With the extension of the countrywide lockdown, we’re yet again staring at complications that have perplexed even developed nations. Commodities in paucity, encumbered social mobility, worn-out medics, static industries, and flatlined economies are only a few of the many problems that have left governments in dismay.
But one challenge that remains to be stressed upon during this lockdown is the mental state of the public.
Isolation does not necessarily stem out of a pandemic. Individuals often isolate themselves and remain absent from daily activity for months. Around half a million people in Japan choose to live in isolation and have infamously earned the nickname ‘Hikikomori’, which means loners or modern-day hermits.
Similarly, anxious citizens spent months isolated inside bunkers during the Cold War era, people live in the unforgivable settings of Antarctica for scientific research, astronauts spend years on international space stations, and convicts spend their lifetime inside correctional facilities. The repercussions of confinement vary with the degree of isolation and the environmental settings play a crucial part in defining a person’s mental status.
How isolation can weigh heavily on a person’s mental health is a matter of clinical psychology and offers many examples from the world around us. Howard Huges, a polymath of early 20th century who received many accolades for his pioneering work in the field of aeronautical engineering, became a victim of solitude when he started distancing himself from the society.
Many historians contest that the rigorous imprisonment changed Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. When the court sentenced him for life after the trial of Nasik conspiracy case, he wrote many mercy pleas to the government, hoping for an early release. These pleas were in contrast to what Savarkar stood for, and many debated if the imprisonment broke his revolutionary spirit.
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But the most gruesome results of isolation can be gathered from the accounts of prisoners of war and holocaust survivors. The Indian soldiers captured in Germany during the First World War were not just a victim of inhuman conditions and treatment but also the isolation that went on for years. For the Jews, concentration camps were prisons turned into a horror parade. Public also spent years inside their houses with scanty rations and a handful of utilities during the two great wars.
Behavioural psychologists have taken a keen interest in the psychodynamics of isolation. Irrespective of their mastery in the field, findings are often indecisive as psychological reaction differs from person to person. Also, the impact of seclusion is much more intense on a person’s mind than on his physical health, and mental factor becomes a variable, often leading to inconclusive findings.
Nevertheless, solitary confinement or isolation in a majority of the cases have shown adverse outcome. Still, exposure to such situations has also acted as the right catalyst to bring out positive results. Here are a few luminaries who made the best out of isolated phases in their life-
Siddharth (later known Buddha, the awakened one) found himself in an existential crisis when he got exposed to the painstaking realities of life. In a search for his answers to the meaning of life, he practiced solitude and lived in austerity for years. This abstinence from the material necessities resulted in positive disintegration, where the psychological stress works upon a person to bring the best out of his personality. It helped him focus and create a theory of existential reality called the Four Noble Truths which in turn became the centre of his tutelage. Later, his teachings found its place in his followers and their religion: Buddhism.
Nehru was a victim of colonial politics and its unwarranted oppression. His imprisonment in 1942 was virtually a setback to an impending revolution, and the lack of leadership disheartened many revolutionaries. To make up for the loss, Nehru made the best use of his four years in captivity and wrote a teleological narrative of India’s history. To its readers, this historical account brought a sense of pride for India’s socio-cultural heritage that had survived for thousands of years. His book became a scholastic predilection and was later made into a television series by the same name: The Discovery of India (Bharat Ek Khoj).
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
The architect of the non-violent movement, M.K. Gandhi felt the need of extending his story to the people. While he started writing his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth much before his incarceration, his best social and philosophical views found their expression during his imprisonment in Yerawada jail. While the imprisonment helped him find a deeper meaning of his ideology, it also lifted the revolutionary spirit of the society.
Martin Luther King Jr
Like other political prisoners, King, as people lovingly called him, was also a prisoner of conscience. He led the civil rights movement to bring social equality to the Afro-American people of the US. For this, jury imprisoned him for thirty times in his life. From one of his imprisonments in Birmingham City Jail, Martin secretly wrote a letter, now known as ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ encouraging people to continue a non-violent opposition to socio-racial discrimination in the US. These letters were celebrated as the mandates by King, leading a non-violent fight from the prison.
An anti-apartheid activist, Mandela’s imprisonment is a tale of unbound oppression. During his 26 years of the prison sentence, he was a victim of racial discrimination even in the jail. Despite the arrested development, Mandela learned about Islam and Afrikaans from his fellow prisoners and pursued LLB. He also wrote his autobiography, which failed to find its publishing space due to the prison’s censorship policy. The Kingdom of Lesotho awarded him an honorary doctorate. The struggle for the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa saw its rise and success through Mandela’s agonising imprisonment.
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While a few stories survived to see the light of the day, many went unnoticed. For example, there are millions of unsung heroes stationed at the remote frontiers of our country who spend months in isolation defending its permeable boundaries. We often forget the elderlies living reclusively at the old age homes, ostracised by their loved ones and physical incompetence.
It is people like them who would find reintegration into society harder than the ones coming out of a pandemic lockdown.
Suyash Verma is an independent researcher and writer with a postgraduate degree in history from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.