[Note: references to pandemic and mental-health]
It was New Year’s Eve 2019, a little over a month when the COVID-19 pandemic was born, but a good 3 months before it spread its tentacles and became global-news and a household name. People were blissful in their ignorance, oblivious to the creeping threat on the horizon. It was a festive time with a carefree style of celebration, with no concerns for veiling faces, baptizing hands, sanitizing surfaces, or three-dimensional cartesian spatial distancing of people like molecules in a crystal lattice: a stereotypical marker of the pre-pandemic era, that would have great nostalgic value in the post-pandemic end-times. It was in that setting that Chris and Julie found themselves in a simple, low-key, no-frills but heart-warming NYE’s party in the chaotic, vibrant, maddening city of Mumbai, India. Both of them were visiting Mumbai for different reasons (Chris to help his good Indian friend Ramesh setup an office based on his domain-knowledge, and Julie on a short vacation before a big Life-change to see an entirely different part of the world), and they had somehow landed-up in that NYE party through mutual acquaintances. It was a small affair: just a dozen people or so, most of them Mid-30s married couples. Chris and Julie were ethnic stand-outs there, so it was easy for them to just wander over and connect with one another. Between them, there was quite a bit of awkwardness initially, but the social lubricant was slowly working its magic. As is evident through colorful Bollywood musicals, and the vibrancy of Indian festivals, Indians don’t need a rhyme or reason to let their hair down and dance; they don’t need liquid courage to lose social inhibitions and let it flow, and thus it was, the entire dance-floor erupted with reckless abandonment. Chris was dragged by Ramesh onto the dance-floor, with Julie watching and giggling on-the-sidelines.
In the midst of all the deafening music and boisterous dancing, Chris and Julie stole glances at each other, their eyes interlocking with a fierce feeling of unspoken understanding, being comfortably numb by the uncomfortable silence between them, like Uma Thurman’s character’s (Mia Wallace) assertion in “Pulp Fiction” that “you know you’ve found someone special when you can shut the fuck up for a minute and not feel necessary to yak about bullshit”. After much pleading, Chris excused himself from Ramesh’s death-grip, and joined Julie to puncture the sound of silence. Conversation flowed quite effortlessly. The chemistry was palpable. They were not even an arm’s length from one another, and inching ever so slowly imperceptibly closer. There was a certain amount of electricity in the air: like a Tesla Coil discharging invisible electric arcs in the space between them, creating a strong magnetic field of attraction between two poles. Chris was usually shy, and Julie had a proclivity to be audacious, and yet, the roles were reversed, quite like the reversal of earth’s magnetic poles, a slow process unfolding over the vastness of geologic time, except this one happened rather quickly in the space of an hour.
As midnight was approaching, just as the space between them narrowed down to roughly the length of the palm of a hand, Julie leant over and passionately kissed Chris with a violent suddenness that caught him off-guard. It lasted for quite a while, enough for the Quantum Wave Function to collapse down from a field of amorphous probabilities to a concrete crystallized outcome: a conjoining of two souls together. And yet in the next moment, Julie pulled herself away with the same violent intensity, with a ghostly look on her face, muttering to herself that this wasn’t meant to be, excusing herself from the party in a flustered hurried way, practically running out of the door even before midnight could strike. Chris and Ramesh tried their best to run after her, and pleaded with her to stay, asking her if everything was okay, but she was adamant that she wanted to leave and be by herself. She took a cab back to her hotel, and just like that she was gone. Chris felt like he had been alternatingly pummeled by a violent tornado while experiencing a blissful pleasant high of weed growing in the remote mountains. After sticking around for a brief while for Ramesh’s sake, he excused himself and went back to his Hotel. In the next few days, he tried his best to get Julie’s contact information, but it wasn’t meant to be. Julie had crashed into the party through a distant indirect contact, and there was no way to reach her. Chris bid adieu to Mumbai with feelings of a bittersweet symphony, where he was offered a tiny glimpse of a connection, only for it to be yanked away without explanation.
It was a bright warm Summer’s day in August-2020, the perfect day to go outdoors, enjoy the warmth of the glowing sun, enjoy with family and friends, basking in positive vibes all around. Except of course the COVID-19 pandemic, and associated lockdowns had wreaked havoc the world over, screwing up the summer, and everyone’s plans. And so it was just another day of work for 32 year old “Jack”, facing a computer terminal, wearing a headset, answering high-pressure important client-calls. Considering it was a high-pressure job, with very high-stakes, one would think that his establishment would have provided him with high-end audio-equipment, but thanks to “budget constraints”, Jack had to make-do with the mediocre headset with shitty subpar microphone, and still be able to make a compelling case for why clients shouldn’t part ways. Jack was working in a “complaints redressal” department of sorts. His job was to try his level-best to hold the attention of the people calling him (people with grave grievances): soothe them, coax them, persuade with a deft combination of diplomatic sweetness, matter-of-fact information gathering, while maintaining a neutral dispassionate poker-face of calmness in his voice, pinpoint the location of the client, contact Emergency Technicians in that area to pay them a visit for further allaying their concerns, and somehow convince clients as to why they should stick around, why their continued presence is important to him, his establishment, and to the world at large. Jack was working at a Mental Health Helpline, and he fielded troubling calls from troubled people.
On that warm Summer’s day in August-2020, Jack had fielded his regular share of calls: nothing out-of-the-ordinary: a range of cases from a 75 year old lonely man who was tired of his heartbreaking loneliness, to a 42 year old widow who was unable to move-on after her husband had died 6 months ago, to a 16 year old girl who was gutted when she had spotted the boy she had a crush-on with another girl at the movies that day, to a 35 year old scientist with a PhD and three post-docs wondering if he should exit to be reincarnated as a Writer in the next Life. Jack had managed to defuse all these situations one-by-one, and was relieved that he got them the help they needed. He had managed to kick the existential can down the road for these people, at least for a bit, enough for the current crisis to tide over. It doesn’t always work this way though. Jack had experience with losing a few people, as every Doctor or EMT would know and relate. On that particular day, things had worked out well. It was 7:30pm and Jack was about to head home at 8pm, when he got another call, a call that would change both their lives.
On-the-surface, it seemed like just another call: a 28 year old woman (“Céline”) who just had a terrible breakup with her fiancé in the middle of all this pandemic nonsense, had been in a depressive spiral for a couple of months, with things reaching a breaking-point tonight, with breaking news of a fresh set of stringent lockdowns. She thought she was getting her shit-together and getting over the pain, and then the news of the continuing pandemic and never-ending lockdowns sent her back into a spiral like an addict needing only the slightest of triggers to crawl back into the hole. She called the helpline, unsure about her intentions. She was lost, and needed someone to talk to, before things spiraled further out-of-control. What started as a conversation about losing a relationship and personal embarrassment of a canceled marriage quickly bloomed into deeper existential reflections about Life, pain, suffering, the nature of the Human Condition. They were both opening-up about the situations in their own lives, and drawing existential parallels with broader spiritual and philosophical conundrums. It was a beautiful sensual symphony of the personal and intimate with the conceptual and abstract. The concept of Time Dilation from Einstein’s Relativity applied: it was hard to measure how quickly time was passing. It all felt very natural, spontaneous and authentic. Despite Jack’s training and better judgment, he had somehow meandered his way into getting emotionally involved and spiritually invested in the conversation. It wasn’t just a voice at the other end of the phone, it was a person: a beautiful soul with warts, flaws and resonant pain.
Over the course of one hour of conversation, Céline’s voice had transformed from anhedonic apathetic dull pain to a state of cautious nervous excitement, and Jack’s poker-face training had also evaporated. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, they both could sense something vaguely familiar about each other, and about the connection they had. They couldn’t put a finger on it, but it was there, like a beautiful operatic symphony in a language that cannot be understood literally, but can be felt viscerally, in the depths of one’s hearts. And then, as fate would have it, the call disconnected suddenly, without a warning. Jack waited around for the next two hours to see if she called back, but she didn’t. Jack figured there were network connectivity issues, or that Céline’s phone battery had died. Over the next two weeks, Jack arrived early into the office and left late, suffering from restless leg-syndrome out of a sense of nervous anticipation, as he felt sure that there was some raw connection there, that Céline also felt it, and that she would call back. But she didn’t. Jack went back to his training-manual poker-voice inflection, and got busy with fielding customer grievance calls. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t forget that soul-stirring connection he had made over that magical call, and while he was a consummate professional, fielding calls as if Lives depended on it (because it did), he was mentally fixated on that missed-opportunity, emotionally-spent and psychologically burnt-out. He felt he needed to step-away or have a change of pace or place for a while.
And so when the invitation came for a work-related opportunity in Dec-2020 from a totally different part of the world, Jack readily jumped at the opportunity, to get a complete change of scenery, a place he didn’t think he would go back to: Mumbai, India. The pandemic, travel-advisories, travel-restrictions, lockdowns had not done anything to deter him, for he was at a fundamental crossroads in Life, and needed to get away to clear his mind a bit. There’s such a thing as “compassion fatigue” and Jack had hit that, and then some. He was exhausted from fielding calls all day long and listening to people’s problems, and while he gained a huge measure of satisfaction from all the lives he saved or impacted in ways big and small, he couldn’t help but feel bitter about not having anybody in his own personal Life. He yearned for someone who can hold his hand and listen to his problems for a change, and he would of course do the same for the other person: only in more personal, intimate ways than the dispassionate poker-face clinical tone he reserves for his general category callers. And so he ended up with a toned-down, low-key but spirited NYE party, in the midst of friends old and new, to ring-in the arrival of 2021, and hopefully with it, the end of this bloody pandemic (anybody holding their breaths for that wish was sure to be disappointed). And then he spotted her.
That magical girl from last year’s NYE party, standing about 20 feet away, at the adjacent corner of the room: what was her name?! Wait for it. Neural database searching underway. Ah yes, something with a J. Wait for it. Ah yes, something to do with a romantic film. Before something. What was it? Ah yes, Before Sunrise. Google and Wikipedia with the answer: Julie! Right, yes, Julie! How could he forget that name?! What an idiot he was! What the hell is she doing here?!
While Jack’s neural indexing algorithm was working overtime, Julie had spotted him too, from the corner of her eye. She stole a quick glance, and resumed staring straight forwards, towards some vague point on the distant horizon, trying hard to contain her excitement, trying to maintain the dispassionate poker-face which Jack had formally trained for. Julie had no problems recognizing or placing Jack. She knew who he was the microsecond she spotted him. Just when Jack looked up from Wikipedia on his phone, Julie turned to lock eyes with him. He froze on-the-spot like deer caught in the headlights, a big awkward lump in his throat. Is this what a panic attack feels like?! He was panicking because he knew he needed to get it right this time, and lock that shit down, and move his Life forward. This is a sign from the Universe, and the Universe is usually quite apathetic, ruthless, cold, clinical, detached, indifferent to your existence. And if the Universe is giving you a sign, you have to grab it by the balls and act. But that’s a lot of pressure, the stakes were high, and he was buckling under all that pressure.
This time, it was Julie’s turn to be the Master of Ceremonies, and take the lead. She walked over with firm strides towards Jack, not losing eye-contact with the nervous-wreck staring back at her in a state of dumb-founded trance. Julie introduced herself as Céline, which further fed into Jack’s state of absolute bewilderment. Jack managed to shake himself out of the tongue-tied mess that he was, and offered an awkward reintroduction as Chris, the guy she had walked out on from last year’s NYE party. He felt stupid for vocalizing explicitly the part about her walking-out, while Céline smiled sheepishly in response. In the brief awkward pause that followed, Chris found himself mid-sentence in his thoughts, wondering what’s up with this Julie to Céline transformation, when it struck him like a “Eureka” moment: is this the Céline with whom he had a magical phone-call on that helpline about four months back?! As if to read his thoughts, Céline offered an explanation of everything she was upto in the past year.
Céline had introduced herself as Julie at last year’s NYE, not wanting to become too attached or involved in the party. After all, she had just crashed there through a distant oblique reference, she had a big Life-event ahead of her, and she wanted to be a fly-on-the-wall in a different part of the world, just soaking-in a different atmosphere before moving forward to the next stage of her Life. Céline was seeing a guy back home, things were getting serious, and they were engaged to be married soon, sometime in Mid-2020. Céline was excited for this next chapter in her Life, but that got complicated by this brief, sweet, intense rendezvous she had with a guy named Chris at last year’s NYE party. She caught herself at the right time and walked away before things escalated down a path she couldn’t undo. Unfortunately for Céline, Life had other plans for her, as the marriage was canceled sometime in June-2020, her fiancé developing cold-feet, the extended nature of the pandemic adding another layer of anxieties and complications. And so, Céline was in absolute shambles by the time August-2020 came around, caught in a downward escalating spiral of negative thoughts, almost reaching a stage where she was contemplating giving-up on Life itself, when she found a guy called Jack manning a helpline, who convinced her that all was not lost, with whom she shared an intense connection.
Céline’s luck had run out again, just like her phone battery; that promising call had dropped abruptly. Still, she was thankful for the conversation as it left her feeling quite hopeful, certainly in a better state than when she called. She decided to get into a better head-space, get her shit-together and call back again in a week or so, and see if she can get Jack's contact to maybe take things forward. She also had vague premonitions that there was something familiar about this Jack, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint it down. And then again, the universe and specifically the pandemic fucked with her plans, as despite being double-vaccinated, she contracted COVID-19 (delta variant), and had to spend several weeks in a hospital isolation ward. It was there, in a state of delirium that she managed to make the connection between Chris and Jack. A few months passed, and when December-2020 came around, Céline couldn’t help but want to reconnect with Chris/Jack, and so she contacted Ramesh in Mumbai, India, and set the ball rolling for a NYE get-together of the old-gang.
And thus it was, that Chris and Céline: two people who stayed in the same city (New York City), within a few miles of each other, finally found themselves embracing in a low-key middle-class apartment-block halfway around the world in another crazy bustling megacity (Mumbai), in the middle of all the pandemic shenanigans: their love transcending borders, persisting through lockdowns, unstoppable by miniscule viral particles. As the clock struck midnight, and 2021 came around, two souls became mental, emotional and spiritual caregivers for each other.