In the tense waiting area outside the hospital's intensive care unit, I have for 37 hours managed to avoid eye contact. It's not an easy accomplishment, given that we are the same two dozen or so, given that we're more or less in the same situation of keeping vigil over a loved one and given that we're all knitted together in our common suspense.
Daughters, friends and sisters join us but conversation is muted as we shift about uneasily, shaking off cramps, apprehension and the sort of lethargy that seeps in from a combination of stress and waiting. Nationalities, political affiliations, religious loyalties and gender don't matter and we, nameless and faceless in this waiting room, are bound together in one of life's most intimate circumstances, balancing life and death, watching life reduced to its essential numbers: blood pressure, urine output, haemoglobin.
And, yet, 37 hours later I still don't know a single name. Inhaling our anxiety like an anaesthetic, we avoid personal contact, transient occupants of this lounge. The longer-staying ones exchange nods. The more sociable ones mumble brief good mornings and then quickly turn away, reluctant to be drawn into a longer conversation. We cling to our individual distress, as if another person's disquiet will somehow increase our own.
And then my 84-year-old father-in-law comes visiting. Is it his own gregarious personality or does he just belong to a different age? But in 15 minutes he's done what I have failed to do in all these hours. No superficialities for him. He must know. Whose husband has had a lung infection. Which one's mother went in for a hip replacement. Who needs a blood transfusion. What group. I listen at snatches of conversation: "Where are you from ? Oh, I lived there once many years ago. Do you know….?"
It strikes me then. My generation, compulsively confessional, utterly self-absorbed, posting minutiae on what we ate for lunch, where we are vacationing, what we are reading, what we like and what we abhor. We stick photographs in online albums. We share information about wedding anniversaries, birthdays, graduations and illnesses. We remember to send out congratulatory messages posted on our timeline, because, well, how can you ignore another's status update?
And, yet, beneath all our ersatz bonhomie, lies an impersonal core. 'Friends' take the place of neighbours. Instant messaging sub-stitutes for hand-written letters. We trawl chat rooms but detest chit-chat. We shop in steel-and-glass malls, sheathed in anonymity but impoverished by real human contact. We are tuned in but turned off.
Our parents who struggle to master log-ins and passwords come from a time when participation was face-to-face, not on a screen. They lived in the same neighbourhoods for generations. For them what mattered was the family doctor's bedside manner, not the fancy amenities in some corporate hospital. They made their purchases from the same small store where the shopkeeper knew not only which brand of tea but also the progress of a grandchild. They participated in all of life's beautiful rituals — even and especially death — with the intimacy it deserved, not as a ritual where you marked your 15-minute presence.
Among the great gifts of our era is the ability to communicate faster and cheaper than at any other point in our history. Today we can be participants in the democratic process of information dissemination. And today we all have platforms from which we can voice our opinions. I am not knocking any of these. But somewhere you have to wonder if all this grand connectivity is not in fact a chimera, a crutch for our isolation and inability to focus and concentrate on one relationship, one conversation at a time.
When we expend so much energy outraging, sharing, posting, updating, chatting, BBMing, do we really have the resources to connect to the person seated next to us? Is our connectivity making us even more isolated in our personal relationships?
In the hospital waiting room, I look at my co-travellers in this tricky journey of life and death and feel I have found my answer.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.