An ominous silence lingers in the air outside my room. It shows no signs of breaking, not until a one-off car or a motorbike wheezes past and a crack appears. It still doesn’t break. The sirens of a sprinting ambulance, whenever they pass through, and it happens more than once a day now, only rip the silence apart. The sirens serve as a daily reminder of the tumult of our times, when the solace of silence too has become a matter of immense fortune. We dread the clamour of hospitals and crematoriums, hope in earnestness that we evade those sites, somehow, anyhow. But our silence, the same silence I and my friends assumed when we muted ourselves on Zoom during our end-semester exams in May, or the silence we assume when our institute thrusts its policies upon us, or the silence we will assume as we move on to our trainings and jobs in the days to come, is deafening in immeasurable proportions.
The paradox is abound: the silence we yearn for now is merely extraneous, and deep inside, both our hearts and minds remain in constant commotion. It is the same silence this introduction is being written in, the same commotion that jostles my mind as I write it. The ruminations that follow are from merrier days and calmer nights, forming one of the many tokens of memory that I fall back on when it becomes impossible to extricate the silence from the commotion. I have lived three years of college as a student, one-and-a-half as a student amidst its bushes and corridors, and the remaining one-and-a-half as a thumbnail on Microsoft Teams. This is the memory of that other, remote, rueful half.
During one of the conversations with the fellow members of the media body of the institute in December last year, of which I happen to be a part, one of the friends remarked that we should’ve recorded the conversation, mostly in order to preserve the light-hearted moments that had occurred intermittently with the more serious ones, and the harmless mockery that we’d all partaken in. The conversation, or meeting as we termed it, was exceedingly lengthy too, a marathon of two hours in total. But her remarks signified something more, a trait exclusive to the interactions on screen: they could be recorded, archived, stored, and more importantly, they could lead us to the possibility of keeping a record of our conversations in the first place. It opened a new gateway to understanding the virtual world of chatter, where voice and video were the checkboxes of your presence and recording a testimony of your experience.
Records have an inherent imperative to their existence, in that there could be a possibility of you going back to them, either for want or pleasure, and hence they need to be made, maintained. And my friend’s remarks, when seen from this lens, birthed a curious question: was the keenness of recording any exchange of words in a virtual setup a result of the need to do so? If yes, why?
In trying to arrive at a convincing answer, I ran my mind through all the Zoom, Teams, Meets rendezvous I had been a part of, or privy to until then, and in the world of flashbacks, I saw only a screen, with thumbnails and names, heard voices, familiar and unfamiliar, all colluding to make a giant lump of remembrance, very unlike the fine strands of memories I had from my conversations and interactions in a physical space pre-lockdown. And therein lay a probable answer to my inquiry, in that the need to record a virtual conversation arose from its inability to find an immediate place in our senses and that conversations via screens were indistinguishable, blended together with little to no singularity. How else could we hold on to them if not through a record?
If records could be a possible way to register the virtual, our screens were inevitably the means to indulge in it and to offer a shared habitat to ourselves. The space occupied by our lives at the college had doubtlessly shrunk and shape-shifted its way to our screens. It is difficult to even say that all of us shared a common space, for the web was for everyone, and we were only a tiny fraction of the much bigger world that was living on it. And it clearly stood unmatched to the campus colours, the hues of which brushed our lives in peculiar, sometimes odd, sometimes affable ways; no more, it was the screen-space that had to be navigated.
The initial months in the virtual setup (circa July ’20), a simulation of the college at best, were liberating in some measure. We were no longer mandated to attend the lectures for the starters. The evaluation could be attuned to score maximum: a WhatsApp group, resourceful acquaintances, and collaborative efforts. The academic processes had little left in them by way of marking our learning outcomes, even as the grades took steep jumps. The fact of the matter though, was that we had come to terms with the woeful direction the virus was headed to by then, and evaluations succumbed to our realization of the misery. That there were readymade arrangements to our aid was a push in the direction to trick and tinker with the practices and lessen the workload. Only a few outliers could resist and refute and continue in piety. In the light of the screen-space, our conduct was telling of how much we lacked- classrooms, corridors, conversations, and the environment of campus as a whole, which besides deterring our bravado to cheat, ensured, merely by its existence and the presence of the fraternity, that one was routinely reminded of what it meant to be a college student. It was ludicrous to believe a carry-over could happen to our homes, or to the screen-space for that matter.
It will be unfair to the realm of screen-space if I say that it was (is) not intriguing, for it most certainly was. Imagine: a group of students listening to a professor as they deliver their lecture, a group of students talking to each other about the student newsletter they need to conceptualize, yet another group of friends, speaking to each other, lamenting their lives, and turning pages of the nostalgia book. A common thread emerges, that of ‘voice’, of sounds, noises sometimes, all of which were carried as it is across miles, as other sensory experiences dimmed and faded. The tiles in Zoom couldn’t reflect the facial expressions of the person, touch and bodily movements already out of the question. We were all far too distant, capable only of hearing each other to the fullest, our speech being the bridging link.
A typical classroom in the screen-space
I speak of speech and voice not merely for its pronounced effect in the order of communication but also for the impressions it produced. The ambience of conversation had drifted to an uncharted territory, where we were to draw the nectar of meaning by gathering each other’s words more attentively than before. There were phrases to mark this change: Your voice is breaking. Speak-up, I can’t hear you. And finally, the inevitable Am I audible?
Had our voice then taken precedence over other senses? Alternatively, had we begun to pay less attention to how we looked, dressed, and came across to the other? Yes and yes, mostly. And this is really where screen-space diverged from the sensory, physical space, elevating ‘voice’ so much so that by the time the first virtual semester ended, I had heard way more people than I had seen. The voices I remembered would constitute the biography of the semester if there was to be one, voices of professors, peers, friends, everyone who had essayed a role, spoken something.
The last day of February, when I was circling the gate of the college campus, it dawned upon me that almost a year had passed since the undergraduate students backpacked to their respective homes (the orders came on March 13, 2020), and that the last day was now a punctuation, a half-pause in the prosaic year 2021 was going to be. This visit to the campus was impromptu, except it proved to be a reckoning. A reckoning of what had been left behind, and of what lay ahead. My friend, who I’d unapologetically asked to traverse two miles from his hostel to the main gate on foot to sign my entrance permit, told me as we headed inside that no cases had been reported in the premises in the last few days. It was a hopeful start to the sojourn, notwithstanding the masks we clutched to our faces, or the temperature checks we had to undergo, or the people we saw yet didn’t see.
If you were to happen to see someone after ages, say decades, chances are that you befuddle upon seeing them, their self and skin unfathomable to your mind, still carrying the age-old impressions. I soon found myself in the same boat, unable to attach the images of the institute I had been privy to earlier with what was in sight. The students were absent for one. No groups languished in the coffee shops. Couples no longer stole intimate moments from a brimming space. No giggles and noises. No pats and embraces. Desert, the deafeningly silent desert of a campus, stood wide and tall. And it had changed looks, adding some features, sharpening some others: a scintillating R&D Park, portable charging apparatus, newly built hostel, renovated hostels, electric bikes. Coupled with the desertion, it coloured the campus in unbeknownst shades. I was compelled to recalculate the time it had been since we bid adieu, one year, yes, roughly one year, I told myself. ‘Had so much really transpired in the year we were away? How come?’ I flustered in vain. We had reached the academic block by then.
The lull notwithstanding, we knew the virus had the complete leeway to loiter in the campus air. My friend and I took care to check our temperatures before entering a once prime gup-shup arena, now reeking of a biting emptiness. We talked of cats running over the food in the times when tables were densely occupied and chairs that were almost always insufficient. We remembered and reminisced, updated each other on our lives for a while, before deciding that CCD was still too expensive for an un-occasional coffee and that it was time to get up and move on. The charm of nostalgia, after all, was transient like everything else.
As we walked down the road to our hostels, I found myself more and more occupied by the vacancy of the place, wrapped in a haunting silence, containing only a semblance of the ‘campus’ life. The slim sets of sounds here and there betrayed a sparse presence, and when one of them sounded known, heard of and talked to, I paused, flinched and fought with my memory to respond, lest I passed by the person. “Aur Raunaq kaise ho?” the voice said in the next moment, and I was relieved of my mental duties. I knew the person, a resident of the same hostel as mine. We exchanged pleasantries in the few moments our gazes met for and took to our course. It had clearly taken a while for either of us to ‘recognize’ each other, some seconds extra for reaffirming the identity from the pair of eyes we had– a peculiarity of the mask-worn pandemic.
To what was more revealing and striking of that momentary exchange was that such stumbling were a vital point of contact outside the closed circles students tended to build and did the necessary job of keeping people in touch. The arrival of the pandemic had, besides taking more excruciating tolls, ruptured our human socialization, in that we only saw people on screen, people we made a willful attempt to reach out to. Texts, calls, meetings, all of them were thought of and calibrated on different levels and could not fill for bump-ins and impromptu encounters. It was a sentiment most of my friends shared, ruing that they had not had a conversation with so and so for long, and how they had lost contact with an acquaintance they saw at the coffee shop every morning in the pre-pandemic era.
My friend and I continued dragging ourselves to the hostel, where I was to pick my luggage from. Flashes from the past kept crossing my mind as we marched forward, reminding us of the many events we had had, the cultural festival here, the award night there, the exhibition, and so on. It was another of the many tragedies the pandemic had thrown our way: the snatching away of the eventfulness of our lives. No festivals, no birthday celebrations, no endless extensions to an hourly meet-up, no impromptu plans, and finally, as some of us prided ourselves in, no gate-crashing the weddings and functions we weren’t an invitee of. Life at home lacked all this and more and was an insipid monotony of classes and carefully charted co-curricular, all suited and adjusted for the virtual screen-space. Aditya Sudarshan in one of his pieces on Scroll, while writing about the need to reimagine campuses post-COVID, wrote how “a college campus is seen as a world-unto-itself, boasting of every kind of stimulating activity– sports, cafes, films, theatre, talks, festivals and an all-round culture of events (that) become intrinsic to its identity.” What was the identity of our campus in our absence then? Conversely, what was our identity as student(s) in the absence of a campus? The questions beckoned even as we paused, my hostel gate up front, the final segment of the day beckoning.
If buildings, brick and mortar, painted and plastered, were to possess a spirit, a spirit that held them together on the feet, firm and steady, clamped to the ground, my hostel’s mercurochrome spirit must have paled in the time students were away. Its corridors now echoed quietness, rooms a sign of prolonged closure. We inhabited this place once, I said to myself as I climbed the stairs to my room, the montage of leap-frogging and lurking boys streaming in the theatre of my mind. Everything happened in a haste from here on, packing the luggage, climbing down, completing the formalities. All I recall is brushing dust off the bags I picked, just like I had brushed the dust off my memories in the excursion. In a brief chit-chat with our shopkeeper downstairs, I sensed he thought Covid was a hoax. Hoax, indeed. How dearly I wished it was a hoax then, re-imagined a different twenty-twenty.
When the cab to take me home– a couple of hours away from Delhi arrived, I wasn’t exactly sad. In fact, I didn’t want to stay in the premises anymore. Maybe the campus couldn’t behold for long. Maybe it was equally if not more dismaying to be on campus than to be away, until it regained its liveliness.
Soon, soon I imagined as I enter the cab would I forget about this trip, and immerse myself in the screen-space. Soon I would revisit the photographs in my phone. Soon I would long to be back. Long for everyone to be back. Soon. Very soon.
Raunaq Sawaswat is a twenty-year-old residing in Aligarh. His work has previously appeared in Kitaab, Active Muse, News18, and Cafe Dissensus Everyday. Raunaq is a year away from turning the page in the notebook his life is, as he graduates and steps into some sphere of professional work unbeknownst. He is majoring in Chemical Engineering from IIT Delhi.