The early days of the lockdown were all about coming to terms with our vulnerability as a species. We learned about adversity, busied ourselves with adaptation and came to terms with our appalling lack of video skills.
As Insta lives with celebs and Zoom webinars with experts took over the world in the following months, video chats became our solitary planet’s favourite leisure activity. As we flaunt our veteran lockdown status with perfectly-layered biryanis and closely-cropped hair, we can safely declare: along with decisive action on the climate change and social justice fronts, we need to collectively up our broadcast game.
Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon
At a time when everyone is struggling to keeping body and mind together, anxious thoughts about one’s social image invade the head like a swarm of interstate locusts. It’s not enough, now, to have the perfect pizza in the oven and in pictures: you need to film the process, too, and share it with a hungry audience. This creates a new set of insecurities for the chronically gauche.
Take, for instance, the pressure to join Zoom birthday parties. Yes, there are bigger issues at hand, like that elusive vaccine and your rapidly depleting kitchen repertoire. Added to these existential and culinary insecurities is the need to look cheerful. Now, how does one communicate excitement on a screen split with 17 other similarly burdened beings? Even the most hardened misanthrope will agree it was easier IRL. You could use cake as an excuse to make conversation, for one. Now it’s just the idea of cake, like a Platonic principle in a Beckettian universe. All that lit class training is finally coming in handy in this Era of Metaphors.
No one can prepare you for a live video chat with a public audience. In my experience, 80 per cent of the time is spent on matters related to connectivity. You try to sync the conversation, piecing together the pixels on screen while trying to frantically communicate with your co-speaker using the comments thread. When it gets farcical, you start logging in and out, turning it into a complete slapstick. Along the way, people wave hands and send hearts and kisses – your spirits lift until you notice that all the enthusiasm is being generated by siblings, cousins and aunts.
A superb Twitter thread decodes the physical books in the backgrounds of digital speakers. It lampoons the great pains we take to project our significant intelligence or artistic sensibilities. Now I can’t stop bookspotting while watching online interactions. A copy of Ulysses “carelessly” inserted in a talk about work-from-home clothing. A rare edition of The Communist Manifesto in a chat about dosa batter. A box set of The Discovery of India in a conversation about improving one’s video skills. As a result, I’m now paranoid about any book showing while I’m in a live chat, for fear of a takedown from someone as ruthless as myself.
Resistance is futile
The video chat trap is a tough one to avoid. I get that this distancing protocol will carry on for a while to come, but it (still) seems too unnatural to perform for one’s friends on camera. It doesn’t help that I’m transfixed by my own image on the screen, censuring every rebel lock of hair and overeager laugh. But saying no to the good-natured calls for a video chat marks you as a heartless automaton. And so, I repress my hair and suppress my apprehensions and take all the books out of a frame before settling in front of a mocking screen.
Of course, this is overthinking it. Plus, the technologically advanced among you will no doubt be wondering why I don’t find a way to edit my image out of the frame. But that comes with its own dangers. What if I forget I’m on screen and do something really embarrassing? Like yawn extravagantly when someone evangelises about a new floor-cleaning gadget or fitness routine. I’m fully aware of the inevitability of my conversion.There’s nothing left to do but iron that neglected kurta, bring out the smudging kajal and moderate the nervous laughter.
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From HT Brunch, July 5, 2020
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