I have a beloved band of lunching friends. We meet and first argue fiercely about where we’ll eat and then we talk. Eat. Talk. We are also very rude to friends who interrupt the conversation by yammering on the phone or who take photos of the food. One local restaurant has a notice that reflects our attitude perfectly, as it declares with laconic irony, “We don’t have wi-fi. Please talk.”
One afternoon, two of us were creating our usual decibel of noise over pasta when three young women floated up to the next table. They were what I call, “window shopping ladies” — impeccably made up, clad in floppy palazzos and carrying those giant handbags I have been dying to peer into for years.
It was when the waiter came to clear the plates that I noticed the echoing silence at the next table. They were glued to their phones. One was instructing her cook; the second took a photo of her plate and began to text; and the third was preening into the mirror. Through dessert and coffee, I kept an ear aimed at them. Except for a muttered sentence or two, they ate, and worshipped their phones. There was no real conversation at all.
Have you noticed how we jabber all the time into phones but face-to-face our conversations are becoming rather trite and tedious? It is usually a yawn-inducing mix of politics, the weather, films, Facebook and gadgets. At large parties, my introverted brain is exhausted in exactly 20 minutes and then I want to go home and read a book. Also, people just want to dominate the conversation, no one cares to listen. What is truly odd is that even though people are travelling so much, few come back with stories of interesting experiences. But then how can you have experiences when your face is attached to a camera and you forget to talk to people?
One of my uncles once created a novella-length story from a single Delhi-to-Calcutta train journey. Things seem to happen to Boromama wherever he went, and the cast of his characters included a drunk sleeping on the upper berth; a man who carried a small cherry tree into the compartment; and a Marwari couple travelling with large jars of ghee. Boromama was, of course, watching and listening, blinking benignly behind his glasses. He did not have a camera and it did not make the slightest difference.
Repartee and irony are also vanishing from our conversations. My grandmother could stop the clock with one sentence. At the dining table, the conversation would flow lazily and as an equal-opportunity meal, we children had full permission to argue as loudly as we wanted. It also meant we were teased mercilessly by my Baba, who said he was “toughening us up”. My sister fell for it every time, getting all hot and bothered about anything from high heels to feminism, as Baba got more and more politically incorrect. As she went incoherent with indignation, my Grandma would drawl, “Stop arguing and start crying and he’ll stop.”
Meal times were sacrosanct and if the phone rang, they were told to call back. Now watching people grab their phones at every ping, gargle or buzz, I remember Baba’s favourite question when we got over-excited, “Is anyone dying?” Think about it, will anyone die if you checked that lame joke a few hours later and listened to the family instead? If there had been smartphones, my Ma would have made us switch them off at meal times for sure.
Memories that make us laugh are created when we listen. A friend stopped cooking with asafoetida for a while because Baba said the smell reminded him of sweaty armpits. An uncle, when confronted with an impossible question from us cousins, would stare back solemnly, nod like an all-knowing pundit and intone, “I’ll find out and let you know.” He never did, of course. The phrase is a family classic and now we use it on the next generation.
I have a suggestion, let’s start a Bengali-style adda movement and revive the art of conversation. Chittaranjan Park has many — the tea-shop-bench adda; the under-the-banyan-tree adda; and the chicken roll shop adda, where old men perch on a low dividing wall and eat the oily and sweet stuff banned by their doctors. And oh they talk! My favourite is Ahetuk Adda, a more organised and intellectual version that meets once a month to discuss anything from literature, music, films to travel and philosophy. There are designated speakers and we only speak when it is opened to questions and I am amazed at the depth of knowledge of the audience.
At an adda about adda, I heard that Cairo has coffee bars where you can get a head massage while the conversation goes on. At our adda, no one whispers into phones like apologetic thieves. There is no fuss about food, which, for a Bengali gathering, shows remarkable restraint. No one shows off about their latest car, gadget or trip abroad. Instead, that sleepy gentleman at the back raises a lazy arm and makes a hilarious comment that cracks up the gathering. Addas are egalitarian, tolerant and respectful; they value scholarship, encourage disagreement and appreciate humour; values that we need very badly in this troll-infested, anti-liberal world.
Try this. Switch off all your gadgets for a couple of hours every day and explore what I call 360-degree awareness. Trust me, the world won’t come to an end.
It is not just about listening to the koel sing in the peepul tree; it is also shamelessly eavesdropping on the three ladies in bursting track pants as they march around the park. When I hit the park at the crack of dawn, it begins with the crunch of dry leaves under my sandals; the flutter of birds as they wake up; the dogs yawning and greeting me with a gentle growl. As the sky begins to lighten, the chowkidars slap wet dusters on the cars and squirrels go chattering up tree trunks. Then, that yoga freak in the corner starts clapping very loudly and breaks the mood.
It goes on all day long, of course, the thump of the newspaper on the veranda; the competing calls of the sabjiwalas, the hiss of frying methi pakoras and then the mellow sound of the flute played by the boy who sells heart-shaped balloons. I realised after a while that he knew exactly two tunes. It seems Zen masters call this mindfulness. So, it’s trendy. Who knew?
Strangers talk to me. So do dogs, cats and an eagle called Red, who lands on the water bowl on my terrace and swivels an arrogant head to stare at me. Then he flies low over my head giving that high, oscillating cry that says thank you. Autorickshaw drivers tell me jokes; a thin old lady with shadowed eyes once sat down beside me on a bench and told me why she hated her husband; and my young kabariwalla confessed he has two wives.
A friend says people talk to me because I have a very stupid face and they think I don’t really understand. Maybe, but I do listen.