Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Netizen’s lament

"What’s a blogger?" my grandmother asked suddenly, during my last visit to her house. She’d been seeing my 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 with my granddad, stayed at embassies, attended and hosted grand dinners; she fondly recalls being present at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. 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.


  1. This post is a good reminder of how provisional this whole world is. Some people get very wrapped up in blogging, but ultimately it's still a relatively self-contained little universe. It's probably wise to frequently remind oneself that it's just blogging, and that most people (your grandmother isn't the only one) don't even know what that word means.

  2. Thanks Amardeep. Agree with the first part of your comment. But speaking purely for myself, the "it's just blogging" bit is questionable. Blogging has done me a lot of good in the past year, including on the professional front - and that in turn has impacted my family in a good way.

    (Of course, that might bring us back to the old conundrum about professional life vs personal life.)

  3. Hey Jai - enjoyed reading your piece. Last year, in the winter holidays in Delhi I tried explaining ( with similar success ) the whole concept of blogging to my 94 year old naani. Have always chatted to her about the trendiest of things - from boyfriends to the different kinds of bollywood casting couches .. , but this one was a killer !

  4. Great piece, Jai. Enjoyed reading it.

  5. Very nice Jai. I think that's the peculiar nature of any web-based activity (email, blogging), you'd only know it when you do it yourself, it's all very hands-on. I have some extremely tech-savvy friends who still do not know what blogging is all about since they don't have one of their own.

    Perhaps you can walk your grandmother through the whole process of creating a new blog, finding other blogs (read out some posts to her) and then leave comments and read out some comments as well. I'm sure she'll find it fun!

  6. Wait! You're telling me there's more to life than blogging and reading Forster? That you would actually, voluntarily connect to other people?

    Nice post, though. It made me think of this beautiful Szymborska poem that I've always related to:

    In praise of my sister

    My sister doesn't write poems,
    and it's unlikely that she'll suddenly start writing poems.
    She takes after her mother, who didn't write poems,
    and also her father, who likewise didn't write poems.
    I feel safe beneath my sister's roof:
    my sister's husband would rather die than write poems.
    And, even though this is starting to sound as
    repetitive as Peter Piper,
    the truth is, none of my relatives write poems.

    My sister's desk drawers don't hold old poems,
    and her handbag doesn't hold new ones.
    When my sister asks me over for lunch,
    I know she doesn't want to read me her poems.
    Her soups are delicious without ulterior motives.
    Her coffee doesn't spill on manuscripts.

    There are many families in which nobody writes poems,
    but once it starts up it's hard to quarantine.
    Sometimes poetry cascades down through the generations,
    creating fatal whirlpools where family love may founder.

    My sister has tackled oral prose with some success,
    but her entire written opus consists of postcards from vacations
    whose text is only the same promise every year:
    when she gets back, she'll have
    so much
    much to tell.

  7. Jai, lovely evocative post. This reminds me of my dad's first questions every time I called him from the US for more than 10 years, "so what time is it there now?" followed by "and what day is it?" He was (and still is) enormously tickled by the time difference. And he cannot wrap his mind around the fact that Michael J Fox was going back to the future ("how can you go back to the future?"). You're right, it's more than a generation gap.

  8. Hey Jai, As usual a fabulous articulation of a touching moment.Reminded me of the time when I was explaining to my mom how to use her cellphone(send message,receive calls etc)and how impatient I used to get when she couldnt get somethings.Your post made me feel guilty about it :-(

  9. Falstaff: loved the poem

    Your post reminded me of a sher:
    mili hawaon mein udne ki woh sazaa yaaron
    ke mai zameen ke rishton se kat gaya yaaron

    Never mind. Shared understanding is a fine bridge between people, but there are others.

  10. Very nice, Jai. Touching. You should do a bit more of this kind of writing... on the blog, I mean. I'm sure you do otherwise.

  11. Great post. Reminds me of a friend who was trying to teach her mom to use a mouse - "move it left," "move it right" and finally "now move it up." At the last instruction, the poor lady lifted up the mouse in the air, and my friend was torn between laughing and feeling bad.

    You also touch on a larger point - over time, we have gotten ahead of the people we once looked up to - parents, grandparents, teachers; and in the case of people we love, the realization is painful.

  12. Thanks for the nice comments everyone. Karthik: getting ahead of the people we looked up to is exactly the point I initially wanted to make. It makes me feel strangely guilty, for instance, when my mom comes into my room, looks through my books, and I know she wouldn’t really be interested in most of them - that her tastes would run more towards the kind of writing I think of as simplistic and naive.

  13. Strange. If mine was the story your grandmother saw that led to questions on blogging, I had a similar experience. My mom, faithful reader and vocal admirer, couldn't hide the disappointment in her voice over the phone when she asked me plaintively "Why don't you write about something we can understand?" I hear of parents who are very Net-savvy and can even e-mail and all, but I am just thankful my parents have learnt to use the cell phone. Hell, my mom can even send SMSs now!

  14. Terrific post.

    It's not difficult explaining blogging to a layperson. We start with a brief introduction to TCP/IP and HTTP...


  15. This is certainly a sensitive post -- but I'm not sure if being a Netizen or part of the blogosphere necessarily means being "ahead" of anybody or anything. Your grandmother and others like her are NOT "behind" just because they don't live on the Internet. And they are still people to look up to -- they don't have to look up to Netizens and Netizens don't have to look down upon them. They just inhabit two different worlds -- both at the same place, neither ahead nor behind. Tanya

  16. Tanya: I'm a bit surprised by the strident tone of that comment, especially the "they are still people to look up to" bit. I certainly have no argument with anything you've said there; what was it about my post that made you think I did?

  17. Lovely post, Jai. As for explaining what a blog is - I don't think that's true of just people from our parents' and granparents' generation. I've had trouble (although not quite in the 'what is a computer?' league) explaining the answer to that to a non-blogger/non-blog reader. But then again, the definition of a blog is an ever changing one, so that perhaps has a little something to do with it.

    Hello from a regular reader and first time commenter :)

  18. Sorry, that wasn't meant to sound strident -- just emphatic. And it wasn't really the post -- which as I said was sensitively written -- but the comments I was reacting to.
    "You also touch on a larger point - over time, we have gotten ahead of the people we once looked up to - parents, grandparents, teachers; and in the case of people we love, the realization is painful."
    And then:
    "...getting ahead of the people we looked up to is exactly the point I initially wanted to make."
    The idea was merely to make a point -- and not sound rabid. :-) T

  19. Maybe "gotten ahead" was not the right phrase to use, but the point is that you know more than them in certain fields.

    At one point in your life, you thought your parents knew everything, so the realization that that's not true is painful. Doesn't mean you don't look up to them anymore.

  20. Karthik: Am reminded of Wilde's famous line about how children begin by loving their parents, after a time they judge them, rarely, if ever, do they forgive them (for maximum impact read with CSNY's Teach your Children playing in the background).

    Oh, and just to make a change from the soggy nostalgia of the comments on this post - let me say that parents / grandparents not understanding about blogs is not without its advantages. I finally managed to get my parents to point where they read my blog regularly - with the result that I can't put a fiction piece up without having to do a three hour conversation with my mother explaining how yes, it is ENTIRELY fictional, no I'm not depressed, no, I'm not just saying that to make her feel better, yes, I would tell her if something was wrong, no, I'm not planning to commit suicide, no, look, it was supposed to be a joke okay? Sigh. I don't even want to think about what would happen if my parents / grandparents actually understood my views on religion or had actually read Schopenhauer and knew that I agreed with him.

  21. what a nice post, Jai...

    my own parents (who do know how to use email etc) rarely read my blog.....and i can only imagine explaining it to my grandma....

  22. Megha: good to see you here. Have been reading you for some time too and particularly enjoy your film posts – the main reason I haven’t commented is that you always seem to have more comments than you can handle!

    Falstaff: thanks for the soaking-up job. I can just imagine what your parents would’ve said after you put up that post about how to commit suicide during a flight!

    Tanya: cool. Like Karthik says, “getting ahead” was probably the wrong choice of phrase. Didn’t mean to sound patronizing towards an earlier generation, especially since all of us (including the keenest bloggers) are all-too-familiar with the downsides of technology and the unwanted complications it’s introduced into our lives.

  23. Sumeet:
    Our society is changing at a breathtaking pace. And, it's not just that the change is constant, it's also that the rate of change itself is increasing.

    That is not a comforting thought.

    When you and I will be in our sixties and seventies, our grandchildren (of course, that is assuming 'grandchildren' will even mean anything then, in the conventional sense of the word) might think we are completely clueless about their world.

    And they would probably be right.
    Blogging, might, seem like the good old days then.

    Don't feel sorry for grandma, Jai.

  24. Really Nice post Jai ,,did tsrike a chord ! But i agree with Sumeet ...

    it isnt too long before we will be on the reciving end of the technology upsurge , when we will become the too-old-to-learn-all-this-techstuff generstion.

    I was first exposed to computers in std 8 , learnt logo in school .My youngest bro , 12 yrs younger, learnt it in std 1. :).

  25. Enjoyed reading the blog.

    The steps to make your grandmom understand (like I explained email to my grandma) -
    1. You write the article, which is the blog. So, u are a writer or a blogger.
    2. You send it to a postoffice. We call it Server in 'compute' terms.
    3. Server puts it into a notice board.
    4. This notice board is connected via wires or radio waves ;-) to many ppl's computers.
    5. Then the ppl who want to see the notice board(ur blog), just switch on their computer, search for ur name and read it.

    Though this doesnt explain the whole internet thingy, grandma gets more than a faint idea. :-)).

  26. This is a very good post! People who work in virtual worlds experience the same thing when asked by someone what they work on.

    The virtual world could even be mathematics or computer science. You cannot usually point at something and say "This is what I created/proved".

  27. Old world dichotomy?

  28. Nice post Jai. Its easy to explain if you keep it simple and relate it to something they are familiar with like Telephone call to children in US.I make my parents read nice blogs-i call them articals in net paper.- from Blogmela.Its easy for me to explain as the world has changed tremendously in my lifetime.When i joined college in 1964, even Transistor Radio was a novelty and few had seen it in India.You are so far ahead of us in useing technology, you take it for granted that your grandparents know the basics.Well they dont,hence cant understand how to use a cellphone/programme a Fuzzy logic Washing machine etc.Even I cant make basic changes in Template of my blog!! as i am used to user friendly point and click computer working.

  29. Very nice post Jai. In my degree college days, I tried explaining to my mom how I developed programs on my comp, copied it onto a 3.5" floppy(she still likes to call it as tape-cassette - that's the analogy I used) and take it at a friend's place for further dev. For them computer means multimedia (sound/video). What my mom could never understand was how that program from tape was going to be useful to anyone - much less to a German company(awe with anything foreign!!). Clearly it cannot play any sound/video..a bunch of plain HTML is nothing for them. I remember I had a v.tough time..and I still have to get around to explain internet/email to her. Recently she started using in-phone address book on our Indicom wireless landline. Try explaining to them that it's not a cell, it's a landline yet wireless, and you can do SMS from it. She still refuses to believe it.

    So it's not just the grandmoms, I feel a distinct gap even with one generation up the ladder.

    And as someone commented, whenever I call my grandma in native, she still asks me "what time is it", and "baau, din hai ke raat hai?"(day or night?). As if to make sure, that I am safe being 10.5 hrs behind them.

    V.very beautiful post.

  30. I know I am late and nobody is reading this thread, but this just for posterity's sake...
    Onion's take on this ;-)

    Std. disclaimer for the parody challenged: Onion is a parody, and I know we all love our momsomhqwr

  31. As usual late here, but I loved reading this piece Jai.