Video Calls Just Aren't For Me by Sowmya Puri

Video Calls Just Aren't For Me by Sowmya Puri - student project

In the time of toilet paper rationing, weary elbow bumps and a shock wave of pink slips, I realise there’s only so much more I’m willing to be stretched socially.

I’ve always been slow to technological advancement. I inherited it mostly from my father, who gave it to me by blood and to my mother by marriage. We have a mild but pervading distrust of screens, all of us — a preference for the face to face like that of a left-handed person for an unpopular side of limb.

So far, it has tied in beautifully with my introverted leanings, I’ve spent most of my life meeting friends in ones and twos, even successfully refusing the smart phone until everyone in my social orbit was on their fifth model. It does, however, leave me with a choice to make right now.

I haven’t seen, let alone touched, anyone outside my family of three for weeks now. While yes, it is what everyone world over is experiencing, and in that respect I’m nothing special, each of us has our unique ways of self-soothing or falling apart. We each have our very own micro-reality contained within the global experience, a nuanced method of processing that is particular to us. Self-isolation and altered social connections, while universal right now, are different for everybody.

Around me, most people appear to have tricked the empty streets and handshake embargoes using an alternate portal to connection— group video calls. Like a guerrilla movement picking up steam under the radar of the virus, it’s where entire communities are flourishing — people meeting for drinks on the weekend, full Montessori-style playdates, family members hugging without once touching each other.

Fascinated, I have been watching from the sidelines. I’ve struggled with the dull ache that I am familiar with as a yearning for connection, but video calls somehow haven’t occurred to me as a fix.

I’m not ready for group video calls yet. I was barely ready for large group anything before all this happened. In a way that only an introvert can be, I’m attached to the warmth of someone’s home or the eye contact they can offer me in the flesh for the way in which it can heal something inside me. Intimate physical space is where, for me, emergence exists, social awkwardness finds its place, silences can exist without data pulsing through fibre optic cables. A hand can be squeezed before a joke gets told.

With group calls, I’m in cold, foreign territory, unable to distill my essence or pick up on the ones of others without scent, touch or the camera-shy third dimension of gut feel. I realise that my hope of emotionally surviving this pandemic may be tied to my ability to evolve past my handicap, but for now, i’ve been pretending that all this is just me having an unsocial couple of weeks. Until a change of heart smokes me out, I hope to wait it out here.

A lot more of day-to-day life has moved online too. The yoga studio I used to go to once a week, a warm incensed space at the end of a brick-lined laneway, has shut its doors to in-person students. They are however offering classes remotely and a detailed schedule has been published on their site. Monday 6 am is Hatha Yoga, Tuesday 7:30 am is Meditation, Wednesday 5 pm is Slow Flow, and so on. There is a button book these classes and next to it, a count of the number of spots reserved and the number available. 36 booked, 42 available was what my regular Saturday morning class stood at. Metaphysical as we yogis are known to be, only half us were willing to cross this new age plane to quieten our minds and strengthen our bodies.

Before the Coronavirus era, my father used to go to the electricity board building personally to make his monthly bill payments, standing in a queue in the humid and and hot municipal office, talking to friends in line, other iconoclasts like him choosing to tend to their communities physically over technological convenience. Back then, I tried convincing him to pay online, but he always refused, returning home with the stories he collected from his errand travels. The local chemist who told him about his newborn, the flower seller at the end of our street who threw in a few extra marigolds for Diwali , the tailor who didn’t have his pants altered and ready on time, yet again.

Today, 35 years old and coping with numerous suggestions to move my relationships online, I feel the same way. How have we all so deftly adapted to being contact-free? Book clubs are discussing plot lines on Zoom, personal chefs are pivoting their business strategies, little children in tutus are learning to plié on the telly. Potlucks are taking place over the internet, plates of food passed amongst no one in particular.

My local playground is empty, a small placard at the entrance to the jungle gym says — ‘This facility is now closed’. My toddler kicks the ball around the oval with just me, her old-fashioned mother who is unsure of of how to acclimate to the crumbling of social networks and the aftermath of their immediate reinvention.

As a society, our optimal handling of this social starvation might be a statement about the disposability of in-person relationships. But as the days go by and I see scenes from across the world of volunteers delivering groceries to the doorsteps of elders, grandparents virtually canoodling their new grandchild while staying safe from any kind of exposure, my own mother making me sit-down videos of family recipes, I feel buoyed by the spirit of togetherness even during physical separation.

I may not be ready yet, but i’m happy the world around me is. With every virtual bake sale and crochet club, it shows me that people are often able to create something of extraordinary beauty through the strangle of limitations.

Maybe we’ll be known as the era that nursed physical communities back to health by incubating them until it was safe to come back out. When we do come back out, perhaps we will be stronger, well-rested and filled with a renewed love for one another in the flesh, an appreciation we had grown to forget the more advanced and busy we became.