Thursday, 4 June 2009

Virtual Loss

At the fag end of a fabulous holiday in Cochin, I lost all the photographs I had clicked from my digital camera. It happened like this. I was travelling from Wellington Island coming to Ernakulam and suddenly, I had a feeling that I dropped my camera into a backwater of Cochin. The wedding frenzy of my cousin set up the mood and I was rejoicing that I got to drink pal payasam after nearly two years. The pal payasam was as cold as ice and I was happily clicking photographs on my digital camera.

I set it down beside me so that I could gulp one glass of pal payasam into my mouth. And just then, the memory in the camera crashed and I lost all the photographs I clicked including the rare pictures of the extinct Cochin Harbour Terminus. In that instant, the euphoria generated by the beauty and serenity of Cochin, the sense of well-being engendered by several hours of happy memories and serious fun moments, was destroyed, leaving me devastated and near-tears. Overreaction? You might think so, but I can't possibly agree.

You see, I hadn't just lost the photographs and surely, I couldn't go back to the places where I had been to click photographs, I had lost a significant part of my memories. I am not mad to confess that I cannot live without the camera because I am really not much into photography. The way the camera ate my photographs took all the memories related to Cochin in a flash. It was the first time I clicked so many pictures from my camera. So surely, this was a trip that I would have liked to cherish but then I lost all my photographs and being reduced to only forming mental images.

On a more practical level, the loss was just as immense as Ravana's defeat in the Ramayana. I had lost my entire collection of Kerala photographs and a few photographs of Indian trains I clicked during a railfanning session in Ernakulam Station. I had lost all the photographs including the ones clicked at the Cochin airport and which--true to form--a machine that I kept ignoring for years.


Not that computers guarantee any kind of safety either. I have lost count of the number of times friends have called me in despair because their PCs and laptops have crashed wiping their entire library of pictures that chronicled their lives and the music lists which contained the songs they lived by. But then, that's the danger of adopting a digital lifestyle. Your entire history is at the mercy of technology which can erase it in a moment--and of course, sooner or later it does. It's a scary thought, isn't it? But despite the fact that these worst-case scenarios are all too common, none of us have any compunction about embracing the virtual age with a vengeance. Going digital is all the rage, and we are all buying into this trend.

One of the first casualties of this is the art of letter writing. We no longer write home recounting our adventures or detailing the minutiae of everyday life. We simply pick up the phone and have a casual--even desultory--conversation, send a terse sms to say that all is well, or dash off a rushed e-mail that is deleted as soon as the inbox begins to get a bit clogged. No meaningful conversation or dialogue is possible in the circumstances we are living through, nor is it feasible to have a fruitful exchange of ideas or information. The era in which Jawaharlal Nehru's letters to his young daughter Indira were thoughtful and informative enough to form the basis of three books--Discovery of India, Glimpses of World History and the recently released Letters From A Father to his Daughter--is well and truly over.

Somehow A Father's SMSes to his Daughter doesn't have quite the same ring. That appears to be the best that our generation can do, given that these days all social networking seems to be conducted by digital means. We speak on the phone, we write our thoughts in blogs, we communicate through mails and sms, we store our records--both written or pictorial--on the computer. It's almost as if we are determined to leave no physical evidence behind as we go through the motions of our lives.

Our parents' generation left behind a plethora of material, a rich colourful record of lives lived in letters and pictures. Today, the art of writing letters maybe drying up, the photographs fraying at the edges, but they still have an immediacy to them. We may not recognize all the faces, the handwriting may have faded but these cherished mementoes give us a glimpse into the past, imbue us with a sense of personal history.

So, I can't help but wonder what our generation will leave behind. A couple of compact discs, an overflowing e-mail inbox? That's assuming of course that we haven't lost all of this in the interim in a computer crash or two. The way things are going, we look set to vanish off the face of the earth leaving behind no visible traces. That could well make us the first generation without a history.

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