By Anahad Madhav Mohapatra
“Lagta hai janaab chal bassey!”
Thirty seconds is a hell of a lot of time. A 400m sprint, average uncle coital duration, the shortest Led Zep guitar solo, but also an unanswered phone ring. The raised eyebrows I get from an unanswered phone paint me yellow like that Lance Armstrong fellow. The wrath is severe.
I hate answering my phone. Which is amazing, because I, like the average millennial, also love my phone. Like my peers, I am wedded to the device, crushing candies like a boss, sending an array of meaningful emojis when a word will do, and sleeping with the damned thang tucked under my well-rounded butt.
So many of us have a far more intimate relationship with our phones today than we probably did with our first girlfriends. Our phones don’t hesitate for even a second, look us squarely in the eye at all times, even when we are at our most vulnerable. For a generation that texts, trolls, and shares so much on social media, we have the uncanny knack of being completely aloof when it comes to phone conversations. At least I know I am.
Fundamentally, a phone call signals a shrewd sense of urgency while a text is a more laidback and polite, methodical animal: the good cop-bad cop of most millennial lives. How did we arrive here? The phone was once a tool of empowerment and agency, not that we did much with it except being on night-long calls ending in “tum rakho, nahin, tum rakho” or ravaging through vacations going back and forth over a barrage of texts.
Bit by bit, as the stranglehold of WhatsApp slowly tightened around the neck of communication, the phone call became a rarity.
Like every good origin story, my fear of the phone comes from high school when my then-girlfriend asked me to not hang up, but simply put my phone next to me and sleep. Why? Because she wanted to “hear me sleep”. Privacy, intimacy, and phone calls are the ménage à trois of my nightmares. Today, strangers have deliberately gotten off shared cabs when they’ve “heard me sleep,” punctuated by hums and meticulously timed snores.
Back in the day, the “text” was an escape that we cherished. If talking over the phone would invite glares from friends and family, texting was a lot more discreet. The dismay of morning assemblies, physics tuitions, irritating family gatherings could be overturned through SMS: The irritating regime of “sup” “dis-dat” and “k” spread like wildfire. I never really gave in to the “Ishan-Awasthi-isation” of the text. Like a true purist, I’d pride myself on composing a text and saying the most with the least number of words. The SMS is now a dying currency, used only by mobile operators and banks.
From the wasteland of SMS and BBM, WhatsApp emerged as a swift game-changer – and I still hold it responsible for the death of the phone call. It promised the simplicity of the BBM model, a profile picture to go, and the go-to middle-class words like “unlimited” and “free”. Together. I tumbled hard down the rabbit hole of WhatsApp.
Suddenly, the phone call wasn’t the first option anymore for a casual chat at dusk. Bit by bit, as the stranglehold of WhatsApp slowly tightened around the neck of communication, the phone call became a rarity. A WhatsApp text was far less obtrusive, a soft ping requesting to be ignored or acknowledged in equal measure.
Now, basic millennial etiquette dictates that the first point of contact with another human being ought to be via text. The phone call requires permission. It’s not like I’m configuring AI bots sitting at home, but even my omelette and I deserve a degree of privacy from what I call “the violence of the call”.
You’re sitting in the train, or walking on the pavement, or lying horizontal with your partner gazing at different walls in different thrusts of intensity when the phone begins its cacophonous symphony. The essential violence of the phone call though, is in the surprise, in the 20-odd seconds when my mind races through all the possibilities that the call might entail.
Once you swipe on the green icon… you’re connected. There are two ways it can go from here, both of which suck: It either devolves into “mindfulness” or “mindlessness”. The first leads you to question every word you say and try and form sentences that are heavier than lead. In the latter, you’re left to deal with wayward responses that are roughly in the range of “oh achha” and “hmmmm” to “bencho-bencho” where you are basically trying to fight the pressure of the conversation, one misplaced emotion at a time. The surprise of the call is like somebody asking you out to a harmless coffee and then trying to discuss Schopenhauer with you.
Maybe we are a generation that only trades in avoidant behaviours, refusing to say what we mean or mean what we say. We can’t walk up to people in a bar to make casual conversation that may or may not lead anywhere. We can’t even forge a connection with the people we want to sleep with, without the subterfuge of a phone screen between us. We’re comfortable broadcasting our selfies to an anonymously intimate audience, but a face-to-face conversation intimidates us. It’s not me – it’s the age. As a dear friend recently reminded me, we’ve gone from “yearn sambandh” to “yon sambandh” to “yawn sambandh” and now we’ve moved on to “gone sab-bandh”.
There’s really no escaping it. Now every time my phone rings, like a Michelin-starred chef or a Neymar with nimble feet, my fingers do an air-taandav, hovering over the screen. Then I press the red icon, let my words fall, and sentences construct themselves in the form of a text. A whole new vocabulary opens up for me while I text, which is far removed from the baby/bae/jaaneman of the phone call. I tell myself that text is a smarter way to communicate, an inherently better phrased way of conveying any emotion.
I’ll wait for the day we can communicate via telepathy, when I will have one more way of not staying in touch. Until then, don’t call me.
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