Global Village Idiot: Importance of mundane information to being human
Growing up in the 1970s, I had a very open and intimate relationship with the world. Pawan Gandhi lived a few buildings from our building. We used to go to school together, play together, fight and spin yarns together. The Sethi, Bhosale, Mehra and Nayak families were in our building. The Kapoor, Vendantham, Kumar, Patni, Swarup and Bansal families were in the building opposite ours. The Santhanams were in the building at the end of our row. Ruel Rebecca Raymond lived in the row of buildings behind our row. (He was the fastest bowler in the colony and everybody wanted him in their team). I knew the building and flat numbers of each of these families and I leapt up and downstairs (two, sometimes three stairs at a time) and ran up and down the alleys between buildings to meet my friends around our LIC colony in Santacruz West, Mumbai (then Bombay).
Ground floor flats had the advantage of being able to plant some vegetables and while anyone could enjoy the papaya from the trees that grew wild and abundantly, I have fond memories of plucking seasonal pumpkin flowers from wild pumpkins that grew here and there - I had mentioned seeing the pumpkin patches and my parents had informed me that we could make delicious “pakodas” with pumpkin flowers.
I went to St Joseph’s school in Juhu and took bus number 339 to get there from Santacruz depot. We used to pass Amitabh Bachchan’s bungalow twice every day since the house was one stop away from school. I often walked into Juhu church (which was attached to the school) drawn by the choir. It was at school that I met Joseph D’Souza, Leah Fernandes, Abbas and Nishrin Neemuchwala, Lazarian D’Souza, Altaf Daruwala and Siraj Dhanani, among many others. (Pawan and other children from our colony also went to St Joseph’s school in Juhu). I knew the addresses and bus routes to all my friends’ houses by heart, which means I never wrote it down nor had to look it up. Given that my friend circle was around 40 kids - approximately half of them out of the colony - I carried a good bit of information in my head.
We also had a vast family and friends circle across India - Varanasi, Delhi, Shimla, Bhopal, Chandigarh, Calcutta, Lucknow, Asansol, Siliguri, Gangtok, Haridwar, Guwahati, Chennai, Bengaluru, Jalandhar, to name a few places. I wrote regular letters which meant I remembered all the postal addresses and knew the location of the cities on a physical map and also how to get to their houses from the railway station - I used to get the route description from my cousins and friends when we met during holidays or weddings, which was maybe once in two years. So we listened and committed that information to memory as a routine task without any effort.
In 1984 we shifted to Delhi for three years and that was a whole different world of relationships, school, sports, bus routes. A couple of weeks ago, my childhood friend, Vineet Sharma posted a photo of an old DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) double-decker bus on the school group. Within moments classmates like Anand, Shashikant, Anurodh, Ghosh, Rajesh and Khurana responded, guessing the bus depot. Places were named and buses were numbered and soon enough we started retracing routes from our school in Raja Bazaar and from the bus depots at Madras Hotel and C-Sec (Central Secretariat) to everyone’s house and in particular to Patel Nagar, which is where Ghosh used to live. We were able to recall many of the regular routes we frequented, the bus stops en route and conversation even veered towards Scindia House where we got bus passes for ₹12.50.
For the latter half of our stay in Delhi, I used to take bus number 960 to school. The bus started at Sayyed Gaon, literally one of the last villages then on the outskirts of Delhi, near the border with Haryana. That’s where we had our house in a colony of little houses owned by LIC employees who saved and saved and saved and then built their little dream house. And guess who we met there? The Bansals (from our Bombay LIC colony).
In 1987 we returned to Mumbai and I reconnected with old friends and made new ones in junior college. Sometime in 1990, we got our first telephone and so I had to create new methods to remember and retrieve numeric info. But I had to wait for a couple of years when I went to Bengaluru for work and then to Delhi and Shimla and finally to Pune (1996) to use my new method of remembering phone numbers.
Pune opened a new world to me, a world I had never before seen in a city, one of the peaceful walks. I walked from Parvati to FC Road and from FC Road to Agricultural College and from there to Pune University and back. I remembered all the gullies and bylanes between Bhandarkar road and Prabhat road (where my journalism classmate and guardian angel Sanjay Pendse still lives) and between FC and Gole and Apte roads. Later, I shifted to Saifee Lane in Camp and walked all around and all about and by 1997, I generally had a proper map of Pune from Camp to Paud road - you could wake me up in the middle of the night and I could tell you where to take a right turn to get “black daal” or left turn to the freshly simmered “Amruttulya chaha.”
Then I got my first mobile phone. And for the next decade, I used to know every phone number I required of family, friends, colleagues, clients, associates, doctors, and important contacts. All the numbers I regularly used. At one point it was close to a hundred and thirty numbers. I had perfected my original method and added a musical pattern by which I remembered numbers and names and addresses and routes.
Somewhere around 2011, I walked into the age of smartphones, and since then I have struggled to maintain my habit of dialling numbers or visualising addresses. I now have more than 3,000 contacts across the world and since people keep changing numbers, it kind of became a thankless exercise remembering them: I can recall less than 30 numbers today.
Routes I still visualise and remember vividly. I make it a point to associate people and names and how and when I interacted with them. But technology is rapidly making itself so useful that tech companies and governments may eventually win the battle to make me useless for the very thing that used to make me human: thinking. Memory is a critical component of the thinking process. If you don’t practice thinking you can’t organise data, which means you can’t recall it. If you can’t recall it, you can’t build associations.
If you can’t build associations you can’t be comfortable in your environs. If you aren’t comfortable in your environment, you’ll withdraw and isolate yourself in memories of eras gone by and then become alienated from the current world.
Pawan and I are still in regular touch. He’s in Singapore and on the cutting-edge of AI and ML tech. I like talking to him because he’s still connected to the human experience and with every conversation, I learn a lot. It’s a rapidly changing world, but all that it means is that I have to work harder to stay active and aware, and consciously change to adapt to the emerging world and practice being myself.
And make new associations and new routes to learning.