Sometime around mid-2014, I started turning my phone to airplane mode every evening. For a generation earlier than mine, such gadget-less days weren’t of any special meaning. But, for my generation that saw the birth and disintegration of Orkut and the exodus of its refugees applying for citizenship on Facebook, those days were special.
I applied to Delhi University from Guwahati when the Internet wasn’t at the tips of our fingers and most places still capitalised the “I” in the internet. We lived in Chandmari, one of the busiest areas of Guwahati, but still green, still protected from relentless car exhaust by tall krishnachura and radhachura trees. Yet, it was difficult to find a good internet cafe in that area. I remember going to a dingy one in Guwahati Club with a friend of mine, about 15 minutes by bus from my place. The computers stared back at us from small cubicles. Rs 20 per hour, said the manager, ushering us to one of the cubicles and pulling the curtain shut for privacy. Lesson number one: Most people, including my friend, visited the cafe to watch porn. I would, too, but it was also the place from where I’d check the Delhi University website for updates on the application process. An uncle who lived in RK Puram had sent me the forms because they weren’t available online. That year, the All Assam Students’ Union also distributed free DU application forms in front of Cotton College, where my mother taught, because a large contingent of students wanted to move to Delhi for higher studies.
When the time came to leave for Delhi, I didn’t have a mobile phone with me. Though Reliance mobile phones were available in Assam, only businessmen and corporate employees owned a phone. Their numbers were treated like top secret: only people who gave birth to you and people you had sex with were privy to them. One day, my 10-year-old brother saw a long-ish number in my father’s diary. He didn’t know it was a mobile number, but decided to dial it nonetheless. He was surprised when the call connected. Panicky, he hung up, only to call back again. The game continued for a couple of times. The next day, the two of us had to face Pita’s wrath: why would you keep calling a random number? I think more than the shock of the rebuke it was what he gathered as Pita’s omniscience that took my brother aback. Pita knows everything, he told me. It was the perfect opportunity to call him out. “It is a mobile number, it is displayed on the other end, stupid,” I shrugged.
The train rides between Delhi and Guwahati were at least 28 hours long. Since we didn’t have mobile phones to stare at, we made new friends. In one of those train rides, a friend of mine found the love of his life. Ten years later, he would marry her after moving to the US. Another year or so later, she would leave him, returning to Assam with a broken heart.
It was during one of those train rides that I became friends with a person who told me about life in Tezpur, the city of love. She was the first person who would ask me out on a date. I didn’t know it was one since I have been always hitting-proof and flirting-proof, and I didn’t show up. A year later, a friend called me a fool and said that I should have gone if I liked her. I had met her when we were both standing at the train door, enjoying the breeze on our faces and the sight of the villages running away from us. In that dry, barren landscape of chrome yellow and mild brown we had felt we were the only ones who were lush with possibilities.
It doesn’t matter that we never went out on a date or met again. Fourteen years later, I still remember it, and, I daresay, if she is reading this, she would remember it, too.
At DU, my mother called every week around 9 pm at the only phone available in my hostel. We would gather around it and wait for calls from home. Some of us had started to own mobile phones by then, some were too cheap to spend Rs 10 from pocket monies to make the long-distance calls.
In 2005, two days before Diwali, 60 people died in a series of blasts in Delhi, 18 of them in Paharganj, where many migrant students camped during the admission season. In the Sarojini Nagar market, where we went to buy cheap clothes, the casualties were higher. Everywhere, the markets were crowded, the traffic worse for the impending festival. As news of the blasts spread, phone networks were jammed. I knew I had to look for a phone to let my worried parents know that I hadn’t gone out that day, that I had been in my hostel room, that I was fine.
There used to be a PCO next to Hindu College. When I walked up to it, I saw that a long queue had already formed outside it. Students had gathered to inform their families that they were safe, to make frantic calls to friends who had been out shopping. In the queue, I heard reports about the blasts, how crowded Sarojini Nagar had been. Someone had seen the injured and the dead in Paharganj and she was traumatised. It was expected that everybody would make short calls. It was expected that we would take some time to connect because the networks were jammed. We were all migrant students with families elsewhere. It was expected we would be together in this.
On my sixth attempt, when the call finally went through, I heaved a sigh of relief. I think my voice quivered. “Pita”, I gasped, “I am fine.” He said: “Why are you calling so late? Is there anything urgent? Here, speak to Ma.” I was so annoyed that I could cry. “You don’t know about the bomb blast?” I wanted to throw the phone at them. By then, my mother was at the other end. “What? What bomb blast?” She started screaming and calling out to everyone in the house, forgetting that I was still on the line. I could hear her say that she was feeling scared and sick.
Months and years later, I would tease them about it — my parents, who had a love-hate relationship with the television. My father worked at the All India Radio and had a disdain for the idiot box. They barely watched it. News of the blast would have only come to them the next day from the papers or on the morning radio news. They would have tried to reach me then, when I was in class, and panicked when they couldn’t get to talk to me. They would have tried to reach my uncle in R K Puram, who had sent me those forms. Until that morning news, my parents’ life would have been undisturbed by sudden news.
There was a certain kind of carefree bliss attached to that life that has now been weaned away from us. Perhaps, the only thing we can to do is to get a semblance of it back. A few hours of life in airplane mode is a thing of luxury.
Aruni Kashyap is assistant professor, creative writing, at the University of Georgia, Athens, USA