How life without man’s best friend, the cell-phone, can be liberating & frightening.
Zero bars. I had to keep smacking my left ear, which had developed a strange buzzing noise. People around me appeared as nothing more than clumsy swirls of shapes and colours. I was unreasonably anxious; my right knee kept shaking nonstop. My fingers were a bloody mess (because I bit into them, duh). I hit the restart button on my phone several times, hoping something would change. All I got, though, was that little cross you see on the top right. No network. My old friend Vodafone had betrayed me — for like the bajillionth time. I did this complex yoga stance, where I rested my thighs on top of my shoulders, at the same time stretching out both arms, trying to get the last remaining digital shreds of connectivity. No luck. I even did a hands-free headstand. I was in the middle of a full-blown panic attack.
No network. How will I survive? Image source: stock-clip.com
Not too long ago, I visited this hill-station in Karnataka called Coorg. Around five hours away from Bangalore by road, the place is famous for its exquisite coffee estates. It’s become sort of commercial, like all pretty hill-stations inevitably do, so there’s enough civilisation for city-cats such as this writer to not be completely out of place. I was there for a wedding, and my plan was to do minimal sight-seeing while wearing snazzy sunglasses, a fanny pack, and an “I Heart Coorg” T-shirt, and maybe take intrusive black-and-white photos of locals going about their daily business to post on Instagram (#Rustic).
Digital Detox. Disconnect to reconnect. Image source: mangoesworld.com
What I wasn’t expecting was to spend three whole days without literally any phone coverage. No calls or texts. No internet. No WhatsApp, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Gmail, no Snapchat, no Tumblr, no Google Plus, no Pinterest, no YouTube. Can you imagine?
I have a fairly mild stance on modern-day dependence on cell-phones. I’m not a hippy, so I don’t feel any spiritual need to renounce all technology. But I do think phones are a minor nuisance, although a necessary one. Regardless of my intellectual position, I can safely admit to a group of strangers that my name is Akhil Sood and I use my cell-phone far more than I should.
It was only upon reaching Coorg that I discovered this great tragedy unfolding inside my pocket. A cruel reminder that life isn’t fair; an enforced detox, where I was desperate for some link to the outside world. The first few hours were spent sulking, sporadically trying out different spots where I might get some signal. Soon enough, though, something odd began to happen. I forgot all about it. My phone became nothing more than an alarm clock. I felt less burdened, less obliged.
Cell phone network, where are you? Image source: tinypic.com
I began to notice that almost everyone who’s around my age — millennial age — walks around with their nose tilted to their phone. They never look up; they’re willing to risk a head-on collision but not a missed WhatsApp text. People on trains have their head bowed. People at the grocery shop have their head bowed. Inside cabs and autos. In the metro. In offices and drawing rooms and bedrooms and bathrooms. They smile only at their phones, if at all. I began to realise that people actually hold back their words in conversation; they withhold fun facts and anecdotal tidbits, instead choosing to share them on social media. That everyone’s always distracted (except that it’s not even ‘distraction’ exactly).
Put your phone down. Image source: telegraph.co.uk
It’d be silly to deny the convenience of using your phone as a tool for your everyday goings-about — health and fitness apps, food-tracking apps, constant reminders, work emails, interactions with friends, annoying company WhatsApp groups, A/V entertainment, mindlessly addictive mobile games. So I completely get the dependence; it makes life easy. So the fact that a five-inch screen controls people’s existence is, to an extent, understandable. What I’m getting at, though, is that even a short escape from its clutches can be liberating.
Without the burden of my phone, I suddenly had this hyper self-awareness. It was fascinating and frightening. I felt all-powerful. Like a superhuman. Personal empowerment is such a muddled concept, but I felt some kind of clarity. I could now, after all these years, see that human beings had, like, a nose, two ears, lips, eyes, two eyebrows (sometimes one).
I was actually interested in the people around me. I even began to notice the colour of their eyes. I wanted to know what they did; how they felt about things. When their birthdays were; what kind of food they liked. What their verbal tics and general body language were like. I felt the need to discuss the state of affairs in our country with complete strangers who turned out to be militant right-wingers, leading to awkward uhhs and ahhs. For three short days, I wanted to form real connections, not LinkedIn ones.
Offline is the new luxury. Image source: blogs.ubc.ca
It was total awareness of my surroundings. You know: like how the people in Bangalore have this deal with the devil where they get perfect weather throughout the year, and in return the gods of universe equilibrium shut down all bars and restaurants at 6 PM on weekdays? I was able to gather that Coorg is like that too, except that it’s just a few degrees nippier, where you cherish the warmth of woolens or the delight of a morning sun that much more.
Turns out you actually get to see a place if you’re not staring at your phone constantly
Long walks were taken, with the locals as puzzled by my mannerisms as I of theirs. I saw and touched coffee plants. I found out that elephants can be a real menace if you own an estate. They’ll destroy your entire bounty whenever they feel like. But if you befriend them, then they’ll be on your team and raze a rival estate owner’s crop. And that an acre of estate will set you back roughly Rs. 20 lakh. That’s a problem, since it’s sort of affordable if you’re Delhi-Bombay rich. Which means you’ll buy a summer home in Coorg, but you won’t actually work on the land there, wasting away valuable real estate and also turning it into Shimla’s Mall Road. I tried to understand the phonetic differences between the dialect spoken in Coorg vs. the one in Bangalore. I ate pandi curry (the pork curry Coorg is famous for) without taking a single photo. I visited a nearby hill-station, called Sakleshpur, where I spent an afternoon just ambling around aimlessly inside a 100-acre estate, chucking pebbles into a lake, secretly scared shitless of the estate-workers walking around with machetes, but playing it cool on the outside.
Let’s be clear: I’m well aware that the only reason I could enjoy these trivial flights of fancy was because the comforts of my regular life were a mere three days away. It was a vacation from real life, which I could indulge, and not a permanent surrender. That’s just the thing — commitment is great as long as it’s short-lived. As soon as the drive down the ghats ended, so did my Vodafone exile. Within minutes (if not seconds), I caught up on all the internet things I’d missed out on. I felt whole again. A burden had been lifted; a different one returned. I miss that getaway. But I can’t say with any certainty if I’d do it again, voluntarily.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Akhil Sood
Cover photo credit: Eshna Goenka