Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Trap of Watsapp -- And How I Got Out Of It

This piece appeared in The Hindu

“Hello, Writer Sahiba! What’s happening?” I was a little surprised to hear an old friend’s voice early in the morning.

Now don’t get me wrong, I was happy to talk to him but when you suddenly hear from someone after months, that too early morning, you can get inquisitive. As it turned out, the friend, who I speak with once a year for precisely three minutes (on his birthday or mine), had sent me a group invite that I had not yet accepted. And that is why he was calling on a Monday morning. I however did not remember receiving anything.

A series of questions and answers later I figured that the invite was for a Watsapp group, which apparently had all the ex classmates listed and I was the only one missing in action – and thereby missing out on all the action. I could only smile in response.

I had first logged in to Watsapp a year and a half ago much against my wishes. 

Being technologically challenged and resistant to change has always made it difficult for me to discover new things and even longer to accept them: by the time I knew what Orkut was, the world had moved on to Facebook; I had barely managed to get myself a Facebook account when Google plus arrived taking the world round and round in circles; and Twitter? Let's not even get there. So it was only natural for me to have no inkling of what Watsapp was all about until a cousin introduced me to it. I didn’t think much of it even after the introduction and incessant goading to join it.

Peer pressure however can be difficult to ward off even at the ripe old age of 35. After having ignored multiple pleas and being stubborn about not signing up on the app for months, it had started to get tough to defend my stance. The tipping point however came when my doctor, chemist, tailor, and even the carpenter started telling me to Watsapp information to them. Even they did not check SMS’ anymore.

And so after months of being pestered by friends and cousins, cajoled by ex-colleagues and ex-lovers (Ok! I made the last one up), and being looked down upon by doctors and shopkeepers alike, I finally gave in: one beautiful spring morning, feeling unusually generous towards the world, I took the plunge.

In was all very confusing in the beginning. I could hardly get my way around the app, and when I did, I could only find advertorial messages selling me property, beauty, lingerie and whatnot. I was added to random groups that sent pictures of dogs, cats, babies and sometimes piglets too; there was, however, no trace of the people who had gotten me into this mess.
“You should announce your arrival”, advised a friend. Trusting her social skills I put up my first status: the forg is out of the well. That did the trick. “It’s not forg, stupid, it’s frog” came an old friend’s message – I had not heard from him in years. “Look who is here!” said another unable to believe that I had given in. “Send me a picture of you,” requested an admirer (yes, yes, I made this up too). And in a matter of days, people, who for years had just remained numbers in my phonebook, came back to life. I was suddenly talking to an ex boss, chatting with husband’s colleagues, sharing pictures with NRI cousins, connecting with prospective publishers, and of course, sending information to the doctor, chemist, carpenter and tailor. But the most interesting thing that happened was the reunion of our school gang.

When old friends meet – even virtually – things can get out of hand, especially with no husbands, children, or parents around. Dead skeletons are pulled out of cupboards; demons that have been laid to rest are brought back to life; discussions range from affairs to crushes, from underwear brands to contraceptive methods, from sex to orgasm – or the lack of it. Of course they do talk of serious stuff too like complaining about the mother-in-law, cribbing about the husband, or cursing the house help, but those instances are few and far between. It is the juicy, gory stuff that takes the centre stage, and, like any other guilty pleasure, it is so addictive that you can hardly take your eyes off the screen: what if you missed out on an important detail?

One reason why I had always resisted a smartphone or chat and social media apps was this. I did not want to become a slave to a tiny devise in my hand. I found it unacceptable to be trapped in a virtual world ignoring the real. Ironically I had become the monster I always feared.

In just a few months from not having anything to say I had much to talk – or type – about, and even more to hear – or read. So much so that I compromised on chores, procrastinated work assignments, sacrificed sleep, and ignored children, husband and home. I slept with the phone and woke up with it, and sometimes even checked it in the middle of the night. For the little time that I was away from the phone, I would be thinking about it.

There was another thing that happened: with all the chatting, sharing, laughing, crying and even working happening virtually, the real life conversations had almost come to a standstill. There was nothing left to say to anyone: everything that could be said had already been said.

It struck me hardest when I met a friend after many months and yet had nothing to talk about. That day while he sat fiddling with his phone, and I sat gazing at the sky, I decided I had to get out of this trap.

I must confess it was not easy; being all by myself through the day only made things worse: here I was sitting alone, staring at the walls thinking what to do next, and there everyone was chatting, joking, laughing. I longed for my virtual life, but hung on. Whenever I felt the urge to get back – and it happened quite often – I read a book or baked a cake; when I missed talking to someone, I called my mother or mother-in-law, when I wanted to gossip, I spoke with my girls. Despite all this there were times I felt as though I would suffocate to death, my phone meanwhile was already as good as dead. But no one dies of Watsapp deficiency; I didn’t either.

In the last few weeks, since my departure from the app, I have suddenly started to get regular phone calls from friends, cousins, and acquaintances and our conversations have not only been longer, but also much more wholesome than they had been in a long time. And as far as the action is concerned, I get all of it in real life.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


He taught me to write on many a chilly night,
When the day's work was done, and the distractions around us were none;
It did not matter that we were thousands of miles apart,
For I could have given even my arm and my leg to to learn from him his art;

Writing however was not as easy as I had thought,
It needed patience, it needed hard work, it needed me to bare open my soul and my heart;
There were nights I would not sleep a wink and days that I spent only to think,
But he was a difficult task master not to be satisfied easily and dismissed my hard work in a wink;

I tried and I tried and on some nights out of exhaustion I also cried,
This is not how I had visualised writing, it was supposed to be easy and not so daunting;
I pleaded to him to let me go, no longer did I want to be the writer everyone would love to know,
You cannot just give up he would say, work till what you want to achieve does not come your way;

I wrote and I wrote, and I wrote some more until my eyes started stinging and fingers were sore,
I could not have given up until I stood on my own and shone out in a crowd;
More than myself it was my teacher I wanted to make proud,
Praise from him however was hard to come by no matter how hard I would try;

But I still trusted him with all my might after all he was the reason I had started to write,
Somewhere along the line I needed him less and less, as long as my work he could assess;
Thanks to my teacher I could now manage to stand on my own,
A little outside the crowd, among those who for their greatness I had always known;

The nights are chilly yet again and the slanting rays of the sun have begun playing their game,
I still write all night, until just outside my window I can see the morning light;
I wonder what my teacher about my work would have said, but a blank screen stares at me instead,
They say when you no longer need someone the universe takes him away, without him however I seem to have lost my way.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Mornings At Mavalli

This post appeared in The Hindu.

About fifty odd men, all with grey hair and receding hairlines, stand in and around the coffee room sipping aromatic coffee from identical white cups. Outside, on the pavement, a hawker sets up his wares – handkerchiefs, nail cutters, combs, lighters, wristwatches. Diagonally opposite of him is a newspaper vendor already doing brisk business. The flower seller is here too with his basket loaded with fresh and fragrant venis. It is only 6:40 in the morning but the day has long begun at MTR, Bangalore’s most iconic Tiffin room.

Nostalgia fills my heart as I enter the building wondering what all might have changed since my last visit. The only change I notice however is the empty waiting room: during all my previous visits, the large waiting hall had been swarming with people, the queues, sometimes, spilling well into the staircase.

MTR, like many other iconic institutions, is as much about experience as it is about food. I happened to discover this on a warm afternoon many years ago when my husband and I tried walking into the café for lunch not knowing what the place meant to a true blue Bangalorean – and how almost the entire town congregated here for lunch on weekends. The long wait in the sun had taught us the lesson, and since that day we always reached the place well before its opening time.

By that standard, I am late today, but am lucky enough to find my favourite table vacant.

What strikes you first about MTR is the simplicity. The tables are basic, the chairs are plastic and, other than two-three old, discoloured pictures and a shelf full of white coffee cups, there is nothing that you can classify as décor. And yet it has far more character than a five-start hotel would.

A familiar waiter, dressed in red and white striped shirt and a white dhoti, walks up to me a few minutes later and rattles off the menu for the day (menu cards find no place here). I place my order and look around.

If there is one word you can associate MTR with it is leisure: the fans whizz languidly even as regulars sip strong – and often sweet – coffee among lively banter. Pearls of laughter emanate from some tables, while some seat the lone hungry soul watching the world eat, drink, and laugh. Even the waiters here have leisure writ large in their demeanour: they are efficient but never hurried or flustered, not even on the busiest of days when they run incessantly from the ground floor kitchen to the first floor dining hall carrying upto half a dozen orders at one go.

My order arrives soon. Crisp on the outside, soft on the inside and served with a generous helping of spicy coconut chutney, and a tiny potion of ghee, the Dosas here can beat any other Dosa in the country hands down. The secret to the texture and taste, I suspect, is the same languidness that serenades the air. I am tempted to ask for the coffee too but resist. Like a proper South Indian, I want to enjoy my food first and coffee later.

I am only halfway through the Dosa, when the waiter gets me the Vada. I suspect my ability to finish it but take it nonetheless: who knows when will I get to taste it next.

Nibbling at my Vada and scribbling in the soft paper napkins, I think of the many mornings I have spent at MTR, and the long walks at Lalbagh afterwards. Those breezy mornings have always defined Bangalore for me. Lost in my thoughts I am caught smiling by a beautiful woman. “Are you a photographer?” She asks looking at my camera and my notes. In a matter of minutes we are not only sharing the table, but also talking like long lost buddies. 

Befriending strangers, after all, is another quintessential MTR experience.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Look Back To Look Ahead

Sometimes to look ahead you need to look back.

Days leading up to one's birthday are usually full of anxiety and introspection -- anxiety of another year passing by, introspection about all the years that have passed thus. One usually thinks of what all he could have achieved but he did not, reviews the choices he has made and decisions he has taken. Wonders if a different set of choices would have made him/her a different person than what he/she is today.

In the last few days I had been introspecting too, and was in parts anxious about growing older without having achieved much, especially as compared to all the people who had started with me but went much ahead when I chose to stay at home five years ago. 

Then a couple of nights ago, while looking up something, I came across an old note. It was written during a training session 8 years ago on the behest of the trainer -- who happened to be my husband too -- while in a workshop. We were supposed to write tribute statements for ourselves for our 85th birthday (assuming we were alive), things that people would say about us. I read what I wrote about each one of them -- parents, husband, parents-in-law, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends, co-workers -- and all it talked about was love, companionship, respect, happiness, pride, virtue, values. Things that neither money, nor designation can buy.

Yesterday, on my birthday, I received almost fifty phone calls, something that has not happened in many years. I not only felt extremely grateful for the love but also realised that I might just be moving in the right direction.

Monday, September 14, 2015

To Snap or Not To Snap

Some weeks ago I cut my hair really short. Well, not short by the normal standard, but short enough for me to take another look at the mirror to ensure it was me that I was looking at.

My mother always had long straight lustrous hair. She usually kept them tied up either with a handkerchief, or in a loose bun or a braid. But they refused to be confined. They would often escape the clutches of the rubber band and flow by the sides of forehead undaunted by her irritation. And then there were times -- only on an odd Sunday when she decided to wash them while we were at home -- she let them loose. As a child, I was enchanted by them: I loved the way they cascaded down her nape, fell over her shoulders, caressed her tiny, bare waist peeping out from her modestly tied sari.

It is no surprise that grew up wanting straight, long hair of my own. Thanks to my mother's practicality, however, I was instead sent along with father to his hair dresser who perched me up on a wooden plank over his fancy red chair and mercilessly chopped off my curls month after month. I hated him with all my might and would cry my heart out upon returning home, but my mother could not care less. The drama carried on for years until she allowed me to let my hair grow on one condition: I will have to take care of them myself.

I was over the moon and promptly started day-dreaming of a hip hugging braid. I oiled my hair regularly and shampooed occasionally (too much shampoo, we were told, wasn't good). As I grew older, I also started the amla-shikakai-reetha regimen, and sometimes even skipped school for these sessions. But there was one problem: my hair never grew long, or strong, or thick. The best I could manage was a soft wavy mop that reached just below my shoulders. Initially I would mope and stress about it, but eventually, with so much else to worry about, I made peace with it. But there was one thing I could never imagine doing: cutting them short. 

In the last few years however somehow my hair stared to gain length. Perhaps it was simply the if you love something set it free syndrome, perhaps something else, but I noticed them getting longer over a period of time, until they nearly reached my waist. Yes! The waist!

And so, for the past few years I kept them on without letting anyone touch them. I played with them, I caressed them, I looked at the mirror repeatedly, I tied them in neat buns and pretty braids. I sometimes let them loose too, something I had never done before. In all the loving and swooning, and the happiness of fulfillment of my life long dream, I did not notice that the length was not adding any value to my hair. Once soft and shiny, they had started getting rough, hard, and brittle. They would tangle and knot, they fell in clumps, but I kept them on. Until one day I realised they had to go: they had become far to rough and matted for me to even run a comb.

At the Salon, I instructed the hair dresser to cut off whatever he thought was not good enough. I shut my eyes as he got busy with his scissor: it was not easy to see them go. With every snip of the scissor I heard a part of my heart break --- the part that for the past twenty-five years had hoped that someday I will have long, straight, lustrous hair just like my mother and my aunt did. But when I saw them lay on the floor dry, brittle, dead and totally unlike I how I remembered them to be, I was happy that they were off my back.

As I headed home visibly lighter in my head, feeling like a diffrent person altogether, I realised I had been holding on to them for no reason. It also occurred to me that just like my dead hair, I had also been holding many dead dreams and dead relationships. It was perhaps time to cut them off too.

The thing is that when you have dreamt of something all your life, and have visualised it in a certain manner, you tend to cling on to it. It may be a position at work, a person in life, a possession at home. It becomes impossible to let go of it even though you might very well know that all it is doing is seeping your resources -- mental, physical, emotional, and sometimes financial also -- but you have wanted it so desperately that you cannot imagine life without it. At such times, perhaps, all we need to do is thank our destiny for fulfilling our dreams even if for a short period. Trust me it helps snip off not only the hair but everything else that no longer adds value to your life.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Begin Somewhere

I stepped into Delhi on a hot summer morning of May 2001. Along with me I carried a 24" suitcase full of my life's earnings and eyes full of stars. While the suitcase was borrowed, the dreams were my own. The same dreams that most people around me had failed to understand.

It took me a few weeks to find my feet here even though I had been coming to Delhi for decades, and living with my parents off and on in the city for the previous year. Finding friends and work or a suitable course for further studies were two crucial things that these weeks were centred around. Those few weeks however were difficult and long, and, of course very, very hot. I finally found my calling in a job that I had earned some months ago. 

I still recall every minute of my first day at work. It was humid June morning and I had to commute from Pitampura to Udyog Vihar, Gurgaon on my own. My return and the journey from the following day was to be taken care of by my new employers.

Dressed in a navy-blue trouser and a mauve dress shirt both of which I had bought from Janpath only a few days before, I had left home at seven in the morning. I had to change two buses and stand in dirt and grime for close to two hours before being dropped at Atlas Chowk by a Haryana Roadways bus from where I walked all the way to the office, a sprawling complex painted in blue and white. In another few hours I was, with many others like me, taken to a plush five-star hotel in a luxury bus. The next two days were spent being awed by the hotel, the city, and magnitude of the new company and its people. I was soon to become one of them.

For ten years, I was a part of the crowd that I once gaped at with admiration. I almost lived in the offices I had only seen in films, and experienced the life I had always dreamt of. The naysayers, who had thought me to be worthless meanwhile ate their words. And then, one fine day, I left it all. It was time to move on.

In the last five years of being away from work, I did a lot of new things, and, I would like to believe, added value to a lot of lives in various ways. But even with my plate always overflowing with things to do, I missed my work. It was like I had a hole in my life that could not be filled with anything. I tried wasting my time on the internet, I tried chatting with old and new friends on Watsapp, I reconnected with my family, I bonded with my children. I learnt to write, I practised photography, I read, I travelled, I even set up a restaurant -- well almost, but the hole could not be filled.

Today, after five and a half years, I dressed up again in the morning, not in trousers from Janpath, but in a suit from Jaipur. I painted my toes and did my hair, I put on a little lipstick, packed my bag (this one from Janpath, though), and then I left home.

In my new office, which is neither neither as plush nor as awe inspiring as the first one, I suddenly felt the five-year-old hole filling up. I hope it always remains so.