What if we were to go back to the 80’s

My mum told me a story which moved me and made me think about a bunch of things. Before I tell you those things, here’s the story:

I was born in 1987 in Nashik. Only a few days after I was born, my Dad got a job in Calcutta. He moved from Nashik to Calcutta at a short notice leaving me with my mum and my nani (mum’s mum).

Without dad, my mum and my nani did a lot for me. She developed a very close connection to me spending all day and night taking care of me. Then after three months, my Dad came back to take my mum and me with him to Calcutta.

Suddenly, all the joys of having a baby around disappeared. My nani felt very lonely. At the time, the only means of keeping in touch were letters and trunk calls. Of course, I couldn’t write a letter so the only communication that happened between nani and me was that when, during a very expensive and rare trunk call, she heard me make some noises. That almost always made her cry.

If I were born today, things would have been so different for the relationship that my nani would have developed with me. We would have the modern forms of communication – she could talk to me on the mobile phone even if my dad earned the same salary as then, she could see me grow up on Skype and if she really really missed me she could even take a flight to Calcutta (because they’ve become so much cheaper than those days!).

The story made me wonder about how much technology has affected us. I tried hard to understand what it must’ve been to have a relationship in that era but I am unable to. Sure, people must’ve dealt with it and got on with things. But I am more interested in the quality of the relationship of those times. We may never realise what it meant to long for someone.

I remember my mum telling me that when my Dad went to Europe in the early 80’s, he used to write her a letter a day which she usually received in bunches after a couple of weeks. Letters from India to Europe took even longer and because my dad was travelling, I am not sure how many times he actually heard back from mum. What must it have been to be my dad who had a one-sided dialogue with his newly wed wife for months?

Somehow, I am not sure that everything is better because of newer technology. We seek immediate responses and quick replies. Many have forgotten the art of letter writing. We’ve developed LOLspeak and gotten addicted to IM. Knowing people’s ‘status’ makes us happy even if you don’t know what is really going on their life.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to be a Luddite. Technology has done lots to help. A frequent story that is repeated to show the power of technology is that of an Indian farmer who can now afford to make calls to the local market to figure out a better price for his crop. The grassroots have definitely been strengthened. 884 million Indians have a mobile phone today, that’s 73% of the population!

Even in my case, technology has done plenty. Skype is such a blessing. Every weekend when I talk to my parents for an hour or two, I leave the conversation feeling satisfied. It’s not just about knowing what they are doing but also seeing them and hearing them (so much is communicated through body language).

And yet, stories like the one about my nani make me think about the time without the internet, without mobile phones, without social media… 

The internet, social media and relationships

Whenever I sign in to my Facebook account, I am greeted by hundreds of smiling faces wanting to tell me about their lives. I can at the choice of my whim get entertained by my friends doing stupid things or choose to wonder about the beautiful world through that friend’s pictures who just spent the last month in New Zealand. I can feel nostalgic by hearing that old song which was posted by another friend or even choose to cry reading about the sad story of a friend who met with an accident and who’s ‘wall’ is full of messages from well-wishers. I can choose to feel jealous about my mate who just found the hottest girl-friend or go to the profile of my class topper and get a dose of Schadenfreude from knowing that he is on a minimum wage job. I have the whole platter of emotions served to me everyday at whatever time I would like.

The cherry on top of this platter is that I also have the choice of declining to listen to any of these stories without it being considered rude. It’s great. Even King Louis XIV could not afford this kind of social luxury with all the power and money he had.

We live today with hundreds of friends on Facebook and similar number of followers on twitter. We have the ability to broadcast are thoughts in words, written or spoken, to millions of people for free. I can build friendships across the seas and over the mountains. I can have intellectual debates or learn something that blows my mind away. I can buy gifts for my parents sitting at my desk at work. The Internet has made plenty possible and yet I can’t stop but wonder when I heard the following from my dad.

“I was at your aunt’s place the other day and had a somewhat surprising experience. I was chatting with your cousin and asking her about her work. She explained it well in detail and we had a nice chat which was interrupted only because she had to leave. When she left your aunt came to me and told me, ‘You know she has never before explained to me what she does at work, despite having asked many times before.’ On further enquiry your aunt explained that she spends most of her time at home on the computer. She’s either on Facebook or watches some videos on YouTube. Rest of the time she doesn’t talk much. And I could not disagree because this was the first conversation that I had had with her in many years where she answered in more than a few words.”

I know my cousin somewhat well. We used to have lots of fun as kids but it has been many years since we spent any substantial time together. I know that she is a smart girl and although I can’t say much about her conversational skills. It makes me wonder that if the social media revolution had happened while I was still at home, would I have fallen in to the same ‘trap’ – showing a lack of interest in the people around me but paying more attention to those on Facebook. I tried to dismiss it as a singular case but my dad retorted that it is not a singular case. He’s heard the complain from many other parents in the recent months. More importantly though, the case my dad described was of an urban Indian family. In India, Facebook hasn’t quite reached the levels of penetration that it has in the US or UK.