It all started one evening when Prakash got a new phone from his office. It was the company policy for all employees to use an Apple phone and he had got a free upgrade from his old keypad standard phone to a smart phone. Everything, yes, everything was on the phone, the world squeezed into a map, too was in the phone. From his email to his grocery list, Facebook to maps and the home saw the changes too. Prakash and Radha discontinued the newspaper service, the milkman was gone too along with the sabzi wala. Manoj, the milk man had created such a scene for they had stopped the service and his visits too. Radha had to keep her cool and explain the change to him. She wasn’t very confident about the viability of the app and grocery store deliveries and didn’t want to cut ties with him forever. What if the apps don’t work? She had thought best to keep the human link but Prakash was quick to download apps of games and grocery stores. The morning routine with numerous doorbells changed to Sunday deliveries. Milk in week long shelf life cartons and appointments for doctors, Prakash and Radha were now living through the phone. The investments, insurance policies and bank statements too were on one touch. The touch was magical.

Routines change with technology and here was a household changing. Radha was excited about it. The apps were saving her the many rounds to the market for little things. All she had to do was draw up lists and every Sunday Prakash would place the order and things would come home to them. This was the life in the high tech city of Gurgaon. Radha had cribbed about moving to the suburbs as she knew that her circle of friends and relatives would find it difficult to bridge the Delhi-Gurgaon gap and lose touch. When Prakash’s office moved him to the Gurgaon branch, the next obvious thing was to move the house too. The excitement of a new house for Radha was constantly coupled with anxiety. She couldn’t understand what it was. How everything was moving at a fast forward speed. She was nostalgic but not apologetic. She found herself often in her sixth floor balcony wondering how the world was moving on wheels and wires, and she was merely an onlooker. Hung along with the clothes on the clothesline in the balcony, Radha would spend hours staring at the empty road and the rustling tree tops. The birds would come and go, the sun would rise and set, and she was always there and anxious. Every evening the chirping birds made her jealous. Almost teasing her with their chatter. The happiness of conversations now materialized in discussions about the shirt colour, battles of technology, and rehearsed answers to questions about the day. How many seats on a dining table make for a good one? Didn’t matter as the visitors were far and few and Prakash mostly did not remember what he had eaten for the last meal. And of course, the app for furniture, was only one of the many for shoes, clothes, masalas, under garments, movies, and the rest of the world.

Prakash would end the day at office and come back exhausted. The life was slowing down and falling into a routine. Sometimes reality is more fixed than a stereotype. The middle class lives are stereotypical lives and weekend mall trips are supposed to compensate for all the gaping gaps. Prakash kept adding apps on his phone to fill the gaps. The morning newspaper, the emails of all the three accounts that had to be synced, WhatsApp, Facebook, live streaming of his favourite stand-up comedian, the ceremonial wishes and responses to the Boss’ jokes, and finally during dinner the day-long store of newsfeed on Instagram and Facebook and a closure to the day with his favourite Temple Run and then sleep for the red, strained, bulging eyes.

Before Radha could register the emptiness, she became addicted to it. The emptiness caused by Prakash’s phone had to be filled. Radha had not complained or demanded a new phone. She had not been able to state her complaint. And what really was her problem? No, even she had not known. How badly she had wished to find a lipstick mark or a torn movie ticket alluding to Prakash’s affair; at least that would end the mysterious misery. Or maybe, if Prakash would be a bad and violent person, she would be able to huff and puff and leave. How here, there was nothing. Prakash passed the test of virtue, the agni pariksha and sat down to pass the next level of Temple Run. That day Radha had wondered at the run. What was Prakash running after, through the aimless run? Jumping to collect Gold coins and smiling at the clink-clank of the coins and the curve straightening soon after. The smile would evaporate immediately leaving him with a dumb stony stare into the lit up screen.

In February, they celebrated their fifth anniversary and Prakash gifted Radha, a new phone. It was an upgrade. Yes, ‘upgrade’ from a keypad and rock solid phone to a dainty (still cheap) phone. The upgrade was good as the mirror screen kept flashing a smile back at her, whenever she saw it. She too was ‘smart’ now. Then came the frenzied downloading of apps. She even downloaded Tinder. No no, there is no affair. Or maybe there is, for now Radha and the phone were inseparable, almost as if an extension of her being. She would periodically change her DPs, statuses, make comments, share videos, click numerous selfies, obsess about the software updates, circulate jokes and news items, and ritualistically change the phone cover every month. The compensations for a dried and dead heart. The beating heart and an increased pulse at notifications and ‘likes’ were all an adrenaline rush to her. The first thing that she touched every morning was not his beard, but the battery charger. The robotic ramming into each other in the hall way as their phones continued to light their faces. Words were not exchanged, eyes did not meet, hands did not touch; an eerie silence lingered intercepted by short vibrations and vintage phone ringtones.

Amidst all this…

Radha had never imagined that the time left emptied by him would be spent reading the stories of strangers on Facebook. She had never imagined that she would be spending time with a lifeless phone, chasing some hollow goals on Temple Run or crushing Candy for her crushed heart. And of course, Radha had never imagined that she could spend an entire evening liking pictures of people whose faces had changed to the point of invisibility.  She had never imagined that they would be tagging each other ‘At home with…’

She had never imagined that she would lose touch for a touch.

 

Namrata Jain

Namrata Jain

Namrata Jain has taught literature in English for a decade at the University of Delhi. She earned her M.A. in English from the University of Delhi and her doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her area of interest/research has been feminism, literary theory, European drama, post-colonial studies, and Contemporary Indian Theatre. She has been actively engaged in theatre since 2002.

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