Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Tryst with Technology

Yesterday, CNNIBN ran this news capsule on how technology is causing unprecedented harm to the health of Indians. Horror stories of how Highflying Harshad became Hunchbacked Harshad because he was spending too much time peering at his computer. People have had their wrists injured, corneas damaged, finger tips numbed, all because of technology.

As the news changed to: “Who are the invitees for the AbhiAsh wedding? A CNNIBN exclusive!”, I jabbed at the mute button hastily and leaned back to think of my jousts with technology.

Now I am a pretty smart devil when it comes to technology. I know my way around the pods and stations of the world. I am quite nifty with the computer. And at no time do I look like an ostrich whose head has been unceremoniously yanked out of the sand when some new technology enters my life. I pretty much rush up and do the proverbial embrace to every new bit of miracle that those little chips conjure up.

Having said that, there are some pretty deep scars that technology has left in my life. Not the physical kind, but the emotional kind. And emotional scars are far more terrible than discovering one day that your right palm is now a claw because of the way you type.

I think it started with the phone in the house. I was all of six. A bundle of joy and energy. My life used to revolve around my precious rubber ball. It was a blue colored thing, available in every corner shop of Calcutta and quite inexpensive because of the high rate of attrition. I would fling the ball in various directions and then run behind it in the manner of a dumb mutt to retrieve it.

Slowly, I progressed to the game of catch. The idea was to fling it at the wall and then catch it. Simple game, immensely engaging and kept me out of everyone’s way.

On one fateful monsoon evening, my date with the wall was cancelled because of the rain. I was locked in. So I decided to use the bedroom walls for practice. After about ten minutes, my Mom walked in and seeing the wall dotted all over with the marks of blue rubber, spluttered and shrieked something like “What are you doing”.

I, on my part gave her an expression, which if you were to see in any comic book would be accompanied with a thought blast that said “Doink?” I could see no ambiguity in what I was doing and was rather surprised by my Mom’s utter failure to wrap her mind around it.

Of course things turned ugly soon. I realized that my Mom’s question was not based on lack of comprehension, but rather on incredulous shock at my cretin like behavior. I will not delve into the cursing, the chasing and the whacks on the butt and me calling my Mom a witch. The upshot of all the above was that my blue ball was confiscated and I was grounded for a week.

Now when you are a six year old with a smarting butt, you don’t think too clearly. I was convinced that I was wronged, and I needed intervention to set things right. I wanted justice, right here, right now. I also needed to overturn that ‘grounded for week’ sentence.

In my infinite wisdom I decided to call my Dad. I would use the phone to fight for my rights. This new technology would put my Mom, the tyrant, in her rightful place. That was my deep belief.

I picked up the phone and turned the dial with the anger and purpose of a consumer who has just received an inflated power bill. Of course, unlike the consumer, I was bawling uncontrollably. Bengali Mom’s have immensely powerful forearms and when they swing it with anger on the tender derriere of a six year old, it hurts like hell!

After three rings, my Dad picked up. What followed was this: The English translation is in the brackets:

Dad: Hello?
Me: (bawling) Amaar ball nei! (I have no ball)
Stunned silence on the other side
Dad: Hello?? Eta ke? (Who is this?)
Me: (bawling harder and hiccupping) Aami! Amaar ball niye niyechche! (Me! My ball has been taken away)
Dad: Shome!!?? Ke niyechche? Ki ball? (Who has taken it? What ball?!)
Me: Ma! Blue Ball!
Dad: Kaar Ma? (Who’s Mom?)
Me: ~my voice laced with spite~ Amaar ma, tomar bou! (My Mom, your wife!)
Long stunned silence
Dad: ~unusually stern voice~ Ma ke phone de. (Give the phone to Mom)

I called out to my Mom, feeling happier. She is going to get it now, my mind cackled with glee. The man in the house will reverse the sentence and my ball, pride, and freedom will be restored.

I was in love with the telephone. Dial-for-distress! What an invention! Superb technology.

Mom came in with her eyes wide and asked with a quivering voice who I had called. I thrust the phone in her hands and stood back, a warm feeling of retribution, sweeping my mind and body.

What followed was a very crisp and short conversation. I didn’t catch too much of it. Mom whispered something, and I could hear my Dad’s voice loudly from the other side. It has begun, I thought. The wheels of justice will soon crush the spirit of this saaree clad dictator.

Mom kept the phone down and I held my hand out, expecting the ball to be gingerly placed back on my hand. Mom looked at me with the eyes of a tribal chief who was on the verge of announcing a purge on the renegade rival tribe and hissed, “Baba bolechche je jeeboney abaar phone korle tor haath bhenge debe!” (Dad has said that if you call him up in your life again, he will break your hands). She swirled and left in the direction of the kitchen and I was left standing there, ready to wet my pants at the thought of my broken arms.

To say that I was in shock and terror is an understatement. The telephone had actually worsened things. My Mom and Dad had ganged up against me. My blue ball was gone forever as far as I was concerned, and I was still grounded for a week. Plus my hands were in real danger of getting snapped at the wrists. For a six year old, it was the end of the universe.

It was not until college that I actually called my Dad at office again (to tell him that I had cleared the IIFT entrance). That one incident had shaken my confidence on telephones and their utility in complaint resolution very badly. Even today, I much prefer to hop across or call the person over and complain in person, rather than lift the phone and crib. Technology had not only isolated and terrorized me, it had changed the way I complain forever.

Then there was the TV incident… but that is another story.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The lights dim and the drums roll..

My first steps in cyberspace were way back in early 1997. It was a very different experience then. It was a time of desktops with wires connected to a modem which in turn was connected to a landline from where you would dial one VSNL number (each city had one or at best two lines) and pray to god, harder than you had on the day before your Maths exam in Class X, that you get connected.

What followed, after clicking on a grey button that said “Connect”, was an audio-visual nightmare. The modem would start screeching like a pig about to be slaughtered. The dialogue box would change to show you two telephones (1980 style land line instruments) connected asymmetrically through a wire, and a red square cursor like thing, frantically moving from one phone to the other over the wire. The noise and the scurrying ‘Red Box’ was meant to tell you that your pass is getting checked in the Heavenly Gates of the Internet.

More often than not, you would hear the blood freezing, deathly "engaged" tone, which meant try again. And again, and again, and again, and again. Till suddenly, just when you are ready to yank out the wires from the modem and hang yourself, you get connected. The screeching pig would make a strange hiccupping cluck-cluck noise and you were in! The world was at your fingertips.

This was during my MBA days. The internet was used by us- aspiring corporate captains of tomorrow- mainly for two reasons: porn and personal email. Google was not there (Yahoo! ruled that time) and the closest thing to Wikipedia was a Tamilian Brahmin in the senior batch (he knew everything about everything basically). Using the internet as a research tool started only in the dying months of my course there.

It’s in the genetic code of human beings to start carving out and appropriating personal spaces every time new ‘land’ is discovered. On the internet, it came in the form of personal email.

Having an email ID that time was a matter of prestige. It was not at all common place. When you said, “send me an email”, you made a statement about yourself. You were seen to be cool, connected and viewed with the same envy and awe as the guys who will be the first off the block to buy the i-phone. It was a big event, getting your email ID created.

My love affair with the net started with an email ID too. Hotmail was the poshest domain name. And not getting the name that you wanted as your ID was an alien concept. So in 1997, was created. I added my age 23 to the name so that I never forget the year when this momentous event happened.

I remember the delight that I experienced when I got my own email ID. And when MSN wrote their first mail to me addressed as “Dear Shome_23”, I almost creamed in my pants. I was suddenly a part of a different world. An elite, if you please. A man with an identity.

I told everyone about my email ID. Friends, family, shop keepers, credit card pushers, free news letters on the net, web sites that promised me daily updates, everyone. I wanted the whole world to know that shome_23 has arrived and willing to correspond with like minded ‘haves’ of the world.

Slowly of course the excitement withered away. The only real mail I got was from my room mate, who was so fed up with my constant follow up on whether he remembers my mail ID or not, wrote me a nasty mail:

“Dear Shome,
If you ask me one more time I will wring your neck. Fuck you!”

I was shocked to say the least. I thought that the “Fuck you” at the end was completely uncalled for. He had already made his point.

My parents tried. They wrote my email ID on regular mail, under the full postal address and sent it. They also mentioned in the sheets of letter that I should let them know if I got this letter ‘faster’!

Things further degenerated, as mails on “Young teens are waiting for you” started flooding in followed by mails on “Enlarge your penis – Safely and Permanently”. Soon my coveted ID was cobweb ridden and neglected. I started to go to my mail box, only to delete the junk and keep it running. The thought of letting my first email ID die a natural death was just too cruel.

To this day, I maintain that account. I still get mails on “You have won $100,000” or “These girls like it rough”, but I don’t care. Occasionally a lost friend uses it to re-establish contact and sometimes, I click on my archives to re-read all the 7 mails from MSN and other portals that I got on the first day shome_23 was created.

Today, I am opening another first: my blog. The portal to my world…..for the world.

I feel the same kind of excitement as I did when shome_23 was born. And I know that I am going to be as obsessed, if not more, with this thing. I have visions of people rushing in to read my thoughts and commentary on the affairs of the world. I know none of that is going to happen on its own. I will have to push and prod you people. So get ready for follow up sms.

Few things: I am doing this for an audience. Not as a vent for my thoughts and feelings (I have wife and friends for that). So please comment copiously. This is for you.

Secondly, I am very poor with criticism. If you don’t like something, lie through your teeth. Honest, constructive feedback does not work for me. I will come after you, and I will hurt you.

And last, tell your friends about this place.

With that, I step aside and draw the curtains. Welcome to my world!