Sunday, December 04, 2011

Hail Happiness

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All our lives, we hanker after that elusive state called ‘happiness’. But, isn’t happiness a relative term? Isn’t it driven from the inside? Shefali Tripathi Mehta wonders what happiness is all about.

It was a cold December evening in the north. I had just bought myself a pair of leather stiletto shoes that I had been lusting after. Returning home late from work, I walked up the quiet street. Most homes had their doors and windows tightly shut against the cold and there were very few people outside. In the hutments a little away, I could see people huddled around the open fires over which their meagre meals were being cooked.

The sassy clickety click of my shoes on the road was an immensely pleasing sound and I walked happy. Suddenly, from nowhere appeared a street urchin, a little boy of four or five. Driving an imaginary scooter, he buzzed past me in a thin shirt and leggings, his bare feet thumping loud and clear on the cold asphalt. The shame at my own vanity and the embarrassment at not being able to silence the harsh sound of my heels that night has stayed with me to remind that true happiness does not lie in stuff, it lives inside of the heart like it did in that little boy’s.

The happiness butterfly flits about teasingly. I wait for it to rest on my favourite music, parties, shopping, ‘likes’ on Facebook, a gourmet meal, a designer watch, a holiday, but it takes off, proving again and again that true happiness lies within the heart, not in worldly trappings.

Happiness is a choice

Like others of my generation, I too grew up on an overdose of the sad and the melancholy — the films, the songs, the literature. The heroes were drinking themselves to death; the heroines were drowning themselves in pools of their own tears and slashing their wrists. The songs of unrequited love and disillusionment were sweeter than those of hope and joy. Everyone almost wanted their love to not be reciprocated; to remain forever sad and heartbroken. Sadness was cool. It took years to unlearn that; to believe that the purpose of life is to live in joy — to unleash all the joy we can, not just for ourselves, but for all whose lives we touch.

Being happy needs practice. You cannot keep happiness in safekeeping till the moment you embark on that long-awaited Europe tour. Why not bake that cake, clean the windows, or play with the dog which will make you happy instantly? Then, day by day, moment from moment, happiness to happiness, we move and learn to live in that state. Happiness has to be cultivated and nurtured. Temporary setbacks, failures, lows and mood swings do not stifle a happy heart. A heart that has learnt to be happy will just spring back to its original state. A happy heart is one that embraces and accepts life with all its failings.

Elusive, transient, ephemeral is how happiness is most often described. This is true for momentary emotional states of bliss and joy like pleasant surprises, lucky breaks and other workings of the higher world, but today we know the science behind happiness and understand that a happy state of mind is an acquired art. Self-help books, spiritual gurus, life coaches and psychologists have ready-made formulas for achieving happiness — ‘The Ten Step Guide to Happiness’ and such.

Why do we live from one weekend to another? Why do we have the Monday morning blues and thank God for Fridays? Why do we long for breaks? And forever plan holidays? Because the original state of our mind longs for peace and tranquillity but is beleaguered by unease, discontent and feelings of emptiness. A busy morning is a microcosm of our lives — a razor-nicked chin, a burnt toast, spilled coffee, missed school bus, unscheduled power cut leading to frayed nerves, confusion and tears. This frantic pace of life and the demands of ‘professionalism’ complicate our living so that we are forever gripped with fear and self-doubt, packing more and more activity to stay ahead.

Accomplishment, praise, self-fulfilment contribute to personal happiness but not without the balance it requires in slowing down, accepting oneself, making time for others. A game of squash, a spa visit, a concert, lunch with friends are momentary pleasures that grow into conscious, regular habits of unwinding, leading to a lasting state of contentment and happiness.

Being happy

Good health, friendships, family, faith, charity, fulfilling career are known factors leading to the state of happiness. Dark chocolate and coffee will give you an instant high but try providing for a hungry child’s meals or a poor one’s education; just give a pair of slippers or a warm sweater to a poor kid and it will give you a high for life.

Physical and emotional well-being also contributes to happiness. It has been scientifically proven that exercise releases endorphins that give you a feeling of happiness. Working in the garden livens us up as the soil absorbs our negativity from the fingers. So you know that losing your head over the cobwebs will lead to cortisol build-up and a disgruntled house-help. Pick up the mop yourself, instead.

For me, being happy is also shedding inhibitions and living without regrets. While being wheeled in for a major surgery, the uncertainty of life a stark reality, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die without learning to eat with chopsticks or dancing!’ It is my firm belief that people who can sing and dance are happy. Also because I can’t do both. Every time people break into an impromptu jive, I run for cover. So, when the other day, the crowd around the bonfire broke into a random boogie woogie, I slunk into the shadows. Two left feet, my regular excuse, usually works but this adamant woman dancing with abandon and rather badly too, would have none of it. “No one’s looking at your feet!” she said and pulled me into the circle. Once I let myself go, it felt wonderfully liberating. So, happiness to me is also waving out to the kids standing along the railway tracks or calling up my old aunt who I haven’t spoken to in years. It is these moments of unbridled joy that make a life of happiness.

As for wealth being the source of happiness — a rich man near death was sad that he could not take his hard-earned money with him to heaven. So he prayed hard and God decided to allow him to take one suitcase with him. Overjoyed, the man got his largest suitcase and filled it with gold bars. He died and arrived at the gates of heaven. St Peter, on seeing the suitcase, said, “Hold on, you can’t bring that in here!” The man explained that he had permission. St Peter checked and said, “You’re right. You’re allowed one bag, but I’m supposed to check its contents.” He opened the suitcase to inspect the worldly items that the man found too precious to leave behind and exclaimed, “You brought pavement?”

When a parcel from home arrives and you hit a high, you know it isn’t the things really but the love and affection that lies silently folded inside. Happiness is a broad spectrum emotion — from the peace that descends on the 24x7 unswitchable mind on a quiet hill to the powerful feeling of satisfaction on a goal accomplished. It is relative, it is wavering. Robert Frost was spot on when he said, “Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Mother India Fuming!

I’ll push, I’m posh! The new mantra has been unleashed on us. The south Delhi madams who are eager to let drop, ‘Kal ghar main raid padi thi,’ so you know, have a new status symbol to flaunt. ‘I pushed, you know?’ they declare, touching the baby's chin lightly when it is brought in by the ayah, bathed and perfumed for the daily darshan of the Mamma before Mamma leaves for the spa. She’s so stressed, you see. The nurse says she got no sleep last night. The nurse.

The masses are completely taken by surprise at this sudden issue reversal. They’ve been let down by their idols. Just when they upgraded their vocab to include the cease – re – an and began to boast of the eye-widening , ‘Cease –re – an, bade opreshan se hua hai!’ This woman and her father-in-law came and completely overturned the snob-value ladder!

The Big B family otherwise known to guard their personal lives intensely suddenly went public with details of the delivery. At the press conference AB snapped at a very ritualistic question by a journalist, “Why do you want to know the weight!” I’m sure the journalist had not meant Aishwarya’s weight. But Father-in-law dwelt over the pain she bore for a long time without painkillers, the labour, the NORMAL delivery. Now when you say Taj Mahal, I do visualize Taj Mahal as the domed, white structure and not the crying, desperate love in the hearts of Shahjahan and his beloved. Likewise, when the Father-in-law draws his drawl longer in, ‘Aishwarya kept trying...’ my own body stiffens in sympathy and you know how I...visualize her. And everyone else does too – all the men who grew up dreaming of her making boiled tea in their kitchens.

Women facebookers, bloggers and tweeters are falling over one another (including me, of course) in their censure of this newest self-back-patting by the Bachchans. The misplaced sense of self-righteousness, the glorification of pain has Mother India fuming. Caesarean, normal, painkilled, induced, pushed, they say, is as personal a choice as Huggies or Pampers! Did we tell you sir that our grandfathers sported their bald pates with pride? Just a matter of personal choice, sir.

‘It’s an issue, goddamit!’ Big B fumes right back. Really? Is it so easy to forget that in this country hundreds of women try hard to hold their babies till they can reach the nearest hospital which may be 200 kilometers away? Hold on with fortitude to intense labour waiting outside hospitals begging for admission, for help. And so many of them and their newborns just die unattended. Issue that?

Ask the doctors, how many babies and their mothers have been saved because of the C Section? There is nothing wrong in requiring or preferring a caesarean section delivery. Let not these false notions of womanhood shake your pride in your independence, freedom of choice. Remember, when a glass of water is brought to you on a tray held by sanitised, gloved hands and you pick it and drink, no one lauds your effort, real woman.

I know we haven’t heard the last of this, even as columnists are busy tapping their keyboards right now. Sixteen to eighteen years hence, I’m afraid, Missy Bachchan in her Filmfare award acceptance will part her gooey lips to tell us that she owes it all to her beautiful mom who decided to push her. The hall will break into a thunderous applause and made-up, beautiful eyes will spout copious tears. Nah! Keep your tissues to yourself!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

La La Land - The Reading Hour (Sept-Oct 2011 Issue)

By: Shefali Tripathi Mehta

I caught the whiff of the topic even as I joined the conversation late. The girls were chattering excitedly about Victoria’s secret. I slumped into CCD’s bucket chair and in an effort to quickly be-with-it, chipped in, I too had read about her Muslim cook. Half of them fell off their buckets laughing. The other half decided they would ignore me for the rest of their lives.

Thus chastised, I sat all night in my full-sleeved, toe-tipping white flannel nightie planning how to bridge the gap. Enormous it was. Time was when a man accompanying a woman to a lingerie shop lingered outside. The shop sold other things – egg, hairpin, gajak, raincoat. But it had a small hidden corner for the ladies and didn’t have to proclaim that business on the name board outside. Selling rat poison and toilet cleaner was totally respectable. Not so knickers. In that cloistered corner, women attended women. They gave what you asked for and never checked you out to advise, “I think you need the next size”! If you said you wanted one with blue flowers but only yellow were available, you didn’t insist. It was indelicate. Almost a decade ago, I overheard two male colleagues hotly discussing whether it was lin-g-ri or lau-je-ree and wondered why they would need to use it. The word, that is.

Sanitary napkins were asked for in hushed tones. In fact, the hush itself was enough. You just walked into a store with a somber expression and the person behind the counter automatically reached out for the packs in the lowest or the topmost shelves where they were stacked out of sight. A wrong brand and you shook your head very slightly or raised a finger in another direction. If it wasn’t understood, you took the name of the color of the pack. Green one. It was then handed over discreetly wrapped in brown paper. Much later, in black garbage disposal bags. All this discretion came to naught the moment you walked out of the store with the pack that did not look like a loaf of bread or a cushion.

The pacing-thinking night was rewarded with an ad in the morning newspaper for a SALE of women’s itsy-bitsies. A sale that would ‘change your life’. Close-necked and full-sleeved, I arrived at the venue. Outside, a mammoth panel had stringy two pieces drawing-pinned to it. Was my sleep-deficient mind breathing life into pictures from the tattered salon Cosmopolitan? Was inner wear, outer? I mean, where would those that wanted to stick these on to themselves, do it? Since our swim pools and beaches still have soaked-to-the-skin and revealing every tyre, salwar-suited and sareed beauties that bystanding men in underwear cannot have enough of, getting into shape for these little triangles would seem so completely pointless, no?

I stepped into a hallful of frenzied women of all variety – tender zeros and abundant others; covered in shapeless tents and uncovered in low rise jeans; noodle strapped, nude strapped and unstrapped. The chatter was distinct. Sassy guffaws, muffled giggles, restraining grins of 32 As and loud proclamations of 36 Ds.

Some wide-eyed, bushy-tailed male escorts followed their ladies carrying their heap of fantasies, pretending duty; imagining every shapely woman in sight in red lace or yellow sheer; now and then nodding slightly at something held out for approval or pointing discreetly at something some other woman was holding to herself.

Two demure looking kurta-dupatta-ed girls ahead of me rummaged through a carton marked ‘Passion’ in uneven capitals. One pulled out a barely-there and held it out to the other, ‘Here, this!’ ‘Chee!’ The other exclaimed mortified at the public exposé of her private fantasies and buried her head into another carton to hide her flush. ‘What chee? Didn’t we come here for this?’ The spunky first quickly shoved the coveted piece into her own bag. With the number of eyes popping out, I wondered if at such sales they should also sell something to hold the eyes firmly in place.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

To Sir on FB

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To Sir, on FB

The teacher-student relationship has undergone a sea change in the recent past. Shefali Tripathi Mehta wonders if this is a good trend

Because my teacher said so! This statement always clamps any further discussion on any subject between little ones and their parents. The teacher’s word is final, something parents bow down to, and not always willingly.Most children have played out the role of a teacher during play time and have dreamt of becoming one too, some day. Teachers were idols. They were held in high esteem in society too. Parents never referred to teachers without the title sir/miss/ma’am.

Every student had his/her favourite guru and most of these teachers were not just good teachers and masters of their subjects, but also counsellors and friends.

Students and teachers today share a more easy and casual relationship. They are Facebook friends and even text message each other. The general culture of informality in society, spurred by superfast means of communication, including email, text messaging and social networking, have radically altered the relationship between students and their teachers.

Familiarity over formality

In the past, a chance meeting with a teacher in the market or movie hall would catapult a student into an object of envy among other students at school. They would be full of curious questions about the teacher — what they said, what they wore, who was with them. Teachers did not exist outside the school then. Now students ‘Like’ and comment on their teachers’ holiday pictures on social networking sites; and call or text them at odd, after-school hours.

Very often, emails and text messages are without greeting or salutation and writing etiquette is dispensed with in order to get the message across instantaneously. What was once downright rude is now cool. Is this level of over-familiarity good for the relationship that must rest on discipline and decorum?

School lives are essentially organised and actions are clearly right or wrong. There is punishment for wrong and reward for good. The early years ensured there was discipline. Everyone knows that the foremost impression of a teacher in the classroom is about his or her ability to assume and demonstrate authority — command and control the class. Some teachers achieved this by being stern while others were gentle and friendly. But the line that divided the student and the teacher stayed firmly in place — sometimes tautly stretched, sometimes a little lax, but rarely down.

Blurring boundaries can lead to a lot of other problems other than that of discipline. Casual communication tends to get too personal. Students are emboldened to ask questions they would not have the courage to ask in person. Crushes on teachers are commonplace, but so are the more damaging romantic or inappropriate relationships. These have existed even before, but spur-of-the-moment communication and unclear private and professional boundaries lead to greater propensity of such.

But there is enough evidence to state that most schools and teachers are struggling with the complexities that are emerging out of the changing dynamics of student-teacher interaction. Thanks to this, many have laid down clear guidelines on interaction with students outside of and after school; and appropriate and acceptable conduct.

To connect or not

Many argue that teachers are more accessible now, which is good for students. Schools have websites where they encourage interaction with teachers and students; post announcements, results and assignments; and even encourage real-time chat.

Is this required? Is it really good for both parties? Some teachers believe that it helps them understand and know their students better. But wasn’t the teacher-student bond much stronger in the pre-Facebook days? Didn’t the teachers then take time out during school hours and within school to offer help and guidance?
Better implementation of appropriate guidelines will do everyone good in the long run.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Keep it simple, silly

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By: Shefali Tripathi Mehta

A sampling of celebrity cooking: Recipe of Thai green curry. Ingredients: One packet of Thai green curry paste... Aow! Darlings, I’m Master Chef Australia! I can prepare vegemite. Preparation time: two hours.

Just pick one medium-sized jar of vegemite from the supermarket shelf. Brand not important. Every brand of axle grease tastes the same. NB: Check expiry date. Axle grease spoils too. Why the preparation time, you ask? That’s how long it may take for you to get to the supermarket and back. Accounting also for the time you’ll need to pick the 13 other things that you have been meaning to for the last 13 days.

So, on to writing cooks and cookery show hosts. Who is their target? I lap up all cookery shows and know my Aditya Bals from my Gordon Ramsays. Have graduated from the moustachioed Sanjeev Kapoor to the one without, who makes desperate attempts at humour and cooks less, to the take-home, keep-home Curtis Stone who can have me believe that the sand at Bondi beach drizzled with some olive oil and vanilla extract served super jiffy is ambrosia. I have returned to chiding auntie Tarla Dalal with a paid subscription website of recipes, which are available free on 143 other websites after sampling the fare favoured by Kunal Foodie Vijaykar whose mouth is in a perpetual whistling position. I have tried a fair bit(e) of Antony Bourdain’s street food to the well-licked desserts of Nigella. Yet, I cannot decide what to make of Padma Lakshmi’s Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet. Is it a cookbook or an autobiography?

Cookery writing has a broad-spectrum target, assuming that everyone who eats may need/want to cook sometime. The two broad target groups would be, the amateurs or Maggi-5-minute cookers and the pros, the standing-soufflé cookers.

Both have the same demands of your recipe. Both will need to know just how many grains of jeera go into the heated oil. While amateurs may get into a tizzy worrying if one spoonful of chilli powder is one teaspoon, tablespoon, or serving spoon; amateurs will wonder if it is a level or a heaped teaspoon (dear alarmed amateurs, a level spoon is just the heap of the heaped spoon flicked off it). While pros may not need to know what a spatula is, amateurs may confuse it with a spittoon that was.

Cooking food raises many questions and you must answer them all. Why ginger juliennes are not the same as ginger chopped fine, why grating onion is not the same as running it into a blender, why a paste is a paste and not batter or puree. It demands that one know that paring potatoes is not putting potatoes into pairs as Google images may mistakenly show you, but merely peeling.

Eventually, amateurs must learn that ‘frying to a pink’ must be taken with a pinch of salt. No food turns that colour, only cooks know. By and by they must learn that a dish does not ‘begin to leave the bottom’. A dish that sticks to the bottom, never leaves it. The ‘serve crisp’ remains crisp till just before serving and the roughly chopped tomatoes for the salsa have a tendency to look like spat-out tomatoes. But a cookery writer must stoop to conquer. If you described a recipe in extreme detail, specifying the 10 centimetres diameter copper bottom, one millimetre thick pan and the brand of salt but have forgotten to add ‘turn the flame on’, be ready for hate mail by a thousand and maybe a courier or two of that uncooked mishmash you wrote about. But, if some wait for the ‘season with salt and pepper’ to come so they may serve, it’s really not your fault.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tech will tell!

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By: Shefali Tripathi Mehta

An international food giant is launching a face scanner that will tell us what we’d like to eat! Soon they might put a beeper on tables/ plates/ cutlery/ wall that would go twice if you liked your food and buzz hysterically if you thought it was gruel.

My worry is that, I won’t be able to tell Mrs Patel that her stone-hard dahiwadas are delicious and I’m really not drinking so much water to swallow them but to create place for her stone-hard idlis that are to follow.

The viper software does not bite; it catches plagiarised content like a boa constrictor. A new software will let publishers know how many copies of your book got sold. So think before claiming three reprints. They know it was 97 copies.

As a nine-year-old, I confessed all my crimes — cutting the tablecloth with Papa’s shaving blade, polishing off the last four laddos, sneaking out into the garden during Mummy’s siesta. All because the writing on the wall filled me with dread. Satyug aane wala hai, I read during every train journey.
It was written in big, sure, red letters on walls all along the railway tracks. Satyug will come and Kalyug, into which we are born and are living, will be annihilated. But the burden of the honest life got a bit much. I surrendered to the good times of Kalyug. Till the writing emerged fresh again, now. I have no visions of any avatars descending among us. But, fast catching up on the trail of dishonest, deceitful living is technology (tech).

Technology is steadily putting the fear of the expose into us. Either tech will tell or tech-enabled sting will! Those who are caught and shamed would be our striking examples. We will be forcefully upright and before we can say holy corruption, Satyug will be upon us. The kaanta lagaa that is stinging nepotism, bribery, lies, and hypocrisy of people in high places today, and allowing us to hear and know the decibel of the sneeze of a country’s premier, and watch another’s shoe ducking expertise, will bring ‘upliftment’ when it percolates to the mango man’s life.

‘Anti-privacy’ activists wearing cellophane would demand total transparency in private life. It would be mandatory for each person to declare what they earned, colour of their socks, their dye/agarbhatti brand, if they picked their nose in public, as ‘info’ on their social networking page.

Kids who have their breakfast outside, presumably waiting for the school bus but actually feeding the bournvita-fied milk and unidentifiable shreds of omelette to plants in the garden would be forced to eat as tech-fitted plants will protest against the force feeding.

Now it’s just close-circuit cameras in convenience stores that catch shoplifters and spyware on phones by suspecting couples. Soon, if someone plucked a flower from a public garden, his hands would turn red with the help of a spy-camera-enabled-remote-dye-sprayer. Time was when if you bunked office to watch a cricket match, the chance of being caught was only if the boss was doing the same. If caught on TV camera, because your tri-colour wig was too conspicuous to be missed, you could still say it wasn’t you.
But soon you might be compelled to take a lie detector test that you agreed to on joining. Deny that? They have the clip! Watching a movie at work? Chances are that the boss has your screen replicated on his own comp and he’s quiet only because he likes your choice in films.

Jump a queue and alarms will go off. Pinch a library book and the next time you enter the library, the gates will beep ‘thief, thief!’ Sneak out without paying the bill at a restaurant and a laser will print ‘I owe Indian Coffee House Rs 53‘ at the back of your shirt.

So, unless being shamed in public becomes a status symbol like an IT raid, Satyug is upon us.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sign of the times

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With the advent of mobile telephony and the internet, while typewriters are a curio at best, money orders and telegrams have almost acquired the dinosaur status. But, there is a world beyond ours where these are still a lifeline, writes Shefali Tripathi Mehta

When was the last time you stepped into a post office? You probably don’t even know where one is located in your area. In the age of boombox and iPod, how the heart still warms up on seeing a curio-value, out-of-use gramophone and skips beats at the clickety-clack of typewriters passing by a court complex.

Standing tip-toe, I watched father fit all he wanted to say in ten words — the minimum charge for a telegram was for ten words. Fun as a cryptogram, I pored over to see him change ‘come at once’ to ‘come immediately’. Not that a rupee or two mattered, yet it was the done thing — reduce, save. Evolution and the need for speed necessitate change. We look back at these obsolete-for-us objects and relive the romance of bygone days.

But, there is a world beyond ours where these are still a lifeline. We have begun to take for granted that everyone owns a cell phone and the initial astonishment at the autowala or the house-help drawing out one has been spent.

Even those that you called on a PP (phone passby, nearest contact number) number after 10 pm when the STD rates were slashed to half have one, and which they use liberally too. It may be true that India has more cell phones than toilets but there is another India where people still await telegrams and money orders. With fifty per cent of our population still living in the villages, these are still the accepted and only means of urgent communication and money transfer.

Charmed, unconnected life

Today, speed is money. Everything’s got to be faster than it already is. A false sense of urgency permeates our lives. If you are late by half a minute, the waiting person calls you on your cell phone to ask. The restlessness of ‘where are you now?’ does not allow you to sit winding a gramophone. Even our radio hurls out frantic, high-pitched chatter that does nothing to calm us in the midst of our rushed lives.

While eighty per cent of Indian villages have at least an electricity line, not more than fifty per cent of the rural households have access to electricity. In these many one-bulb homes in our far flung villages, where electricity is unavailable or scarce, people still go to sleep at sundown, comforted by the silence of the night and watching the night sky that we in the lighted cities can never experience.

The country has 1.55 lakh post offices, out of which 1.40 lakh are located in the rural areas serving eighty per cent of the rural population. Rural families may be divided and scattered over towns and cities, but those that stay behind wait patiently for the postman to ride in on the dusty track to deliver a post card or a money order. Western Union is alien and credit cards are unheard of. Credit is still untrustworthy and, to a large extent, not very respectable too.

Innovate, preserve

Most city post offices have discontinued the service of collecting telegrams as it has become unviable to maintain the service. So, if you wanted to whet your child’s curiosity about this almost relic of your past, you would probably have to go to a bigger branch, if not the General Post Office. Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), it is believed, spends more on a telegram than it earns. On an average, the cost of one telegram to BSNL is about Rs 40. It charges Rs 3.50 for a telegram of 10 words or less. The charge for each additional word is 50 paise.

In most other countries of the world, the telegram has already acquired the dinosaur status. In the UK, the telegram is promoted as a retro form of greeting and in Sweden they are delivered under the category of ‘nostalgic novelty items’. Frequently used in Japan, telegrams can be ordered online!

The typewriters are still used in the cities in courts and police stations for typing legal documents and affidavits. The advantages of typewriters in such settings would be very tough for a computer to contest. They do not require electricity or technical skills and are portable.

Jab we don’t meet

Robert Frost, in the wonderful poem ‘A Time to Talk’, writes:

WHEN a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

Technology has a way of pervading our lives in ways that our people-to-people interaction dwindles with each advancement. In small villages, the post office serves a social purpose. It is another place for meeting and interaction between people. Everyone knows everyone else and their ‘business’. We in cities prefer our closed doors.

We start to speak into our cell phones if we see a neighbour approaching so we don’t have to make a conversation. We walk our babies and dogs either talking into our cell phones or listening to music, leaving them to their own thoughts. Social interaction is confined to planned meetings. Chance encounters are discouraged and frowned upon.

It is not just the gramophone that sits in the curio corner of our houses. The CD players and music systems that played out music that the family listened to together have lost their place of pride in our lives. In fact, aren’t the days of listening to music together over? With music that can be stored, streamed in cell phones, iPods and other miniscule devices, everyone has their own music stuffed into their ears.

We don’t pick the ringing phone and exchange pleasantries with the daughter’s friend or husband’s colleague before handing it to them. We don’t know who the children’s friends are. Everyone talks with their ‘contacts’ on their own cell phones. There are more SMS exchanges between members of a family than face-to-face conversations. The mother-next-door tells me how her teenage daughter sends her SMS messages from the next room.

The great divide

These is an impressive list of the longest, largest. India has the world’s largest network of post offices; is the world’s fastest growing telecommunications industry; has the second largest telecommunication network in the world in terms of the number of wireless connections; and yet, not much of this trickles down to touch the lives of Indians living in remote, hilly and inaccessible areas. Whereas 50 per cent of the population uses the telephone in big cities, it reaches only two per cent people in villages.

What we have scored in the technology domain, we have lost due to infrastructure challenges. The hurdles of setting up the telecommunications networks in these areas are many. No electricity, no or bad access roads to isolated, far-flung and often sparsely populated areas, and low income customers. It was reported some time back that villagers from Karaj in the Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh walk 20 kilometres everyday to get their mobile phones charged! There is no electricity or proper roads in their village.

To overcome the electricity challenge, technology companies have tried to bring alternative cell phone chargers. Almost a year ago, a Mumbai firm launched a roll-on charger — one minute of manual rotation and three minutes of talk-time. But that path-breaking innovation which will catch on the fancy of the users and suit their pockets too, has been elusive.

Change is inevitable. Adapting to it is wisdom. But progress that is limited to some and creates more disparity cannot amount to much beyond figuring in the list of superlatives. The old will remain useful as long as there is use for it. As long as rural India has use for telegrams, money orders, typewriters and post offices, these will exist.

As for us, we must return to the ‘Search’ option on our laptops and share with our Facebook friends how, with the advent of mobile telephony and the internet, the iconic red telephone booths of London were sold off to be used as shower cubicles in homes! Quick, get a money order form. In two decades, you may like to frame it to display on your drawing room walls.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Mystery’s in the Mail!

By: Shefali Tripathi Mehta

Everything eventually gets IT-jacked, including your friendly neighborhood advise-auntie. The one who visited at three in the afternoon and headed straight to the bedroom to sit cross-legged on the bed with her pallu in her lap to tell you that mustard oil for bhindi and saliva for pimples work best. W3 nudged her out. Wiki, Google this and that were all a screen away. I never again rang her bell to ask exactly how many milliliters of water my indoor plant could do without.

When the doctor prescribed a treatment without sharing the diagnosis, I promptly told him that I knew it wasn't an ordinary zit but a KELOID and that though he wasn't telling me I knew already that there was no treatment for it and whatever he may try, I was doomed to live with a KELOID all life. Googled? he smiled first, Try black magic, he mocked. Very tentatively, reluctantly, I let go of googling everything that whizzed in and out of my mind. But the prompts lurking in the sidelines of the mailbox continue to tempt and tease, offering their unsolicited advice as readily as auntie. The moment I receive a new mail I look sideways at them to give me some clue about its contents. They are all but bells and whistles. It’s a game more stimulating than a migraine aura or a cryptogram.

Some are barefaced, easy to read. Like when I see ‘Free Jokes, Funny Photos, Laugh-while-you-can,’ wink and blink in the wings, I know the mail must contains words like laugh, funny, enjoy. Though it can also be from someone in the ICU moaning that though he could not note the number of the car that hit him, he would recognize the driver’s smile anywhere. If a sender as much as mentions 'author' or 'book', even if it’s in the context of 'book a case' or 'completely authored' the links beckon me to ‘First-day-five-thousand-copies-sold Publisher’ and ‘Rowling or Roy – Help with Idiom’.

If the sender writes, I’m sleepy now, ‘Top insomnia treatment’ lurks in the margins and if, I didn't get much sleep – ‘Sleep Apnea Symptoms, Sleep Devices Inc’. When someone complains that the new boss is a pain in wherever appropriate, it tells me to ‘Try Dr B….for aches and pains’! As soon as the Bank statement email comes, I am sucked into virtual tours of cruises on the Nile offering caviar foot packs and diamond under-tail clips for my pet. They may spy my mails but have problems counting the zeros.

But it’s not often that I see conclusions stretch to incongruous limits such as when after a tiff with a friend I was directed to Hindi Bhajans and Hanuman Chaalisa! The exchange had been peppered with words such as sad and angry but it wasn't a Mahabharat kind of fight, so imagine my surprise when I spied one link, though last, like an afterthought, but just in case…of Packers and Movers!! For definitely fighters must be people living under the same roof! What if one of us was contemplating moving out? No business opp should be missed. One’s world may be falling apart but logistic help is always at hand.

Then there are those that hint at the bizarre. I’m cleaning windows, I write and am promptly, in highlighted font, advised that ‘Denims may guard against rattlesnake bites’. I love Curtis Stone, I confess and in all caps it warns ‘Recipe for disaster!’ Someone was late for work, I barely read when the margin glows with ‘Govt employees rejoice’. Those two sure go together! A friend shared his anxiety about visitors at an upcoming event ‘It could be a flood or a trickle,’ he wrote and I told him to organize boats because I was being directed to ‘flood warning’. A short note on this and that and nothing much led me to ‘Are You a Fresher? Let Companies Discover Your Talent’. I sifted and strained but words it wasn't. The sender had used green font.

The friend’s mail is all bold and unread. I’m looking more at the right, trying to figure out what it may contain. Curiouser and curiouser, I click. Atta, dal, kids, maid and the husband late from work. In big bold letters the offer displays itself ‘Exp:0-5yrs, Sal: 25-100K Submit Resume’. But of course! Someone working late must need a job change.

Everything that I ever want or do not want to know at my fingertips. Smug, I log in to check my mail. ‘No new mail’ it proclaims and promptly leads me to ‘Hysterectomy Via Keyhole Surgery is Less Complicated: Study’. Auntiji!

This piece was published in The Deccan Herald, Sunday, December 5, 2010 in a horribly mutilated form.  In the name of EDITING, they BUTCHERED and knocked the punch out of it! It doesn’t even read okay! Check out: