The Curio-City Collective Is A New Initiative Addressing Loneliness In Urban India
During the run-up to 31st December, Netflix came out with an advertisement that urged us to ditch our elaborate New Year Eve plans and ‘just stay at home and Netflix, na?’ After all, why trudge all the way to a party, braving bumper-to-bumper traffic and uncooperative taxi drivers, when you could simply be a cog in the wheel from the comforts of your home, it asked. The advertisement seemed to be directed towards millennials in particular – a generation that loves to cancel plans, as has been well-established in countless memes and articles about the phenomenon. But the team at The Curio-city Collective, (TCC) a newly-formed organisation that addresses holistic well-being in Indian cities, is arguing that this may have more to do with the deteriorating quality of life in our cities than the individual whims of a self-centered generation. And according to them, staying at home, despite its comforts, is coming at a cost no one is talking about: increasing levels of loneliness in urban India.
Its co-founders Srinidhi Raghavan and Arpita Joshi recently came out with a report titled Feeling Not Seen, Not Heard, Not Understood: Loneliness in Indian Cities, which is based on 80 detailed responses to a survey they conducted. Earlier this month, they also released the first episode of their podcast, a conversation with Sandhya Menon and Sonia Mariam Thomas. Along with their co-founder Deepika Khatri, they speak to Verve about their aspirations behind the The Curio-City Collective, the structural issues that give rise to an isolated society, and their vision for liveable cities.
What is Curio-City all about? Why did you feel the need for a space like this?
The Curio-City Collective aims to build holistic well-being in Indian cities by re-connecting people, communities and ecosystems through the practice of reflection, education and action. India is expected to have 590 million people living in its cities by 2030 – and that’s currently almost half of our total population! The implications of such rapid urbanisation on our mental health will be unprecedented, and multiple cities are already showing signs of being under severe stress. The idea of using a framework of well-being in order to approach some of these issues in cities will help us to break out of looking at a lot of narrow parameters, such as GDP rates, which is only an economic measure of growth. As women who have worked in the development sector for over a decade, we felt there was a profound need for building a space that felt safe — one that was focussed around the idea of care. It is from this that TCC evolved.
What prompted you to conduct research about loneliness, and specifically, loneliness in Indian cities?
The 2015-16 National Mental Health Survey of India (NMHS) pointed out how there exists a greater prevalence of mental health conditions in the country’s larger cities. This was specifically true of certain psychological conditions related to mood, stress, schizophrenia and other kinds of psychoses, which are nearly two or three times more prevalent in urban metros. In fact, the NMHS has even recommended an ‘urban-specific mental health programme’. We came across a surprising number of anecdotal accounts from Indian counsellors and psychologists over how loneliness is increasingly playing an important part in psychological distress being experienced by individuals. This is how we arrived at wanting to understand loneliness better, as we began to unravel the how, what, and why of it.
How important is it to look at loneliness as a community problem, rather than as a personal failing?
It is important to remember that the emotion of pain evolved in order to protect us. Small shocks of physical pain allow us to take note of things that could potentially harm us, and hence teach us to avoid it through our behaviour. In the same way, loneliness is a social pain which makes us aware of our depleting social connection. It isn’t a personal failing — it is an indication of an unfulfilled human need. It’s part of the human experience. Coping involves listening to that emotion, and understanding how best we can address it. When we observe large-scale chronic loneliness, we are similarly moved to ask: What is it about the nature of our current society that is making so many people feel intensely isolated and alone? Many of our survey respondents pointed at how ‘busyness’ due to the constant cycle of exhausting work and travel made them too tired to socialise, and hence (in the long run), feel lonely. If this is the case for a whole lot of us, questions on the nature of work and transport systems become significant. The more we understand what is making us individually and collectively lonely, the better we are able to respond with concrete ideas and solutions about what needs to change.
What were some of the common threads in the experience of loneliness among survey respondents?
What came across strongly was how people differentiated loneliness from solitude, and from simply ‘being by yourself’. For many, loneliness wasn’t necessarily a matter of having people around, but was linked to the nature and depth of their relationships. Others said that even though they had people — family and friends who were close to them — they hesitated in reaching out to them during low moments, which indicates that loneliness must be de-stigmatised, and that people should be encouraged to talk about it more openly. We were also immediately struck by how people defined loneliness as a complex combination of the internal and external. In our report, we spoke of the psycho-social approach as a more holistic response, which is increasingly being used within mental health spaces. This approach considers how our thoughts, emotions and feelings are an outcome of our environment, interpersonal relationships and community and cultural practices. Most respondents made connections between their loneliness and lack of quality social bonds and particular circumstances in their lives, such as loss, the nature of their city, or the strenuous demands of modern life.
How is TCC combating the stigma surrounding mental health and loneliness?
For us, a good starting point is to have a space to talk about individual experiences, and see how loneliness isn’t just a personal problem, but one that’s intrinsically connected to our environment and lifestyles. It says — ‘You are not alone’. The first episode of our podcast is a conversation with Sonia Mariam Thomas and Sandhya Menon, who are two women from two different metro cities offering a window into how, while we feel lonely, we are ironically not alone. In the second episode, the coordinators of iCall (a helpline that works on psycho-social dynamics) share revelations through tools and tips on how to care for oneself. It will take many more conversations like these, as well as real-world ‘meeting points’ and gatherings, to build spaces for a shared community. This is the direction that The Curio-city Collective hopes to take in the coming days.
In your report, you mention Indian cities being ‘motivated by the glamour of becoming global capital destinations’ over the last decade. What does your idea of a utopian city look like?
An exercise in understanding what we are trying to do at TCC is this: close your eyes and think of the places you most enjoyed being in. What made them memorable? For us, it brought to mind memories of spaces that were safe, green and unhindered, which allowed for play, exploration, camaraderie, sharing, and laughter. This vision was mirrored by people who responded to our survey when they listed what gave them hope in cities. This is why we want to shift the focus back upon the inhabitants of the city. Our idea of a utopian city is one that is co-constructed and informed by the democratic dialogue of ideas and values from a diverse set of people, with a holistic well-being of individuals and communities at the centre. This means having spaces that include different sorts of people – the elderly, people with disabilities, children, and women. It would also mean having features such as benches alongside roads, open spaces, green spaces that are accessible, and safe public transportation.
The Curio-city Collective’s pick-me-ups for lonely days:
- Lost Connections by Johann Hari: Hari writes about the insights he gained on the causes and responses to depression and anxiety, after undertaking a better understanding of his own struggles with them. He explains how your social location and physical reality play a part in how you feel.
- Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke: A powerful conversation between two people on life, vulnerability, exploration and more. A meditation on time, our hopes and our desires for a world where we can live richer and fuller lives.
- Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman: As a reviewer said, “The world would be a better place if everyone read this book”. An intensely compassionate and beautiful story, which takes us into the world of a lonely and socially awkward young woman, Eleanor.
- Little Miss Sunshine (2006): A heart-warming film about a dysfunctional family that finds itself as they travel together in an old Volkswagen bus. Located somewhere between hope and despair, it’s a reflection on how each individual in the family finds support from the other, when hit by a crisis.
- The Lunchbox (2013): Both the lead characters are living lonely lives and have limited access to people and community. A lunchbox takes them beyond their individual life stories, to form a deeper connection.
- Up! (2009): In the opening sequence of this film, an old man has lost a beloved spouse and his home is under threat. You can feel his pain, his loneliness. What follows is a heartfelt story about love, loss and re-establishing a connection to life and living with a very young and unlikely candidate, a boy scout.
- Ain’t Got No, I Got Life by Nina Simone: This is a fierce song by a woman who was dubbed the ‘High Priestess of Soul’ and held a strong stance on social justice. It’s life-affirming, resilient and celebrates agency. One of her final albums, Black Gold, is a must listen.
- Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya: A throwback to the 1961 film, Hum Dono, this song is a gentle entreaty to release all your worries and fall in step with life: Jo mil gaya usi ko muqaddar samajh liya/Jo kho gaya main usko bhulata chala gaya.
- I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor: ‘I’ve got all my life to live/And all my love to give and I’ll survive/I, I, I will survive.’ A 1978 hit, this one is a go-to anthem for when you need to shake off the blues and get going.