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.