<%-- Page Title--%> A Roman Column <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 148 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 2, 2004

<%-- Navigation Bar--%>
<%-- Navigation Bar--%>


Neeman A Sobhan

Never heard of the disease? But you are already infected by it. It's all around you and with you. In fact if it isn't with you it is against you. Yes, quite a contradiction in terms: it's a blessing, it's a nuisance; it interrupts your life, it helps it flow more smoothly; it tracks down your friends and family, it reveals your position; it keeps you in touch with those in the distance yet glazes your eyes to the person in front.

It is the plague of our times, the virus none of us can escape, even if we wanted to. But who would wish to be immune to this friendly or over-friendly societal malady? No, cellularitis is here to stay and we have to learn to accept it. What we should not accept, however, and ought indeed to fight against are some of its dire, anti-social and disruptive side effects. More about that as soon as the ringing in my ear subsides... is it my... or is it yours... its mine... hullo?... er... excuse me readers, I'll be with you in a second... hullo, listen can I get back to you, I'm in the middle of my column? Click. Okay, So where were we? Damn! There we go again... hullo? sorry, readers, its my editor... No, no, its not finished yet, I've actually just started, but will send it in by today. It's called 'The Menace of Cellularitis.' What's it about? Listen, I can't talk now, I'm between the lines of my page right now, okay? Bye. Sorry, where were we?

Can anyone remember life in the uninterrupted B.C era? I mean, of course, Before Cell phones. Whatever did we do during the dark ages before the advent of these miraculous gadgets? I shudder to imagine the shroud of silence enveloping our lives: no ones handbags rang out melodiously in the middle of a conference with the theme from Dr. Zhivago, no one was zapped in his pocket with a Xylephonic rendering of Beethoven's Fifth just as he bent down to kiss his lady love; milads, funerals, weddings, break-ups, making-up after break-ups, family reunions, fights, banquets, candle-lit dinners, official meetings, political sittings, dental surgery, mental breakdowns, all were conducted in unmitigated, un-phone ringing silence! Worse! While loitering in the aisles of Agora, the lobby of hotels, auditoriums, airports, travel agencies and banks, or while negotiating busy streets, crowded rooms and lifts or sitting at the hairdressers, restaurants or waiting rooms, the world at large missed the opportunity to know about your busy and fascinating social life, your business contacts or your complex personal problems, the name of your maid ("Ayee Shefali, has the driver gone to baby's school? NOT YET?) or your brutal side (a string of abuses levelled at afore-mentioned Shefali ending with a just-wait-till-I get-home). Boring? But peaceful, and polite and civilized and as social life should be--unpunctuated by the insistently rude interruptions of the cellular menace.

This is my main complaint against my little big mobile friend. But I feel some rules of conduct must be put into action as we continue to make the cell phone an intrinsic part of our daily lives. I really believe that as in airlines and auditoriums, also in some social situations the cell should be switched off and not used as doctors on call use a pager. Every now and then, one may excuse oneself from company and check ones calls but unobtrusively as one checks ones makeup or picks ones teeth, discreetly. It is as rude to drift away from the present company to chat on the phone, as is reading a book at a table or in the drawing room during a social call. Its like watching TV while talking. People are still indulgent about cell phone interruptions but we should not be. Every situation is not an emergency. Isn't it ironic that emergency situations where you must absolutely be contacted seem to have risen dramatically since the not so distant days when you could not be reached? Accessibility has created urgency! Needless to say, life has become easier and our movements more easily and efficiently coordinated because of cell connection. But I am talking about the excesses that violate private space and show disrespect for the importance of a moment when the phone simply should not ring. We should know when to switch it off, be it momentary.

A moment of bereavement, of parent-child bonding, of romance, of official importance, of prayer, visiting the sick, or dining together. My pet peeve is when in a small group one member goes of on a tangent conversing on his cell phone loud and long enough to affect the rest of the group. The other peeve is the SMS text message addict. This social offender is constantly sending or checking text messages publicly. Seldom is it an exchange of significant messages but of jokes that are doing the current rounds. The concentration or smile on the face of your companion or friend as you lose his attention while he or she plays with the toy is something I find irritating. There is nothing wrong with exchanging jokes and notes, but why publicly?

I love my cell phone and would feel unconnected to the world if I left my mobile behind, but it is only a gadget which is necessary, even indispensable but not ineluctably inescapable, insuperable, and it doesn't have to be insufferably inportant, I mean important (time to throw away my dictionary open on words starting with 'in'). In fact and indeed, I normally berate my rare friends or family who still don't own cell phones and make YOUR life complicated. I mean its okay to not want to be accessible all the time, but not to be accessible at all is plain irresponsible. Case in point. The day my husband and I were leaving Rome for Dhaka, we were dropped at the airport by a friend who adamantly refuses to own a cell phone. We climbed out of his car with our luggage and waved him goodbye. As soon as his car disappeared we realized to our horror that we had left the laptop on the back seat. Had he a phone we would have called him even before he left the airport premises, but now there was no way to stop him midway so he could bring the laptop back. How we eventually managed is another story.

Then there is my brother, who after losing his mobile decided he liked being untraceable. For a year he managed without it, but his friends and relatives tore their hair. So on his recent birthday, I went to Grameen Phone for his surprise birthday gift. "What is it?" he asked. The wrapped box rang out as his brother-in-law called from the next room. "A musical box, just what I wanted" he sighed ironically, trapped again into the web of telephonic connections and erosion of privacy. My heart bleeds for him, as I grin. Another mortal gets the cellular bug.

But seriously, Cellularitis, at least the flagrant and advance cases where the cell phone becomes a person's physical and social appendage, need not be a hopeless terminal case, it need not take over our lives. We all have to make a concerted effort to contain the disease so that the strident, disruptive and 'DIS' part is reduced to enhance the EASE aspects of this technology. Now, if my readers don't mind, I'll go to the other room and answer my missed call since my phone rang silently a while ago on vibration mode. Oops! Its from my editor. Delete.

(The writer's book of collected columns 'An Abiding City: Ruminations from Rome' is available at Etcetra, Omni and Arong.)


(C) Copyright The Daily Star. The Daily Star Internet Edition, is published by The Daily Star