"What’s a blogger?" my grandmother asked suddenly, during my last visit to her house. She’d been seeing my Blog.com columns in Business Standard for several weeks - reading them keenly without understanding most of the content. Seeing my name on the thing was enough to make her happy; she knew better than to ask too many questions about something that was so far removed from her own world. But on this occasion she was all charged up: the catalyst was that I had been referred to as "a popular Delhi-based blogger" in a story done by another newspaper. Now she wanted to know what it all meant. Her grandson was "a popular" what?
The question threw me back to the days when I first started writing professionally. The great joy of those early bylines was being able to show them off to family - that was always the big attraction of getting my name published back then (and to an extent it still hasn’t changed). Whatever appeared in print was zealously subscribed to, cut out and hoarded by my grandparents, but the bylines that appeared only online (on the Britannica India website, for instance) were a different matter. I would take printouts of those along on my weekly visits and try to explain that I wrote these articles "on the computer". That much they understood; what evaded them was how it was possible for other people, on other computers, to access them. "You mean people come to your computer and read these articles there?" was the inevitable bemused question, as I tried uselessly to explain phone lines, modems and data transference.
I felt the disconnect between my world and theirs most clearly then. In her heyday my grandmother had travelled widely around Europe as a diplomat’s wife, stayed at embassies, attended and hosted grand dinners; she fondly recalls being present at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1952. She’s seen more of the (physical) world than I yet have, though it’s another matter how well she remembers all the places she’s been to and lived in. But in the past couple of decades, through a combination of family tragedies, old age and illness, she’s been largely cut off from the outside world. She’s never even seen a computer up close. Explaining the concept of the Internet to her, without being able to demonstrate it, is as tough as explaining rocket science to someone from the 18th century (not that I’d be able to explain rocket science to anyone anyway).
The other reason the question strummed a melancholic chord was, it reminded me that much of the writing I enjoy doing is of little relevance or interest to the people who matter most. Discussions on what goes on in the blogosphere (which they know nothing about), reviews of films they’ll never see, reviews of books they’ll never read (my grandmother did once show interest in a book after seeing one of my reviews, but nothing came of it; fading eyesight and concentration means that she can barely even read one page of a magazine now without taking a long break).
Ironically, the few times they can enthusiastically discuss something I’ve written is when I do the boring, reportage-driven industry stories I dislike doing: the ones where every second para begins with something fatuous like "Plans are also underway to expand into other cities..." blah blah blah. I used to feel mildly irritated when my grandparents would say they’d enjoyed a story I had done on the latest trends on the watch industry, or on luxury shoe brands. Annoyed as I already was about having to do work of that nature, I came close to snapping that this wasn’t really my writing: it was information that had been collected and clinically put together, and then in all probability rewritten by the editor. But then I realised that they felt comfortable with these stories: they could understand them, relate to them, and so they wanted to talk about them. And consequently, I started valuing that kind of work as well, acknowledging that it did have a place somewhere. However dissatisfied I personally felt with it, at least it had the effect of letting my grandparents know that there was a point where my life intersected theirs.
Back to the "blogger" question: I’m still trying to explain the answer, and not doing a very good job of it. I’ve taken my laptop along to her house to show her the web pages saved as HTMLs, but that’s about as far as it can go. It feels odd. One of my earliest childhood memories is of this same lady giving me an idealised description of how a train is put together: how each compartment is carefully furnished with all the things a traveller might need, how all the compartments are finally joined together to make a living, breathing chook-chook. It was described so vividly that when I think of a train even today, I think of that imagined, brand-new marvel rather than any of the actual trains I’ve seen.
Today, when it’s my turn to explain the Internet and what I do in that strange faraway world, no words seem adequate. This is more than a generational gap: we might as well have been born several centuries apart.