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Life in quarantine: A digital paradox takes flight

The Airbus engines roared into the sky, I sensed the brisk and steep ascent of the flight, as it was a bit unusual for an aircraft of that size to take off at such a sharp angle. However, my attention was not on the ascent, but on what I would witness, in about ten minutes into the flight. I was eagerly looking forward to the rare occasion of sighting both Mt. Everest and Mt. Kanchenjunga in one visual frame! Yes, you guessed right! I was on a flight from Paro, Bhutan to New Delhi, India on a bright Sunday morning. The flight path itself is spectacular, as one can see eight high peaks of the Eastern Himalayas in a sequence of sorts, and isn’t it a sight to behold!

It took me a while to return to the real-world, after such a literal flight of fantasy. I quickly realised that it was a hopping flight and that we would stop at Kathmandu, Nepal enroute to our destination, New Delhi. When we touched down, almost half the people on our flight got off at Kathmandu, but nobody boarded the flight there – I was surprised that no one was flying to Delhi from Kathmandu on a Sunday afternoon, considering it is a busy route for the legendary Himalayan expeditions. Suddenly, it dawned on me that Kathmandu is one of the listed airports by the Govt. of India for COVID-19 screening, and that I would have to undergo a medical check at New Delhi, before proceeding to immigration.
As we took off from Kathmandu, my thoughts wandered into a different mental landscape, I could not help but visualise the interesting philosophical and theological path of my current flight – from the land of happiness to the land of the Buddha, and finally, to arrive at the land of enlightenment! I did observe an inversion of path here – Buddha travelled from the land of his birth to the land of enlightenment in pursuit of happiness, while the route my flight took, was in a slightly convoluted order. The presentation on the Gross Happiness Index in Thimphu still lingered in my thoughts, as it talked about sustainable development, cultural values, conservation of environment and good governance. The arrival in New Delhi brought me back to earth, literally. It started with a medical check at the entry for any symptoms of a viral infection. I was rudely instructed not to touch the desk at the immigration counter lest I catch a viral infection, since New Delhi is a high traffic corridor airport.

Back on home turf, in Bangalore, I walked into the world of COVID-19 driven restrictions in both residential and commercial spaces. Almost all meetings, events, keynotes, jury panels etc. were cancelled and were moved to online platforms. With schools and offices shut, malls and restaurants closed, all public spaces are currently in a lock down. The scene at my apartment complex is like a carnival! With so many people stuck in a closed ecosystem and with social distance limits imposed, almost everyone is going online. Kids play online games; adults work online and are on zoom/skype calls; seniors watch OTT platforms or devotional content online endlessly; students’ login to learn and even take exams online. All of a sudden, there is a huge demand for bandwidth and internet speed as everyone clamours for the same, though the reasons differ. As it is a co-living community, one cannot allocate bandwidth by content and purpose or quickly engineer a method to address this unprecedented traffic. The scene is a stark reflection of the reality of our current digital world: That we cannot live without digital engagement even in social settings and spaces.
To rewind to my theological conundrum, the tenets of Mahayana Buddhism focus on taking everyone along on the path to happiness and enlightenment, even if means suspending one’s own journey to do so. In our digital world, we seem to follow the Darwinian model, we insist on the first right on anything, even if it means putting everyone else at risk. In systems theory, there is a difference between systemic risk and individual risk. The purpose of quarantine is to reduce the systemic risk even though the individual may not be at the risk of infection. With the lockdown restrictions in many cities across the world, residential complexes have become the new corporate campuses; university campuses and social enclaves of culture and fitness. But they do not follow enterprise like policies and rules for compliance. It is a free world as per the residents, and the exercise of rights prevail over the calls of duty and social consciousness.

In the course of my introspection, I asked myself – is this the world we want to live in? Most of our time is spent passively consuming digital content. Even social engagements revolve around passive consumption, to listen to someone else instead of to OTT platforms! It seems to me that the only act that does not need a digital medium, is to talk to oneself! It is a perhaps a pertinent question to ask ourselves. In the pre-digital era, many of us spent our time reading physical books, listening to music (played with real instruments), writing a diary, making notes or just reflecting on one’s own life.  Some of us spent time watching nature, painting or photographing it, or even jotting down our observations on the same. Most scientific explorations started with note taking on the environment and to gain insights by reflecting on them, and revising them thereafter. We are now placed squarely in this digital world, 24×7 with a whole lot of information but no insight; lot of consumption but no learning; lot of engagement but no relationship. Always active but never content!
So, what is our Silsila (series of events) in a digital world? I guess it is “Mein” and our “Meri Tanhai!” (me and my solitude!).
 

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I Vijaya Kumar