A friend calls and says she wants to come over. I make time for her; she rings my doorbell at the designated hour. She makes herself comfortable in my study, and gets down to thumbing her BlackBerry. Every once in a while she looks up, asks a perfunctory question, “What’s happening?”, then gets back to her BBM. Another friend calls, says he’s in the vicinity, asks if he can drop in for a bit. Sure, man. He walks in, opens his Dell laptop, asks me if I have a Wi-fi connection, wants to know the password.
After a while, I realise my friends are using my study like an Internet café. You don’t want to be in your house alone, so you hang at someone else’s. But you don’t stop what you’re doing. You are still very much online. Screw the person whose room you’re in. Feeling at a loose end, I too get online and begin surfing the web. Three people together in a room, the tap-tap of keys, no conversation. Welcome to socialising in the real world, 2012 style.
In the beginning there was the telephone. Or, in the beginning, there was one telephone for the entire building. In the eighties, a landline connection was a rare commodity, and whoever had one was meant to share it with their neighbours. By the time I went to college in 1994-95, my parents and I were onto something called hybrid mail, a service provided by the postal department. You went to the post office and typed your letter on their computer. It would be transmitted over satellite in an instant; the post office would then deliver it to your doorstep. It seemed like a miracle at the time, for unlike with a telegram, one didn’t have to write curtailed messages but could send proper letters.
My first experience of email was in Oxford in the winter of 1998. I’d just arrived to read for a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and Laura Provinzino, my American tutorial partner, taught me the Hotmail ropes. I still remember how astonished I was when I sent off my first email – a click of the button was all it took. It was astonishing because by then I was in my early twenties; I’d grown up in socialist India when one wrote love letters longhand, and inter-city romances were conducted over snail mail. The letters would often be in several installments, each installment lovingly licked and sealed in a separate envelope. Often, owing to the vagaries of the postal department, you would get part three first, then part one, with part two coming a belated last. This was love at its staggered, laggard, haphazard best, as it should be.
It took me some time to get used to email. Initially, I’d treat emails like letters, which meant I wouldn’t answer them instantly. I’d wait for the weekend and then answer them ‘properly’, i.e. instead of sending short replies I’d write a longish letter. The craft of letter writing was still fresh in my mind; the craft of email writing – if something like it exists – was still to be learnt, internalised.
To say that technology rules our lives now is to state the obvious. Much of this change has taken place in the last decade. I experienced it first hand when I sold the proposal of my new book to a publisher four years ago: my agent, Kevin, was in London, the publishers, Rupa, were in Daryaganj, and I was in the foothills of the Himalayas. We couldn’t have done it without the Internet. I wouldn’t come face-to-face with Kevin until three years later; still, when I met him, I felt I knew him well. I’d seen pictures of him and his family on the Internet, and we’d Skype regularly.
Even though we’d never met, Kevin said he felt closer to me as a friend than to many in his native London, and I felt the same. He helped me with the proposal, even though he’d never been to India – such is the power of the Internet and globalisation. There are times though when I feel if globalisation means as much to the West as it does to us. They’ve always perceived it as a bit of a threat. Culturally, it’s translated into a gain for us: we have access to their magazines and journals; books and music; movies and TV shows. All they have access to are the Khan Sisters.
I’m so dependent on technology that I often don’t leave my house for days, except maybe to use the ATM. I feel disoriented at times – I’m in one physical space, but I’m mentally always somewhere else. One consumes so much of other people’s lives, one takes so many rides on the information superhighway, that it can leave us feeling empty. I often feel my sense of self slipping away.
Nowadays, one often meets people online first. The physical meeting might not take place for months. Work and play and romance are resident in the magic box that is the laptop. When I finish writing for the day, I might spend hours chatting with a girl I’ve never met. She’s in Noida and I’m in GK or Dehradun, and the Internet is a cheap and convenient way to communicate. While chatting, one is forced to hunker down to one’s essential self, one’s soul-voice as it were, without the distractions of a face-to-face meeting where one often responds to superficialities – a person’s looks and mannerisms, rather than the person inside, who the person really is. I had this odd experience once though, when I chatted plenty with a girl – both on the phone and the Internet, but when we finally met it was one of the most awkward moments of my life, and probably hers too. We just didn’t know what to say to each other. Anonymous familiarity online didn’t translate into a real world comfort zone.
Then again, it’s impossible to do without technology. When I lose my debit card and place a request for a new one, how will I know that the replacement has arrived in my branch? Only when the bank sends me a text message; I’d be lost without my phone. The other night I drunkenly punched in the wrong password into my Gmail account, more than the number of times it’s allowed. My account was disabled. I was prompted by the site to message Google and they activated it in sixty seconds. So we need technology to fix technology. The role of humans has been minimised. Bye bye linesman. We’ve surely come a long way; I am reminded of the time when the novelist Allan Seally would chase his linesman in Dehradun with a toy camera, pretending to be a journo. The idea was to scare him enough so that he wouldn’t tamper with the wires for the sake of a bribe.
The writer’s new book The Butterfly Generation was released earlier this month
As part of the research for the piece, my editor wanted me to spend a couple of days online, as much as was possible. I was supposed to stay home and see how far I could go without stepping outside. The Internet is useful but only to a certain extent. It’s fairly useless without a credit card, and since millions of middle class Indians don’t have one, its influence is limited. I used to have a card, then I thought I’d lost it until I found it lying under my bed. By then, I’d blocked it. For some reason, my bank refuses to issue me a new card, and so I’m without one for the last three years. I couldn’t do much buying online. I found myself using the phone more, both for vegetables and groceries. The vegetable vendor came home with his pushcart (he has a mobile phone) but charged double. I itched to get to the nearest fixed price Safal store. I called for groceries and our man sent everything but the wrong sizes and brands, so I got Real OJ instead of Tropicana, a four-pack of Odonil instead of the single piece I’d asked for, a large bottle of Pepsi instead of the small PET bottle of Thums Up. I itched to walk into a supermarket and choose what I wanted myself.
Indians don’t really use the Net for buying daily essentials. Shopping for luxuries and comforts is another matter. We use it when we are shopping for a life partner or the home of our dreams. A friend of mine made a neat packet setting up a website for a company selling shoes online. My flatmate blows up most his pay packet buying these shoes online. He’s tied to the office desk for ten hours a day, and spends the rest of his time commuting from south Delhi to Gurgaon and back. Apart from the time constraint, I think he also finds it soothing to shop. I can imagine him having a spat with his boss or girlfriend, then getting online and buying a new pair of moccasins to soothe his jangled nerves.
My editor also wanted me to go offline for 48 hours and see what that felt like. As it happened, the circumstances so conspired that I was offline for much longer – and not because I engineered it. For one, I was in Dehradun by then. Electricity and the Internet are erratic in small towns. One usually gets one thing at a time – when the electricity comes back after three hours, there is no Internet and vice versa. One calls the local BSNL man, “Bhaiya, Net down hai kya?”(Is the internet down?) “Ha ji, sir. Abhi hum lage hue hai. Shaam tak theek ho jayega.”(Yes sir. We are at it right now. It will be fine by evening). It’s worse during the monsoon when I was once told, “Ye to baarish ke baad hi theek hoga.”(This will work after the rain only). You can forget about living your life online, all the time, in such circumstances. You can do so but only intermittently. And you really appreciate it when the Net or the electricity comes back.
As it happened, I experienced an all systems failure in Dehradun while writing this piece. The power cable of my MacBook stopped working and I couldn’t buy a new one in Doon. The Internet settings on my phone went awry so I couldn’t access the Net, and then, to add to the misery, the broadband cable somehow got cut, so that there wasn’t any Internet for four days. To round it off beautifully, I also managed to lose my debit card. It snowed in Doon after sixty years – there was so much rain and hail, that the TataSky dish stopped receiving the signal. I was cut off from the world; I had no money in my pocket (I’d left my cheque book in Delhi and the bank wouldn’t let me draw money without it); all I could do was sit in the darkness and wait for the power to come back. I was left with the distinct feeling that my limbs had been amputated.
But for how long can one sit in the dark twiddling one’s thumbs? I took out my battered old 800 and took it for a spin in the mountains (since I was having a run of bad luck the coolant leaked but I managed to get it fixed). I parked at a sweet spot, overlooking the valley, lit a cigarette, and said Boom Shankar. At night, a friend joined me; we found a ledge jutting out over the city, and had a beer each, and admired the glittering lights. In the morning I was itching to write so I went and bought some pencils – Faber-Castell/ Ole-Grip/ Super-dark. I picked up my Moleskine and drove out to a beautiful Tibetan restaurant called the Orchard that faces a hill and a stream. I wrote there the entire afternoon. I sharpened a pencil after many years and watched with pleasure as the transparent plastic cap filled up with perfect shavings. I actually wrote better this way. With the laptop, I’d sit down to write with noble intention, and then decide to check out Facebook, read articles on Arts and Letters Daily, surf some porn, why not? Anything to avoid writing. But the humble pencil doesn’t come loaded with distractions. All one can do is chew one end and that, if anything, aids the writing process. I found myself sketching funny faces in my notebook. I felt I was back in school. It was a good feeling.
Once I was back in the house, it was a different story. It’s a beautiful old house, a crumbling colonial bungalow that dates back a hundred years. There’s a big garden both front and back, and I spent long moments admiring the trees: jamun, amla, mango, litchi, guava, pomegranate. I browsed the library at home, and read a bit, but after a day of writing in my Moleskine I felt sick of words. The house seemed strangely dead without the gadgetry that I am used to – laptop, phone, the Internet, television. I thought I saw the ghost of the Englishman from whom my great grandfather had bought the house. He was laughing at my helplessness. I felt the silence eating into me. I heard the wind susurrate through the dark trees, and the hail came noisily down on the tin roof. I felt spooked and lonely. I went to bed early.
Gradually, things returned to ‘normal’. The cable was back and I could watch Parenthood on Zee Café. Skype was back and I could talk to the mystery girl in Noida again. The email was back on my phone, and I could be in touch with my editors again. It was good to be switched off for a few days but it was a bit too much as well. Technology seemed to return to the house its very soul, a soul which had wandered off into the green mountains the past few days. The empty shell of the house was, once again, suffused with blinking lights and bleeping sounds. It had, once again, become the living, breathing organism that it was earlier. It was technology which helped the old house regain its old self.
From HT Brunch, January 29
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