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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Let’s talk...

Text messages and emails are all very well; but they are no substitute for a real conversation

Okay, be honest now. How many of you use a mobile phone or a laptop to communicate with people in the same house? Do you text your spouse to say that dinner is ready when he or she is just a room away? Do you BBM your kids to tell them that they are getting late for school and need to step on it? Do you phone your household help from the bedroom to ask them to lay out breakfast? I have to plead guilty to the last. I know it is a bit shaming but I find that switching on my mobile and calling on the landline to ask for coffee and toast gives me an extra ten minutes in bed. And on some days, that can make all the difference.

The reason I am asking you these intrusive questions this Sunday morning is because a recent survey conducted by a British company found that as many 45 per cent of the respondents admitted to using mobile devices to communicate with family members even when they were all in the same house. And I am guessing – thanks to an entirely unscientific and unrepresentative survey conducted among my friends – that it is much the same in India.

Kids instant message their moms to find out what was for dinner. Moms text their kids to remind them that’s there’s tennis after school that day. Husbands BBM wives to tell them they are running late (and vice versa).

Sometimes there are good reasons for using this method of communication. If you text or email your husband that he needs to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home, there is a greater chance that he will remember to do so. And if he forgets you will have written evidence that you did remind him to do that and that he forgot. Not only will this save you an endless argument on the lines of ‘Yes, I did tell you’ ‘No, you didn’t’ it will also help to conclusively establish that it was HIS fault. (Of course this will lead to endless whining about how ‘everything’ seems to be his fault; but you are probably used to that.)

So yes, it’s always good to have a record of stuff like that. Ditto, what time the PTA meeting is; which weekend has been blocked off for a visit to the in-laws; whose turn it is to pick up the kids from school; when the credit card payment falls due. Using text messaging or email to discuss stuff like this makes sense.

And who can deny that the day gets a little brighter when you see a message from your significant other in your inbox with the tagline ‘I love you’ or even ‘Miss you’. A missive like that can make even the most dreary work meeting easier to get through.

But that said, there is a lot of stuff that we really should be saying face-to-face – and we simply don’t. And however much we may regret it, there is simply no denying that non-verbal communication is on the rise. What’s more, every generation seems to be as guilty as the next. A few years ago, I would berate my young nieces and nephews for instant messaging their friends rather than simply picking up the phone and talking to them. Now I find myself texting or BBM-ing my friends, with whom I would have had long phone conversations in more low-tech times.

So, why exactly are we so leery about having a real conversation these days? Partly it is that we don’t want to seem intrusive. Everyone has busy lives and we don’t want to call and make a nuisance of ourselves. It’s much easier to respond to a text than a phone call, we tell ourselves, as we put off a nice, long chat yet again. But at least part of the problem is that simply don’t want to invest the time and effort required to have a proper heart-to-heart with those we love. We’d much rather exchange a line or two on the phone or via email than participate in a meaningful exchange.

But when we cease to have conversations, we miss out on much more than we realise. Effectively, we are raising a generation that is incapable of picking up on verbal cues and micro-expressions because of the lack of face-time in their lives. We are creating a world in which emoticons are replacing emotions; and where human interface is being nudged out by hyper-connectivity. And in the process, we are all becoming a little less human ourselves.

So, the next time you have something to say to those who love and cherish, just say it. Don’t email, text, BBM or instant message. Pick up the phone and talk.

Sometimes it is nicer to hear a human voice than a ping that announces the arrival of yet another email. And it’s always better to exchange smiles with someone (or just hear a smile in their voices) rather than see a smiley in their text messages.  

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Life is too short...

So, be sure to make the most of every moment you are granted

Life is too short. Life can be fragile. It can end in an instant. Live each moment as if it were the last, because it might well be.

We hear these phrases so often that it becomes easy to dismiss them as clichés. And we trot them out ourselves often enough without ever pausing to consider what they really mean. And then comes a moment when we come face to face with the reality of how short life really is, and how quickly it can end. And in that instant, we realise just how badly we have failed to make the most of it before it ended.

The transience of life was brought home to me last week when I attended the memorial service of a friend’s father, who had passed away suddenly in his late 60s, despite being in perfect health. And as I heard the moving tributes paid to him by his friends and family, I couldn’t help but think how much we take life for granted – right until the moment when it is rudely snatched away from us.

It is never easy to lose a parent. But that blow falls much harder when it lands on your solar plexus completely out of the blue. I know how that feels. In my early 20s, I awoke one morning to a phone call that told me that my father had passed away. I took a flight back home catatonic with shock. It had never occurred to me that my last conversation with him would, in fact, be my last conversation with him. How I wished then, clutching my grief to myself, that it had not been quite so banal. How I berated myself for not saying all the things that I would never again get to say.

That’s the thing with sudden loss. You never really get a chance to make peace with it. No matter how much people try to convince you that this was for the best, and that it was good that death didn’t come after a long and painful illness, it is hard to reconcile yourself to a bereavement that comes out of nowhere. However debilitating a long illness may be, and however unbearable it is to see someone you love suffer, it gives people the chance to get used to the idea that the end will come, sooner or later. And in some sense, the shock of loss is blunted, if only slightly.

But when life ends in an instant, all that remains is regret for all the stuff that you did not get to do, the things you never got to say, the fights that remained unresolved, the anger never expressed, the love never given voice to, the hugs never exchanged.

And that’s when you realise that the phrase ‘live every moment as if it might be the last’ is not a cliché. It is a truth that we should wake up to every morning and clutch to ourselves every night when we go to sleep.

On a more mundane, everyday level, this means getting your affairs in order. Don’t put off writing your will because you feel that it is tempting fate, or simply because you think that you are far too young to think of stuff like that. Make sure your spouse/parent/child knows where the keys to the bank locker are and what the combination to the safe is. If you want to be an organ donor, sign up now. Don’t burden your kids with the decision of how your medical care should go; leave clear instructions while you are still in control of all your faculties.

But while taking care of the practicalities, don’t let the emotional side of life slide past you. Hold your kids tight every day and tell them how much you love them. Kiss your spouse goodbye every morning when you leave the house. Don’t ever go to bed angry; always make up before your head hits the pillow. And most importantly, don’t leave anything – good, bad or ugly – unsaid. Express your anger and resentment and get it out of your system. Reconcile your differences. Share your feelings with those who matter while you can; or be racked with regret later.

And while you’re at it, don’t put off anything for tomorrow that you could do today. Don’t postpone that family holiday for the following summer because you are overworked at the office. If you’re missing a friend, pick up the phone and speak to her now. Get your grandmom to tell you the stories of her childhood. Start that book you’ve been meaning to read forever. Make your own bucket list, and promise yourself you’ll tick one thing off every week.

Yes, life is far too short. It can end in an instant. So, be sure to make every moment count.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Spring is in the air

And with it, comes the promise of new beginnings...

Did I happen to mention that winter was my favourite season? Well, dear reader, I lied. As the weather warms up, the nights get balmier, the days longer, I realise – as I do every year, without fail – that my favourite season is, in fact, spring. The trees begin to get green again, the flowers start to bloom, and it gets that much easier to struggle out of a snug bed every morning. What’s not to love about spring?

So, while we are on the subject, let me count the many ways I love this season; and the many things I love about it.

First up, are the flowers. I have always loved the way Delhi is transformed by the colourful waves of flowers which raise their pretty little heads, nodding in the cool breeze as if they were acknowledging the arrival of warmth and happiness. There is the brilliant red of salvia, peeping forth from deep green leaves, as if asking Nature if it was safe to come out and play. There is the riotous joy of fuchsia and the wild profusion of pansies, as they threaten to destroy the symmetry of flower beds everywhere. And then, there’s my personal favourite: the Nargis (or Narcissus) flower, with its sweet, delicate aroma and shy white and yellow petals, looking a trifle embarrassed about being made much of.

But my love for spring pre-dates my love for Delhi. Growing up in Calcutta, spring (or Basant, as it was called in my household) was heralded by the most important festival in my calendar: Basant Panchami. For us kids, this meant Saraswati Puja, where we would wake up early in the morning, have ritual baths, wear something yellow, and start the day by worshipping the Goddess of Learning. It was an utterly unasked-for bonus that this was also a study-free day, because all my school-books had to be placed reverently at the feet of the Goddess so that she could bless them at her leisure, and I could spend my time reading my favourite Enid Blytons.

This was also the first day that we were allowed to eat ber, a fruit that has come to be associated with Goddess Saraswati. The prevalent superstition was that you would fail your exams if you ate ber before the day of Saraswati Puja. Fervent believers all, we would faithfully steer clear of the fruit until Basant Panchami, and then gorge ourselves silly. This not only introduced us to the concept of abstinence but also taught us that everything tastes better after a spell of deprivation – an invaluable lesson to learn in life.

Those rituals of childhood – and the superstitions that came with them – are long gone, but the arrival of Basant Panchami still puts an extra spring (pun entirely unintended) in my step. And adulthood has brought its own spring rituals with it. A pedicure to spruce up unsightly winter feet, hidden away for months behind socks and boots. Waxing arms and legs, so that sweaters can be peeled off and skirts worn without any embarrassment. Packing away winter clothes and digging out the cottons and linens languishing forgotten at the back of the closet. And bidding goodbye to layering, which can turn the slimmest among us into little butter-balls.

It’s not entirely surprising, then, that so many of us embark on special fitness programmes around this time. The weather is just right to go for a morning or evening walk. And there’s no excuse for that glass or two of alcohol to warm you up at night. You can forgo the dense soups for a light salad made from crunchy spring vegetables and not feel deprived. You can give up calorific cappuccinos for refreshing iced tea. And if you’re lucky, maybe in a month or so you can get rid of all the lard you’ve accumulated over winter and get back into your old summer clothes.

Or better still, you can do that one thing that actually takes its name from the season: spring-cleaning. Throw out all the old stuff that is cluttering up your life (not to mention your mind-space) and create the space to bring some newness to your life. This could mean anything from last season’s Anokhi kurtis which no longer fit to old acquaintances who bring you down with their negativity. Throw out everything (and everyone) who doesn’t add anything to your life. And use the space cleared to fill your life with positivity, joy and good cheer. 

So, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and enjoy spring while it lasts. Go for a walk. Eat an ice-cream. Enjoy the feel of wet grass on your feet. Buy a beautiful new dress. Paint your nails green. Wear flowers in your hair. Start a journal. Sign up to learn a new language. Take dance classes. Be brave. Make new beginnings. It is the season to do just that.