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How millennials are surviving self-isolation

In lockdown from Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata, millennials tell Lounge about their coping mechanisms and worries for the future

Younger millennials are getting battle-ready to face the crises that loom in the future.
Younger millennials are getting battle-ready to face the crises that loom in the future. (Getty Images)

In her 28 years, Bhawana Theeng Tamang hasn’t felt as self-conscious as she does these days on the rare occasion she has to step out of her rented home in Kolkata. Coming from Darjeeling, she has been living in the city for several years now—first as a student at Jadavpur University, and now, as a college teacher. “I am a visible minority, though," she says, “and, for the first time, in this lockdown in self-isolation, I feel acutely aware of my identity."

Since the covid-19 outbreak, incidents of racial attacks have been reported across India. On 23 March, a 25-year-old Manipuri woman was assaulted near Delhi’s North Campus by a man riding a scooter. He slowed down, spat paan juice all over her, called her “corona", then drove off. “Some of my friends have also faced casual racial profiling," Tamang says. “People say stuff like ‘corona eshechhe’ (corona has arrived) when they go to the shops." For those living all by themselves, the ordeal must feel especially harrowing.

Tamang lives alone on the top floor in an elite residential area in south Kolkata. Her neighbours are friendly. But before trains and flights were suspended, she had wondered if she should go back to her large and welcoming family in Darjeeling. With a father who has a lung condition and a grandmother who is above 80, she didn’t want to take a chance.

Tamang’s predicament is, of course, not unique. Like many in the country, she has to wait out the long days of quarantine, dependent on the internet to keep her connected to loved ones via video calls and social media. But with the novel coronavirus thrusting the entire world into a situation that is unprecedented, younger millennials like her (below 35 years) are also staring at a bleak future.

Their economic future, like many others’, looks uncertain, but also especially rough, considering a lot of them haven’t been part of the workforce for many years. As a generation keenly invested in mental health, the psychological costs of getting through a pandemic may leave millions of them prone to anxiety and depression. Delhi-based clinical psychologist Ayesha Kapur, like others in her profession, believes this is a possibility.

The sudden suspension of a routine provided by a day job can lead to people feeling unmoored. “Faced with an existential emptiness, they tend to neglect self-care—by which I mean activities like regular eating, sleeping and bathing," Kapur says.

The young and the restless, especially the outgoing, extrovert and gregarious, always find newer modes of forging connections, attested by the popularity of platforms like Houseparty, a “face to face social network". “But there is also much reviewing going on at the moment," says Kapur, who is conducting therapy sessions online. “Many people are wondering about the meaning of life, ways to find purpose in their day, and shifting their perspectives."

It’s not all unremittingly bleak though.

Time out

For 27-year-old Sreshth Shah, a professional based in Bengaluru, the lockdown initially felt like “a welcome break". But within days, the scarcity of essential services started pinching. With the maid not coming in and food deliveries suspended, figuring out what to cook every day became a chore.

Like Tamang, Shah, too, debated flying home to Kolkata to be with his family. In the end, he opted to do the responsible thing: to be in touch with them over video calls, again out of concern for the elderly. Of late, Shah has been hosting a quiz on YouTube Live every night—on business, films, sports, and so on. Around 70-80 users join in; it’s usually good fun.

“My friends are trying out activities they earlier couldn’t due to pressures of work and life," Shah says. “They seem to have lost their usual inhibitions." At 37, one of them has started learning the guitar now that his brother, a musician, is locked down at home with him.

For 31-year-old Sanchita Chowdhury, who works in the IT sector in Bengaluru and lives alone, the quarantine felt like a blessing in disguise in the beginning. “As an introvert, I like to stay home, so it was fine for a few days," she says. “But now it feels odd not to see a human face at all, though not unmanageable, of course." Once this spell of work from home ends and she is back in the office, Chowdhury feels she will appreciate meeting her colleagues more than she ever has.

In the sphere of dating, the scene is expectedly gloomy. “Members of our community living all by themselves have reached out to us to say, ‘Can you make sure we are in touch and not completely isolated?’" says Siddharth Mangharam, co-founder of Floh, a network that connects singles in real life. With no physical events on at the moment, Floh is hosting virtual meet-ups on Zoom and on its app. “We recently had a cookout," Mangharam says, “though it wasn’t all about recipes—we spoke about books, pursuing excellence, and many other things."

Mangharam and his co-founder and wife, Simran, also hosted a Zoom session on “how to be relationship-ready". It lasted around an hour, diverting anxious minds away from covid-19 for a while.

Crisis management

In Mumbai, 28-year-old Virali Modi faced an altogether different challenge as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the 21-day lockdown. A disability rights activist dependent on her maid to get through the day, she was suddenly in a fix.

“Even though my building society made an exception for my maid to come and cook for me 2 hours every day, the police made it difficult for her to get to my house," Virali Modi says. On 24 March, she sent out a tweet, tagging the Union health ministry and Mumbai police: “I’m disabled and I live alone, I need my maid who cooks and does other physiological care for me. Due to the virus, she won’t be able to come. What do we do about these situations?" As her post went viral, the authorities were swift to respond.

“I was deeply touched by the kindness and humanity of strangers on Twitter," Modi says, “though I got trolled too." After a few false starts, frantic phone calls and follow-ups with the police, she now has enough groceries for a while, thanks to her driver, who was given permission to help her stock up. Her maid is allowed to come in a few times every week. Modi’s story ended happily, but millions in India in situations similar to her may not be as fortunate.

Another Mumbaikar, 26-year-old sports journalist Annesha Ghosh, has found herself stranded in Bengaluru. She was in Australia, from 19 February-11 March, covering the women’s cricket World Cup. After she landed in Mumbai, she had to fly into Bengaluru to work from her office there, and immediately self-quarantined, especially as she had transited via Thailand, where over 1,500 people have died of covid-19 so far.

Confined to her office guest house away from the city that she calls home, Ghosh is spending her days reading, watching movies, and cooking basic microwave meals. “I asked the housekeeping staff to get some provisions and not come in," she says. Already accustomed to a minimalist lifestyle, Ghosh says she is appreciating the virtues of streamlining her needs all over again. “But I hate staying indoors," she adds. “I like travelling by buses, sitting on park benches watching people, and going around the city with my camera."

Hope in the dark

Although it may be premature to speculate if covid-19 will change the way we live, younger millennials are already getting battle-ready. “Save all the money you can, I tell myself and my friends," says Tamang. “We are not living in normal times." Ghosh, too, believes this crisis will force people to reckon with their consumption patterns. “We can live a happy life without buying as much and help the earth live longer," she says. The unfolding climate crisis, she says, with the catastrophes that loom ahead, might pose an even graver challenge for humanity than covid-19.

At an interpersonal level, the effect of the outbreak may leave a deep impact. “Just as 9/11 caused a fundamental shift in people all over the world, the covid-19 crisis may do so too," Kapur says. Mangharam, who joined his first job out of B-school in Chicago on 12 September 2001, remembers the fear psychosis that prevailed in the US at the time. “Once the dust settled, I remember there was a surge of relationships in the country," he says. “Momentous events tend to make people realize how fragile life is."

If the covid-19 outbreak and this long period of enforced isolation teach us the art of forming deeper and more meaningful relationships, that may be a silver lining in these dark and despairing times.

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