Throughout the history of time there’s been Facebook. At first, in ancient societies, photographs were used in human social networking only to identify people. But evidence has been found that many denizens of those older cultures preferred other markers in the space for profile pictures to identify themselves as a flower, a celebrity or a cartoon character that they thought represented them.
In the initial days of Facebook, people were scared of revealing themselves.
And then, a time came when everybody started sharing pictures. Those inhibitions started receding slowly, much like the slow ebbing of a wave on the beach. Perhaps teenagers who are on Facebook nowadays can’t even remember those days.
But I can. I can remember that day on the beach.
That’s because an old photograph has resurfaced on Facebook.
I remember the picture. A photographer had been watching the beach that day looking for suitably happy-looking candidates who might want to be photographed. So the picture had turned out happy.
In the picture, my parents, my brother, and I are sitting on the sand in a lot of rushing frothy water, smiling. It was a moment, just the one moment that the photographer had captured. The receding wave, the smiles, the exuberance that we felt when immersed in the water.
City people released into a force of nature.
The photographer’s selling point had been that we wouldn’t have to wait the mandatory 2-3 days before we got the prints as in the case of the other usual pictures.
True enough, the moment he took the picture, there was a whirring sound from the camera and the picture, which was a piece of stiff special paper, came out of the camera with the picture on one glossy side and all shiny black on the reverse with a little white border at the bottom on the side the picture was on.
Both instant and coloured!
Little did I know that those colours would be running out and staining the white border in later years when exposed to heat and maybe moisture even inside an album.
And that I would be sitting one afternoon in a small town in California, scanning that picture in a spic and span university computer lab all bleached white, sanitized, Apple keyboards and slim, white Mac computers in strange contrast to that photograph with runny colours and uploading it to something called Facebook.
I can’t remember the place where the beach was though.
So I captioned it “Puri or Digha”– the two most common destinations on the Bay of Bengal the quintessential Bengali travelled to those days from Calcutta for a vacation after taking a cab to Esplanade in centre city and then starting on a long bus ride. If it was Digha.
If I assume it was Digha, I have to remember the music we were subjected to that day from the terribly loud speakers in the bus full to capacity. The song was one and the same over and over again from a popular Bengali mainstream movie wild horses couldn’t have dragged us to ordinarily. Our intellectually elitist selves were caught captive in the same loop for several hours. Prem korechi besh korechi korboi to/ Ting Tinga Ting, Ting Tinga Ting, Ting Tinga Ting [I've loved/ Of course I have/ I shall if I want to. The subsequent Ting Tinga Ting was an onomatopoeic assault on the senses that defies translation.]
Or perhaps it was Puri. If I assume it was Puri, it would be an overnight train journey then, lying down on the top berth, under the blue night light with the rhythm of the train doing koo jhik jhik, koo jhik jhik all night long as in our childhood songs (Not really. Steam engines had stopped when I was a child. I’m not that old). The meal, a major attraction for me would come in partitioned stainless steel plates covered with warm aluminium foil with egg curry, rice and salad inside.
So I uploaded the picture to Facebook last year and it disappeared into oblivion soon enough.
But yesterday, for some reason, a school friend from Mumbai, India “liked” it on her midnight romps around Facebook sometime while it was a cloudy mid-day for me here in New York, USA.
The beach picture rode up the waves of Facebook’s algorithms somehow and kept rising and soon there was a comment.
“This must be Puri and you guys must have stayed at the BNR Hotel.”
This from a cousin in Kharagpur, India, 1,832 kms from Mumbai.
“Oh no”! My brother’s immediate comment from Calcutta, India (131 kms from Kharagpur according to Google). “We never stayed at BNR.”
That never nudged long lost memories of childish voices in my head. “We never plan our vacations. We never go anywhere. Why do we always start planning right when my school holidays are over?”
In minutes, a calm voice now from another cousin in Jacksonville, Florida. “Nice pic.” No matter where or what, the picture is so nice, I think. My parents look so young.
Very soon, an avalanche of “like,” “like,” “like,” “like” started being showered on that year-old picture on Facebook. A host of other people from Singapore, the Netherlands, the UK, even a professor from Florida. My school friends (high school, middle school, and ones before are all rolled into one for us in India.), college friends, old neighbours, new acquaintances and others who had little or nothing to do with any of this were “liking” it, perhaps spending a moment fondly surprised at my childish adolescent face that they’d never seen before.
One effect of being so globally scattered is that no one ever sleeps anywhere. Some one of our fragmented (if not shattered) friends’ circles is always there on the ‘net. Someone is always awake to click that “like” button.
Hundreds of group photographs have emerged in the past few months in faded colours or off-balanced tones. Children sitting on benches with serious faces around pretty Kindergarten teachers, some uncharacteristically quiet while mischievous others with faces averted from the camera (who have grown up to become serious IT professionals or professors or homemakers), hardly recognizable but for their tags.
These photographs are accompanied by hundreds of comments from the scattered members of those classes about those days, those teachers, those school uniforms, those Teachers’ days, those May queens to testify to the fact that simply through those comments people would like to keep those days alive and recreate those old spaces by re-tracing them on Facebook. Those school corridors, those school bus lines, that alookabliwallah at the school door (spiced potato vendor?), that school prank in History class .
Some, now living in the US for many years have even superimposed present lingo on those old memories, consciously or subconsciously, calling school-leaving parties school proms, life in class 9-12 as days in high school and the May queens as Prom queens. Many have been shifting slowly, but surely, from memories structured through the English language from the old empire to the brand new.On Mothers’ Day, a host of other pictures resurfaced from friends’ posts. These are even older, black and white images where well-dressed young women in sarees hold infants in their arms.
When we were youngsters, there had hardly been an occasion (or desire) when we would go to someone’s place and look up their old albums with their infant pictures in their mother’s arms. But now, all of a sudden, these pictures are for everybody to see.
Suddenly, a “Bose Auntie” from next door who had been middle-aged all her life for us, or our serious female college professor ABC-di, or our acquaintance’s grandmother whom we hardly knew emerged as young, slightly self-conscious, sometimes fatigued women in front of the camera in black and white with our infant friends in their arms looking just that, the young women that they never were to us as kids all through the time when we knew them.
Suddenly, it’s as though we’re faced with ourselves in black and white on Facebook in a world where the adults are no longer adults but just human.
Another phenomenon has occurred in recent months as one continues to grow older. Long lost friends have emerged after many years. Lost chunks of years lost in the middle in a way they never could have been had we scattered around the same city, or even the same country perhaps.
But this is the globe.
These friends have posted pictures of themselves with other little faces beside them now. Little faces on Facebook feeds that strike you as flashes from the past, (replicas of faces you remember walking back from school through the serpentine lanes of Calcutta), celebrating Diwali, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Id, Durga Puja, National Day of Singapore, Indian Independence Day, American Independence Day, Tulip Festival, Ganapati festival, Science festival holding the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramid or the Washington Monument in their hand.
Millions of pictures.
Coming face to face on Facebook with those children makes you think about the past, the future, continuity, life renewing itself.
But as you grow older, they also make you think of mortality.
For you notice that one set of faces have been steadily growing older, taking the shape of those faces in the old days that would greet you when you dropped in at your friend’s place on your way back from school. The “auntie” behind the face would always have a glass of cool lime sherbet in hand ready for you.
Except that the girl who would be skipping along with you now is that “auntie” with the sherbet. It is the little person beside her on Facebook which is carelessly throwing the water bottle in the corner in a rush to get out of that school uniform. That face wasn’t there then. It is here now.
In some cases, the original “auntie” of the old days with the sherbet in hand is only an old photograph now (returning over and over again on Facebook as people notice and “like” and comment from time to time refusing to let you forget).
What will happen to our millions and millions of pictures that people have been clicking all over the planet now and putting up on Facebook and Twitter and a gazillion other social networking sites?
I’ve seen pictures with the exact same pose and the exact same smile and the exact same dress in multiple shots, unedited, uncut, uploaded almost like reality itself. What will happen to our now pandemic desire to document every fleeting moment and uploading it into the world so it’s never lost, never forgotten?
Will our pictures turn up after a hundred years in some researcher’s curious search on some descendant of Google’s search box in a paper on social networking sites in the early twenty first century? Will a thoughtful government keep an archive of lives and people and photographs in an electronic museum?
Will a curious artist chance upon my smiling beach picture someday and use it to decorate an inconsequential corner of a collage somewhere with a caption in a language not yet born? Or will these millions of moments all disappear into oblivion, incompatible with devices of the future losing out to even cave paintings of the past failing to commemorate our lives effectively?
It’s amazing what the internet has done for us and what it has taken away returning memories we did not know we had and pointing to the present as potential memory soon to be lost.
No idle speculation by a Bengali is complete without a quote from Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore. Moreover, thanks to our collective knowledge on the internet, there is no shadow of a poem imperfectly remembered that cannot be immediately perfected by a quick Google search.
So here is a poem by Tagore, written in 1896, mostly lost in translation. And the formatting is gone:
The Year 1400
A hundred years from today
who are you, sitting, reading a poem of mine,
under curiosity’s sway -
a hundred years from today?
Not the least portion
of this young spring’s morning bliss,
neither blossom nor birdsong,
nor any of its scarlet splashes
can I drench in passion
and despatch to your hands
a hundred years hence!
Yet do this, please: unlatch your south-faced door,
just sit at your window for once;
basking in fantasy, eyes on the far horizon,
figure out if you can:
how one day a hundred years back
roving delights in a free fall from a heavenly region
had touched all that there was -
the infant Phalgun day, utterly free,
was frenzied, all agog,
while borne on brisk wings, the south wind
had suddenly arrived and in a flash dyed the earth
with all youth’s hues
a hundred years before your day.
There lived then a poet, ebullient of spirit,
his heart steeped in song,
who wanted to open his words like so many flowers
with so much passion
one day a hundred years back.
A hundred years from today
who is the new poet
whose songs flow through your homes?
To him I convey
this springtime’s gladsome greetings.
May my vernal song find its echo for a moment
in your spring day
in the throbbing of your hearts, in the buzzing of your bees,
in the rustling of your leaves
a hundred years from today.
Translated by Ketaki Kushari Dyson. Obtained from parabas.com
(The original formatting is lost in copying.)