The first mobile phone I ever owned looked like a delightful little toy. It was minuscule and white, with blue buttons and a tiny blue screen. Phone calls and text messages were all it offered me. Of course, back then, that was all we really wanted mobile phones for. Phone calls you could magically carry around with you wherever you went, not to mention all the instant letters you could write, and receive replies to, within seconds. Never mind that you had to make do with 160 characters. Didn’t Shakespeare convey the loftiest of thoughts with just three words, “Ripeness is all”? Suddenly, you too had a way with words, and nothing was going to hem you in. You were truly free. That one coveted, painfully brief phone call a day with your best friend didn’t have to wait till after 6 pm anymore. And it didn’t have to be painfully brief. No more having to agonize over the landline and its keypad that your mother cruelly kept locked whenever you were near it.
But then, suddenly, frantic parents — throw in panicky grandparents, aunts, uncles, second cousins once removed and the dog walker for good measure — found a way to hound you with calls at all hours of the day; whether you were in class or bunking it, studying at a friend’s place or simply pretending to, drunk silly or stone cold sober. They wanted to know where you were, and they were going to find out. Suddenly, the crusty old landline, stuck to its spot in the living room, unwavering in its rootedness, didn’t make you snort with derision anymore. It almost made you wistful. Back then, they couldn’t get you if you didn’t want them to. It is often said of whirlwind romances that when the first rushes of heady passion subside and familiarity begins to breed contempt, all you’re left with is someone — in this case, something — to be endured. It’s what you’d think when you saw your parent’s name — cleverly saved as “Oh no!” — flashing brightly on your phone’s screen in a dark movie theatre, punctuated by irritable murmurs from your neighbours.
As if that were not enough, mobile phones had to go on and become smart phones. They joined hands with the internet and with online games. They became cameras and computers. And text messages didn’t just remain text messages anymore; they fashioned themselves into communication applications. So now, WhatsApp, Nimbuzz and BlackBerry Messenger ensure that you don’t need to stay immobile in front of a computer screen anymore; just carry your chat windows with you. Be accessible to the whole world, at any time of the day or night. Since proximity and being in each other’s faces all the time is clearly the secret to a successful romantic relationship or a friendship, you ought to make sure that you don’t lose contact even for a second. It doesn’t matter that you simply might not want to talk to anyone on a particular day, or even for a few hours. Your WhatsApp contact will know you’ve read his or her message, since the application records the time you were last seen active and makes that information available to all your contacts. If you want to save face — or a budding relationship, or even your job — just reply to that message. Your unwillingness to immediately comply with the request to “reply fast” is of little consequence; the peace in your life hangs in the balance. If you falter, be prepared to explain why you took so long. Everyone wants to know; you belong to them.
Now, years after the charm has well and truly worn off, you’ll often just find yourself putting your phone on silent mode, a milder expression of the (far more frequent) urge to throw it away. The silence gives you a few minutes of peace from the stress caused by near constant WhatsApp message notifications, alerts from ‘group discussions’ — chat windows where three or more contacts talk to one another — you have got yourself into. That in itself causes more problems than it solves; you end up missing important phone calls because you do not hear the phone ring. You ought not to complain; it’s people like you who equate the loss, or the temporary absence, of one’s mobile phone with the end of the world. But oft when on your couch you lie, in vacant or in pensive mood, all that flashes before your inward eye are the times, long ago, when you didn’t have a mobile phone, fully charged and ready to be attended to in a jiffy, next to your bed at night. That bliss of solitude eludes you. You’re never alone.