By Anjani Chadha

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic struck the entire planet, leaving us homebound, my initial reaction to this changing world order was a sigh of relief. A perceived break from the “hustle culture”.

I was a university student who was living dual lives by the clock. Classes from 8:30 am, theatre practices that stretch till 7 in the evening, it was a wild ride. My life was characterised by balance.

A liberal arts student who debates colonialism, discusses subaltern realities and criticises the idea of nationalism in the morning and a theatre practitioner who puts into effect this understanding of the world in creating something that has a life of its own. I was jostling but once the pandemic swept in and the lockdown followed, I found myself at a relatively tranquil place in life. Except, this serenity was short-lived.

The stillness, the isolation, the seclusion, the distance eventually started to take over. I found my mental health being affected. I felt myself entering a space of void, a constant feeling of exasperation and anxiety. A question that followed was why? Why  is this consistent angst and where is it coming from? I found my answers in Salman Akhtar’s podcast.

Salman Akhtar, a renowned psychoanalyst and psychiatrist from Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia (USA), in the first episode of Neend Kyun Raat Bhar Nahin Aati addresses this disruption through what can be called an ‘Envelope Theory’ which looks at the connection of human beings and their outside world. Human lives are woven around six entities: Time, Space, Things, Animals, Money and God. Think of a human being as a letter and these six entities together forming the envelope. Humans are at the centre of this relationship. Sane and sound due to their consistent and predictable engagement with these entities.

However, COVID has somehow impacted these six entities, this envelope which in-turn affects the letter i.e us. In the first few months of the lockdown my routine turned upside down. I would wake up at 5 in the evening, sleep at 11 in the morning. I was waking up tired, I was going to bed reluctantly. To this, Salman Akhtar says that time, a predictable entity keeps us on schedule. It divides our day in segments. We allot those segments to a specific activity which keeps our day intact and we stay on schedule. Time helps us maintain ‘the normal’. But since the pandemic the framework of time and day that we normally followed does not exist anymore that has left us disoriented.

Secondly, the pandemic has left us devoid of the exclusive quintessence that physical spaces offer. We are confined to our homes. Normally, in a day, we would come in contact with a number of places. Our workplace, the neighbourhood park, the coffee shop, a friend’s house; following the pandemic we are missing out on that physicality of spaces. The 19 inch phone screen has failed in recreating the same experience. Cramped in the same set of rooms for months, trying to stick to a schedule despite a derailed status quo is overtly affecting our peace of mind.

There is a new-found distance with things too. Books, phones, pans, glasses, vehicles are a few of those several things we own and use daily. Unknowingly, we shared a relationship with them too. However, the life following a pandemic is characterised by a set of new items. Cars were out of use for a great period of time while masks became omnipresent. Beauty products were kept aside while sanitisers came to prominence. The disarray was evident in even the slightest of things around us.

As a street theatre practitioner, I was used to open spaces. Standing right in the centre of the the road and shouting on top of my voice was a norm. The green kurta I wore for my performances was inseparable to me. The instruments we played, the props we used; were items of importance unexpectedly seized.

This can be further reflected in our connection with animals. In the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of us turned to adopting pets to keep us company in the lockdown. But taking care of a pet is serious business and within a few months, a great majority of the same people started returning those pets. In combination to this is this constant indignation of being the only species on the planet under threat of this virus. To elaborate this further, Salman Akhtar corroborates our situation in the pandemic with the psyche of an immigrant.

When an individual immigrates, the agony of being in an alien land often takes over. The pandemic too managed to create a foreign environment for us. This trauma of an immigrant is currently embedded in every single one of us.

Our relationship with money and our perception of God is in tatters too. The sense of economic security arising from a stable source of income has been compromised since millions have lost their jobs or have faced cuts in their salaries globally. Several others struggle as our sources of spending have been further mitigated. With no sources left to splurge, expenses relatively reducing we are left. With so many deaths of renowned personalities, we have also been reminded that money is not our escape from all adversities.

And most importantly, our faiths and beliefs have been repeatedly questioned. The danse macabre has made a lot of religious people lose trust in god while a lot many atheists have turned to god in search of a credence. They say man is a product of his/her environment. Salman Akhtar’s envelope theory emphasises the same.

We have been trying a lot to adapt ourselves as per the ‘New Normal’ but a sense of support and reassurance is difficult to envision in times characterised by social distancing. I still wonder when and how this anguish is going to end, but for now the source of my anxiety is rather clear to me.

Anjani Chadha is a recent graduate from the University of Delhi seeking to work at the intersection of media  practice and social change. 

‘Neend Kyun Raat Bhar Nahin Aati’ is a Cineink Podcast Series on Mental Health in Hindi/Urdu, available on Apple, Spotify, Google, JioSaavn and YouTube.