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B. A. Krishna

Getting Smarter

"But I refuse to let my identity be defined by my phone!!" whined an exasperated Rajat.

"What identity?!" scoffed his wife, who was reaching breaking point in her attempts to convince her skinflint husband to buy her a smartphone. "I'm the only mom in the playgroup that doesn't have one, and it's nearly impossible to coordinate activities with other moms.

"As tempting as it might be for you to wallow in the medieval ages of cell-phone technology, I refuse to be a fellow-wallower any longer! Now, while I'm on your case, please don't recycle your lame joke about how only stupid people need smartphones!" she added.

"You should try communicating through messenger pigeon! Or how about using smoke-signals?" grumbled Rajat, "Be grateful for what you have, woman! Besides, what do you really want a smartphone for, anyway? To log on to Facebook? Don't you know that ubiquitous Facebook access is the Biblical Harbinger of Doom?

"Never before in the history of civilization has a single killer app made so many people miserable, so quickly and kept them that way for so long!!" said Rajat, still grumbling under his breath. He wisely decided not to voice his sentiments.

Not quite done, Rajat took a deep breath, hoping his rant was nearing its end. Much like runaway roller-coasters, Rajat's rants tended to be rather unpredictable and he was forced to let this one run its tortuous course.

You see, Rajat, despite being an engineer, expressed a profound reluctance in adopting new forms of technology, especially if it entailed him forking out more cash or expending a moderate amount of energy, both of which were usually required when one's spouse resolves to improve one's quality of life. Early warning signs of this syndrome's manifestation start with the phrase, "Why can't we be like the others and...?". On the treadmill of continual life improvement, spouses are the eager proverbial hamsters.

Rajat hardly fancied himself a luddite but he did like his electronic toys neatly compartmentalized just so: PCs/DVD players meant either for work or for entertainment. A smartphone refused to fit conveniently into this form of taxonomy. You can't quite meaningfully work on it nor can you do justice to pay-per-view porn on a four-inch screen, which, I am assured by reliable sources, requires a minimal screen size of twelve inches. To him, smartphones inhabited a netherworld, one that barely straddled work/pleasure but was woefully inadequate for either.

To be fair, owning a smartphone had its merits. There were moments when Rajat, tasked with time to kill at public places, had faked a blackberry pose with his highly unsmart-jurassic era phone, hoping that he wouldn't stick out like a sore thumb. He imagined an overzealous FBI guy, on the lookout, commenting, "There's a suspicious, bearded guy here, standing around, not staring into his smartphone!"

Rajat's fake-gesture wasn't very convincing, even to himself, which was understandable considering that his phone was a four-inch thick brick that looked like it was out of some 80's movie. His buddy Ashok had once said, "You know you need a new cell phone when your current one is thicker than a phone book!".

On more than one occasion, a bewildered bystander had poked him on the shoulder only to say, "Dude, how old is your phone?! Does it actually work?!" Rajat knew better than to admit that to his wife. The last thing he needed to do was to bolster the prosecution's case.

Turning to his wife, Rajat pleaded, "But don't we suffer from attention deficit already?! Do we need yet another screen to stare at? And wouldn't the kids destroy them in no time?".

"Give them some credit," said his wife. "They have other screens around to distract them. And don't you bother getting yourself one. Feel free to continue using your circa 1930 pulse-mode rotary dial phone"

"Have you ever visited any crowded public place recently and not bumped into other idiots? Idiots walking around glued to their smartphones?! I'll buy a smartphone when they have top-facing cameras that display what's ahead of us!" said Rajat. That concept amused him a little at first, and more than a little, upon further thought.

He mentally improvised on the idea - one of life's small pleasures that still remained intact - inventing hypothetical apps that were endowed with face-recognition powers so that they could warn you about people whom you actually knew, that are worth avoiding. Heck, a smart enough app could even alert you to hotties in the vicinity.

"Do they make any models that are drool resistant?" asked Rajat, returning his attention to the matter at hand. His wife's last phone had stopped functioning after one-dot-oh had drooled all over it and bitten off a few keys. It had both given him a headache and one-dot-oh a flatulence problem. After that episode, Rajat had felt compelled to keep a close eye during subsequent diaper changes, so as to account for all the missing keys. He was very thorough like that.

"I'll buy myself a smartphone when smartphones are smart enough to reply to all my emails, intelligently, on their own. Perhaps they can sign off with: 'Sent by my iphone and I had nothing to do with it!'".

"You're like your grandfather when it comes to relinquishing old technology!" complained his wife, "Has his old junkheap of a car been put out to pasture yet? And how does he manage to get spare parts to keep the blasted thing running?! Also, more importantly why does he bother?!"

Momentarily rattled by his wife's abrupt ancestral reference, Rajat grudgingly admitted to himself that she had a point. You see, he did resemble his grandfather in more ways than one. Distracted, Rajat used this excuse to immerse himself in memories of his early childhood in India.

Rajat was reminded of his Thatha's1 car, the origins of which harked back to a pivotal moment in India's history. In fact, most Thatha stories harked back to historical times - he was a real harker! An early adopter of technology, Thatha seldom believed in its obsolescence. Most people didn't own cars in his time, which was understandable considering the choices they had. A lucky few possessed one of the two models available.

In 1947, as India sat perched on the brink of newfound independence, Prime Minister Nehru said, "Not so fast!" and proceeded to deliver his über flowery Tryst with Destiny speech. It is reported that midway through this landmark address, Nehru ran out of flowery words and resorted to physically pelting the sleepy audience with fists full of flowers.

One spectator, hit by a large lotus on the side of the head, later claimed that such a feat has been unsurpassed in either oratory or botanical history! While the spectator recovered quickly and sold the historically significant lotus on eBay, it took decades before India fully recovering from Nehru's verbal and floral onslaught.

After his speech, and presumably a long nap, the winded Prime Minister turned his mind to practical matters such as transportation. He cornered an unemployed cartoonist who was rumored to have sketched a few cars in his short career, gave him a bag of right angles and decreed, "You shall go forth and design, for this great nation, two Indian automobiles!" (Yes, Nehru tended to talk like that! Ask any Indian schoolboy)

Unfortunately, Nehru forgot to add, "Don't use all your right angles in one place!". The clueless but enthusiastic designer came up with the sleek Premier-Padmini, which was exclusively made of right angles, and the rotunda-like Ambassador, which, devoid of right angles, resembled a mobile Taj Mahal float more than it did an automobile. Firmly resistant to Darwinian principles, these designs have embarrassingly remained in production for more than five decades and are still going strong.

Rajat's dad, however, drove neither an Ambassador nor a Premier-Padmini since he had inherited Thatha's Morris-8. In the year that India had proudly secured independence, Thatha wisely chose to express his newfound freedom by purchasing himself a British "motor-car," one that was still in the family, handed over from sibling to sibling like an unwanted inheritance. Sadly, it was still in working condition.

Despite protests from Rajat's side, his dad had insisted on dropping his son off at school in his Morris-8. The car was a reliable source of amusement and ridicule for all his classmates each morning. "Hey look, the guy in the foreign car has arrived! Tell me, where do you feed in coal?!". Rajat had often protested, "Appa2, can't you at least upgrade to an Ambassador like most other self-respecting car owners?! Or can't I just walk to school like rest?! By the way, you don't need to call it a motor-car, you know?! These days it's safe to call it just a car!"

The Morris-8 was from an era when automobile manufacturers had imprudently thought it wise to advertise the engine's horsepower in the model name. Didn't they consider the possibility that after a decade or two, you just might not want to draw attention to your engine's (lack of) power? Rajat often visualized his car being pulled by 8 cantankerous and poorly fed horses - the emission level would have improved, to say nothing about the increase in mileage.

One of the Morris-8's unique features was that its windshield literally opened up, to provide ventilation. The car also boasted arm-like turn indicators which were appendages that physically popped out of either side. The general idea was to mechanically alert others about about your intended change in direction. Periodically, these indicator appendages ended up stuck in an upright position, refusing to retract back in. Rajat's dad would yell at him to intervene manually, requiring him to retract the stubbornly upright arms, a case of a man taming his early machine into submission.

Rajat's US-educated Thatha was a colorful character in his own right. Destined for Purdue, Thatha had a reserved seat on the Santa Maria but in a cunning display of consumer savviness, he exchanged it for a business class upgrade on the Pinta. Unfortunately for him, if those ships were the Beatles, the Pinta was its Ringo Starr. As most of us know, the Santa Maria guys landed all the hot women.

After chirpily landing on Plymouth Rock, Thatha went through the usual preordained initiation that all Indian graduate students suffer through: order an espresso instead of a cappuccino, purchase parsley thinking it to be cilantro, waste countless hours talking to Amway recruiters, assume pepperoni grew on the pepperoni tree, confuse perfunctory greetings, from attractive women, for candid confessions of true love ("But she said 'hi' to me so brightly!! She must really like me!) etc.

Thatha then firmly proceeded to establish himself as a pioneer-desi3 by signing himself up as a member of the "Columbia House4 Phonograph club." Not having been admitted to any "club" prior to this, a free membership was too enticing a prospect to pass on. It smacked of exclusivity at zero cost, and besides, there wasn't a dress-code either!

Using such devious means, he acquired a vast collection of wax drum Edison-esque phonograph albums, none of which he had actually bothered to pay for, which made it all the more satisfying. This was in a time when albums assumed cylindrical form.

Much like the PAL vs NTSC video format duality, these cylinders were either wax or tin-foil based, which makes sense since we always have to be two uselessly competing standards, neither of which is significantly better than the other. History is replete with other stellar examples of unnecessarily competing standards: VHS vs Betamax, Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD, Honda vs Toyota, Republican vs Democrat, tomaytoh vs tomahtoe, ad nauseam.

Only desi grocery stores sold universal phonograph players that played both. Unlike Thatha's ancient player, which Rajat liked to describe as being crank-driven, these ingenious modern devices play all formats and run off of any energy source: 110v, 220v, Petromax, bicycle dynamos, cow-dung patties, fuel-cells, you name it. In fact, desi Scientists are currently working on prototypes powered by cold-fusion.

The jewel of Thatha's vintage music collection was his 1873 zero-th edition Dark Side of the Moon cylinder which he treated with an almost religious reverence. In fact, Thatha's album was so old that the cover artwork actually featured Sir Isaac Newton himself, proudly holding up his famous prism to light, producing a refractory rainbow just for Pink Floyd's benefit.

In his less lucid moments, of which there was no shortage, Thatha also claimed that he understood the lyrics to Hotel California and that he owned a copy of Led Zeppelin V. Both claims were recently dismissed by two eminent classic rock historians who convincingly sported tie-dye T-shirts and ponytails.

Rajat's ancestral reverie was rudely interrupted by a bloodcurdling scream emitted by one-dot-oh, which, as usual, was being overpowered by his two-dot-oh.

"Younger siblings learn to fight unfair far too early in life!," observed Rajat, as he absentmindedly released two-dot-oh's expertly rendered choke-hold. "Remember, kids! Absolutely no fighting on my watch! Save it for later."

His flashback terminated, Rajat resumed thinking about his current plight, one that unfortunately included his wife and her demand du jour. Resigned to his fate and running out of ideas, he decided to employ a last-resort delay tactic by saying, "Let me research all available smartphones thoroughly!". The appeal of this tactic lay in its open-endedness.

"Some lucky men might get to tryst with destiny," grumbled Rajat to himself, "But my destiny is to tryst with a bloody smartphone instead!". The conclusion was foregone and Rajat had no choice but to give in. After all, his dad had almost named him Surender!5



1 Thatha = Tamil word for Grandfather.

2 Appa = Tamil word for Father.

3 Desi = Hindi word for "native" and "of Indian origin."

4 The Columbia House "club" program has always been popular with students since time immemorial. They ship products eagerly and indiscriminately, but demonstrate considerable reluctance in collecting payment.

5 Surender = Alternate name for Hindu God Indra, who holds the mantle, "Chief of the Gods," probably known for his heroic willingness to surrender. You see, Hindus like their Gods the way they like their doctors, highly specialized.

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