First Person

Swiping Across Borders: How Strangers on a Dating App Helped Me Cope With Pandemic Blues

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

For someone whose social circle comprised potted plants and a Netflix account, I thought self-isolation would be easy. But as people started losing lives and jobs, and work dried up for me, I was hit by a sudden urge to do more than just survive in my corner. That’s when I started connecting with strangers across the world on a dating app.

“I hugged someone today!” Eggio, an Italian business consultant in Rome declares, as he gushes over his first experiences of stepping out in public after having worked from home for almost a year. He was so overcome by the fear of catching the coronavirus, he’d avoided going out altogether even after restrictions were eased in Italy. Thousands of miles away in Mumbai, I update a to-do list that I share with Eggio, where we jot down the things we need to do to keep calm during the pandemic. He checks on me next: Did I workout today? Finish writing my script? Message two friends a day as we had agreed to? Eggio and I had appointed each other as “Pandemic Partners”, matched on a dating app that I had turned to a global mode months after the lockdown hit. We weren’t dating in the traditional sense, we were just two people in different parts of the world surviving a global tragedy first alone and now together.

In March 2020, when the lockdown was announced, I imagined it wouldn’t be too hard for me to stay at home all day. I was afterall an introvert, who worked from home anyway, with a social circle that consisted of me, my potted plants, and a Netflix account. But weeks later, as people started dying by the dozens, a dread started taking over me. If I were to die of COVID-19, who will really miss me, except for my mom and my sister? What about all the experiences I haven’t had so far? All the places I wanted to visit before I die? I’m 32 and I hadn’t even been in love yet because I believed it did not matter if I had a stable career and made good money. But now suddenly I felt like it should have mattered… at least a little bit. I was overcome with the urge to live my life, share my joys and fears with someone, or just have a casual conversation with.

After weeks of self-isolation, I started scrambling to message each and every one of my friends and acquaintances just out of the need to have someone to talk to outside of my home. Turns out, building relationships takes time; I had missed that memo. Many didn’t respond, other conversations wouldn’t go beyond the awkward, “Hi”, “Hope you are holding up alright.”

Soon people started losing their jobs and minds, and work dried up for me too, taking away the one thing that I could find succour in. I felt so alone; I was hit by a sudden urge to do more than just survive in my corner and the desperation pushed me into downloading a dating app which I had uninstalled for the upteenth time. At first, I was swiping right on Indian men, only to find out that most of them were hornier during the lockdown and were inviting themselves over – coronavirus be damned. I wasn’t going to get what I was looking for but just before I could uninstall the app, I found out that I could connect with men from any part of the world. It was like I had discovered a whole new world. I was craving for some human connection but from a distance, and this opened floodgates of stories about love, longing, and loneliness.

The comfort of a judgement-free stranger far away meant I could speak my mind.

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On my first day, I changed the location to England, where I would have been, had the pandemic not hit. My phone kept buzzing with messages from British men who were sick of their government and simply missed having a pint of beer in the pubs with their lads. One of them, Nick, took me by surprise when he told me he knew to play the sitar and was an ardent follower of Indian classical music. We exchanged Instagram ids and kept in touch and have promised to meet in Rishikesh or London someday.

Every day, I found myself thinking about a different country, a different person and a different story. I moved to Iceland next and I was again pleasantly surprised to chat with a man who was an animal lover but had to work as a butcher because he had no choice. He was a college dropout but so full of worldly knowledge; we even discussed Kashmir. In Paris, I matched with a musician; we had a couple of video dates – he’d be in his balcony with the Eiffel Tower in the background. In LA, I made a new friend in a Mexican teenager who would offer to marry me so I could get a visa and fulfill my dream of working in Hollywood.  A young student in New Zealand, who is an aspiring comedian, would bounce off his jokes with me – a happy and surreal break from all the bleakness that surrounded us. I was travelling the world from my home. I was getting to know strangers in their most joyous and in their most vulnerable phases.

The comfort of a judgement-free stranger far away meant I could speak my mind. While some conversations were nothing memorable, there were some, where I spoke about my own struggles without worrying too much about what they’d think about me. I’ve never been able to tell my friends in India about my father living in an old-age home because he was toxic. My new online acquaintances didn’t think much of it. I opened up to them about a life-threatening incident on a trip last year that had shaken me, a secret I hadn’t shared with anyone and spoke to them about the one thing that keeps eating me up – that I’m not good at my job. Mostly, they’d listen patiently and talking to these people I’d probably never meet in my life made me feel lighter. These men were so full of love; they made me appreciate myself again. At 32, in India, I’m often considered “too old to get married” or have children. Something I had started believing but now I know I have a whole life ahead of me. In the age of swipes, no one really means anything on dating apps. But somehow I found compassion and connections in a hopeless place.

It made me realise that all this while what I was looking for is not deep friendships, though I did forge some. What the lockdown took away from us is social connections that we build outside our immediate circle of family and friends. The women you befriended because you’d board the same Mumbai local, the shopkeeper you buy snacks from on your way to work, the auto guy who chats with you about cricket. These people add meaning to your life. Writer Amanda Mull  in The Atlantic, defines them as our “outer circle”, people who are important for our social health in their own ways. “Peripheral connections tether us to the world at large; without them, people sink into the compounding sameness of closed networks. Regular interaction with people outside our inner circle ‘just makes us feel more like part of a community, or part of something bigger,’” Gillian Sandstrom, a social psychologist at the University of Essex, tells Mull.

The men I met on the dating app had unknowingly had become my outer circle, spanning borders and cultural boundaries. They made me feel I mattered. They filled a void that I suddenly was overcome with during the pandemic; they assured me that I was not alone. And most importantly, some of them have made their journey from the outside circle to the inner. Like Eggio, my pandemic partner.