Interview with: Sonia Thomas and Sandhya Menon
On Instagram Sonia Thomas describes herself as: Russian name. Desi girl. Saudi bred. Bombay fed. Born Mallu. Ex-BuzzFeed India.
Sandhya Menon on her blog ‘The Restless Quill‘ describes herself as: A writer, journalist, feminist, mother. She writes about women, mental health and her life.
Arpita: “What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged.”
Now it might seem a little odd to begin this new year with Olivia Laing’s quote from ‘The Lonely City’ and maybe even to begin this podcast with this seemingly heavy topic of loneliness. You know because commercially right now all of December and early January is a huge celebration and we are constantly surrounded by this barrage of images where everyone is smiling, everyone is happy, they’re exchanging gifts, smiling, eating together and everyone looks like they’re cocooned in this absolute security and comfort right now. But I think the truth is that not all of us necessarily relate to these images and I know that I don’t, there are many times when I don’t. And I think this strong narrative of joy around festive seasons can make a lot of us feel left out and lonely.
Deepika: Absolutely, an article written this time last year actually reported how helplines experience a spike of almost 30% around this time of the year. And a lot of the calls are also from young people or older people, like you’re saying, who just feel out of sync with this idea of perfect happiness thats being projected. Yet the things is that loneliness isn’t just restricted to this part of the year, its something you can experience year long and day on day. So much so that in the Uk they’ve appointed a loneliness minister now.
Arpita: Yes, I read about that.
Deepika: You know in India we don’t really have extensive studies on the prevalence of loneliness but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that points to it you know, theres reports by psychologists, counsellors. India is actually one of the countries that has the highest suicide rate in the South-East Asia and that was a WHO Report published in 2016. You know just all of this points to how loneliness has become a growing concern.
Arpita: And I think the second point to loneliness being a particularly disturbing phenomenon is thats taking place at the societal level is because loneliness is being understood as an important indicator of both psychological and physical well-being of people. And I was reading how loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity – and hence a genuine public health concern.
So we decided to open our conversation with two lovely women – Sonia Thomas and Sandhya Menon. Both women are living with mental health conditions and have substantial online following where they speak of these issues with deep vulnerability and openness.
Sonia: I’m Sonia. I am a content creator. I spend my entire life on the Internet. I’m 26 and I live in Bombay and that is pretty much my entire life. I moved to Bombay in 2010. So I’ve been living in Bombay alone as in without family for around nine years now. I stay on my own, there are no roommates or anyone to share the space with and that’s great. Honestly. I don’t mind it. I’m not someone who enjoys socializing much so I’m okay with living alone actually.
Deepika: Sonia was talking about how she has struggled with depression from a young age and she was diagnosed with PCOD at 22. And she said it was actually a relief for her when that happened because for the first time there was a connection between what she was experiencing and her physical symptoms. A lot of studies have shown that women with PCOD have a higher likelihood of having anxiety and depression.
Arpita: Absolutely, and I think Im seeing this occur in more and more women around me. PCOD is becoming shockingly common.
Well, in Sandhya’s case, like Sonia she used to live in Mumbai and I think she misses it very much, it came up in our conversation a lot, but personal circumstances made her shift to Bangalore a couple of years back.
Sandhya: I’m Sandhya, Sandhya Menon and I’m a journalist. I was a journalist for about 15 years and after that I’ve been doing freelance writing for about two three years now. I’m a single mum. I live in Bangalore. I live with my children, they are 10 and 11 years old and I also work… among the other things that I do apart from professionally, I paint I crochet.
And so I moved to Bangalore about seven years ago 2012. I think late end of 2012. I came to Bangalore because – funny set of circumstances. I was diagnosed, I had, a one would I think be termed as a breakdown.. a proper breakdown of all sorts of things and I was diagnosed with a couple of mental illnesses. Couldn’t find the strength to go back to work after that. I moved to Bangalore because my parents owned a house here and at that point it was the best option for me to live rent-free so I moved to Bangalore.
Deepika: So both Sonia and Sandhya, you know, have been navigating and reflecting on their experiences of loneliness in the city and when I met Sonia late one evening, it was one of the first things we started talking about where she described what loneliness means to her.
Sonia: Growing up as an only child teaches you to enjoy your own company. It’s almost as if you have no choice. You have to learn to enjoy your own company. So for me that’s always been the case. Loneliness is more of a public thing. I feel more lonely in public spaces. I feel way more lonely at a party than I do at home because at least when I come home, I have the comfort of my own space. You know, even the things in my house feel mine, you know. It’s not as much ownership as much as its just the idea that this is mine and you know, this is home and it feels like I have built that for myself.
Deepika: Sonia talks about one of the core ways in which loneliness is very different from being alone and you know loneliness, simply put, is that absence of social relations, a lack of affection in your existing social relationships. In the survey we conducted on loneliness people wrote back and describing their experiences and it went from things like you know the inability to connect or engage with others to a lack of being witnessed and seen to feeling a lack of companionship or unsupported and all of these things were the cumulative voice of their experience of loneliness.
Arpita: Yeah, those definitions really… people were so articulate and poignant in the way they described it. And I think a city is a very unique context which is very specially capable of magnifying this feeling of lost connections because nowhere else are you actually surrounded by that many people right? I mean cities like Mumbai, it is one of the densest in the world. I was just really astounded to read that it has a population density of 32,000 plus people per sq km .. its insane!
Deepika: And true!
Deepika: But yeah and that density also sometimes creates a sense of invisibility right even though you are amongst throngs of people. You know Sonia was recalling an incident where she described an incident that occurred with her mother years ago.
Sonia: And I remember my mom telling me this about living in Bombay. She used to live in small town. She used to lived in Nasik and then she moved to Bombay after she got married. So for her, this was ridiculous. She’s like I fell on the road – she fell on the road once when she was in her eighth month of pregnancy. She was pregnant with me and she fell on the road and no one picked her up, and she’s like she just …she still tells me, that moment I was so mad because I was just here and I was so helpless and I felt so lonely and that day I just cried all the way back home. Because I felt …I felt as if there was legit no one I could reach out to and that is something I completely understand again.
Deepika: Sonia was also talking about one of her experiences of being really upset and crying in the local train and how she felt in that moment.
Sonia: I mean I was still in a ladies compartment where women asked me once or twice. Are you okay? Because I was very visibly upset but I think that’s a boundary that people in cities don’t cross. They allow you to have that moment because we live in areas where there is such little space to be yourself to have that time to grieve, to have a time to process, that we realize that that’s a boundary we shouldn’t be crossing and we let people grieve on trains. You’ll see a lot of like women crying on trains. And you can imagine those situations but you know, that’s a boundary that you don’t cross and I think cities that way can make you feel very very lonely.
Arpita: There is this constant tension in cities isn’t there? I mean there is, on the one side, the joy of embracing anonymity, which allows you to express yourself individually better, know yourself individually. Yet on days you are feeling vulnerable because in some ways it frees you yet you also fear it can make you feel really really tiny and small and insignificant. And I lived in Mumbai and I remember how common it was that I saw people crying in gardens, while on walks, around the city. In fact this experience is so common in Mumbai, you know this movie called GullyBoy, I think I mentioned this to you, it has this song called kitni doori where he says – Ab dekho toh hum pass hai lekin. Socho kitni doori hai. And he’s driving this car in which a girl is weeping and he finds himself barricaded out of the ability to comfort her or reach out to her.
Deepika: Actually that was one of the first things you mentioned to me after you had watched the film, I remember that and thats class like, right, right there, there is an unspoken barrier that you can never cross and everybody knows the room of the game. And hes the driver and therefore that inherent distance with whoever is travelling in that car.
And you know all the earlier narratives around mental health and wellness have always put this very strong emphasis on this being individual and biological and this being a very personal problem and sure in some ways it is but theres so much more than that. Its all affected by the places we inhabit, our social circumstances, the people we can access for support or not, just the physical environments that we live in and how harsh or easy they are and all of that determines boundaries you can cross or not cross. Therefore, affecting your mental health every single day.
Arpita: Yeah, I like how you’re putting that because in this situation particularly class isn’t a material wall, its not real, but it might as well be in this case because it stops someone from reaching out and being part of their support system and it isolates us. And in very similar ways other such criteria like age, gender, caste, disability, generation gaps, illnesses – all of these can be barriers to connection.
Deepika: In fact Sonia was also talking about how just navigating the city, getting from one place to the other, can amplify loneliness because of everything it involves, and its so difficult and just everyone is so busy!
Sonia: Again, this loneliness can strike you most in public spaces and I feel cities don’t have that space for support because everyone’s so busy – traveling, everyone’s so busy, working. Everyone’s so busy then coping with the side effects of traveling and working that we don’t we don’t think of creating spaces for support and that’s the… that’s the tragedy of it.
Arpita: This being too busy – travelling and working – as Sonia puts it, these all parts of the modern life that we have all embraced so it was also something Sandhya connected to. But what I found interesting was that she approached it from the perspective of the structure and form of the city itself where she spoke to how the urban sprawl, the architecture of the city, the public transportation systems, roads and traffic – all of it, plays a role in how, we as people, end up feeling.
Sandhya: The architecture of the city makes a big difference to how people interact with that city. For me the loneliness in the city, in this city, particularly comes down to the fact that I will think two weeks think… for two weeks before I visit my friend in Malleshwaram. I do not want to get stuck in traffic for 1 hour 20 minutes, which is what happens. I can only do one thing in one day in Bangalore and for a long time I blamed that on myself. So then it could be a function of the fact that I don’t get out a lot because of the way the city is really. If its raining 10kms is anywhere between 1 hour 45 minutes and 3 hours right … and I don’t want to do that really. I think of the petrol, I think of the stress I feel just yelling at people around me, being yelled at in turn!
Arpita: She was talking about how she felt that we were breeding loneliness even in our children – because the same problem of long commutes comes up with them.
Sandhya: Actually the city gets in the way of them interacting with each other where you could you know, walk five minutes down the street and visit your friend, when we were children. It’s a different world. I’m not even.. it’s not even comparable but these things add to a certain loneliness and that’s my biggest problem with the city that it does not allow you to be warm. It just doesn’t in so many ways.
Arpita: So we laughed about this because it had also taken me about an hour and a half to make a journey of 7 kms to come meet her that day! I mean it was ridiculous and I think anyone who lives in Bangalore knows this for a fact that you cant make this sudden plan to meet your best friend across the city, you can’t just zip around because..unless they literally live in your neighbourhood… out and meet the people you want to meet when things feel a bit low unless they literally live in your neighbourhood…and going anywhere often for me for sure is an exercise in event planning and management every single time!
Deepika: Yeah but thats true for all big cities and not just Bangalore. Commuting and navigating become so all consuming and exhausting that you dont have the energy to do anything else. I remember reading long back research that said that commuting can be more stressful than flying a fighter plane – which is just bizarre! I think when you can’t do something with ease then automatically those social connections that you would maintain before just falls away because it takes so much more effort to do that.
Sandhya: The loneliness bit hits when I realise what I lose when I don’t have that physical …that physical sort of presence when I’m talking to a good friend. Your body betrays so much right sometimes when someone says something, even the person you really like they say something that makes you uncomfortable either your shoulders tense so your you know, your face shuts down a little or your leg moves a little and all these are signs of discomfort that you totally miss when you’re chatting on the phone and I in that sense, I sort of feel like I’ve dulled my skills of picking up non-verbal cues. I don’t know if it’s just me being me or is it the fact that so much of my conversation happens on the phone that and so little in face to face that I miss these things or at least they are rusty.
Arpita: Sandhya expanded on this further through this experience she had of changing neighbourhoods and how that led to a change in the interaction she had with the people living around her and what it meant for her.
Sandhya: I’ll give you a small and quick example of it. In the earlier place that I used to stay, the general income level way high. It was my parents house and people around there were a lot older than I am so different space in life in terms of what they were earning and what their priorities were and all of that. So very different from me. I hardly saw my neighbours.
I moved here a year ago, and there’s a neighbor there and for a year now we’ve been exchanging food and it just feels.. whenever I make something ..cause theres a young boy there and there’s the old parents and I’m like, oh, you know what? Let me share and then.. it’s just the nicest feeling and the kids love doing it. You know, but the way that’s softened me up. In terms of that just that small action of sharing… its just completely softened me up in so many ways. I can see the difference from being hard and you know protective about privacy which is important in its… and I’m never going to deny that you shouldn’t be protecting your privacy but… Sometimes you can protect your space so much that you are just left alone.
Deepika: Thats really beautifully put and you know Olivia Laing states in The Lonely City: “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise. Like depression, a state with which it often intersects, it can run deep in the fabric of a person, as much a part of one’s being as laughing easily or having red hair.”
You know in many ways, what she’s saying, like Sandhya, is that at some level we’ve grown so used to loneliness, it’s just a part of our everyday lives, its a habit almost, so much so that we’re at a point that we are not even thinking about how to change that story or how to challenge it, that and that has such a direct impact on mental well-being and how you are feeling.
Sandhya: I think loneliness is such a huge threat to our survival as a.. not as an individual.. just the psyche of humanity. It’s actually death, you know, because we’re social animals and I hate using these words but it is what we are..we are social people and when loneliness hits it’s a huge existential threat to us. I think …I think one of the biggest reasons we find ways to survive is because we’ve got friends who understand why your survival is at threat.
Arpita: You know I was thinking how in some ways loneliness is part of the human experience or like some would say the human condition. I mean you it’s like how you experience joy and sadness – I think all of us have these experiences of loneliness at some point or the other in our lives.
Yet the nature of loneliness we are speaking of now is at a scale and constancy.. which is.. which is being observed right now, its really startling and like Sandhya says – seems to feel like a crisis that must be addressed at a much higher level than the individual. And I think you know these conversations we’ve been having on the nature of spaces and places and how they make us feel are important there.
Deepika: Yeah, when you talk about spaces and places and how that increases isolation, I actually remembered Gurgaon, post the 90s there was this big construction boom and there were all these very fancy very swish office buildings started to come up, and they all had, for the most part, glass fronts. There’s something about glass you know that feels really hard and distant. As posh as they looked they didn’t invite warmth or any kind of support or companionship.. it just makes you feel very stand off-ish in fact and there’s also research, and it’s not conclusive, but it indicates that people in high rises actually have a higher degree of isolation. In contrast, Sonia was talking about how access to nature based spaces and public spaces are so vital to how you feel and to your wellbeing and she was saying going to beach has now become part of her own wellness mechanisms and systems.
Sonia: I was having a terrible mental health day day before yesterday and the only thing I could think of after napping for six hours was ‘I just want to go to the beach. I just want to stand by the Sea’. No one interrupted me. There was tourists and families or whatever doing their thing in the background, but I was just there I stood by the sea for an hour and I came back home, and I was fine.
Arpita: You know this reminds me of those lines by Rilke, and he says- “When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise, and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused.”
Deepika: I was nodding along as you were reading that out because the ocean is something I turn to so often myself. I think that despite also the mayhem and chaos of Mumbai, it still works because of the ocean around it.
Arpita: Yeah and I think in the way that the ocean is inseparable from Mumbai, gardens are inseparable from Bangalore – and Sandhya spoke to this!
Sandhya: We are hugely lucky in having a Cubbon park and a Lalbagh to us. Noone talks about this enough, but the smaller areas like a BTM, HSR Layout or an Indiranagar – have little parks… little public parks. We take it for granted. We don’t talk about it. I mean all these young 25 year olds in Bangalore who are complaining about no green spaces to go to just – go to the park. It’s great.
Arpita: And even while she was talking about this I remember reading how WHO emphasises the need to have urban green spaces, just because nature is now proven to have benefits both in the arena of mental and physical well-being. And I love how often we’ve now started saying, you know, that human being are social animals – we need to acknowledge that, but I think we also need to acknowledge this truth that we are very much animals within an ecosystem so nature is really important to us.
But you know… tell me this, did technology and the Internet come up in your conversation with Sonia? Because I think it’s evident that tech is in the mix somewhere in this space of human connection in the modern age.
Deepika: Yeah, Sonia is a huge Internet enthusiast and its also how she accesses support systems in her life.
Sonia: I have like my five best friends and my parents. Even if someone’s not in the city, I think that way being on the Internet has made life so easy. I just have to pick up my phone be like, you know what, I feel like crap and I want to talk to someone. I don’t know why I feel this way. I just want to talk.
Deepika: She was talking about how online spaces help her navigate the largeness of the city and its a tool she uses to reach out to like minded people as well.
Sonia: Through Twitter and through Instagram I have found people who live in the same city who probably are also awkward, depressed, anxious, do not like social situations. So I’m like, okay, you know what, let’s hang, lets chill. Let’s hang out one on one. We don’t have to call five people or six people to hang out. It can just be a plan we make together.
Arpita: So this was something Sandhya referred to as well. And hinted at how the Internet interestingly mirrors the city as in its also a bunch of strangers trying to come together to form a community.
Sandhya: And this whole thing about strangers forming a community. That’s what we see online right? It’s I remember the first time I reached out to a stranger and poured my heart out online. It was in the day in the days of ICQ. I don’t know if you remember. I mean, I poured my heart out to someone. I just didn’t know and the seamless transition from being mistrustful of strangers, which is what we grow up with, to strangers becoming your community. That’s happened for me in the last 15 years because of being online right? It’s these are people you choose.
Arpita: Yet even as she loves her online community and she shared her gratitude for it, Sandhya also pointed out how its a precarious thing and what preoccupation with online worlds on mobile phones is doing to all of us.
Sandhya: And finally I think that final loneliness in the city is that I feel is because we’re not looking up from our phones. In a cab ride, on a bus ride, on the Metro. Like, I’d remember on a Bombay local trains you have fisher-women, you have vegetable vendors all of them taking a local train with you and just their weary expressions or the cheerful expressions right … all kinds of vendors. Some of them are just bright and happy and you are like you don’t have even half the privileges that I have, what is making you this bright! What is making you this happy, you know, and then you start to imagine their lives and you start to imagine everything that may go and it’s great that you can imagine either way. You can imagine a completely tragic life for them or you can imagine a nice small simple, but happy life for them. That skill is just gone.
And when you stop noticing these things of a city around you… and when you stop noticing those things.. and this is actually this is the biggest thing for me… when you stop noticing these things you stop empathising with those lives.
Deepika: I really resonate with what she’s saying. I mean networked technology is tricky business because in so many ways it allows for access to people and communities beyond the ones that you inherited. You know just people who might open new worlds for us in so many ways and in other ways also that contact with family and friends that you might lose otherwise because they are scattered all over the world but you can do that video call and see their faces. But the thing with it is that it is not a replacement for that intimacy or physicality right. So in the absence of touch and feel – a grandparent can’t sit with their grandchild on their lap, you can’t feed them lunch or go for a walk to the park. So all those smaller nuances, the intimacies that come with it – that becomes absent and its that dichotomy between what it allows for and what is taken away.
Arpita: And I think in the same way this is true also of being present in public spaces like Sandhya says. What I really also liked was this additional point she made about how this loss of empathy is a costly loss of perspective. Because in many ways, when you’re on the street or in public spaces, its one of the few times when you are midst a variety of people, a whole different set of people than you would usually be coz otherwise we are often enclosed in environments where people are very much like, they have the same histories, they’re living the same lifestyles.
Sandhya: (…) We live among people who earn like us. Another way empathy dies because we have empathy only for the problems like us and this is only in cities, you know, and Bangalore, forget Bombay you see a lot more, but in Bangalore everyone restricts ourselves to this sort of environment where we earn and where we.. where we live is in the same income group as everyone else.
Deepika: Yeah like Sandhya says its almost like being in a fish bowl. I remember how I began paying attention to the sheer diversity of Mumbai when I was working at an NGO and began visiting and meeting people from very different communities. It changed my understanding and perspective not only of their lives but of my own life and my own experiences.
Arpita: And I think in that way the conversation today has indicated that, yes of course individual situations matter when the experience of loneliness is concerned but the nature of the world, in terms of the communities and the eco-systems we inhabit, also matter. There’s a dance of so many variables there! In fact this “Psycho-social” approach, as its called, where you understand an individual in connection with their environment, interpersonal relationships, community and cultural practices – is increasingly becoming the approach taken by mental health care professionals.
Deepika: You know thats why when you’re talking about solutions and how to address the issue of loneliness in the city it requires interventions at multiple levels because there isn’t one answer. You have to look at city design and planning, commute systems, transportation, things like access to housing and drinking water, safety – all of that is as important as saying I can access a a counsellor or access a medical support facilities that can actually care for my well-being, its all in a happy interconnected system.
Arpita: The danger of someone taking away the idea that we are somehow critiquing cities and calling them bad, I just want to address that because this is not to say that cities are all bad at all. We are all attracted to cities because of the possibilities they hold. Cities are melting pots where people from such a variety of cultures and spaces come in. And you and I have grown up in cities and we call them our homes and we love them deeply, and thats where the questions take us.
Deepika: Yeah and thats also why we are asking ourselves this question right – where do you want the city to go if we want well-being to improve both individually but also as community? And just to circle back to Olivia Laing and she says:
“Loneliness is personal, and it is also political. Loneliness is collective; it is a city. As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel shame, only to remember that the pursuit of individual happiness does not trump or excuse our obligations to each another. We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity.”
Outro: If you are lonely or in distress and want to access support or help do look-up the resources we have put up in our website. There you can also learn more about how the issue of loneliness in cities is understood and being tackled. Our website is www.thecuriocitycollective.org. If you found this conversation interesting, do share it with your friends and communities.
In our next conversation, we’ll be talking to Aparna and Tanuja from Initiating Concern for All or iCALL. Its a pioneering mental health project started in 2012 by the School of Human Ecology, Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Mumbai. Listen in to hear how we can understand the nature and kinds of distress experienced by individuals in cities and what can be done about it.