Thursday, July 29, 2021

No missed calls, please

I believe that film directors are invariably terrific conversationalists.  The ones that I have had the fortune of meeting in person have given me food for thought on topics that extend beyond cinema.  C Prem Kumar, the director of 96, is one such deep thinker.  In an interview with Abhishek, he casually tossed off a line that was pregnant with meaning.  Prem said, “UngaLoda pazhamai…ungaLode kadantha kaalam ungaLuku solradhuku konjam vishyam vechrukum…” (It roughly translates into, "Your past will have a set of learnings for you...")  It set me off on a trail of thought around the kind of evolution that I am comfortable with vis-à-vis what I cannot subscribe to. 

I am fully aware of the fact that nostalgia brings it with a pair of flimsy, rose-tinted glasses.  We sometimes revisit past events, norms and mores with more fondness than they deserve.  And that sometimes is okay if it serves the purpose of giving us lightness of heart to keep us going in the present.  Since both the past and the present have their positives and negatives, it is imperative that nostalgia be balanced with evolution.  It is a dangerous thing to live so much in the past that it paralyzes the present.  At the same time, it is important to resist the temptation to be callously dismissive of the past.  A sense of balance is as necessary as it can be elusive. 

Interpersonal connection is one area where I constantly wage this internal tug of war.  Really, it is not a ‘war’ as much as it is a sense of discomfiture.  Let me explain.  Through my childhood, youth and adulthood, I have seen quite a stunning evolution in technological advancements that aid communication.  I have used rotary phones as a kid.  Cordless phones were a huge source of amusement since for the first time I had privacy while talking on the phone. (How could my parents possibly hear my ‘spirited’ exchanges with my friends around whether Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara was the greatest cricketer of all time?!)

When I moved to the US in the late 90s, I wrote letters and sent handwritten greeting cards to my near and dear back in India.  Since calls from the US to India were charged by the minute, I would pick one person every weekend and would rotate amongst them for a lengthy call every weekend.  My paternal grandma would offer well-meaning advice and a stern warning in the same breath – “Bill-u romba aagardhu, phone porum Ram!” ("Be mindful of the phone bill!")  Cell phone plans had ‘free’ minutes with a finite limit.  Video calling was the stuff of science fiction.  Internet connection was dial-up.  The strident sounds that emanated from the bulky computer as one connected to the internet were tolerable only because of the dulcet sounds of new mail notifications that followed.  The feeling of connectedness that e-mails provided was sheer magic. 

Over the years, cell phones have evolved into a world unto themselves.  With seemingly unlimited minutes and data available at our fingertips, with the utilitarian and entertainment value of the apps expanding continually, phones have become an enormously indispensable part of our lives.  Thanks to a plethora of technological innovations, connectivity has become significantly more convenient.  But as I always maintain, connectivity and connection are not the same.  Just because we can connect does not mean that we do. 

Let me revisit Prem’s quote.  What it truly means to me is that we must continually charge ourselves with separating the core from the externals, the substance from the style, the enduring from the ephemeral.  It is fine for us, for instance, to enjoy the benefits and pleasure that our smart phones give us.  But we must ask ourselves the question, what from our past have we chosen to leave behind and if we are comfortable with our choices?  For instance, in the past, I needed to meet up, talk on the phone and/or exchange e-mails to share things about me and ensure that I learned about the things that mattered.  Now I can send a Whatsapp message or share a picture, video or leave a voice note.  But am I really ensuring that the spirit of the relationships stay intact over time, with all these changes? 

The charm of an in-person exchange over a caffeinated beverage might be impossible to recreate with a brief asynchronous Whatsapp exchange.  And in this increasingly fast-paced world and sheer distances, it might not even be feasible to do much beyond the periodic chat messages.  That is a reality that we would do well to accept.  Yet, amidst all the obstacles, it is possible to ensure that we do not lose the depth that is so vital to the key relationships in our life. 

I sometimes would feel wonderful seeing a “Hope all is well” message from someone I trust.  The perceptive ones know that to genuinely connect with the other person in a relationship does not take hours on the phone.  A thoughtful four-word message might be what it takes.  But so often, I see more and more people engage in frivolity and meaningless forwarded messages as a way of convincing themselves that they are keeping in touch with the people to whom they matter.  I am not opposed to sharing a laugh over a witty meme or the like.  What irks me is when people adopt a dismissive attitude to obscure a complete lack of depth and try to convince others that one must change with changing times.  We are all different in terms of the degree to which we stick to what has worked in the past as well as our attitudes towards change.  But I stick to my conviction that the core of a relationship, the vibes of assurance and the feelings of security that we jointly etch must not be erased by the winds of change. 

I subscribe to Prem’s thinking that the positive artefacts of our past need to be given due respect.  We need to, of course, be cognizant of the ways in which our society has evolved, sometimes using, at other times abusing the tools and services we have at our disposal.  It is essential to lose certain regressive attitudes and norms from the past because not everything from the past is positive or rosy.  At the same time, it is imperative to not lose certain core elements of ourselves in search of what is considered ‘cool’ or ‘modern.’  Scientific advances, technological innovations, novel services are all means, not an end.  At the end of the day, whether we choose to channel these advances in service of enhanced human connection – that is a call we need to take.  If we fail to demarcate between the means and the end, well, that is a missed call that no service provider can prevent. 


Anu Warrier said...


I try and stay far away from social media simply because it's mostly a time suck *and* an added pressure to 'Like' someone's post. And honestly, while I'm not ignorant of the power of social media for good, unfortunately it's mostly used for a) hyper-nationalism b) misinformation c) mindless forwards.

Yet, I know this is the way forward. Sigh.

Ram Murali said...

Comment from Awaz:
I always enjoy reading your blog and listen to your deep thinking, and I hope you are well :)

Ram Murali said...

Anu, thanks for reading. I can totally relate to your exasperation.
Awaz, thank you so much!

Zola said...

So sorry to get to this so late Ram. Its been a helluva week at work and I feel burnt out.

I enjoyed this piece very much because I gravitate to preserving the past but do enjoy some of the "benefits" which whatsapp provides. I keep reminding myself that if 5 years of reading whatsapp thathuvams didn't change me as a person then why bother reading them but alas ....(Anu is right)

The part about the phones resonated with me because I still pause to think of the days when phone numbers were 5 digits and dials were kept under lock and key. I never cease to be amazed at how far we have travelled but we've lost the sense of wonder that we had when (as you've rightly put it) video calls belonged in science fiction.

Thanks so much for this piece !

Ram Murali said...

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Zola.
"dials were kept under lock and key."
--> Oh yeah! Brought back memories of a time that we can never recreate, just revisit in our minds!

Madan said...

Wonderful piece! What you said about writing letters and scheduling weekend phone calls from the US brought back memories. This is what my Athai used to do as well to keep in touch with us. The weekend phone call tradition, albeit with somewhat reduced frequency now that we are all in touch via whatsapp, still continues. Of course, the letter exchange ceased a long time ago.

I wrote something on related lines...more in the manner of recounting and less in the manner of, as your blog says, thinking out loud.

Ram Murali said...

Thank you Madan, for your lovely words.
I just read your post too - excellent piece, redolent of those times. Thanks for sharing!