The alarm rings. It sounds like birds twittering, the morning chorus from the trees and skies, but it is nevertheless an alarm and if I don’t shut it up, it will twitter again in five minutes. Soon all the reminders set on my phone will tell me what my day will be like. Sometimes my nights too. It is 5.30 in the morning and already the world is rushing into my life demanding time, attention, wit, wisdom and a good morning.
If you were to ask me what made the last decade nothing like what India had known before, it is WhatsApp. Not technology. Nor even smartphones. All that was inevitable. Technology has only one trajectory: a forward surge. That it would take the world with it was bound to happen.
What made it seamless was an app that insinuated itself into our lives with the insidious stealth of a snake crawling in through a drain hole. One day you were sending text messages or emailing each other and then suddenly there was a messaging service that told you if the person you were chatting to was online, whether they had read your messages or were pretending not to have seen them. The double blue tick gave you the power of righteous indignation. It gave you emojis to show how you felt in case words weren’t adequate. And most importantly, was free. (That it cost you via data usage somehow failed to register.) You didn’t need a Blackberry or an iPhone. A plain old Android did the trick and WhatsApp changed Indians forever.
At first, it was the prelude to Tinder and Grinder. You met someone. You exchanged numbers and then you checked if they were on WhatsApp. Later you sent them a hello or a good morning. The geek, the wallflower and the socially inept came into their own. Quips and witticisms, emojis declaring love, kisses and hugs punctuated what once was the comma and full stop’s realm. Where once you waited for the postman to ring the bell or for the trill of the telephone or even the gentle ping of the text message, WhatsApp announced itself with a descending tonal register that in a strange way felt like your intestines descending into the knees. In those early days, e-commerce and work groups had not colonised this messaging service. This was a parallel universe you retreated to every few minutes where you shared the minutiae of your life with a near stranger and received as much if not more in return.
X: Had bf?
Y: Not yet. Did you? What did you eat?
X: Puri aloo… I love puri-aloo
Y: OMG. So do I
X: You know, right from when you said hello, I felt this connection with you [hug emoji]
Y: [heart emoji]
It wasn’t conspicuous, so parents, siblings, spouses or colleagues didn’t intrude or realise what was going on. It was like having a secret friend who was tuned to your every thought and need. You could say what you wanted without flushing in embarrassment or worry about being judged. You could even make out on WhatsApp and no one would even know unless you were the noisy kind. Relationships and friendships between the unlikeliest of people flourished. And all you had to do was ghost someone to end it. The persistent kind could be muted or blocked. Relationship management had hit a new milestone.
A petri dish
Then family, school and work groups crept into what was once just a personal space. It became a great leveller, decimating hierarchies. As voice notes, voice and video calls were enabled, the messaging service became a political tool. WhatsApp had turned into a petri dish where bigots emerged and spat venom. Soon, it became the most effective way to propagate news, most of which was doctored, and to spread baseless rumours that had far-reaching consequences. And like a forest fire, there was no controlling it. So much so that election campaigns played out on WhatsApp. The irony was that each person sharing fake news thought they were doing their contacts a service by sharing it with them.
For centuries, tantrics have been trying to teach the world how to awaken their kundalini. Suddenly, it seemed that all it took was a WhatsApp message to do so. The energy slowly slithered higher up the spine, letting us take control. WhatsApp taught us to make our phones into an extension of ourselves. We were no longer daunted by technology. We had figured out it was there to do our bidding.
It’s 6.30 a.m. I open WhatsApp. I send Ali, a coconut-picker, who lives 500 km away, a message to drop by at my parents’ home. An e-commerce site sends me a ticket. An editor forwards an event photo. I share my location with a friend visiting from another city. I send bank transfer details of a payment made to a vendor. Half a dozen people have already said good morning to me. And so have I.
BTW, I still haven’t got out of bed or said good morning to my living, breathing family all under the same roof as me.
The writer is the author of several novels.