Pen-demic Pals: The Joy of Connecting with Strangers During the Time of Coronavirus


Pen-demic Pals: The Joy of Connecting with Strangers During the Time of Coronavirus

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

On the first night of the lockdown, I was up until 3 am playing Pictionary online with my friends. Within the next few days, we had devised a weekly activity as an attempt to digitally recreate our rendezvous. Each week we would have an online quiz with a new host and theme. The rest of us participated zealously and diligently for months to come (thanks to the lockdown and the cash prize). Gradually, our little group grew to 14 as old friends reunited.

Much like us, there were people around the world who found means of keeping in touch with each other. Birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries became Zoom links and Instagram bingos. We had each taken the plunge from mingling in-person to settling for a pixelated version of the other online. Our hugs and kisses were now incompetent emojis on WhatsApp. Zoom became the lockdown buzzword. For a long time, my Instagram was just rehashing old photos because nothing new had happened in my life for months and I knew that nothing would for another few. We were desperate to create an alternate version of our pre-COVID-19 lives online to distract from the dystopia that we were living through. We were all alone, together. Now, we had more time for one another but nowhere to meet, except online.

Over the eight months that I stayed home, I found the lines between my IRL and URL friends blurring. In certain cases, we lived in the same city, a few kilometres apart, but were experiencing the plight of a long-distance relationship. This broadened the definition of penpals. It included not only my real-life friends with whom I would communicate only through a strong internet connection but also new-found interactions through Twitter and Instagram. My college friends, most of whom were not originally from Mumbai, had been excited about working in the city. In March, they packed their bags for two weeks to go home, certain that they would be back soon. Six months later, packers were brought in to ship their belongings home. We had had no goodbye because we were so sure that this wouldn’t last.

Now that everyone was available online together, there was some sadistic comfort in the fact that absolutely nobody was having a good time. There was no scope for FOMO when there was nothing to miss out on. The positive change that this confinement did bring about was the frequency of communication and the way we communicated. Even online applications accommodated this change in their updates. Video calls were longer and topics were more intimate. I was expressing myself better and was more candid with my friends. There was a good chance that they were suffering through similar anxieties. This mode of communication took away the intimidation that accompanied heart-to-heart conversations in person. We became more explicit about our problems, our fears, and the overall burden that came from living during a pandemic. On the flip side, not all relationships were hunky-dory. Some people retreated into their shells and for many, their fidelity was tested. The distance that now lay between two people became conspicuous.

In retrospect, communicating with my penpals inadvertently created a time capsule.

The common denominator during these times remained the internet. Several avenues online promoted access to other people from around the world in a bid to make one feel less lonesome. In France, Share-Ami put fellow Francophiles in touch with aged men and women with whom they could practice their language skills. In India, Chitthi Exchange encouraged written communication between two people from similar backgrounds. Services like these rebooted the penpal fad. I subscribed to both.

When I started engaging with my penpals, I found a radical shift in the way I communicated. I was willing to be forthright with a stranger because the fear of judgement had been evicted. My penpal must believe the version of myself that I present because they had no way of corroborating it with my offline self. However, I presented the most honest version of myself possible. This meant telling the truth about my feelings and the turmoil through which we were living. Unlike the way my relationship with my IRL friends was forced into a long-distance relationship, my correspondent and I were friends by the very virtue of distance.

The fear of stagnating also played a role in this exchange. Communicating with someone outside my immediate circle gave me the sense of being in touch with an unknown world outside. It reassured me that life still existed and was not made static by how time felt so warped for me. In retrospect, communicating with my penpals inadvertently created a time capsule. Since everything existed in the written word, I could reflect on it at any point in the future and be immediately transported to this period. They, the letters and the people, became my Proust’s madeleine.

When I did finally see my friends offline for the first time since the lockdown, it felt almost bizarre to be able to reach out and touch them. They were people that existed beyond file extensions on my phone. We were together once again albeit with the looming fear of a disease. Having said that, I am grateful for this to have happened in 2020 and not 2000. Would we have still recognised one another through our dialup connection?