I recently got a surprise gift for my birthday. It was an iPad Air, my very first tablet. I downloaded Pages on it and typed a little rather tentatively.
The iPad Air is a really sleek, thin, shiny thing, cool and smooth to the touch. The experience of typing feels a bit different from my now relatively old laptop with its chicklet keys, short, square and almost noiseless, which had felt so smart and new when I’d first got the notebook compared to my older, bulkier, back-breaking laptops.
As I heard the distinct kchchh sound each virtual key made as I hit it, the experience I savoured seemed familiar even though the device was new. I flew back in time over two decades to a very old incident from childhood, inspired by a feeling of awe and wonder at the stylish new device. A similar kchchh sound surfaced from deep down in memory made by something when it had clicked shut a long time ago.
It was in a classroom in Calcutta in Class III when an eight year old girl, sitting on the third row from the back, turned around to look at something wonderful another eight year old had brought to school and placed on her desk.
This was a fellow student whose parents had returned from a trip to Singapore, or China, or London, or the US and had brought back a magnetic pencil box. (It didn’t matter exactly where they’d returned from because, never having been outside the state of West Bengal in conscious memory myself, it was simply a case of Home and the World for me. Home in Calcutta was the familiar, the mundane, the place full of ordinary things while the World was full of shiny, smooth, sleek objects that you got a glimpse of when foreign-returned people came back with their stories and expensive-looking suitcases getting off of airplanes that I’d never been on.)
The coveted object was a magnetic pencil box, soft on the outside, covered in some kind of synthetic, brightly coloured fabric with pictures filled with padding. It had magnets that helped it close with a soft thud rather than the loud click of plastic pencil boxes everyone else in class had including me. While some such magnetic pencil boxes had made their way into air-conditioned stationery stores in New Market or maybe Gariahat, ordinary stores didn’t even carry them. But none, I was sure, carried one like the one in front of us.
This one had a three-storied cross section, a top, middle and bottom compartment with a battery-operated radio embedded on one side and a pencil sharpener on the other. None of us had seen anything like it before. I still remember the wonder and awe with which we examined it, one by one, during tiffin time.
I’d lost touch with the girl a very long time ago. The girl, now a woman and mother of two, recently sent me a Friend’s Request on Facebook. Ironically, I could remember nothing else about her except a face and that magnetic pencil box as I accepted her.
I still retain some of that childish wonder about beautiful writing implements. Even now I’ll catch myself browsing sale bins at office stores for a set of colourful pencils or some bright sticky notes. I bought a pack of pencils last year, not the wooden kind but the plastic kind where you rotate the back and the graphite core comes out–a rare and highly coveted object in my school days–but now on sale by the dozen for only a couple of dollars.
It’s been a year and the unopened pack of pencils still adorns my shelf. I hardly write any more, with a pencil or pen anyway. The occasion rarely arises when I have to write on paper. A few scribbled notes here and there perhaps, a task for which a single pencil will survive more than a year. The ink in my ballpoint pens never runs out anymore because they’re never used.
Perhaps with this new iPad, I won’t even need to scribble anymore. Perhaps a long and fascinating relationship with pens and pencils and paper, fascinating for me anyway, is about about to come to an end soon.
They say all good relationships end when it’s time. Mine probably started when another one of a different generation was already over. I know that we weren’t always using pens and pencils the way I grew up using them. When we were writing with ballpoint pens for example, ghosts of writings past had haunted our classrooms even then, in school and then in college.
Both the school and college I attended had heavy wooden desks still in use in the classrooms from the late nineteenth century. Those desks were easily identifiable by their weight and by a very distinctive hole that they had on the top, left hand corner surface, a place where the ink pots would go in during exams perhaps, before fountain pens came into the scene, when ink pellets would have to be dissolved in water to make ink to be used by students. We had never seen those pellets and hardly used even fountain pens in college although the colour Royal Blue still makes me think of a blue ink pot with the logo of a camel on it.
In one way, despite my smooth new iPad, the materiality of the writing process seems to be disappearing fast. There’s no one sheet of paper or a single handwriting with a certain smudge that I can remember connected to a specific piece of writing. There’s no specific fountain pen with a golden cap that I can remember when I think of a piece I wrote or a certain bound notebook with the logo of an exercise book maker in Bengali on top when I think of an essay.
This is very different from the way it used to be for a long time. I remember going to an exhibition at the New York Public Library called Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet. Walking into the exhibit was like walking right into the body of work of the Romantics and a few others quite literally. The room was full of writing–drafts, letters, notes, scraps of paper, even locks of hair –objects that made my hair stand on end with the strangeness of it all and made me feel a bit like I was was encroaching on other people’s privacy now long dead. Similarly, a glimpse of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in her own hand at the British Library had made the whole novel came alive for me with a material reality I had never apprehended in print before.
Prose and poetry, at their very inception, are not going to be embodied by such materiality for much longer.
Memories attached to the writing process are going to change form as well. In fact, earlier, at a very personal level, if I was writing something, I could remember sitting at my desktop, in a specific corner of my room and words on a thick-set monitor on a very sparse, no-frills, early version of WORD. Now, I’m able to write on the laptop, on the Smartphone and on the tablet. In each place, my writing looks different. Rendered on different themes on content management systems or on more and more complex word processing documents, they look very different on each platform. Associations of space, place or form with the writing process with any kind of certainty is not possible any more.
It is as though writing has been freed from materiality in its various avatars. We must recognize its soul in its various forms. Writing no longer seems personal either dissociated from the mark of the writer be it through handwriting or a controlled, printed format. It constantly carries marks of invisible hands of spellcheckers, auto formatting programs and various other small nuances that make one realize that there are others involved as we write .
Yet, perhaps this is nothing new. Perhaps the oral poet in ages past had felt the same when he heard his own lyrics sung in different voices. Perhaps it’s just the same experience coming back to us in a new form. Perhaps we must learn to accept it and its new materiality.