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Since 1st March, 1999
 
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Busy lives and lonely hearts

You expect Reva Sen, 32, a high-flying media professional, with a great career, a large pay cheque and a plush three-bedroom pad in South Delhi to look confident, content and in control. Instead, you meet a nervous woman who gets drunk at the slightest pretext and divulges personal details to complete strangers. “I desperately want to make friends but I don’t know how to,” she says.

For the last couple of years, Reva has been living alone in Delhi, away from her family in the US. Lonely and depressed, she is now having an affair with a married man to combat her friendless state.

Reva’s is a classic case of urban loneliness, a trend that is on the rise amongst people in the 20s and 30s who have moved out to other cities in search of better job prospects. Alone in a strange city, they struggle to make friends and form emotional attachments and often sink into depression.

And if you thought loneliness is only for people who don’t have “a life”, think again. According to counsellors, urban loneliness can also be a function of a hectic lifestyle. Having to juggle work along with household chores leaves people with little time for themselves or for others.

So why is loneliness finding its way into the active lifestyles of young urban Indians' Experts say that a consumerist society’s consistent focus on achievement makes individuals competitive, but it also makes them unable to trust a peer completely. And without trust there is a lack of proper communication. “People tackle job pressures and competition at work, and then return to an empty home, if they stay alone. They can’t handle this huge imbalance,” says Dr Shubha Thatte, a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. “Besides, there is no other real support system by way of immediate family anymore.”

Most find reprieve in socialising. It’s like creating a wall of people around themselves. “Initially, I partied like a maniac almost every other day. That was my way of drowning out the loneliness,” admits Ram K, who’s lived alone in Delhi for seven years. Now in his late 20s, with a hectic job in a television channel, Ram has “sobered down and can’t endure the stress of partying”. Besides, says Arvind Rayakar, a Mumbai-based bachelor and a self-confessed lonely heart, “You soon realise that the distraction is an illusion.”

Paromita Mitra Bhaumik, consultant psychologist and director of the Calcutta-based Anubhav Mental Health Clinic, points out that while the urban young have plenty of opportunities for social interaction ' discotheques, coffee shops, shopping malls, etc ' they find little scope to share emotions.

This emotional loneliness can lead to a myriad of health problems too. “I thought I wouldn’t have the time to feel lonely, but I was wrong,” says Manoj Rai, 35, who works at an information technology firm and has been living alone in Chennai for three years. Despite a 15-16 hour-long work schedule and several “hang-out” pals, he says he continues to feel alone. Rai is now suffering from extremely high cholesterol levels and sleep apnoea (a disorder in which breathing is interrupted during sleep).

Loneliness can also awaken latent mental disorders, say psychologists. Take the case of 25-year old Rupa Jhaveri. Rupa was just another bright and friendly girl living with her parents in Mumbai. When she moved to Pune to do her graduation in law, things went horribly wrong. She started doing badly in her papers, became withdrawn, moody and sullen and went through several relationships.

Finally, Rupa was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder ' a disorder characterised by extreme ‘black and white’ thinking, mood swings and difficulty in functioning in a way society accepts as normal. Her problem had lain dormant while she was in familiar surroundings.

Again, unlike older people who are quicker to accept their loneliness, young people are in denial of the problem till it becomes a very serious one. “In India, loneliness is supposed to happen only to the old. But it can happen to anyone,” says Dr Anuradha Sovani, reader, department of applied psychology, Mumbai University.

Swati Salunkhe, managing director, Growth Centre, Mumbai, reckons that the number of loneliness-related cases among the 30-40 age group are high but mostly go unreported and hence untreated. Her centre got only two to three of these cases in the past two years. “They came to us in the guise of career or job-related problems. As we analysed the cases, we identified the problem as loneliness,” she adds.

However, not all cases of loneliness need clinical treatment. Says Hemangi Naik, who runs the Harmony Training and Consultancy (a mental health clinic) in Navi Mumbai. “I put them through tests and questionnaires to teach them to look at themselves objectively and rationally. It helps them tackle the root causes of their loneliness,” she says.

For India’s growing tribe of the urban lonely, that could be the best start to dealing with their problem.

(Some names have been changed on request.)

Additional reporting by Dola Mitra in Calcutta

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