Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

When I was young, the media engaged as access to wider world.

Now it sticks crowded world into everything. No quiet moments of solitude anymore. It is an epidemic of others in your head. My old phone has no Internet; I only text and answer calls. No apps, no Facebook, no anything else I don’t yet know of. Not having a smartphone, my friends assure me, condemns me to oblivion. The world’s business, they warn, is being swept into smartphones by a tsunami of money. Being one with the swarm is the smartest option in life reduced to beehive. It puzzles. `Smart’ owes much to apartness. By which yardstick, thinking independently should be smart. Perhaps there isn’t anything called independence in consumerist world. You go where business goes.

Every time I step into a Mumbai commuter train, I feel disappeared. Everyone has a smartphone. I used a cassette player when train commuters shifted to CD player; a CD player when they moved to MP3 player and now, a MP3 player as they do finger tip-magic on their all-in-one smartphone – it takes calls, types, plays music, screens movies, makes payments, plays games. What doesn’t it do? I hang on to my old phone for the relief of what it doesn’t do. “ What matters is the music and how well you listen to it. Smartphone, MP3, CD or cassette – that’s irrelevant,’’ I argued. My friend was unimpressed. “ How long will you be like this?’’ he asked. Working in a bank, he knows the tsunami has started. They are jamming whole banks into the smart phone. When he speaks so, I picture myself in deep space, waving good bye to planet Earth. You have seen that scene many times in movies – the actor reaches out to you like a drowning individual and then slowly recedes, becoming smaller and smaller (all the while reaching out) till he disappears into inky blackness. I am hurled towards Pluto. Cut! Actually, I should be grateful for having a friend who is concerned. What he told me was for my own good. I was thinking of all this when I boarded the train for my daily rendezvous with fading.

Early evening-trains usually bring a rush of college students. This was a Saturday. The youngsters were there but not many. I took my seat and pulled out my MP3 player from the bag. The young man next to me moved closer to the window; he kept his bag between us. Another of the tech-savvy, keeping distance from the obsolescent, I thought. Relax man, I don’t infect and even if I do it is just this harmless disease called hyposmartivity, entirely curable with a prick to the ego – I wanted to tell him. Then he returned his phone to the bag and pulled out a book. That was when I noticed his phone, very similar to mine. Unable to contain myself, I told him, “ you know I thought I am the only one still walking around with a phone like that.’’  He laughed. “ Yeah, I carry an old one,’’ he said tad sheepishly as nerds do when confronted with their lack of mainstream cool. As he spoke, he glanced around nervously at some of the other seats, where smartphone-totting youngsters sat, glued to their screens.

“ I don’t want a smartphone. I am happy with what I have. But they say I will have to upgrade because our money is going to be managed using smartphones,’’ I said. Despite my guard, my cynicism showed through. It always does, for I feel angry that life is increasingly about swimming with one tide or the other. Those who won’t, should seek exile – that’s the emergent logic. Makes me wonder – what happened to interesting people? You know the sort who felt life by exploring the universe alone. Stay positive, stay positive – I pinched myself. The college student smiled – a sorry you lost but don’t tell me you weren’t warned-smile. “ In my case, I know what smartphones can do. But if I carry one, I won’t study. It is a distraction. So I don’t keep one,’’ the youngster said. What? – I was stunned. For a second, I must have looked like Utpal Dutt’s Bhawani Shankar beholding Amol Palekar’s Ramprasad Dashrathprasad Sharma in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s wonderful film, Gol Maal. I looked at the young man, eyes open wide in admiration. “ Appreciate that, your ability to know what you want and choose accordingly,’’ I said. It was as much encouragement to the other as it was discreet pat on the back for my own eccentricities. That evening on the train, I didn’t hide my MP3 player. I let myself be.

I think that young man will find his way abroad to a fine university. He seemed studious, hard working and committed enough to do that. Having dodged the smartphone to study well, go overseas and make his mark, what will he do next? Side with the swarm and sell me a smarter smartphone? To uncle with love – free ticket to Pluto. Who knows? A few days after this train journey, a good friend, concerned about my obsolescence, put her foot down and said I am getting her old smartphone as she is upgrading. God bless her. But the eccentric devil in me can’t help feeling amused – a device with so many functions to manage freelance writer’s paltry income? It is overkill. Still, I will go with it; be smart for a change.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)