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Rediscovering the kindness of strangers & the comfort of cats

The internet can be a force for good.

That’s been the most surprising takeaway from the horror of the covid second wave battering India. It always was but it’s easy to forget that in the toxic troll playground that Twitter is on most days.

For thousands of desperate Indians looking for oxygen, beds, meal delivery for Covid patients Twitter has been their unlikely knight in shining armour. The information may not always be accurate or up to date but at a time when politicians only seem callously worried about election rally sizes, that concern counts for something. At least someone out there genuinely feels your pain and tries to help beyond platitudes and sermons.

Tishani Doshi’s Instagram series #writersandtheircreatures acknowledges the solace pets provide

The internet has provided another source of solace, one that I would have sneered at a year ago — cute cat and dog videos. The last time I googled cat videos it came up with about 2,90,00,00,000 results. Cats may or may not have nine lives but their videos certainly have a thousand likes. In 2015, the Museum of the Moving Image (MOMI) in New York even had a show called “How Cats Took Over the Internet”. In 2013 the pet food brand Friskies claimed 15% of all internet traffic was cat-related. That apparently is fake news but cats and the internet have had a special relationship since the days of online bulletin boards with groups like Meowchat where people talked to each other posing as their cats. Way back in 1894, Thomas Edison, obviously a man far ahead of his time, shot a Kinetscope of two cats in a boxing ring. “By putting this in a museum, we’re not saying that it’s art,” Carl Goodman, MOMI’s executive director, told the New York Times. “We’re saying it’s culturally significant.” While cats might appear to rule the dog-eat-dog world of the Internet, dog traffic is just as heavy. For a long time cat-and-dog videos just felt like a sinkhole in which all productivity could disappear, a giant waste of time. It took the year of pandemic to realise that while it is a waste of time, it’s a worthwhile waste of time.

Whether it’s thirty seconds or two minutes, it reminds us that all normalcy has not been covid-ised out of our lives. Watching cute animal videos became a little bedtime ritual for me, perhaps in the hope that I might dream about cats and dogs rather than PPE suits and N95 masks. It was my antidote to doomscrolling. But there was also relief that there was a part of our world that was still going about its business, purring and barking, unaware of the virus.
Doing our bit for that noble cause we put our scaredy-cat indie dog on Instagram during the lockdown. Unfortunately Chutney does not have the makings of an internet star because his repertoire is limited —eat, sleep, and be afraid of helmets, masks, shawls, caps, empty Amazon boxes, other dogs in the park, other humans in the park, leaves that rustle too loudly in the park. But in a time of anxiety, Chutney, though he does not realise it, is a reassurance of normalcy. While we fret about vaccine appointments and double mutant strains, he retains his laser focus on circumnavigating the breakfast table trying to hypnotise us into giving him the sides of toasts. The poet Tishani Doshi even started an Instagram series called #writersandtheircreatures to acknowledge the comfort they give us in these bleak times. It’s featured cats, dogs and a blonde champion alpaca, an animal that is fascinating because it does absolutely nothing other than look enquiring and yet has spawned thousands of alpaca videos.

Sometimes I worry that the pandemic and the lockdown have sucked us even more into the rabbit hole that is our smartphones. We are meeting on Zoom in crisply ironed shirts and pajama bottoms, having birthday parties online, doing WhatsApp group video calls. Broadway shows are streaming online and zoos and aquariums installed live cams not just for the humans who might miss the animals but for the animals who had gotten used to human visitors. Recently Google Arts & Culture added virtual tours of many UNESCO World Heritage sites from the Taj Mahal to Mount Kilimanjaro. This may be a pale facsimile of the original, a placeholder for the world we were used to but its real value is not as a reminder of what we can no longer do, but a reassurance that it will return to our lives.

A world we took for granted has vanished in front of our eyes. And if in its debris we rediscover the kindness of strangers and the comfort of cats and dogs, perhaps there is a lesson in humility to be learned. Maybe by the end of this I will even feel more kindly about those flowery Good Morning messages but we will achieve herd immunity before that.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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