I knew when I received my first roadside call on a cellphone that this thing spelled trouble. The phone was a Motorola and it was a large brick of a monster, heavy enough to brain even a UP/Haryana cop, but that wasn’t its chief attraction. I could walk around the flat with it, but I could also do that with the much lighter wireless handset of my land-line unit. Actually, I’d just moved in to my south Delhi barsaati and my land-line was yet to be activated, so a friend had lent me this ‘mobile’. “Don’t take it out of the house, okay? You might lose it.” Which was, of course, a strong invitation to put the brick in a backpack and take it gallivanting. Well, no, what happened was, one day I was expecting an important call and needed to go and buy something urgently from the local shop (I didn’t yet have the Lala’s phone number), so I aggregatized importance of awaited call, urgency of shopping and possession of mobile telephonic device. Sure enough, just as I was paying for the cigarettes and daalmooth, my backpack shrieked and I hauled out the communication sub-machine-gun. I located the green ‘receive’ button, pushed it with all my strength, and found myself in the first of many, many typical double conversations that our little life-helper has brought into our lives. Caller: “Allo, M’sieu Zhochee?” Me: “Oui, hello.” “Jean-Pierre, calling from Paris to diskguzz your documentary budget.” Me: “Kitna? Pachaas rupiya? Yes, I’m listening, go ahead. Pachaas kaise ho sakta hai?” Caller: “Pas de chasse? Pas quoi? Excyuzzmi? Okay, unh, we were lookeeng-e at ze cost of ze camera hire, seventy-five touzand rupey seems quite high…” Lala (glowering): Fifty rupeej hai toh hai ji! Hum koi zyaada thodi letey hain!” Me: “Oui, Jean-Pierre, camera hire is seventy-five mille…ek badi Gold Flake packet aur daalmooth, fifty ho hi nahi sakta, Lalaji!” Caller: “You can reduce eet to Feefti? Tres bien!” Me: ‘No, no, no, I was talking to the shopkeeper! It’s seventy-five thousand, not high at all!” Caller: “Mais, we are not shopkeepair, we are prodyooction compagnie, okay?”
To this short-circuitry of stereo-negotiations was later injected the layering — the addition to the palimpsest, as postmodernists might put it, the paw-limp-pest as some of us would correct — of the text message. By this time my own-bought Motorola resembled a lunching-ladyship’s compact powder-mirror: it was small and dully shiny, it was clamshell, it flipped open and shut with a satisfying thunk and, looking into it, you didn’t always like what was looking back. The tiny bud of a grey rubber aerial poked out of the top, leading to many ribald comparisons to bodily parts of both sexes and it brought you both sound and fury. This was a simple phone and text device, the text in hazy, pixellated grey against a screen the peculiar colour of green that Lake Gardens’s open gutters took on in the mid-70s monsoons. There were, of course, the tinny-sounding phone calls, as if emanating from the Voyager 1 spacecraft. And then the small, gutter-green rectangle became the bed for many swirling emotions, but the swirls were always straight-jacketed within those miniscule squares that formed the letters that formed your day. “Guru! LVD kaalker lekhaa!” “HOLO na b******a!” “Guess who ws laffing at u last night?” and the ubiquitous, all important “free 2nite??” One ex-Cal Dillibongo friend semi-imploded/exploded when he got one from a non-Indian female person the morning after the morning after: “Ur real Bengal PANTher!”
Despite many such messages, the textress never saw him again and our man couldn’t for the life of him understand why. Around him, all of us friends sniggered that she’d probably met a white tiger somewhere in the swamp-delta of Delhi’s social scene.
There it was in the early 2000s, the perfect instrument for emotionless business communication yet just the thing for flirtation, seduction, heat-maintenance, lying, cleaving and leaving. Obviously it couldn’t get any better. Or more complicated. Or so those of us not wedded to the newly available tech websites imagined. Soon after, the screens were injected with a peculiar dirty ‘colour’, to which was added the grimness of lower-than-low resolution digital photo imagery. No doubt, one day, those ghastly early cellcam pictures will be added to the honour roll of cheap fuzzy imagery that’s ‘so bad it’s cool’, but a traditional photographist such as me breaks out into hives every time I see one of those images. Somewhere in the Noughties I acquired a Motorola RAZR. I’ve always been a style-follower and never a pathbreaker, so I was completely taken by the sleek, flat lines of the advanced clamshell, the comparatively huge screen on which my aging eyes could a) finally read what was actually written and b) could ‘compose’ a message that vaguely resembled the normal Engdeshi I use when communicating to friends via my computer. It even had a slightly more acceptable camera. At the same time, a friend of the same vintage as myself bought a Nokia which had a full qwerty keyboard and a flip-open screen. He retained this ‘phone’ for, like, 10 years. Despite the phone’s (and service providers’) ability to convey adult English this friend still used the old, imploded-Nglsh of the early mobiles, usng his cnsonants to squeeze as mny vowels to deth as pssible. While this textolingo was clearly here to stay, the life of instruments such as my RAZR was being rapidly shaved down by newer and newer devices. For a brief time there was a schizoid division in cellphones which I, for one, miss: you used your mobile for voice conversations and text messaging; and you used it to take photographs, short videos and to make notes; the two sides of the product had nothing to do with each other. But soon, blackberries were bleeding into raspberries like a English summer pudding under huge tectonic pressure, and lo! you could send and receive emails, and then attachments, and then the whole email plant became separate from the ability to send just photographs and videos and so on and so forth, till we landed into the (admittedly sometimes very tasty) digital-khichuri in which we find ourselves today.
People do strange things in reaction to the smartphone world, just as they do in relation to something like the net and Facebook. Even as the Finnish giant shows signs of switching off, I’ve seen lots and lots of people hanging proudly on to their really old Nokias, dilapidated and frayed, screen cracked, all the signs faded from their keypad buttons. I’ve seen badly damaged first generation iPhones being flaunted as fashion statements. I know people who go online strictly once a week for two hours, to answer their emails and I’ve seen more and more people losing the yoke of the mobile phone (however, like billionaires and political leaders, these worthies usually always have someone beside them who has a working cellphone). Recently, one friend bought a mini version of a leading smartphone when they could easily have afforded the big one with all the bells and whistles (it changes the pocket profile of a pair of pants, you see) while another pal is holding out for that particular smartphone, the one that’s ‘only available in America in red’.
I myself celebrated the ouster of the Left Front in WB by buying the leading Android in mid-2011. I’m still quite happy with it; I rarely use it for the net; the camera was overly good for the price and it still holds up against latter models; and after two years and some, it now feels like a part of me.
When I read that the Voyager 1 is now probably out in interstellar space working on a computer that’s several hundred thousand times slower and smaller in capacity than an iPhone I feel awe, I feel like I’m still seventeen, when the thing was launched. And when someone tells me the NSA in the US now has the technology to creep into my individual smartphone and capture my phonebook and all my text messages, I feel little fear: governments, specially Ame-Euro ones have had the technology to photograph my number-plate from a satellite since before I was born, and the wherewithal to read my emails probably since before they released the email technology into the world. The only brick (or old Motorola) I can take to a cyber-snoop’s head is the one of a pretty open life. And if those guys can make head or tail of the double, triple, quadruple conversations I now have in all my different techno-languages then, hell, those Bengal Panthers deserve to know what they think they know.