTime and repeat the process I follow when I do a shoot in person,” Prabhakar says. Instead of walking around himself, he would ask his subjects to show him the light source, the favourite corners of their homes. “I prepared sketches based on what I thought would make for good frames, sometimes I sent them paintings—the solitary figures of American painter Edward Hopper, for instance,” he adds. The final click was a screenshot of a carefully curated scene.

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As the series grew popular on Instagram, strangers started getting in touch with Prabhakar, asking him to take their photographs. He also reached out to a few others through his network. “I started interacting with people I had never met, going into places I have never been to,” he says. “I had never imagined it would be all so easy.”

For instance, Prabhakar didn’t expect actor Amrita Puri, whom he had never met in real life, to be so approachable or comfortable with his idea. “She was in her home, I in mine,” he says. “The chemistry is quite different from my usual role as a photographer. You are not holding the camera, and you have to let your subject take you where they like.”

On occasion, Prabhakar had to think out of the box. He asked Ariel Ciccone of The New York Times, for instance, to fix her phone camera to her ceiling for one shot of her supine and reading in full profile. When he had a chance to photograph Tenzin Yingyni, a Buddhist monk living in the Thrangu Tashi Choling monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, Prabhakar spent the first couple of calls breaking the ice, making his subject comfortable, as he would do in a live setting. The final result gives us a peek into Tenzin’s living quarters and the rhythms of his daily life.

“I would often feel shy to ask something of a stranger but I realised they were equally nervous about the situation,” says Prabhakar. Apart from pushing the boundaries of his craft and forcing him to relinquish control, this experiment, which he calls Lockdown Screenshots, has left Prabhakar with the awareness of vulnerability as a universal human condition—and some new bonds to cherish.


Poet and writer, Mumbai

Long before the first lockdown was imposed last year, the bird feeder on the windowsill of Alolika A. Dutta’s home would be filled every morning, around 8. “But it was rush hour and I had to get to work,” she says. “I never properly saw or paid attention to the delicate creatures who came to eat.” Then the pandemic forced her to slow down. As the ambient clamour of traffic and urban noise dimmed, our senses of sight and hearing slowly became attuned to nuances we didn’t know existed around us.

An introvert with asthma, Dutta didn’t mind her life of isolation. “It was like an extended residency in the company of birds and animals,” she says. Once upon a time, she would be irked by the incessant chirping of the sparrows that came to feed, but now she began to notice their presence, even anticipate their arrival. Ever-agile and ever-alert, the birds were wary of her. A few weeks later, after they grew more comfortable, they would still stop eating if she looked at them.

Over the last year, there has been a deepening of trust. These days, the birds don’t mind so much if Dutta looks on as they eat.
Over the last year, there has been a deepening of trust. These days, the birds don’t mind so much if Dutta looks on as they eat. (N. Jayachandran)

“I remember reading about this somewhere: ‘Since predators tend to look at their prey when they attack, direct eye-gaze can predict imminent danger,’” Dutta says. “Only I know everything I have done to look at them without their knowledge—even the binoculars have come out! Peripheral vision fails too; birds simply know when we are watching them.” The pigeons have been less self-conscious from the start, more at ease with her presence. They are happy to eat from the flowerpots and drink muddy water from plant saucers. But the crows and ravens are circumspect, not least because their beaks don’t get into the feeder.

In the early days of the lockdown, her family tried to name the sparrows but could not decide on any name—Rimo? Fairuz? “Nowadays, I can’t even identify them. There are so many,” she says. “I have managed to hand-feed a sparrow once but I wonder if it was because of intimacy or sheer hunger on the sparrow’s part.” It could not wait for the feeder to be emptied, refilled and arranged on the sill, “so it ate the grains I emptied into my palm”, Dutta says.

There’s also a squirrel that visits every day now. “It is more of a guardian—eats from the bird feeder and ensures that the pigeons don’t sit around for too long,” Dutta says. “After the sparrows, we have stopped trying to name wild animals. They are not responsive, and I don’t think I want them to be responsive either. We are only encroachers.”

Over the last year, there has certainly been a deepening of trust. These days, the birds don’t mind so much if Dutta looks on as they eat. “When I forget to refill the feeder, their chirping becomes a reminder. They are on the grilles during the refilling process and hop on to the tray the moment I retreat,” she says. “All this is very affectionately symbiotic—food in exchange for momentary companionship. We sustain each other in ways that are at once different and alike.”

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Educator, Bengaluru

What are the chances of a 40-something finding a friend in a four-year-old? During last year’s lockdown, Rekha Raghunathan was in for a surprise. Due to the restrictions, the only time she stepped out of her home was to walk the dog. And it was during one of these outings that she heard a little voice screaming at her, “Hi! What’s your name?” That was the first time she met Anita, whose mother turned out to be part of the same doggie group as Raghunathan.

“I had got into the habit of sitting on the porch of our house to sketch and journal,” says Raghunathan. “Anita would stop by for socially distanced visits in the open. She was super-sweet and precocious. Everything for her was a why.” It may have been a typical toddler’s source of constant wonder at the world but for Raghunathan, Anita’s questions became a reason to pause, think deeper about the choices she made every day.

It may have been a typical toddler’s source of constant wonder at the world but for Raghunathan, Anita’s questions became a reason to pause, think deeper about the choices she made every day.
It may have been a typical toddler’s source of constant wonder at the world but for Raghunathan, Anita’s questions became a reason to pause, think deeper about the choices she made every day. (N Jayachandran)

“I would tell Anita I have to finish some work and she would ask, ‘But why?’” Raghunathan says. “After a point, I would start wondering, yes, why indeed?” Children tend to see the world with a freshness that jaded adult minds conditioned to react in a certain way may benefit from. Sometimes, Anita drew squiggles and shapes in Raghunathan’s journal. “Why did you make the water blue? she would ask,” says Raghunathan. “She is an astute and observant child, not afraid of asking questions.”

As Anita’s visits turned into a daily ritual, Raghunathan, a mother of two herself, became friends with her parents too—their friendship continues to grow to this day. “Anita is the first kid I have chatted and spent so much time with, apart from my own,” says Raghunathan. “We think of friends as people of our age, but you just have to be open.”


Publicist, Delhi

The neighbourhood in Delhi where Amrita Talwar lives with her family emptied out as the lockdown firmed its grip over the city. “It grew lonely, with no sign of life on the streets,” she says. After she fell sick herself, Talwar began to spend the early hours of the day on the balcony of their home in isolation, recovering in the company of a tree that grows over it.

The foliage, within which nestled a honeybee hive, buzzed with activity. “One bee—and I am certain it is the same one—used to fly into the balcony every day,” Talwar says. Her initial reaction was to swat it away. Bees may be small but they are stubborn creatures. It wasn’t easily dissuaded. So, after a while, Talwar let the tiny fluttering creature be.

“It would sit on the water trough and drink,” she says. “Once it nearly drowned.” Talwar pulled it out using a leaf and laid it on the banister. After a few tense seconds, it fluttered, dried itself and flew off, much to her relief. Another time, a different bee (according to Talwar) wasn’t as lucky after it met with the same accident. As she laid the little creature out to dry, other bees buzzed around it. “I think they were expressing condolence,” Talwar says. As the weather grew warmer, Talwar began to spend more time indoors but her bee friend showed up every day on the windowsill: “As though it was missing our company,” she laughs.

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In the interim, there have been feathery visitors, too, particularly a bulbul that came, along with her young, for the crumbs of rusk that Talwar’s husband would leave on the balcony. The birds didn’t seem afraid at all. They inched closer to the humans, perched on a branch above their heads. “This is the season when the barbet comes out,” says Talwar. “But this year there has been complete silence—broken only by the sirens of ambulances that pass by every hour.”


Student, Mumbai

The day the novel coronavirus outbreak was officially declared a global pandemic was a momentous one the world over. But for 11-year-old Aneira Gupta, 11 March 2020 was the start of standard VI. It meant moving to a new school building, where the senior students went. “For the first time, we had desks with lockers,” she remembers. But the excitement lasted three days. On 13 March—Friday—as Gupta and her friends went home, they had no idea that their school would shift online by the time the weekend was over.

All the rules changed overnight. “Normally, we have a short break and a long break on regular school days,” Gupta says. “I would sit with my friends and catch up during the second one.” But as the classroom shifted online, chances of such tête-à-têtes, furtive or during designated breaks, also ended. “During online school breaks, we have to keep our videos and microphones off,” Gupta says.

Then, one day, something lovely happened. Early on in the pandemic, her parents were catching up with extended family in the US when Gupta was introduced to her cousins, Saira (10) and Saina (8), whom she has never met in person. But it didn’t come in the way of the three girls becoming fast friends. Every weekend, it became a ritual for them to catch up on a video call. “We still do it, even if we have school or a test the next day,” Gupta says.

Aneira Gupta bonded with her cousins Saina and Saira in the US.
Aneira Gupta bonded with her cousins Saina and Saira in the US. (N Jayachandran)

And so, a virtual circuit was forged between Richmond, Virginia and an apartment building in Mumbai, where Gupta is the only child of her age. “We talk about everything—books, TV shows, school,” she says. It is through her cousins that she discovered the Indian American writer Roshani Chokshi’s young adult books. Sometimes, the girls switch on Netflix at their respective homes to compare the shows on offer in India and the US. Gupta is also struck by the different rules of online schooling for her cousins, who have 30-minute lessons at a time as opposed to her 45-minute classes. Best of all, they can interact with their friends during the break, unlike the silence Gupta has to observe during online recess.

After a year of weekly chats, the girls still have much to say to each other, though they can’t wait to meet in real life—whenever that happens. “It will take a long time for children to get the vaccine,” Gupta says, wise for her years. “My friends here and I know that by the time we get to go to normal school again, we would probably be in standard VIII.” The first thing she will have to do then is to go back to her standard VI classroom, where her textbooks are still lying locked up in the first locker she was allotted—one that she had a chance to use for three short days.


Management professional, San Francisco, US

Vedica Kant and her husband, Arun Mohan Sukumar, fell victim to the “puppy-demic” that broke out shortly after the world went into lockdown. Suddenly, canine companions were in high demand, with long waiting lists at the breeders. Finally, Kant and her husband adopted Maya, a German Shepherd mix, from an animal shelter in San Francisco, where they live. “It was the best decision ever,” Kant says. And a steep learning curve too.

“I didn’t know, for instance, that it wasn’t safe to walk our pup until she was at least 16 weeks old,” Kant says. “So we had to carry her around in backpacks when we went out.” When the couple moved to rural Washington to work remotely, they picked an Airbnb which had some outdoor space for Maya to play in. Then, one day, as they walked into a local pet store to buy a crate for Maya, they ran into Patty, the in-store dog trainer. It was love at first sight for Maya.

“We had signed up for online dog training classes in San Francisco but we couldn’t afford one-on-one sessions,” Kant says. In Washington, the situation was different, and Maya got to have exclusive classes with Patty, who also became friends with her human parents. By the time Kant and her husband were back in San Francisco, Maya had not only learnt to walk on a leash, but also become a well-trained animal.

These days, when Kant walks her, they are stopped by strangers who want to greet Maya. And these encounters sometimes open up possibilities of new connections for Kant, too. “The other day, a man stopped us to say he has just lost his dog and wanted to pet Maya,” she says. “When I walk her in the mornings, an elderly lady called Joan, who has been a long-time resident of the neighbourhood since the 1970s, stops by to say hello to Maya, who adores her back,” she adds. “I have ended up speaking to people, even keeping in touch with some of them, whom I would never have a reason to connect with otherwise.”

Also read: What growing up in the pandemic has been like

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