Saturday, December 29, 2012

The mobile is the master

(Published in The Hindu 23-12-12 Open Page)

There is no doubt. The mobile is the master

Link - 


It is so irritating. As soon as you start concentrating on an important work, it rings. However melodious or sacred the ringtone, the immediate thoughts are sacrilegious. You ignore it thinking you’ll call later, but it is persistent. The person at the other end is desperate to talk to you at that very moment; afraid like Browning — “Who knows but the world may end tonight?”
One has to have a yogic nonchalance to disregard it. Three continuous calls and forcing yourself out of obstinacy, you pick up the phone, only to hear the caller informing you of the latest insurance policy! You switch the damn thing off and, in a couple of hours, people start calling on phones of the family members to enquire if everything was all right and, finding it so, disapprove of the phone being switched off. They can’t bear to be denied the right to talk to you whenever they feel like.
Speaking is our national pastime and the ever-reducing call-rates have only given a fillip to this voluble nation. No wonder, distribution of free cellphones has become one of the most important issues for our welfare government.
Mobile telephony is only a decade and half old. We could only wonder in our teens if it was possible to walk and talk. Our first glimpses of the cellphone were during the Sharjah matches, where the Sheikhs and the rich and famous moved around talking in the stadium. We crammed its theory for the Science and Technology section of the General Studies paper in the Civil Services Exams. And then, in the late 1990s, it was here, in our part of the world.
It was a costly possession, though. Not only making but even taking a call cost money. The handsets were big like walkie-talkies. As the call rates lowered a bit, people vied with one another for it and queued for hours for the sim card. Brandishing more than one phone was the symbol of importance and, during conversations, people would try to insinuate somehow that they possessed a cellphone.
But times have changed and how! As the cellphones spread to the hoi polloi, divulging the number only to the select few or, sometimes, not even keeping one is slowly becoming the fad among the higher-ups in the social echelons. Even the instrument has changed so much. Far from being a mere talking and texting tool, the cellphone has replaced the watch, calculator, compass, camera, radio, play-station, the desktop computer ... On the basis of its features, the contraption being a phone seems only incidental; some phones are so advanced that coaching centres might be set up in future to teach how to use the instrument.
Cellphones have become intrinsic to our lives but also are a big nuisance. As an article in The New York Times pointed out, they are leading to “inattentional blindness”, i.e., people look at their surroundings as they talk on their cellphones but do not register their presence. The abbreviated language not only suits the byte limitation of texting but is also contributing its own bit to lessening our span of attention.
The CUG phone that government officials are given are not to be switched off. Of course, one does marvel at the growth of awareness of rights among our people when one has to receive calls about seemingly the most trivial issues at the most unearthly hours, but there are times when the complaint/demand is so frivolous that one is tempted to hide oneself in the deepest dungeon, away from all networks.
Once my phone used to ring about 2 a.m. every morning, but I could never answer the call as by the time I woke up and picked it up, the machine would go off. On getting reprimanded by the higher-ups that I did not attend to calls, I stayed awake that night.
The caller turned out to be an important political personality of the district who was holidaying in Australia. How angry he was for my not attending to his calls? How dare I be so indifferent to a jan-pratinidhi ? When my profuse apologies cooled him down he spoke about that ‘important’ work — a local club wanted to hold a cricket tournament and I was to be of all help to them!
Throughout my school days my report cards bore the sentence — ‘Very talkative in class,’ but cellphones have cured me of verbal diarrhoea; rather, the latest allergens.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Viral fever and regal solitude

(published in HT 'EXPRESSIONS SPACE' 16-11-12)

The mercury dipping towards normal in the thermometer did not gladden me. The last few days had been of enviable pleasure. I could lie in bed for as long as I liked. No alarms and missed calls rang early in the morning for the badminton courts.
  I was freed of my duty to get my five-year-old ready for school. Instead, I would ensconce myself on an armchair on my terrace which overlooks a lawn with flowering plants, bushes and a few trees.
Accompanied by mugs of hot tea, I was able to read the whole newspapers, down to the ‘tenders’ space; the only disturbance being the chirping of birds. I had all the time in the world.
  How luxurious it felt to be in total oblivion of the mundane world of everyday. I was dead to the hum-drum of the office, the never- ending complaints, the ominous files in which what is left unsaid in the ‘noting’ is of far greater relevance than what is expressly written.
  The obnoxious cellphone was mostly kept switchedoff and nobody complained. It was, however, occasionally switched on to read ‘get-well’ messages and to feel flattered by the enquiries made after my health.It’s so comforting to know that there are a few in this wide selfish world who do spare a thought for you.
  Yes, I was down with viral fever – the common one, not the one that has been in the news recently and which is so potent that it sends shivers down the whole neighborhood, along with the platelets in the patient.
Though this common fever does have its own set of troubles — painful throat, body ache and, a weak digestive system — at times it is welcome; perhaps because one gets all these symptoms nevertheless every evening by the time office hours are over.
   In our schooldays, it would give us a break from the dreariness of the school and, for office-goers it makes available a respite from the drudgery of the office.Those related to medicine for their living welcome its arrival for obvious reasons, but a friend recounted an interesting one related to his childhood spent in a small town of the 70s. In those times the sliced bread and glucose biscuits were a rare delicacy in mofussil towns and, since its partaking was invariably advised by the doctors during flu, its delectation made the kids desirous of getting a bout!
  In a couple of days I shall be taking up my responsibilities again.The slight weakness and cough will also be gone in another few days but, for long shall linger that indescribable feeling of comfort during the week I was down with flu rightly described as ‘ regal solitude’ by Charles Lamb.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Of content and context - HT 24-06-12

Of content and context

Content and Context

Information for its own sake mere is a bane of textbooks. A recent report in the local press told us that the Civics Book of Class 6, in a reputed public school in Allahabad , mentions the term of office of a mayor as one year, though it is five years in all the districts of U.P. The information is not incorrect; it’s only that it is out of context for a student in U.P.; it is of course all right for one in a metro. Learning is becoming a casualty in information explosion. Just sample this question from the G.K. book of class 1, my child was mugging up – “Can you name a famous cartoon movie which is about a fish?”  Impressive for a child to know the answer isn’t it!

   Book writing is both an art and science and, so is the prescription of the correct one for the kids. The writer has to be aware for whom he is writing – the age and the milieu. The experience of a teacher in a Government school in a resettlement colony in Delhi , published in the Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE), is pertinent- “The curriculum, for its part, is drastically at variance with the life these children live. By focusing on upper- middle class experiences, it further alienates them from the world of knowledge. They are simply unable to relate to the finer subtleties of birthday parties, balanced diets, family holiday, or multistoried homes. Being a teacher of English, I have come to realize that the curriculum is utterly incomprehensible to these underprivileged children.” It has also been my experience, during the training sessions of the teachers  posted in the rural schools in U.P, that many references in our texts like 'fireplace', 'mantelpiece' (in the chapter on ‘Our  Home’) and, the activities such as 'camping', 'hiking', 'fishing', evoke questioning glances not only by the pupil but, also by the teachers.  Similarly, the references to 'Santa Claus' and, 'basketball' as 'our favourite game’, is found difficult by the teachers to relate to and explain.

  Since language is embedded in culture, it is in the course of learning English that the cultural interference is clearly felt. Culture and communication are intertwined and it determines how people encode messages, the meanings they have for messages and, how they get interpreted.  For instance, as different from the West, in our country,  a teacher or elder is not addressed by his name/surname, instead, family friends are identified through some relationship – 'Uncle', 'Aunty', 'Chacha', 'Mama' etc. and, in Hindi, there are two different ways of addressing an elder and the younger – 'Aap' (for former) and 'Tum' (for younger). Associative contexts in which a word is used in a place might evoke a different understanding of that word. The word 'darling', I remember, raised shy smiles among us when a teacher addressed a student lovingly by this term. As 10 years old we had heard it being used in the Hindi films in only one connotation. The various nuances of meaning given to the word ‘sexy’, ranging from obscenity to aesthetics, are only a matter of one’s cultural environs. Just imagine the reaction of Shakespeare’s beloved on hearing the sonnet- ‘Shall I compare thee to the summer’s day’, had her experience of summer was only of the Indian plains

published in HT Lko 24-6-12

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Requiem for the good ol’ television set

Requiem for the good ol’ television set  

As I turned around to go out of the shop my eyes fell on it. It was lying in a heap, amidst others of its ilk, in a corner. I suddenly felt very bad. I had come to this electronic shop to exchange my old portable TV for a new one. It had been with us for the last fourteen years – our first colour TV. It was through it we had made our acquaintance with the cable revolution. While I had my dose of news analysis, necessary for my Civil Services examinations, from the news channels, my parents had their fill of the family sagas and religious discourses from it. The number of channels then was limited and the twenty programme capacity of the TV set was sufficient. With the growth in the number of channels down the years the set’s features started seeming to be small. But the thought of a replacement was still far off as we were not very voracious TV watchers. With time however, its age began showing. It would get switched off by itself, the colours would leave the screen or the sound would get muted for small moments. The TV mechanic’s visits gained in frequency. As my infant turned into a toddler, the TV’s remote became his favorite toy, rendering it unfit for any control of the set. One had to go to the TV set to give it any command. When I heard about this exchange offer I decided to avail myself of it. And here was I getting the new big TV set packed.
   That, a lifeless common thing as an old TV set can raise the feelings of an attachment, had never crossed my mind. I felt hurt seeing the way it had been shoved in a dusty corner. “It is of no use to us Sir”, I heard the salesman telling a prospective customer who had come to exchange his electronic good. “For us it is all scrap and the offer is just to enable buyers to move to better electronic goods”. It saddened me and I felt like telling the salesman that mine was still in a working condition and that it deserved a better treatment. The thought of taking it back with me crossed my mind but, before my emotions could have the better of my decision, I immediately moved out of the shop.
   “Didn’t it feel bad the way our TV set was lying in a heap of disused TV sets?” my wife commented as we drove away from the shop. With a lump in my throat I could only nod in affirmation.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Rain Rain go away
Poor farmers seem to pray
As the crop on fields lay
For the harvest as they sway. :-(

( wrote this impromptu as the rains came lashing in Allahabad on 12-4-12 and the thought of the wheat crop lying in the open in the farms came to my mind)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Soliloquy ( For the Teachers and Parents to hear)

Though about 30 years have elapsed when I was a primary level kid, I seem to remember so much of then. The names of the teachers who were specially attentive to me are engraved in the memory. Of course, I was kid and didn’t notice that they were lovingly attentive to each one of the class! I remember so well my exhilaration at the pats on the back and, a resolve to prepare the next lesson more thoroughly for more such pats. How I hated it whenever my performance was measured in terms of the achievement of others in my age group – and that too before others. These grown ups! How would they all feel if their weaknesses are discussed before their friends? They laughed at me when I said that an apple is of white colour. Come on just cut it up and won’t you find that the most of it is white? Yes, yes I wasn’t conforming to fixed standards but didn’t I have logic? They glared at me when I replied that “mangoes are found in the shop”. I was made to learn that they are found on trees; though, till then, I had seen them only in vegetable-shops to which I had accompanied at times with my father. It was only later that I found them to be correct when I saw them hanging on the trees. The reminiscences can go on and on but my only request is to please do not forget your own childhood and, love a child for what it is – a child.


Skand Shukla

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Whispering Forties

Whispering Forties

As the tongue longs for taste buds-titillating delicacies, the heart says tut-tut. The insurance agent then puts forth medical policies, gently insinuating that now's the age when a medical check-up every six months is a must - and one never knows what they may throw up! The reminder of age irritates a bit but, as soon as you try to adjust the distance of the brochure to read the fine print, it strikes you that the prospect of wearing reading glasses is not so distant.

The grey had started showing in a few strands a couple of years back and we had got used to being addressed as 'uncle' by pretty young lasses. But, suddenly, colouring hair - the few patches that have remained, that is - seems to be the only option to ward off being similarly addressed by those in their early thirties. Our daily brisk walks (which have replaced strenuous sport) only accentuate the passage of time since we were young. We look askance at young couples who, oblivious to the world, are lost in their sweet-nothings. More than two decades have passed since we ourselves were in the same romantic mood, unaware of the realities of the world and times ahead. In that era without cellphones and internet, we made anonymous calls on the landline just to hear 'her' voice, checked the air in the cycle tubes or petrol in the scooter to keep pace with her, got palpitations while exchanging lecture notes and created unspoken rendezvous of the spots frequented by her. That's when we would have gladly given our lives for that one furtive glance from her.

No, it's not thanks to the 'naughty forties' syndrome that these thoughts recur. Rather, the term itself is a misnomer because naughtiness is an everlasting attribute, but it's only in the forties that it starts getting noticed and earns the disapproval of society. By 40, one is supposed to be too mellowed by life to indulge in romantic musings and hence the frowns.

It's when, instead of attending boisterous gatherings, you seek quiet meetings with like-minded companions. It's only now that poet Wordsworth's lines in Tintern Abbey become starkly clear. They trace so eloquently the growth of an individual focussing on "an appetite; a feeling and a love,/ That had no need of a remoter charm,/ By thought supplied, nor any interest/ Unborrowed from the eye" to a person who matures "hearing oftentimes/ The still, sad music of humanity" that is "of ample power/ To chasten and subdue". Apply those words written in homage to nature to romance instead, and these are times when romance gradually subsides, leaving behind the essence of love.

Nevertheless, the icing on the 40th birthday cake doesn't seem too inviting. After all, the calorie meter starts ticking in the mind immediately. In fact, birthdays are not awaited as eagerly as before. Perhaps that's because they remind us of time left rather than times to come. Then again, our worldview seems to change too. We seem to lose that fearlessness and crass individuality which marked our thoughts and actions. We take decisions not for ourselves alone but give a thought to all related. We start adopting things and practices once considered irritating and restricting - from mundane helmets and seat belts to the sublime heart, home and hearth.

It`s only in geography - the Southern Hemisphere - that we have the "Roaring Forties"; in life, the forties whisper. Life tells us it's time to pause and plan, to take account not only of finances but also of relationships - and that we ought to calculate only when it comes to savouring a cake, not human relationships.