One of my tasks during lockdown was to procure and deliver essentials to my parents every week. But once their existing illnesses began worrying me and after considering the reduced access caused by the lockdown, I moved them over to my place.
Then, I had a front-row view of their daily routines.
A few weeks later, I noticed something very unique about how Amma, my mother, recreated some of the old-world charms of joint family life. She did it with her cellphone.
Amma, who is in her 70s, had grown up in a traditional joint family in Kerala. With a large family, few land parcels and hardly any considerable earning, the economics of the familial living was at a subsistence level. Still, the bond between each member of that struggling but surviving unit was rather strong. A cousin was as much a sibling as one’s own. Every smile lit up many faces, the tears went down more cheeks together, several pairs of hand jumped in at every challenge. Life was not easy but was shared and uncluttered.
Concepts such as personal space and privacy were not in vogue. Even in the micro families within the larger setup, nothing happened in isolation. The stylish detachment seen in the urbanism of today had not caught hold of its inhabitants.
Today, many secrets survive inside the four walls of an apartment and sometimes even within each of its rooms whilst it would have been unusual in an extended family set up. Everyone knew everyone else’s stories and some more.
Then came the hopeful ’80s and the explosive ’90s. Priorities such as jobs, marriage, studies and aspirations for a better life took families away from each other to different cities. This happened to Amma too, when we moved to Mumbai. Occasionally the vacations helped them in experiencing the warmth of what they once shared under a single roof. The summer night conversations kept reminiscing about the sweat, tears, and occasional joys that they shared and stuck with them since those years.
This was also the time when landline phones became common even as the blue inland letters and yellow postcards started retreating.
Still, there wasn’t any euphoria about the century-old invention, the landline. Telephone perhaps revolutionised the early 20th century more than its latter half. The black and yellow STD-ISD-PCO booths dazzled for a short while and pagers made a brief appearance, but that was it. It was almost as if the world was waiting for a more magical technology.
Magic happened but twice over, with mobiles and the internet. In hindsight, I feel that the mobile phone and internet were always part of one team, but they kept it a secret. Maybe they even chose different partners initially to befuddle us?
Nevertheless, by the time the lockdown happened, both had been around for more than two decades and had bonded better than ever, predictably.
My parents have one handset between them, with Amma clearly in charge of it. I expected them to be light users considering how reluctant they were in the first place to get one, only to find Amma now spending a couple of hours daily on calls, sometimes even more! On the other side are her sisters, sisters-in-law, friends and acquaintances. She calls them daily or at least once in every 2-3 days. Then there is an occasional request to me to set up a video call.
Over days and weeks, my amazement turned to amusement.
They don’t chat necessarily for a reason, but the familiarity and comfort of the talks are so palpable that you would think that they were sitting beside each other while talking. Often the calls didn’t start with any greetings. The topics ranged from the day’s weather, the food being cooked, leftovers, the state of COVID-19, niggling illnesses to gossip. Every one would be discussed, including the wastefully contemplative yours truly.
The glimpses of their village life occasionally come alive in those calls and lingered on long afterwards. They talked about memories of their walk to the school, sibling fun, wedding stories, temple festivals, funerals, deaths, punishments from parents and of midnight strolls. People I knew but were at the bottom of my memory pile, came visiting once in a while.
Slowly, I could see the joy in the nothingness of those calls. It dawned upon me that while Amma does use her cell phone for long hours, it is entirely spent on nurturing personal connections. This significantly compensates for the lack of physical socialising.
Notably, technology did not attract her with the frills it had. Sure, she gets excited to see the instantly shared photos on my WhatsApp and Facebook, but this does not replace the speaking ritual.
On the other hand, I unlock, swipe, touch, text, scroll and refresh relentlessly. I had, in fact, replaced several forms of personal touch with plain staring at the screen.
As Amma finishes one call and makes the next one, I feel happy that she did not learn how to use technology from me. And I wish I could unlearn some of what I ‘knew’.
Yatheesh Nair is an aspiring writer/director who moved away from corporate field for a while to pursue creative interests.
Featured illustration: LiveWire