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Vol. XXX No. 5 June 16-30, 2020

The Talking Grids

by Ranjitha Ashok

Picture courtesy: Sriram V.

This lockdown has woven some strange new patterns into the fabric of our lives. Like re-defined family gatherings, for instance.

If you should spot young, or young-ish, people, heads buried deep in their hands, or staring blankly at a screen – be kind. For they have just navigated senior citizens in their circle through the video-chat tangle. It’s interesting enough when you involve those who were young when Travolta first stepped out on a Saturday Night. Add a rowdy bunch of super-seniors to this mix, and you’ve got yourself – no, not a party – but a riot.

It begins with what was, in retrospect, a naïve suggestion to get the whole chain gang together on a video call. First – the mixed response. While the cool techies are … well… cool, the not-so-much hesitate, a little nervous and a bit tired of having to learn yet another new-fangled whatsit while being patronised by youngsters in the family. Qualms are soon brushed aside, and a date and time chosen, after long arguments and a zillion contradictory whatsapp messages. So many lockdown routines to work around, and if the mix is international, then you must account for one lot having gone to bed just as another is waking up.
Finally, after a great deal of tumult and noise, a meeting is fixed, and one of you agrees to play host and send out invites, time clearly marked.

The seniors on board, having been walked through the procedure by their respective children/nieces/nephews, are now spending the scheduled day watching the clock, checking and rechecking their instruction which they have written down and placed near their device, as you can’t trust a memory you no longer have. Finally – just as the moment of truth looms close, the phone rings.
“It says ‘host will let you in’. Why aren’t you letting me in?”

“Appa, just wait, ok, it’s not yet time.”

In your mind, you can hear family members at various locations yelling across rooms to one another, to “…come soon, it’s starting.” The meeting begins. The grid is lighting up, filling with faces. Phone call… again.

“It says ‘password.’”

“Pa, I gave you the password. You even wrote it down.”

“Yes, but the paper fell, and Amma and I can’t bend to get it.”

“Ok, hold on…I’ll tell you again. Hiii …so nice to see you!”

“You can see me?!”

“No, Pa, not you. Everyone else is here.”

“What?!! Even Chotu?”

“Yes, even Chotu Uncle…”

“Smart-ass! He’ll make it a point to show off now.”

“Pa – now’s not the time. Note down the password.”

Confused noise heard while Pa tells Ma to hold the phone and call out the password as he enters it.

“Hello! As usual! Trust your father to mess it up.”

“Ma, now’s not the time. Just repeat the password I’m about to give you to Pa, ok? ‘Happyfamilies’”

“What?”

“The password, Ma. Ask Pa to type in ‘H.a.p.p.y.f.a.m.i.l.i.e.s’. One word. Ma, stop laughing.”

Meanwhile, all the faces in the grid have begun giving advice at the same time, and your forehead now throbs in rhythm.

“Ma, did you tell Pa?”

“Yes, he’s typing it in.”

Nothing.

“What happened, Ma?”

“How would I know? He typed, no? It’s not letting us in.”

The talking heads begin clamouring again.

You turn away, and say, “Happyfamilies – Ma, HAPPYFAMILIES!”

“Oh no, wait, he typed ‘d’ instead of ‘f’. He’s got it now.”

They pop up on the last remaining spot to a rousing cheer, and Chotu pipes up with a derisive, “What’s the matter, Big Brother? Too tech for you? Thought you were the genius in the family.” Extremely rude retort by a senior who should know better at his age.

“Ma,” you say. No, she doesn’t notice in all the excitement of trying to talk all over the grid at the same time.

“Oh my God. I can see all of you. Damilies. He typed ‘Damilies.’”

“Freudian slip?” goes Chotu.

“Ma…ma…”

“What?” she finally hears you.

“Why are you still talking on the phone?”

“What?”

“You still have Appa’s cell phone stuck to your ear.”

General hilarity all around as she disconnects, giving herself a rueful whack on the forehead. Inmate in Box Three suddenly calls out to cousin in Box Seven.
“What’s the matter with your hair?”

“Hey, it’s been two months, okay? What about your ton of grey? No colouring, eh?”

Box Nine pops up. “How’s the Tom Selleck look working for you ladies?” Gales of laughter, while Box Nine warns the men not to roll their eyes. “We can see you, you know.”

The younger lot shake their heads in their respective Boxes and declare they don’t know what elders are coming to these days. Box Five says, “I can only see Box One’s bindi. And Cousin-at-One’s left ear.” Loud barrage of advice directed at Box One to sit closer and adjust their screen.

Box Three, in full form, peers at Box Eight. “No exercise, eh, Sis-in-law?”
For a second, the family braces itself – explosions have happened for less, but luckily, Box Six suddenly vanishes, distracting everyone. “Must be a poor connection.” someone says. “Had to happen. He’s had one in his head all his life.” His peers guffaw, proving decades-old cricket ground teasing never goes away. The Number Six duo suddenly reappear but seem to have shrunk to just their chins. “Adjust your screen”, everyone yells. They do, and now they’re silently opening and shutting their mouths, bringing a strange aquarium-like feel to the proceedings. “Unmute! Unmute!” the cry goes out, as two pairs of eyes search all over their Box for the icon, with people calling out directions.

Meanwhile, Box Four has lost all movement, and their last expression is one of such frozen horror, the grid falls silent. “Do something!” You’re told, but luckily, they suddenly unfreeze, and leap back mid-sentence, unaware they’d gone AWOL for a while.

The whole grid is one large noisy dining table. Everyone interrupts everyone, and someone forgot to tell some seniors there’s no need to shout. The shrinking violets, as always, give up and stay silent in their Boxes, benign smiles at odd variance with their knit brows as they try to make sense of the din around them.

Finally, the meeting winds to an end. People need to get back – some to other calls, some to half-watched TV shows, half-read books, a meal, some to bed… everyone to a whole lot of quiet. There are vows of ‘must do this again!’, loudest from former naysayers, now filled to the brim with confidence.
Yes, indeed. Must schedule another one, as soon as today’s quota of head-burying and blank- staring is over.

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