As 2020 slowly walks to its end, as if wading through treacle, there’s a New Yorker cartoon by Brooke Bourgeois that aptly sums up the year. Two women are talking to each other on a sofa, and one says, “I just got used to the new normal! How can I be expected to go back to the old normal all of a sudden?”
Of all the things we have learned and unlearned this year, a ‘new normal’ was the worst. Or perhaps the best. It taught us that we can’t take lipsticks, luxury and loneliness for granted. As home became the workplace, and we waited for things to be ‘okay’ again, one tech blogger called what we were going through a “change management boot camp”.
So, let’s unpack 2020.
Things we unlearned
- What we need
A few months into the pandemic, it became starkly clear that consumerism had consumed our souls. We definitely did not need cartons of clothes, online shopping, and every shade of lipstick to survive. Our idea of essentials changed. Quickly we realised that we, the urban Indians, have been buying the wrong things. When you stand in line outside three stores on a hot summer day, inside your designated yellow circle, you become aware of what you actually need, rather than what you want. Bread, eggs, and milk. Everything else can wait. And you definitely do not need to indulge in your tenth pair of shoes, maybe that mop with a better handle or that legit-looking sanitiser was a better buy.
In fact, Bloomberg reported that, in India, the “sale of hand sanitisers through neighbourhood stores jumped 144 percent from mid-February to mid-March period.”
- How to work
If you, like me, had a particular work routine that you were attached to, which included a samosa at 10:30 am, you absolutely had to unlearn it. Before getting down to working from home comfortably, we had to unlearn working from the office. Work from home now meant working alone, without a quick chat in the pantry or the stairs, or intense eye-contact with your favourite colleague. It meant Web WhatsApp becoming a permanent icon on your computer. And it meant that if you had to ask for something or do something, you’d have to wait for a blue tick on your screen.
We all thought working from home would be great, but you see, we’d never had a trial run. A country of technology averse people was thrown into the deep end of the pool. People had to unlearn that working meant being physically present in office, even if you were just staring at an Excel sheet. On average, work from home has made Indians work 32 minutes longer every day. And clearly made them unlearn work-life balance.
- Biting your nails
What we had to let go of were mostly trivial habits that had accumulated into a mountain of obstacles.
Biting our nails when outside, touching our face constantly (we apparently used to do it 16 times an hour), not washing your hands after coming home, pushing people in crowds, ordering food every other day even if you had roti sabzi at home, asking people to ‘adjust’ in buses or on the Metro, piling up dishes in the basin, and most of all, coughing in public. Now, every time you let out a slight cough, you felt a dozen eyes searing into your soul.
Things we learned
- What we need
What we truly needed and hopefully got was perspective. Every day of the lockdown in India was a reminder of our privilege, how we could access coffee when others couldn’t even access rice. How some of us had ‘time off’ to ‘develop hobbies’, while others were walking home across states.
Most of my friends and family said we really learned how much of a job cooking and cleaning regularly was. What hustling to cook lunch between two emails looked like.
And we learned that at the end of the day, all of us needed companionship, a voice over the phone, and that, after a point, scrolling through Instagram and Facebook gets boring. It was truly the ’90s again — sepia-toned afternoons, counting the number of tiles on the floor, thinking about portioned-out candies in the fridge. We learned that we needed to eat right and exercise, but we also learned that we were truly lazy.
Also, we learned to constantly wear a mask.
- How to work
Schools to scholars, companies to courts, we truly entered Digital India.
HRs around the world realised work from home can work. Bosses learned that you can get work done digitally, that their employee isn’t necessarily sitting at home watching Netflix.
Teachers learned how to impart lessons on geography and math on camera and how to spot the ‘last benchers’ even through Zoom.
And yes, all those meetings can be condensed into emails.
- Netflix can end
There was a point where everyone was streaming shows online. But soon that fascination began to wane too. As TikTok shut down and Insta reels took over, people understood that staring at Netflix and Amazon Prime Video can get boring. You can feel like you’ve watched everything there is to watch.
As of June, Indians were watching five hours of online content per day (reportedly, the most in the world). But trust me, most of it was mindless staring. Or cringe binging as days and nights became one continuous loop.
So, what now and what’s normal anymore?
Maybe we’ll still cough in public with a guilty look, not share spoons, think twice before ordering things on the online wishlist, and work from home (sometimes). They say time is the greater teacher. Well, 2020 was the principal.
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