By Rahul Sharma
It all starts in the morning.
Tinng! My phone announces the arrival of the first text message from my mother.
“How are you doing? What’s your day looking like? Have you left for office?”
I have the option to not respond, but I do. It’s best to set her mind at peace. I know if I don’t, the next one will arrive in in about 10 minutes: “What happened? Is all well? You didn’t respond.”
So on, and so forth, the messages meander through the day. She saves the ones she finds funny. She also saves the ones she doesn’t like so that she can then throw them back at me when she wants to pick up a fight with her only son. She shares the “joke of the day” and battles to find the right smiley to go with her messages. On my last visit I found her angrily complaining about the phone company, which she said was trying to cheat her by not registering her for a television game show.
“That voice keeps saying that the format is incorrect. Five days now. All they want to do is to make money, but I will not give up,” she declared haughtily. I raised my eyebrows and allowed myself a smile
For somebody who will be 77 soon, she’s doing pretty well managing the latest gizmos and associated technologies.
Not very long ago it was an emotional challenge to teach her how to use a laptop and a mobile phone. Now it’s an emotional battle. I can be accused of being uncaring and selfish if I am not prompt enough in responding to her text messages and emails. I have visions of living with a scarred and tainted heart for the rest of my life.
For someone who until very recently confessed of being a technological dodo, she has also done well in adapting to the nuances of social media. Yes, she’s on Facebook, wishing cousins, nephews and nieces and grandchildren a happy birthday and merrily clicking “like” on their photos and messages.
Quite an achievement for a woman who called me a few weeks ago to complain that the music CD was not working on the computer. “There is some problem, which I can’t understand,” she said. I told her to press the “eject” button and put the CD back again after taking it out. She said she had done that thrice.
I later figured out that she had been putting the CD upside down. “Oh! So, all that written stuff side has to be up? How would I know that?” Right, mom, how would you? Sigh!!
My father doesn’t understand what’s happening and does what he does best when he wants to show his disinterest. He sits on his favorite chair in front of the television and scowls at his wife’s preoccupation with the laptop. His angst is partly understandable. He feels ignored. After half a century of togetherness, his partner has found a new love.
But going on to 80, he’s obstinate and has decided that while the Internet is fine, social media is a waste of time. It’s better to wish folks on their birthdays and anniversaries by calling them. They appreciate that more, he argues. He probably has a point.
So he goes online only to check the status of his various court cases and applauds when a new date for the hearing is announced. That means he can leave his wife behind, jump into a car and get to another city to meet people my mum won’t ever want to – folks like lawyers and middlemen, chaiwallas, and other sundry human beings who clutter the corridors of courts in small towns.
He relishes travel more than social media, which seems to be just fine with my mother. She gets to spend more time on the Internet when her man is out of her way. Her propensity to send text messages and write on Facebook increases sharply during such periods.
As for me, I have partly rejoiced the shift though I do end up asking some hard questions.
Was it a good idea for her to learn how to construct and send an SMS? Was it good to introduce her to Facebook, emails and the Internet at large? Was it a good idea to get her a swanky laptop and a dongle that she could use to nearly permanently remain online?
These questions haunt me every day…well almost, especially when I get messages at odd hours — in the middle of a meeting, while I am driving, while in the shower, as I have just slept, and am expected to respond.
I believe it was a great idea for her to learn new technologies. It has given her a brand new window into the world of information and relationships. Moreover, it also means that she has something to do and something to look forward to. She eagerly awaits a response and a “like” for her “like”. And given that she has always been a voracious reader, the Internet is this vast ocean of knowledge that she devours happily.
And very importantly, she has found long-lost friends and relatives in various parts of the world whom she had never called or met in decades. It’s a fun-filled, happy, new world for her. She not only messages me, she messages my sister in Canada too. And thanks to her “joke of the day”, she has rediscovered humor and doesn’t complain much about my father’s scowls any longer.
Now she wants to learn how to upload photos on Facebook and has been making subtle inquiries about “this thing called Twitter.” I am happy to teach her how to put pictures up, but dread the day she learns to Tweet… She can be extremely forthright with her views, and I wouldn’t really want to be embarrassed!
Good luck, Mum!
- Rahul Sharma is a former newspaper editor who has lived and worked in Asia and Middle East. He is now the President, Public Affairs at Genesis Burson-Marsteller and based in New Delhi