The word normal gets a really rap these days. Normal is boring. Normal is ordinary, it is dull and uninteresting. It lacks imagination. Normal is a state of inconspicuousness. Of fitting in. Of not being challenged in the things that we take for granted. Of living an unthinking life, living out a script written by others. Of constantly toeing the line of an unseen ideal.
No wonder we try our damnedest to avoid being normal. We cultivate interests, fashion a persona, or in the world of online primping, invent multiple personae, present an amped up version of our lives on social media, engage in exotic travel, eat all kinds of food from places we cannot locate on a map. In short, we strive to prove that we are extraordinary, and that we lead awesome and epic lives.
Even the most foundational notions of what constitutes normalcy are being challenged. Age no longer is an index of behaviour- 19-year olds are business tycoons employing thousands of people across continents and 60 is the new 40. Gender and sexuality have turned liquid, dissolving into a spectrum of possibilities. We have begun to celebrate the fluid, the multiple and the hybrid. There is much greater openness about accepting influences and behaviour of all kinds, and identity labels of any kind are increasingly being shunned. It is difficult now to even use the word in an unselfconscious way anymore.
And yet, in these pandemic-battered times, all we wish for is that things return to normal, for them to be classifiable and graspable. When we talk about the New Normal, we are actually pining for the return of the Good Old Normal. When we speculate about what will change in the post-pandemic era, we are secretly hoping that nothing will, that the normalcy that we so cherish is returned to us intact. Which we also why we find it so easy to lapse into old patterns of behaviour the moment the intensity of the outbreak subsides, thereby vastly increasing the chances of prolonging the pandemic.
The meaning of normal that we are referencing is that state of being where we could act unthinkingly, where we not burdened by having to censor our most instinctive actions. Where very act of ours was not laden with a potential consequence, where doing the most ordinary things naturally was not taboo. Where we could stroll into crowded malls, take the Metro, land up fashionably late at a rocking party, catch up with colleagues after work at a bar, put an arm around a shoulder here and toss a hug at someone there. It is a desire not for extraordinary experience, no yearning or the epic or the awesome, but simply for that which we did not need to think twice about.
Instead today we have to watch every step. If the doorbell rings, we have to gear up to open it. If we use a lift, we have to wear two masks and pray that no one else enters it. If we are in a car all by ourselves, we have to wear a mask because a court has deemed it to be a public space. If we open a door, we have to sanitise our hands. And even then, many of us found ourselves unable to escape the wrath of the tiny not-quite-living organism called the virus.
Never before has the ordinary been romanced in quite the same way. To be sure, we are nostalgic about the good old times, that time in our life when we didn’t own much but somehow things felt more real and purer, but this is a different kind of feeling. That kind of nostalgia has a moral value running through it, for we equate scarcity with simplicity and conflate the rudimentary with the pure. Here there is no higher consideration- what we miss is the simply act of being ourselves and doing whatever came naturally. The past is not seen as superior, just more convenient. What we miss is the idea of a past continuous tense, one where things simply stayed the way they were.
It is understandable, this urge to return to normal. A crisis of this kind shakes all foundational assumptions we have made about how our lives will be. We need the normal. Life would be unbearable if every day was actually a new dawn. We need our dawns to be old, and gravity to work boringly. We need a rhythm to our lives, we need to be able to think only selectively.
There are other aspects of the ordinary that we have learned to appreciate more. Families have actually behaved like families. They have shared not only limited space but time, love, care, attention, they have each other in contexts that they haven’t exposed to earlier. Food has given us inordinate pleasure, both the cooking and consuming, the cleaning not so much. Old games have been played, and new irritations identified. In a highly constrained playing field, we have rediscovered the joys of simple everyday pleasures.
What makes this yearning for the normal more poignant is that the pandemic does not seem to have a sense of ending about it. It seems to abate only to return unpredictably, with sudden ferocity. We alternate between periods of hope and of despair, and all the while the need for things to become normal becomes that much stronger. Today normal is not boring, it is what we dream about.
If this state of affairs goes on for much longer, it is possible that our idea of the normal too begins to reside in the present rather than the recent past. Already, one flinches involuntarily when watching a scene in a film featuring a crowded bar, so attuned we have become to our new life.
Otherwise we live
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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