On global Indians and old friends in digital spaces

I’m remembering an unusually dark and very quiet night in Davis, California three years  ago.

It’s silent outside the house but my life is full of the busy humdrum of life. I’m sitting under the yellow glow of a table lamp at my laptop and looking at an old photograph I uploaded to Facebook earlier that day. Although the photograph is almost two decades old, it has acquired a life of its own like it has never been used to before in its plastic-wrapped life in various drawers for years in its travels through many countries until it has reached this very spot—the place-which-is-not-a-place and yet the place that so many of us “global” Indians have begun to inhabit in our daily lives.

This is the  real world of Facebook.

It’s a fascinating place, this world of social media. It’s a space where my past and the present, the here and the now combine with the past and the present and the here and the now of  a million other Indians.  Since being in school, college or university in India, many of us have scattered around the globe. We may be in very different real places and imagined spaces but by simply being here we create a continually shifting, constantly elusive narrative of ourselves and those we meet. This is a place where we “global” Indians come from, where we belong, a place which lies and speaks the truth and creates illusions of the past and the present in a tantalizing glass bubble that we watch fascinated from wherever in the world we are as it tells our stories back to us.

I remember the twenty-year-old picture that came alive suddenly that night on Facebook in just such a way.

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, an expression of the exuberance that we felt when immersed in the water. The 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. It was a Polaroid, an instant photograph that had come out with a whirring sound from the camera while I had watched fascinated.

Little did I know that those colours would be running out and staining the white border in later years when exposed to heat and  moisture even inside an album, especially in the hands of a careless archivist of the past like me. 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. I’d be uploading the picture to something called Facebook, a process so much more instant than that instant picture on the beach.

I couldn’t remember the place where the beach was though in those days when an apple was just an apple.
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.

I can almost 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. I remember how our childish intellectually elitist selves had been caught captive in the same loop for several hours on that bus in the heat. 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 from the loudspeakers was an onomatopoeic assault on the senses that defies translation.]

But over a period of two decades in a different place and time that song did not seem that jarring anymore.

Or perhaps it wasn’t Digha at all. 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 . The meal, a major attraction for me, would come in partitioned stainless steel plates covered with warm aluminum foil with egg curry, rice and salad inside.

Not having been on a train in India for many years, everything about this real or imagined train ride from the past seemed memorable. Did it really matter where it was? All that mattered was that the picture was beautiful.

The picture sailed through Facebook. Not everyone sleeps at the same time on social media in the globalized world. While someone is asleep in one part of the world, someone else is always wide awake. It was midnight for me but it was  broad day for an old school friend in Calcutta.

She liked this picture. Maybe she was  on her auto rickshaw on her mobile phone on her way to pick up her kid as she hit the like button or maybe she was  perched on her kitchen counter at her computer while the maid worked in the background (while I was in California with neither maid nor auto rickshaw in the dark night making sure the cobweb behind the laptop did not belong to a poisonous desert spider from the garden).

Very soon, an avalanche of like, like, like, like started being showered on that twenty-year-old picture as it rode up the waves of Facebook’s algorithms. A host of other Indian friends from the past that I knew from Singapore, the Netherlands, the UK, even a professor from Florida had seen it. My school friends , college friends, old neighbours, new acquaintances and others who had little or nothing to do with my past twenty years ago were liking it, perhaps spending a moment fondly surprised at my childish adolescent face that they’d never seen before.

“This must be Puri and you guys must have stayed at the BNR Hotel.” said a cousin in a comment from Kharagpur.
“Oh no”! said my brother immediately from Calcutta, “We never stayed at the 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 voice  from a cousin in Florida emerged as a comment. “Nice pic.” And another from a friend in Malaysia . “ Cuteeeeeeee.”

I valued those extra e’s in cute under that lamplight at night because none of those people from the past were there with me in Davis, California in 2010. Or in Calcutta. But they were there somewhere aside from being there in my 1980’s Calcutta.
The picture is so nice, I thought. My parents look so young.
The particulars of that picture don’t matter. Does it matter if it was the BNR or the Sea Hawk? Puri or Digha? Or even if it wasn’t either but the coast of Tamil Nadu? Or even Kerala?

Distance had spread a nice warm glow over those places like a pleasant memory. If I wanted to set out for the beach in the morning, I knew I’d have to worry about other beaches. Other details. Other trials and tribulations, not Bengali songs on long bus rides (how nice that would be, wouldn’t it, a Bengali song on the Greyhound?)   I’d have to decide between Half Moon Bay or Point Reyes. Highway 101 or Interstate 880, face the Bay Bridge/ San Fran traffic or keep on the lonely ride down East Bay. But as for India, the details of the map could come later. In the meantime, I could arrange my memories as I liked on Facebook as my story.

And yet, I kept coming back to Facebook for those little details of other people’s lives that didn’t matter in my current day to day life. The lives of the real Indians in India. Backgrounds rather than foregrounds, the incidental rather than the main stories of status updates, pictures, memes, links or posts.  A photograph with an alna with clothes on it, the kind of clothes horse you’d never see in the US. A school uniform of a friend’s kid, a Rabindra Jayanti celebration with lots of people, a meme with a joke in two languages. I’d look for them. I’d even wait for the rain in Calcutta during a heat wave with other Calcuttans’ status updates during an unseasonably cold night in California for a relief from the heat wave. My heat wave on Facebook in the cold.

Because they are everywhere and somewhere and nowhere. My Facebook friends.

Despite this, when I met one of my Facebook friends quite serendipitously very recently on my way back to the US at the Calcutta airport, it was a strange meeting. She was there with her two children, a son and a daughter, leaving for a city in the Middle East where her husband worked. I had not seen her in twenty years but I knew all the details about her. That she had two children, that she would look a little more plump and a little older than I remembered her, that she’d be going to a city in the Middle East. I also knew that she had been a homemaker for a decade, that her living room had a brown rug in a green pattern on the floor, and that she liked Ralph Lauren and handmade jewelry that would add a little more style to a woman by some designer called Smruti, probably an acquaintance.

And yet, as we met across the metal divider on two different lines leaving for two different continents, our meeting was as though we knew none of these things. A polite introduction to the kids, an embarrassed smile on her part and extra exuberance on mine. Years flitted by in front of my eyes trying to superimpose the girl in a maroon school uniform on this woman  that I did not know, who said visit me in Riyadh next time you’re there and I nodded a little too vigorously as I imagined having tea with my feet on the brown rug with the green pattern in a strange city with a woman I did not know.

Still, I knew that the next time she posted a picture of her son on his birthday, I’d like it with the confidence that only an old friend on Facebook can show.

I'm washed up here now which is neither the Ganga nor the Sacramento river but another city on another river. Where will I be next?
“Much have I travelled in realms of gold/ And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;” I’m washed up here now which is neither the Ganga nor the Sacramento River but quite another city in another place.
Where to next?
The boats and choppers–they move on. Me–where to next?
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15 thoughts on “On global Indians and old friends in digital spaces”

  1. I have so enjoyed your posts. I, myself, will be taking a break from blogging. Maybe returning when I have more time. I am stretched pretty thin as it is. But I will continue reading. Your writing always strikes a cord with me (in a wonderful way!). This one reminds me of a quote from Aleksandar Hemon, (The Lazarus Project).

    “All the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is what the world is.”

    Perhaps this is what compels people to engage in social media.

    Congratulations on your blog’s first year. That is an accomplishment!

    Like

  2. First of all – Happy Birthday! (am assuming that’s why the header image says “Happy Birthday, Bottledworder”.

    I much prefer when you write these kind of reflective posts, over the writing lessons, useful and informative as they are. As another “DisIndian” (Displaced Indian), I suppose they bring back my own memories of a life that now seems more distant than ever before. The pre-dawn departures in a packed car to Digha (for a day trip), flying kites off the terrace, community cricket (50+ a side) on the street on bandh days, the nip in the air that presages the coming of Pujo, the glorious advent of the mango season.

    And the seasons have changed now for me to winter, spring, summer and fall, and yet hardly anyone calls. And I wonder, would I be able to be there, if they did? Or do they only have a Facebook friend?

    WH Davies comes to mind (since we’re doing poetry):

    A poor life this if, full of care,
    We have no time to stand and stare.

    Thank you, BW!

    Like

      1. Bags you add the (c) Last Word to the text, if you use it in the future! And it is not hyphenated, btw!.

        We do stare at FB, but not natural things. If we did we could discover the wonders of nature, blowing in the rushes down by the riverside… (stole that from Hunter & Weir).

        Like

  3. A beautiful tale of how an old memory has come full circle through one Polaroid. I was writing about this very subject yesterday after reading the article in Time magazine by Joel Klein – we’re always hearing what’s the world coming to? How can kids today ever connect like the older generation did? They are lazy and self-centered and so on – but I see that they are the future and like Klein says we have to believe in them. It’s technology and we have to find a way to adapt and just as you stirred so many old friends to respond with one sacred photograph. I love your message of finding balance between racing technology and honoring the past. Beautiful article, thanks.

    Like

    1. Yes, of course. Digital technology is the future and new kids will do the old things in new ways. It’s a mark of being fossilized to reject the new as disruptive but its good to use some critical thinking too while embracing the new.

      Like

  4. This is such a revealing post for you, it seems. Facebook has definitely changed our lives. I had a rather “warm” conversation with a friend of mine who does not really approve of blogging and Facebook because she thinks it takes away from our “real” relationships. I personally think it is almost like salt on mashed potatoes. Without the salt, the mashed potatoes are edible, but salt make them the best food on the planet. Communicating with old and new friends that we might never see again, does give us a warm feeling that spreads to the “real” people we see every day. Thanks for sharing this great story. 🙂

    Like

  5. Aah, this is my kind of post and what you, bottledworder, do so well: undercutting the sentiment even while evoking it. “I could arrange my memories as I liked on Facebook.”A devastating critique of Facebook that is also an explanation of why we “like” it so much. In this case, the “we” refers to global Indians, but as the comments of your many and varied readers amply demonstrate, bottleworder’s appeal is both culture-specific and universal.
    To close the quote in your caption: “. . .Silent, upon a peak in Darien” (one of our family’s favorite lines). Certainly not washed up, bottledworder (I just like saying that!); let’s hope that wherever you roam and whatever you choose to gaze upon next, you will keep hold of the sense of wonder—the “eagle eyes” and the “wild surmise”—as well as the sense of humor.

    Like

    1. Thank you! That’s high praise coming from you Josna. Yes, anyone who has roamed around I hope will identify with this somewhat. I know, “washed up” takes away agency somewhat but it’s bound to be one of the sentiments, if not the only one at some point for a traveller. Can’t help but quote the whole thing here (so happy you and your family also know it by heart :)) It just sort of popped into my head as an afterthought:

      On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
      by John Keats

      Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
      And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
      Round many western islands have I been
      Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
      Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
      That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
      Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
      Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
      Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
      When a new planet swims into his ken;
      Or like stout Cortes when with eagle eyes
      He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
      Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
      Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

      Like

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