Are Dubai expats living their dreams and being lonely?
The Lonely City is a memoir. Sex and the City is a piece of ditzy (though immensely lovable) fiction. Real vs reel. Real wins.
You can be lonely in a big city. It's called urban isolation.
In Sex and the City, Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, as they hurtle from one broken relationship to another (by choice or circumstance), maintain they will never fall out of love with the "city". New York. Which somehow feeds them emotionally. and though there may be breaking points that seem to loom up, the Big Apple, ultimately, always revives, never breaks you ("That's another reason I love New York," Carrie says. "Just like that, it can go from bad to cute").
Now, the flip side.
"What does it feel like to be lonely?" asks Olivia Laing in her book The Lonely City. She, too, like Carrie and the girls, is domiciled in NYC. "It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged."
The Lonely City is a memoir. Sex and the City is a piece of ditzy (though immensely lovable) fiction. Real vs reel. Real wins. New York - like any other big metropolis where millions scramble to make a life for themselves and "live their dreams" simultaneously - can be lonely.
It applies to Dubai as much. You're looking out at the skyline of impossibly tall buildings that teem with 'success stories,' and maybe patting yourself on the back for being part of that evolving cityscape, and yet you feel lonely. Maybe homogeneity is lack-lustre. One of the most frequent questions I get is, "Don't you feel lonely?" I know why I get it: because I've lived alone in this city for eight-and-a-half years now (if you discount the short stretches when I've had house guests), and people automatically assume if you "live alone," you're lonely. It surprises a lot of them when I say "No" - but that's another story. I have friends, many of who live with their families (nuclear or extended), who say they're lonely. Lonely even as they cross the roads at the Mankhool traffic light along with scores of others, or shop for an elusive bottle of pink salt at Spinneys.
Les Matheson on quora.com probably has the best explanation as to why this happens. "The presence of lots of people reminds you of your isolation," he says. "It produces a sharp contrast between the possibility of being connected to others, and the actuality of your separateness." I'm wagering the reason why urbanity is increasingly getting defined by locational 'communities' is that it's a desperate bid to stave off loneliness. The community centre in your neighbourhood or the community swimming pool. The occasional get-togethers. The residents' welfare associations. The WhatsApp community group. The Facebook community page.
Last week, I met someone who's come up with an app that gives its users "social space" to vent urban angst. The stories of loneliness, he told me, are worthy of being compiled into a book. "You are always judged if you tell someone you're lonely," he said. It's like there's something horribly wrong you are doing with your life. Or, worse, you are a failure. ("Which is why we've kept our space non-judgemental," he added.)
My cousin and his wife, city slickers for the most part of their lives, recently migrated from New Delhi to a forest sanctuary they've built. The closest outpost of modern civilisation as we know it - a small urban centre - is a few hundred kilometres away. In their new home, there's barely any cellphone connectivity, but they feel more connected than ever: towards each other and within the little eco-system they've created. "Urbanity and its creature comforts - they really have the potential to uproot you emotionally," he'd told me way before he did this reverse migration. "The bigger the city you move into, the more 'happening' scenes it boasts of. its vacuity prospects rise proportionately."
"So, at times, it's best to think like a villager?" I'd asked him.
Sushmita is Editor, wknd. She has a penchant for analysing human foibles