My friend from MBA days had started up something on his own. I was excited. We wanted to speak to each other and discuss what was happening with our lives.

He messaged that he would call me in the evening. When he called, I was driving. I promised to call back once home. But when I remembered, it was already 9.30 pm and I wasn’t comfortable calling him at that “late hour”. Late not as much for a corporate professional staying in a metro as for a teaching professional in Bhubaneswar who has a kid that goes to school at 7 am!

Next day (it was a working day) I messaged him if I could call. He didn’t respond. When he called, I was about to go to a meeting and thought it was better if we waited for a “proper time” without any meetings on the horizon so that we could talk at length.

When I called him that night, he was ten minutes away from getting into a conference call. So, I, without trying to steal a few minutes before his con-call began, or insisting that we speak for a few moments anyway, chose to disconnect the phone after promising to call back sometime later. I didn’t want to be guilty of disturbing him before the call whose importance I didn’t know.

That “sometime later” came after about three weeks, because we kept on messaging each other trying to schedule our call, trying to find each other’s “free time”. These were trying times for two mobile phone owners, who apparently could press a button and talk to each other.

Unfortunately, when our “free” graphs finally intersected after running parallel to each other for a painful length of time, my friend got a surprise visitor. Realizing the intensity of our efforts for a good part of the last month to speak to each other, he was profusely apologetic. Obviously, we couldn’t talk. That day late in the afternoon when I was just about to wake my little kid sleeping peacefully on the front passenger seat of my car, to lift him off on to the barber’s revolving chair (with a handy plank for raising small kids to eye level), he called. I cursed under my breath. Out of the all the time available in the day, why did he choose this, when I have to play games with my kid and tell him stories to keep his head straight and his arms non-fidgety while the perspiring barber fights against time to finish the hair-cutting?

The next day was a working day. Screw working days, I told myself. You pee on a working day. You eat and shit on a working day. A two minute call won’t take one’s job away. I called him bang in the middle of the day, something I almost never do with my “busy” friends. We had a chat for a couple of minutes before a few pairs of eyes appeared through the unfrosted slit of my cabin’s glass door. These were my students, waiting for their professor to finish his talk. I disconnected the phone, happy that we spoke finally!

 

What an irony it is. What has been invented for talking is also a wonderful device for not talking. You can get away with a text when you need to call. You can hold the phone to the ear to fake a call and get away with a glance (or behave as if you didn’t notice) when you need to greet. As we mature as mobile users, we devise ways to do away with all kinds of calls, or rather anything that requires human interaction. No calls to customer care. No calls to the neighbourhood restaurant. No calls to the cabbie. The kirana store. No, we don’t want to speak to anyone. Give us a screen. A few taps are all that we need.

These days, when I receive calls, it always starts with “Are you busy?”, even on the weekends. To me it seems as if we have lost our right to disturb someone. To gently intrude into someone’s personal space. Attachment gives rights; detachment removes. As we drift away from each other’s lives while staying supposedly “connected” through comments and likes, we have gradually lost our right over others. We can’t drop unannounced even at a neighbour or a relative. We can’t call without messaging first. When I look at the old messages on my Facebook or Whatsapp, I see that it’s littered with “What’s your number? Let’s talk sometime” or “Baat karte hain kabhi“. The Facebook messages are followed by phone number exchanges, and on Whatsapp by silence, fossilized by layers of messages that lie on top of them, drawing my attention to other “important” things. Such as a joke on Rahul baba.

I decide that if I ask for a number, I will call. For birthdays of friends, for something pleasant or unpleasant, for good news like a baby being born or a wedding on cards, I won’t satisfy myself with just a message. I will call. And if I call someone, I won’t seek a time. If he/she is really busy, either my call won’t be picked up or I will be told about it. Because one can be as busy or as free as one likes. Our free time expands to make us busy and our busy time shrinks to make us free.

I won’t reduce my existence to taps on screens. Because text (or even the emoticons) is dead emotion transported in a digital coffin. I would rather hear the sound of someone’s breath and feel alive!

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