U was a friend from school.
Whenever he called the landline at our house and my mother picked up and asked who was calling, he would say, “This is his friend speaking. U.”
Sometimes he needed notes from a class he had missed. Sometimes he had questions about a looming examination. We were not close friends. We didn’t hang out together, go to movies or attend each other’s birthdays. But we were friends.
Bondhu. That became his name in our house.
Over the years, we lost touch. And then, through the miracle of social media, school friends found each other again. Someone set up the mandatory school alumni WhatsApp group. Someone tracked down U and added him to the group.
“Remember U?” I asked my family. “Oh yes,” my mother said. “Bondhu bolchi (This is his friend speaking).”
Recently, it was U’s birthday. The usual deluge of birthday messages starting flooding the group.
“I haven’t heard from him in a while,” I told another friend. “I hope he’s okay.”
U sometimes shared, perhaps even over-shared, his health problems in the group. My friend went and checked his Facebook page and discovered that our bondhu had died last August.
No one knew in a group we had grandly named Friends Forever. Someone tried his number. It was switched off.
Then everyone started scrolling back through their messages to find their last interaction with him. A happy new year message, some medical advice, a doctor’s appointment. But there was little most of us knew about his personal life. At one time, U too had posted a flurry of messages on the group, sometimes a selfie in a mall, sometimes seeking health advice from the doctors in the group, sometimes just a Durga Puja message. But busy with our own lives, none of us had noticed his silence on the group for months.
The daily avalanche of WhatsApp forwards, racy jokes and the occasional political arguments had created an illusion of connection between us. We had not noticed a U-shaped hole in our conversations because for the most part these were not conversations, this was just the white noise of our lives. Sometimes I was hard-pressed to remember who it was whom we were wishing Happy Birthday. But like sheep I followed the leader and wished Happy Birthday anyway.
In some ways, this drove home for me “the epidemic of loneliness” in an ever more connected world that the US surgeon general Vivek Murthy was talking about in his book, Together: The Healing Power Of Human Connection In A Sometimes Lonely World. Loneliness can affect our health profoundly. A famous meta-analysis compared the risk of loneliness and weak social networks to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Murthy said, “If you think about how much we put into curbing tobacco use and obesity, compared to how much effort and resources we put into addressing loneliness, there’s no comparison.”
Loneliness is not new. People could be acutely lonely even while embedded in a bustling joint family. What is new, though, is that this “epidemic of loneliness” is happening at a time when we are more technologically connected than ever before.
In an April 2022 article, The New York Times described the pandemic as a two-year “experiment in loneliness” for New York City—“nine million people siloed with smartphones and 24/7 home delivery, cut off from the places where they used to gather.” Those two years have passed. Cities like New York have reopened for business. But the shadow of those two years remains not as a nightmare from our past but as a glimpse into our future.
The discussion around loneliness has often focused on the industrialised West. Britain, for example, announced a minister for loneliness in 2014; this was followed by one in Japan. In India, we have stock images of loneliness—the grandfather sitting alone in a room lit by a fluorescent light watching television. Or perhaps the aged lady sitting in an old-age home listening to the radio, the one who never has visitors. Or the heart-breaking portrayal of Miss Stoneham in Aparna Sen’s 1981 film, 36 Chowringhee Lane—the elderly schoolteacher who opens her heart and home out to her old student and her boyfriend, only to realise the young couple were never interested in her company. They had just needed a place for some romantic privacy.
We could empathise with Miss Stoneham’s loneliness but we didn’t think of middle-aged busy professionals as being lonely. I didn’t think of the people in our Friends Forever WhatsApp group as being lonely.
It’s a loneliness that is hard to admit to because it feels like a weakness, a failure. Even studies around loneliness regularly conflate living alone with loneliness. A 2021 Ananta Centre/Facebook/Aspen Institute study on Loneliness In India by Kristine Gloria mentions that in 2004, India reported 4.9 million people who lived alone and felt lonely. The study does admit living alone does not always correlate to loneliness. I know people who insist they are completely content to live alone and watch Korean dramas on the iPad. On the other hand, after my grandmother died, I think my grandfather was very lonely, even though he lived with all of us. When I think back now, I do not know what he did with his day after he had finished reading the newspaper. I could spend hours with my grandmother, scribbling in her accounts books, lying on her mattress with all my toys. I never had that connection with my grandfather. After she died, he was physically well taken care of but he slowly faded away from my world.
Grandfather, we thought, needed a hobby to keep himself busy. Loneliness amidst busy-ness is uncharted territory for most of us. There was a point when after working from home for years, I would need to go and sit in a café and work, just to feel a sense of connection to the world, one that was not mediated through technology. I knew I felt anxious. I didn’t know I was lonely. I didn’t know you could be busy and lonely at the same time.
My to-do list was a page long. Every time I crossed something off, I felt a sense of minor achievement. But my busy-ness was about emails I needed to write, Zoom calls I needed to attend, WhatsApp messages I needed to respond to. But I realised I needed to overhear the conversation next to me, make up stories about the hushed argument a couple was having across the way, look at someone’s salad and be tempted to try it. I found that buzz of life reassuring, like the hum of a refrigerator on a quiet night. Perhaps that’s the reason new cafés keep springing up every other day. It’s not driven just by Instagram influencers. They are selling an antidote to loneliness alongside the lattes. I just wish they would turn down the muzak a notch.
This is not to diss technology. For sure, technology has made it easier for us to build connections. When my parents went to England, they sent a telegram to let the family know they had arrived safely. In those days, trunk calls had to be booked and saved for momentous occasions like births and deaths. Decades later, as a student in the US, I remember waking up on jet-lagged nights in a small university town in the American Midwest, staring at the silent streets outside and imagining my family and friends going about their day in India. I would count the days till the weekend, when I could call home. But at least I could call every week. Now technology allows us to Zoom, WhatsApp, Skype with friends and family wherever they are and whenever we like as long as the internet gods are willing.
But it also makes us lazy, allows us to pretend that we are connected, that we are paying attention.
As the flurry of RIPs replaced the Happy Birthdays on our WhatsApp group along with memories of U, a friend remarked grimly that sooner or later some latecomer scrolling through the group without paying close attention would wish U a Happy Birthday.
And sure enough soon someone did.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.