The gold spilled in my backyard as the sun pulled out another day in front of me. I watched as the inky shadows spread around me warmed up into a colorful world. The white clouds were floating lazily on their back in the pristine sky. I closed my eyes as the humble wind shuffles the leaves of the tree and sings an empty tune. Were they singing my village folk song? I start humming with them. There were still few hours before the jostling lives of this small town takes over this tranquility. I sit on the backyard steps and try to breathe in the view when suddenly my daughter darts right by me and began to walk restlessly in the backyard. She paces right and left holding her mobile phone up to the sky. Now and then she would take few calculated steps here and there and look for a signal on her phone. I could tell she did not get any because she groaned and stomped her feet in frustration.
“What happened chinki?” I asked. She looked back at me startled, suddenly becoming aware of my presence in there. She was probably too lost in her quest for the signal to notice that she scurried by me.
“Maa, there is no signal in here. Do you have any on your phone?” She whined and fiddled with her phone. Desperation clouded her voice.
I smiled at her empathically “I don’t even know where my phone is”
She gave me a disapproving look. “Why don’t you keep your phone with you maa? What if someone is trying to reach out to you?” She was now grown up enough to give me a disapproving look. Children often take the silver of your hair as a signal to assume they are grown up enough. But they still remain the cute cuddly creatures for us. She widened her deep brown eyes and placed her slender hands on her hips. It was almost amusing watching her mirror my behavior.
“I am right here if someone wants to reach out to me..” I chuckled and patted the cold steps in front of me, gesturing her to sit there. She dragged herself and sat there grumpily.
“Generally you are very nick picky about where things are and where they should be. But you don’t even know where you keep your phone..” She furrowed her brows while criticizing my mother like compulsiveness of having things at their proper place.
“It’s not of much use to me. I have so much more to do than to look at my mobile whole day” I said. She just shook her head at me, like she could not understand my reluctance to appreciate this magical device. She stretched her hands again in the air in search for the faint signal but in vain.
“This is why I don’t want to come for vacations in this town. The mobile signals have their own free will. They come and go as they wish!” She plonked her phone on the stairs.
“Why, what happened? Are you waiting for someone’s call?” I asked as I untied her hair and combed through it with my fingers. She always liked it. Something of a ritual that I had missed since she had all grown up and moved out of this house into the big city, pursuing her ambition.
“My manager had asked me to be reachable at all times. What if he is trying to reach out to me right now? He will assume that small town girls are not cut out for the corporate world.” She sighed. It felt strange to hear my sweet little girl talk like a grown up professional. It was just yesterday when she used to talk to clouds about all the curious things. I guess she will always be a little one for me.
I kissed her head. “Don’t worry. I am sure he won’t be up this early. City people don’t have good habits like small town people” I said proudly. She wasn’t much assured and groaned in frustration.
“Still, what will I do if I do not get a signal for the whole day. There is not much that you can do in this town here” she made a face at me.
I chuckled lightly at her comment. Bored? When she was small, she would swing in this yard for hours at a stretch while I sang old folk songs. This backyard was her world .This was my world, where hurry burry of modern life had not touched this town. Ladies from the neighborhood would come along with their children in the lazy afternoon hours and talk about this and that; about clever housekeeping ideas, In-laws problems or about a new recipe for a pickle. Children would have breakfast or lunch in whichever home they land up while playing in the town. The night time electricity cuts used to trigger impromptu picnics in the backyards under the star studded sky. I remember the time when Invitations for ceremonies were delivered at the door steps, with a smile and small talk. The neighborhood used to be alive with chitter-chatter of the people. Now there is a small electronic beep on the phone every time someone posts an invitation to a ceremony on Facebook or sends a bland group text message. I sighed. Perhaps I was just too old to move ahead with this new way of life.
“Ouch..” Chinki exclaimed as my fingers got caught in few of her dry strands of hair.
“Why don’t you oil your hair? Look how weak they have grown” I dropped strands in her hands dismayed. I had spent years oiling them, ensuring a healthy growth and now they lay on her shoulders like a grass.
“Maa, there is this new shampoo with which you don’t need to oil hair. It nourishes without it” She gave a feeble excuse to cover up for her laziness. What type of shampoo is this that turned the silk I grew with my own hands into this brown grass?
“Wait, I will get mustard oil. You need good old head massage” I got up determined and went inside.
“NO Maa! It takes so much time to get off mustard oil. I will oil them later. Promise!” She coaxed from behind, trying to lure me into her false promise.
“Where do you have to go? You have all the time in the world to wash it off” I quickly heated a bowl of mustard oil and came out. A small part of me was happy. She rarely comes home for vacation nowadays, and that too never gets off her mobile or laptop even then. When will I get these moments of peace with her? It will be over the second a faint signal seeps into her mobile.
I positioned her head below mine and parted her hairs in one straight line “Maa..” She protested weakly as I started oiling her hair with great vigor. She seemed to have forgotten the magic of my head massages. I used to massage her hair for hours under the afternoon sun. Sometimes other kids from the neighborhood would come and I would tell them stories while I gave massage to each one of them. They would sit in a circle around me, looking with their wide eyes as I would tell them the stories of the past and future, of bravery and grit, teaching them about life and death. Then another storyteller came; Television, a sensational technological revolution for this small town. I think it was guptaji’s daughter in-law that got it in dowry the very first time. People used to gather in hoards to watch Ramayana or parliament Budget. Sure, it brought the whole world at our door steps, but the people sitting around it were miles apart, watching it passively, hooked for hours. Video games came along with it and kids were locked inside the room living a life of thrill; Digital drug. I never gave my Chinki any. Oh! The fights she had for this. But what was the use? Eighteen years later, she is right into another drug; Internet. I sighed and pressed her temples efficiently while massaging.
Her shoulders relaxed “On second thought…” she tilted her head back and grinned at me “it does feel nice.” I smiled.
“That is why you should come here often….you cannot have these massages over skype call or phones,” I said trying to keep the disappointment away from my voice. I had fought with her dad to get her mobile phone when she went to college. It had cost us a fortune at the time. The minutes dictated how much we can share, how much we can talk. The leisure of small talk was cut short into the things that were most important.
Still, we talked every day, then weekly, and then occasionally. She would visit during vacations, but less often. I guess with Skype and all this video chatting she missed us less, visited less. A virtual proxy whenever you need to see anyone. But touch has a memory of its own, feel of its own, which cannot be replaced. How could I have known how her hair felt through it? How dry had it gotten without my head massages? She had gifted me a mobile with her first salary. But the touch of its buttons did not feel anything like her skin. How would I ensure it was not cold or hot enough for her? Over one vacation she taught me how to use Facebook and twitter. She said I could reach millions with just one click.
“What about the people near us? ” I had asked and she looked at me strangely. It seemed to me that we had lost near ones in a bargain that brought strangers near. What do I do to connect to people who live around me, who walk right by me while twitting and chatting away the banalities of life that come in their way? How do I bring back in my deserted backyard, that people who used to fill it with life? This tree which held strings of swings now stands naked with its arms stretched out, calling the kids to hug it back. How do I urge them to come back with this device?
“Maa…” Chinki suddenly said breaking my chain of thoughts “ You always used to sing while oiling my hair. When did you stop it?” She asked curiously for the first time in nine years. Realizing in that silence of the digital world, what was amiss in this real world.
“I still sing..you just stopped listening,” I said in a small voice but I think she understood. Whom should I sing for? I sing for the morning wind and the birds that are still there for me. What shall I sing for the ears which are clogged with the wires, eyes that are hooked on the device and heads that are chained down to one screen? What should I talk to the people who greet me in the virtual world, but was sans eye contact in the real one? I braided her oiled hair and knotted it into a delicate bunch and sat next to her, to seize this small moment and talk while she can look at me, while she can listen to my voice and feel my hands on her head. So that she can remember how her mother felt and how she smelled like I remember my mother.
“So.. how is your new home in the city…” I asked looking into her brown eyes, eyes which were just like mine.
She turned to answer when suddenly her mobile came to life and chimed.
“Ahhh signal is here..” She picked up her phone eagerly and looked into it and just like that she was lost again in a different world. I got up silently and walked towards the tree. I looked up at the sky, the sky which was now claimed and crowded by technology and scarred the beautiful sky with wires and towers, which brought a million strangers into the virtual life and left the close one stranded alone. I had denied this privileged prison, where the illusions of the faraway land rob the present surroundings of their existence. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. To roll back into the magical time when hearty laughter of the kids echoed in my backyard when expressions were much more eloquent, much more unique than the exclamation mark or emoji on the mobile text; when the touch of the skin had not been replaced by the touch of the screen. Perhaps… I was the only audience of this real world.
I felt a soft hand on my shoulders. I turned to see Chinki standing beside me, her mobile placed on the steps.
“Why don’t you sing now Maa. I will join you today..” She said smiling. My eyes lit with happiness; perhaps some were coming back. We started singing, our voice cutting through the beeps and chimes of the phones and tv noises surrounding us, calling out others to the world of living.