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MANY years ago, as a psychologist working in Delhi’s Tihar Jail, I had asked the inmates if their sleep was disturbed and if so, how much. All of them said that their sleep was severely disturbed. Many also had nightmares. Most of them slept for just a few hours every night with recurrent nightmares and remained awake the rest of the time. It remained like this as long as they were inside the prison. Was it linked to the crime they had committed? When I asked them why they couldn’t sleep, one of them suggested that I sleep in my own home with the door locked from outside. I did as he said as an experiment and then understood what he meant. I could not sleep the entire night and when I woke up, I felt a lack of control over myself.

There is a lesson inherent in the above story—control is a basic issue for all humans. We take certain structures as given in our lives and we have control over these. We go through our daily routine as if we will always remain the same. Any interference and our structured lives spin out of control. Our mental health, identity, sense of well-being receive a jolt and start orbiting in a world of chaos and disorder.

While working with marginalised groups, societies that face persecution, refugees who ran away and survivors of genocide and natural disasters, I have found that retaining control over one’s life is a core issue that defines stability. However, Covid-19 has turned our daily lives upside down as we are unable to step out of our homes, we are restrained from getting close to others and have to maintain social distance. Proximity has become the new dirty word and something we took for granted earlier.

In India, we love proximity or nearness. We create bonds faster than any where else and start conversing, talking, getting inquisitive and asking personal questions. Take any train journey. By the time it ends, we know everything about each other. At any bank or railway counter, we gather around, our hands over each other. Our traffic is also bizarrely close with everyone trying to avoid each other at the same time. Co-existence some would call it, while others would find it difficult to survive in such a situation. So the lockdown is a cultural issue too in India and trying to see it from a western paradigm where individuality matters most would be problematic.

As I speak to friends in Europe and America, mostly professionals in mental health and social sciences, they share feelings of being disturbed. I don’t hear the same sense of alienation from my local friends. Are we Indians then responding to the lockdown differently?

Many years ago, Dr George Kohlrieser, author of Hostage at the Table and an internationally known authority on human bonding, had visited India. This former professor of mine had travelled extensively all over the country. A few months after his visit, when I had asked him about his travels, he replied after a moment’s reflection that the whole time he was here he didn’t hear a baby cry. Whenever he saw one cry, someone would come and pick it up. While going back, he stopped at Amsterdam airport and he noticed a baby crying. People passed by without anyone bothering to check on him. His mother was busy shopping. “That’s when I realised that your society has this ability to create proximity and bonding. It can also become your biggest strength in times of crisis.”

Today, my professor’s words ring true in my ears as I watch people bonding once again. This time it is happening in the confines of our homes. There is a bewildering array of initiatives as to how we must deal with this time period. In the last week alone, I have attended half a dozen webinars on dealing with coronavirus. One said develop a hobby, another advised reading books, while a third said we should become more productive and a fourth said try meditation. But perhaps the best answer was given by a patient of mine who said: “During this period, my parents and I are talking to each other. It is the first time that I felt that we were bonding, a bonding that never was. We have become friends and I never thought we would do so.”

In our time-starved lives, all of us have become distant from each other. Living in a digitalised world, feelings and emotions had taken a backseat. Can we use this period to think of relationships that would be different if we started talking with each other?

At an individual level, the lockdown is doing different things to us. While it is bringing to the fore what is lying dormant in us, for those who are anxious and depressed, it makes them even more so. Will certain mental health problems increase now? They may, but these can be brought under control just the same way they were earlier, maybe with innovation and creativity.

The other day, I heard a child cry out in pain in an apartment close to mine. In no time, several lights in nearby apartments were switched on. Neighbours came out to check and knocked on the door. The father had slapped his kids. Their mother was not at home and he hadn’t been able to cook properly and the children were hungry. In no time, two of our neighbours turned counsellors and calmed him down. Rotis and vegetables along with a chocolate sprang up from now­here and several neighbours decided to cook by turn for them till the mother came back. It is a story I will remember all my life.

Yes, there may be issues like incest, pedophilia and domestic abuse that may increase during this period. Depression and schizophrenia may show an incr­ease too as those support systems may not be available now. Alternative support systems can be created. Chaos and disorder can give way to new structures that provide safety. Greater awareness and interventions like the above can make us more responsible citizens.

In wars, epidemics and natural disasters, we learn to fall back on ourselves to find answers for the problems confronting us. The lessons are deep and lifelong and as the saying goes: “The world teaches its own lessons no one else can.” Covid-19 has become the world and is teaching us new lessons both for our survival and the things we took for granted. We will find new ways to co-exist and may one day look back upon the present period, not so much with terror, as with gratitude.

The writer is Professor of Psychology, Amity University

Lead Visual: Amitava Sen

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