Last month, in Present Imperfect , I’d written about the intense loneliness that women in upper middle-class homes in urban India seem to be afflicted with (‘ The unbearable loneliness of a privileged life ’). In response to that, a few people wrote in asking why urban loneliness was a women’s problem. Aren’t men in urban India lonely? So, I spent the last fortnight asking if they were. I posted the link to the column on social media and asked men if they felt similarly and if they would like to talk about this with me.
“I swear this isn’t some kind of an excuse to hit on you,” Aman Sharma (name changed) joked as he walked into the central Delhi café we were meeting in. He had sent me a message the previous day after seeing my tweet. Sharma is 46 and a corporate lawyer working in a multinational company. He lived in Bengaluru for a while, then did a couple of stints abroad — London and Zurich — and moved to Delhi six years ago. He has two children, they are 14 and 11. His wife was “something of a childhood sweetheart”. She used to work in marketing in an FMCG company in Bengaluru when they were first married, but by the time they moved to Zurich, she had to worry about the kids and it was difficult for her to find a new job each time he switched countries, so she quit. “Somehow over the years, I just stopped telling her about how my day was. And all she has to talk about now are the kids and what they did and what they didn’t. Increasingly, I try to tell her to get back to work — it’ll ease the pressure of a single income as well as keep her intellectually occupied. But she is resistant,” Sharma says. He isn’t unhappily married, he is quick to point out; it’s just that he feels lonely in it.
Sharma is tired of the pressure at work. Each day is a battle over something or the other. And there isn’t anyone he feels safe and comfortable discussing this with. He has thought about quitting his job, and doing something less intense. But the family is entirely dependent on him. He doesn’t want a “silly midlife crisis and a feeling of loneliness” to deviate him from securing his children’s future. Shedding friends is rather quick when you move from one place to another, but as he gets older, he is struggling to make new friends. “It’s really bizarre but the people with whom I have been even remotely intimate, by which I mean honest, conversations, are some at work, and this is the exact set I am worried will use any information they have against me. I feel caught between being cautious and just having an opportunity to vent,” he says.
Although, technically, loneliness chooses neither gender nor geography, as support systems lay scattered, it is particularly intense as an urban phenomenon. As Olivia Laing writes in her book, Lonely City , “Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship; an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. Unhappy, as the dictionary has it, as a result of being without the companionship of others. Hardly any wonder, then, that it can reach its apotheosis in a crowd.”
An inability to find as much intimacy as desired is what another urban lonely man, S Grewal, emphasises to me as well. Grewal is not a stranger to me, I know him, in the way that city folks know one another — from living in the same neighbourhood or meeting at Parent Teacher Meetings. And even though, technically, I have known Grewal for about six years now, I barely know him beyond his name and face. I’m surprised therefore when he responds to my query about lonely men. “When you are younger,” he says, “you make friends with people because you like them, you share some principles and outlook, and you know these are the people you want to hang out with. As you get older, friendships become a matter of convenience and hidden motives. At this age, I feel, you can only make acquaintances, not friends,” he says.
As the number of conversations grew over the fortnight, I realised two aspects of male loneliness. One, it was definitely an age-related thing — 20 and 30-somethings responded only to troll me. Men are not lonely, they emphasised. Most people who confessed to it were between 40 and 50; they had incredible resumés, presumably successful careers. The second facet of loneliness in men was that they seemed to see it as a failure, as something to be ashamed about. The women who signed up for salsa classes and trekking groups said they did it in the hopes of finding friends. Men who signed up for running and cycling groups said they did that in order to have something to do, not necessarily someone to meet. “Well, if I met someone, that would be a bonus. So far I’ve been unsuccessful,” confessed one.
On the other hand, Atul Sethi, who lives in Mumbai, was successful in meeting people. “In 2012, I turned 40, and I was lonely and bored and I thought the solution was to meet more people, specifically women. I travelled a lot for work and while I wouldn’t say it was easy to hook up with women, it wasn’t impossible either. Each time I met someone, I considered the possibility of leaving my family and my job, and just going wherever this relationship would take me. But, eventually, I realised they don’t go anywhere. It isn’t based on anything real, it was chasing an illusion of happiness and togetherness,” he says.
I ask him if I could use his real name. “It is ironical that we are talking about loneliness when we are not just surrounded by so many people, we are even surrounded by so many Atul Sethis. It could be one of a lakh of us, so go ahead and use my name,” he says.
It certainly could be one of a lakh of us. Or half a billion of us, it seems to me; in cities all over the country, searching blindly, in hope and anticipation, for one another.
Veena Venugopal is editor BLink and author of The Mother-in-Law; @veenavenugopal