Email and the Parents

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).

English: email envelope

Sometimes, I would see other emails my friends would receive from the older generation  that went something like this:

DeAr RiNTu,
[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)

DeAr RiNTu,

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,
Your Mother.

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.

Statue of a wise man, at the Thean Hou Temple,...
Bottledworder the Wise. Not really! Original caption via Zemanta: “Statue of a wise man, at the Thean Hou Temple, Kuala Lumpur. Somebody with Chinese skills please identify statue (Photo credit: Wikipedia)” A reader commented with more info.

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.

Postoffice box, Oud Kerkhof 13, in the beautif...
Postoffice box (near Antwerp, Belgium) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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70 thoughts on “Email and the Parents”

  1. Great story! Funny enough, my mom taught me to send my first email as I was on my way to college. Much later, she too got into the habit of printing the emails up, at least while I was deployed in the Army. I think she has binders filled with them.
    Maybe with age you either love the changes in technology or boycott altogether?

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  2. Not “having” the emails agian is a pitty. We still have letters from my greatgrandparents and grandparents and even from a brother of my great-great-grandfather (from 1849 or so from the Californian gold rush) and these are not only interesting from the family perspective but they are very interesting historical documents.

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  3. I find the differences between generations fascinating. We always laughed that my grandma was confused by microwave ovens. She couldn’t remember the right button sequence no matter how many times we’d tell her (that could partially have been due to the early Alzheimer’s, though.) My parents are actually decent with technology. In some ways, they use it more than I do. My mom as a Facebook account under a false name… I’ve never used Facebook!

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  4. Great (old) post. I went to an international school in Wales in the late 90s. The students, collectively, had one computer with an internet connection. We had one email address for the whole student body. It made my early experiences with email oddly communal. People would stop you in the corridor to tell you you had email. Sometimes they would even tell you what it was about. We all became pretty cautious about what we included in our outgoing mail, but there was no way we could coach our parents and far-flung friends to do the same. Made for some interesting gossip.

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  5. Love this – but having mastered the e-mail, I’m fearful that something else will come along and oust e-mails in favour of the next technological innovation before I pop my clogs – and then I’ll be up a gum tree, to mix my metaphors!

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  6. I’ll explain the image about this endearing old man with a book that you used in this post — it’s a statue in a famous temple in Malaysia. The old man is a ‘god’ (or a matchmaker) of marriage and love. He is known as 月下老人 (pronounce: yuè xià lǎo rén in Mandarin, or simplified as ‘yuè lǎo’), meaning, Old man under the moon.

    The seven characters are: 千里姻缘一线牵 (in Chinese Simplified characters. On the image, the characters are in Chinese Traditional characters) -It means that though two people are thousands of miles apart, the Old Man would tie a red string around the ankles of a man and a woman, and they’re destined to be lovers or husband and wife.

    The big red bag next to the Old Man is a 红线袋 (in Chinese Simplified characters; the characters are pronounced hóng xiàn dài) — it means Red String Bag — in which this Chinese deity, the matchmaker, stores all his lucky red strings for his Romeo and Juliet.

    These days, people still pray to this Old Man for good marriage, especially on the Chinese lunar 7th month and 7th day (Tuesday, 13 August this year), a so-called Chinese Valentine’s Day — 七夕 Chinese Qixi Festival — as it’s the day when the cowherd and the weaver girl are allowed to unite, only once a year, and they meet on a bridge formed by magpies on the Milky Way.

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    1. I need to add some details about the ‘book’ that this Old Man under the Moon is holding.

      This book is called 鸳鸯谱 yuān yāng pǔ, a book of Mandarin Ducks.

      Mandarin ducks refer to husband and wife. Mandarin ducks symbolise romance, devotion and enduring love. The Old Man matches lovers in the whole world using this book.

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  7. I’ve had similar experiences with my parents. When I first moved from Bangladesh to the US, I used to dread getting the bills for all the international calls I made from campus. Now that my parents live in the US, my mom has easily made the transition to email and facebook to keep in touch with family and friends, but my Dad just refuses to learn how to use the internet. He always asks my mom, in Bengali, to get him something or other out of the computer. It conjures up images of my mom taking her laptop apart to pull out letters and documents for him.

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  8. Thanks for finding my blog and liking my posts. I enjoyed reading your post about your parents because it is so similar to my experiences. After I left Bangladesh and came to the US, I used to dread getting the phone bill when I lived on campus as a university student. Years later my parents moved to the US as well, and now it is my mother who has taught herself to use the Internet and happily uses Facebook and email to stay in touch with her friends and family. My Dad, on the other hand, bugs my moher constantly, asking her to get something or other from the computer. He literally says in Bengali, can you get me that article etc from the computer? It conjures up visions of my mom physically opening up the computer and fishing out various documents and letters and giving it to him. Strangely, this man, who moved halfway across the world in his twenties in search of a better life,to a country where no one spoke his language, absolutely refuses to learn how to use the Internet.

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  9. I love technology, but old-fashioned letter-writing has its charms. When I first met the man who would become my husband, we lived nearly 200 miles apart. We emailed and phone-called – but we also wrote real paper letters, on nice notepaper, which we stamped and posted. I still have the letters he sent me, and he has the ones I sent him. Somehow, receiving an actual letter that has been touched by your beloved is better than an email, even though the information imparted might be the same. A letter is more than the information – it’s the presentation and the penmanship, and you can enclose a token, if you like. And receiving a letter… to see that familiar handwriting on the mat in the morning changes your whole day. It brings your beloved closer than the impersonal, sterile communication of the internet.

    (My father isn’t much of an emailer, but I’m not even sure my mother knows how to turn the computer on!)

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  10. At 20, I guess I belong to the internet generation. Email seems to have lost it’s ‘thing’, at least among most people my age. If there’s something to be said, folks usually just call or text. If you’re separated by international lines, you have Skype or WhatsApp. It’s all instantaneous, and consequently quite brief. I love writing. I enjoy spending time writing long, rambling emails to my friends. Hand written letters were on their way out by the time I entered this world, so I don’t know them very well- but I can only imagine the delight of sending and receiving them. 🙂
    This post beautifully brings out the emotions that go into written communication. What you wrote here about mothers touched me in particular.
    An absolutely lovely read! 🙂

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  11. I just wanted to say thanks for checking out my blog and liking some of my posts. As a newbie, I really appreciate it! I also wanted to say that from now on, anytime anyone tells me anything, I am going to respond: “Information received. Action taken.” I think that is a truly wonderful acknowledgement! I pick on my mother, because growing up, she used a typewriter constantly, and is so fast at typing, but give her a computer and its like her brain freezes…so congratulations…your family is clearly more advanced than mine!

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  12. Oh my goodness I love this post! I started emailing after we moved to Britain; at that point, 1997, only my brother had an email account, and it was glorious to find a note from him overnight, shrank the miles considerably. My dad refuses to get on a computer, so when I wrote my parents long emails, Mum would print it out for him. Now email does seem sort of quaint, but as I don’t FB, and neither does my mum all that much, family emails thread through cyberspace, connecting my family.

    I still send letters, however. They feel like vinyl, something which (hopefully) will never go out of style. 🙂

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  13. 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.

    Astute observation. It may very from country to country/culture to culture but at least in the United States, mothers/wives make the majority of purchases for the livelihood of the family and the maintenance of the house (yard work/plumbing/HVAC notwithstanding). It’s not difficult to sell or teach women how to learn applied technological advancements as long as clothes, food, personal hygiene, and house care is involved.

    While there are certainly hordes of women who couldn’t care less about the color of the walls, the quality of their jeans, or the performance of the refrigerator or laundry machines, there probably are more women who could care even less.

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  14. Thanks for stopping by my posts and liking it.
    Reading yours I had to smile. Me and my family are Europeans and live in Europe but the story could have been the same. My dad (84) uses email when he has to, in total business style, but my mom never got used to it. She wrote beautiful cards.
    I loved reading this 🙂

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  15. Hi there–I wanted to let you know that I nominated your blog for the “Seven Things About Me” award; details are on my blog (which I think you’ve already checked out but want to be sure). 🙂

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  16. I read this with admiration and no small degree of nostalgia—it reminded me of my father (he’s gone now) who was born in 1906. When I think of all the technology that developed in his lifetime it boggles my mind. There weren’t telephones when he was born—no cars, no television, no computers, no modern conveniences (his family had an outhouse for several years before they installed a toilet and porcelain bathtub). He was amazed by all of it. He was 91 when he died and always enthusiastic about all the “newfangled” things that he learned and/or experienced.

    I came to your blog to thank you for dropping in on mine and letting me know you liked it. I do thank you, but I also want you to know that I’ve been touched by your writing and grateful for the memories it brought to my mind and heart.

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  17. Well said. I still give my mother grief for the one time she typed “lol” in a note to me. Also, she often leaves the subject line blank. Grrr.

    I have no problem seeing mental messages being shared telepathically by some mechanism that scans our thought patterns, arranges them, and passes them onto the recipient. Ten years down they road they’ll claim, “Immediate delivery, instant gratification!” I’ll respond with, “No thank you.”

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  18. I understand how your parents feel. My business experience goes back to the teletype on forward to the options available today. Today is much easier, not to mention quieter.

    On a personal note, I’ve had to abandon “catsworld1” because I’ve been blocked from accessing it as admin. I’ve opened “anewcatsworld” to replace it. I explain it all in a posting called “WordsupPressed”. I hope you will join me here.

    Cat.

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  19. I was reminded of my father, when yous wrote that your parents had your long emails printed up – I usde to always send him a picture attached to an email and one day he told me that the ink for his printer was pretty expensive and he was using up a lot of ink printing those pictures – only later, after he had died and I was cleaning up all his papers did I discover that he had printed each and every picture full size, in colour, on an 8 by 10 piece of paper. Oh my gosh – dad. Thanks for a great read and memory.

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  20. Statue in Malaysia: This is the so-called “Old Man of the Moonlight” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yue-Laou), who is the Chinese patron of marriage and love. He is wise in the sense that he ties red threads around the ankles of newborn babies around the world, so they can grow up to become couples. i.e. No matter how distant you are from each other (e.g. “thousands of miles” as said in the photo), no matter how different you are in your ethnic, cultural, political, economic and/or social backgrounds, if you are tied together by the same red thread, then it is your destiny that you end up being married to each other. By the way, that big bag next to the statue is his “bag of red threads”. The book in his hand is the “book of (future) marriage registration”.

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  21. Fascinating post! You really made me stop and think, I suppose because I’m so used to the internet that I completely forget it’s basically a brand new technology. Very cool. Thanks for the insights 🙂

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  22. Oh man! This so reminded me of my mum’s emails when I came to the US. To top it, she used to work in the telegraph office before getting married. So, brevity, often to the point of ambiguity, was and is her forte. Often, her emails used to mention only the fact that she didn’t approve of that short skirt in the fb profile pic!
    As usual, a delightful read 🙂

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