It was probably the year 2001 and I was checking my email in a computer lab in a school in Florida trying to concentrate amidst the loud noise that the dot matrix printers were making on the aisle (which were the only printers completely free for students then although laser ones did exist).
I was checking an email that had the following subject line:
INFORMATION RECEIVED. ACTION TAKEN.
All on the subject line with no body. Like Nearly Headless Nick in Harry Potter carrying a message. Or rather like his Bengali folklore version, the scarier talking Kaata Mundu (all head, no body) which might appear right outside your dark window on a stormy night in horror stories.
Lest you think I was leading some international underworld gang on global contraband and the email was from them, you will be sadly disappointed.
This was my dad in Calcutta. I had requested him to look for a dentist for my impending visit home when I thought I’d get my teeth checked from a trusted place.
By this email, I understood that he had checked out the web page of a dental facility as I had asked him to (pretty rare, those days for healthcare facilities to have web pages BTW).
Sometimes, I would see other emails my friends would receive from the older generation that went something like this:
[Those of you who are unaware of this, Indians often have two names, one a formal one with some complex meaning and a second one which could be anything from Dolly or Molly to Rinku or Chintu or even Baby or Khoka (small boy), clearly named under the certainty at birth that the moaning infant would stay so for the rest of his life.]
Anyway. The email.
To: Shantanu Chakravorty
From: Pratyush Kumar Chakravorty (common account for both parents in father’s name)
It has COME TO MY ATTENTION THAT YOU, Rintu, haVE noT been eating nutritous fOOd enough for your mid-day meals. Please make sure you have at least ONE GLASS OF MILK A DAY. FurtherMORE, the colD draFTS on rainY days in Florida might be a diRE taxation on your head and neck region outdoors. PLease make sure that you WRAP said head with woolen scarf I bought from Gariahat and sent you with your Auntie Molly last Summer. I saW picturE that you mailed last week at Yosemite. WHy are you not wearing scarf on that cold mountaintop? Yosemite looks COLD like Darjeeling.
WiTH love and bLEssings,
P.S.: I made milk payesh yesterday and thought HOW GOOD IT WOULD BE if you were here.
Mothers, as always, adapted to newer things faster and better than fathers, especially when communicating with their children far away. They were less afraid to admit to technophobia, if they had any, or more okay with asking for help at the computer centres. So many mothers, those days, were typing faster and faster, talking to their children from the computer in their “boy” or “girl’s” room who had just left the city one day.
All the while we, the younger generation, were feeling all heady with a new technology that could communicate instantly so well across the globe. You could write as much as you wanted in an email, as many times as you wanted, for free. We wondered why our parents were not as exuberant about using this new breed of communication that had changed our lives.
Changed lives in significant ways. Got people admissions to foreign schools, helped people fall in love across continents and even made us aware, with a palpability we couldn’t feel earlier about how, while it was night where we were, it could be broad daylight in another part of the globe. An email could pop up in the middle of the night for one person sent in broad daylight by another.
Now, with the wisdom of a decade behind me, even as the excitement that email brings is being quickly replaced by texting, social networking updates and Skype and Facetime, all free, I realize what might have been happening then to our parents because of changing technologies of communication as it will, no doubt, happen to us in a few decades from now.
Let me think. What was a very common technology that my father used, before everybody had telephones, when he needed to communicate very, very fast, usually about something super important? Where he had to write in the sense of forming words, not speak, as into a phone, during emergencies?
The telegram, of course!
Strips of letters stuck to a piece of paper that got delivered by the mailman, received with trepidation into any home for it always carried news of some significance.
And the only thing you’d say in a telegram (all the while being aware that you were paying through your nose for every alphabet you used), would be just this:
INFORMATION RECEIVED. ACTION TAKEN.
Either that or you would be writing very long letters.
If you were writing those long letters in English, not Bengali (which email forced people to do), you would be writing a formal letter. A letter to the editor of a newspaper, a letter of complaint to the electricity board or a job application letter.
So when our mothers sent us emails in English, the ghost of the formal letter looked on from behind their computer chairs, handed down through years of training in language exams in school and old syllabi prescribing old grammar handbooks about how to write formal letters.
The content would be Rinku’s fruit juice consumption or the state of his scarf but the form–that would still be the Victorians breathing down hotmail with their powdered wigs and sealing wax.
Unnatural global separations called for unnatural forms of communication.
For many of our parents, who did not have computers at home, the process of emailing was no less complex than going to the post office and sending a telegram.
Although by the turn of the century, (That sounds so archaic. I mean around 2000) numerous computer centres had sprung up all over Calcutta, some parents would have to wait until the young man who owned the place or one of his assistants was free to help out, type the email or even enter the password.
Something their children would do if they had not left the city.
I remember when I took long road trips across the US from Florida to California that winter, I sent detailed emails to my parents in the exuberance of discovering a new country. My parents were very happy. They said those letters were beautiful.
So what did they do?
Even though they had a computer at home, they still went to the local computer centre and asked the young man to print out the emails for them so they could “have” them. I think they might still have them in a folder somewhere!
A desire to “have” that we, in the electronic generation, don’t understand at all.
Email. It’s been around a while now. Old enough to have many memories associated with it and young enough to not be discarded by the wayside. At least not yet. Although all its younger competitors with fresher faces of communication are already sending it on its way out. As email did with its own predecessors.
I just spoke to my mother in Calcutta over the phone as I finished this blog in New York. Since calling became cheaper, we no longer communicate by email. But I remember the last few times she’d sent me emails before she made a conscious decision to stop when the computer became too old and my grandmother became too old to be disturbed at night where she slept next to the computer. After a long day’s work in the home, late night was the only time my mother had on concentrating on a single task for any length of time.
I could imagine her, sitting in the dark, looking for each individual key, as she formed her sentences in Bengali written in the Latin (English) alphabet. Those emails went something like this in Bengali:
Onek raat hoye geche. Shobai shuye poreche. Onek khon dhore toke lomba email likhlaam. Kothaye chole gelo. Tai aabar likhchi. Bhalo achi. Ebare shute jai.
[It’s very late at night. Everyone is asleep. Took a long time to write a long email but it’s disappeared. So writing again. We are well. Going to sleep now.]
Note: This was inspired by Weekly Writing Challenge: Mail It In . I was already thinking of the disappearance of print newspapers in my earlier posts and this fit in nicely with my train of thought! I was also very touched by a post by a fellow blogger Janet Williams who made me think of my parents. It’s short, sweet and very moving: My Mum’s Net.
BTW, my father might have a different explanation of why he sent me that email. I did not have a chance to ask him and he does not read this blog yet. I’ll probably print it out one day for him! He is a voracious reader and a great writer but the internet does not suit him. And I know many Indian parents of my dad’s generation who have taken to email and social networking like fish to water. So my experience is not a generalization by any means.