By Ananya Dutta Gupta
In what may be deemed nothing short of a personal “event” and on what was, to many others, Valentine’s Day, I lost my phone. I mention the day to underline one of several interesting ironies embedded in the spatio-temporal coordinates of the event in question.
Valentine’s Day brings in its train, even for a committed non-believer like me, a tacit, unarticulated, but powerfully irresistible market-engineered expectation of pleasantly surprising emotional dividends. Yet, alas, in my poor un-forgetting calendar of memories, the day will forever be stamped with the seal of loss rather than gain, grief rather than bliss.
“Memory”, as a concept, has taken on a deeply evocative paronomastic connotation in the context of the utilitarian-affective private-personal relations that we as individuals forge with our digital devices these days. We delegate to their seemingly inexhaustible memory-banks the burden of remembering. We make them remember so that we may forget. It wasn’t long ago that I heard a live digital recording from Oxford of a colloquium on what it is to be human in the digital age. A respected Shakespearean scholar remarked ambivalently how the digital age posed a serious threat to remembering by destroying the choice to forget; by interfering, in the process, with the natural selection through which we sift the memorable from the forgettable.
Progressively relieved of the burden to remember, thanks to the indiscriminate inclusiveness of the digital archive, we increasingly lose our ability, indeed our will, to remember even the needful. The problem with machines probably lies in our human inability to optimise effort and exertion. While it is true that mechanisation offers welcome respite from unnecessary exertion, it is we who err in our relative inability to direct the surplus energy and leisure thus created towards whatever we deem to be more meaningful, worthwhile enterprises. Relief from effort tends to create the danger of disuse rather than the scope for optimal alternative use. To the extent that it is a mere tool and denotes our ability to remember, then, human memory is also subject to these hazards of over- and under-utilisation.
Given the fact that humans have always sought aids, from stone to paper and pen to the typewriter, of progressively advancing degrees of mechanical efficiency, digital memory is but just another aid to memorisation, inscription, recording, and archiving. In principle, it is no different from earlier technologies of remembrance. Doesn’t my mother-in-law inscribe her performance schedule on her old-fashioned calendar? Any blanket denunciation of the benefits of digital memory would thus be an over-reaction comparable to the initial rejection at earlier historical moments of earlier technologies such as the printing press. The problem lies less with the digital nature of this latest mnemonic aid than with the seemingly inexhaustible availability of digital memory. The problem is usually one of excess.
Understandably, the process of cerebral remembering is less robotic, more organic, and more incalculably arbitrary. Digital memory operates more cautiously and rationally, asking us to intervene in the selection and deletion. Ironically, therefore, we have more control over digital memory than over our own cerebral memory. Digital memory functions in a manner akin to conscious cerebral memorization, such as with the multiplication table. Conversely, the uncontrollable eventuality of an erasure of digital memory is akin to amnesia or dementia. Thus digital and cerebral memory, both are and are not, mutual binaries.
Memory, however, is not just the capacity to remember, but that which is remembered. And a phone can, instead of operating as a mere vault, generate memories around and about it. These we then commit to our own cerebral memory. To be an aid and vault of memories is a utilitarian function, but to be a catalyst or engendering factor in the making of memories is a more disinterestedly affective one. Our affective bonding with our phones stems from the memory-generating function, not from the merely utilitarian memory-preserving one. Indeed, the loss of the phone as a utility has actually brought a new, reverse feeling of relief in its train, a sense of liberation from the fetters of dependence, from the compulsion, in the specific case of a cellular phone, to communicate and be available for communication continually, ceaselessly, uninterruptedly. There is a telling symbolism in the fact that a smart phone, once switched off, comes back alive, as soon as it is put on charge. Switching off such a phone demands a far more conscious, decisive, determined act than staying on. To remain connected is thus the norm. To disconnect is to swim against the current of collective habit, and to court, in the process, bemused gibes about retrogressive solipsism.
Minutes before I, in all likelihood, dropped my phone into oblivion, I had expressed regret about failing to meet a recently deceased elderly acquaintance. Her continued presence in the form of a photograph, a name, a last unanswered message – “Do drop by” – on my Whatsapp counter of “favourite contacts” seemed, in retrospect, uncannily spectral. She is not the only one of my deceased contacts to have achieved eternity in my phone’s digital memory. Personal phones are passed on to survivors as heirloom, perhaps, bestowing on their stored identity an online afterlife.
Ironically, I had spent a fair amount of time in front of the replaced Nobel medallion at the Tagore Museum here in Santiniketan only minutes before realising that I had lost my phone. While ruing the obvious shrinkage in the scale of display as a result of the heist, I kept weighing the relative value of the original medal and the replica. Was the latter ample or absolute recompense for the loss of the former? From the point of view of the museum-viewer, one would imagine so. The original, an invisible carrier of the tactile memory of the awardee’s bodily person, must have been as physically inaccessible to the viewer then as the replica is now. So, what difference can it possibly make? The very name replica would suggest that it is an exact copy. So, the absence, the void left by the original object has been more than made up for by the showcased replica. I do not know if Nobel medals are machine-made or, literally, manufactured: crafted, that is, by hand. The discerning collector or historian of artifacts would demur saying that the replica would have been crafted through processes fundamentally changed from those that had gone into the making of the original one in 1913. By that logic, therefore, the replica is always another object, of lesser value than the original. On the surface, however, the uniqueness of the replica as an object distinct from its original was less obvious to me than that of the adjacent exhibit – a beautifully illuminated manuscript testimonial – much like medieval European books – presented to Tagore by some literary society in London. One cannot conceive of duplicating that quite as exactly. On second thought, human ingenuity being equally adept at fashioning fakes, maybe even the aura of this original is tenuous.
I have been led back to the replaced medal by my preoccupation with the possible affective attachment we develop towards objects, even objects that do not qualify as artifacts. My lost phone was, needless to say, NOT handcrafted. It nevertheless seems to have acquired a certain subjectivity and selfhood in my perception. Smart phones, these days, become an extension of our person and hence of our selves. What makes them feel like an extension of our selves, and hence, self-possessed entities, is their earned and deemed worthiness. They do so much for us that we feel impelled to carry them about us, in constant and close physical proximity. Having rendered the wristwatch, the alarm clock, the calendar desk and wall calendar, even notebook and stationery more or less redundant, the smart-phone has become the receptacle of all the belongingness we had earlier bestowed upon the items of personal use it has sent out of business. In that sense, the cellphone has acquired the same sentimental value and “aura” of personhood that items used by Rabindranath among the exhibits at the Bichitra Museum appeared to me to have retained. I had, notably, spent a fair amount of time in front of the shoes worn by Tagore, the Oxford robe, the pince-nez and the pen and the inkpot in a bid to imagine his corporeality. I cannot conceive of a photograph or even video footage or recorded voice capturing the poet’s being quite so evocatively. Objects, no less than books, therefore, can be said to be bearers of the invisible spirit, the soul of the person who had used them. I had had similar feelings at Keats’ house in Hampstead and Wordsworth’s house in Grasmere and also Hardy’s house in Dorchester.
My phone and I had bequeathed and shared meaning between us in similar ways. I had committed memories, thoughts, and images to it in such a way as to create a personal archive. It had become my companion much like the statue or mirror that Sir Francis Bacon in one of his essays advises his readers to befriend and confide in for therapeutic catharsis. As an object, and not just as an archive, my phone had imperceptibly become an integral part of my personal history, my travels and, travails.
The word “grief”, which I have used above to describe my response to the loss, is not over the top. Other seeming hyperboles that I heard myself articulate as I described the impact of the loss were “trauma”, “unhappiness”, “devastation”, “bereavement”, “misfortune”, and so on. Indeed the affective dynamics would not be altogether distinct in nature, though undoubtedly milder in degree, from our personal response to tidings of death. There was the initial disbelief, denial and, what I usually call, a certain paralysis of the will to act, followed by a slow percolation of the undeniable fact of something present, physical, corporeal, material and hence tangible having, in a matter of seconds, maddeningly, exasperatingly, bizarrely slipped away into the binary realm of the a-physical, the erstwhile, the ex-tangible, the just gone, the-could-have-been-here, i.e., the past, hence history. Then came the desperate hope of having mistaken quiet, obscure presence of the lost phone among my surviving belongings, as absence, of a hide and seek game ending happily. And then came despair. Desperation can only precede despair, but the possibility of despair must be real and imminent enough to “activate” desperation. Then came the inevitable regret at having allowed the all too avoidable; the impatient desire to rewind the clock to that precious moment immediately preceding the moment of inadvertent physical severance. I could have been an Orpheus. I was a desperate would-be time-traveller.
What followed was a sluggishly acknowledged readiness to act upon the irrevocable fact in a kind of after-hope. The hope that one had not lost makes way for the hope for recovery, retrieval, return, restoration. In this, then, the loss of a mere object, its accidental physical disappearance unleashes an affective response, remarkably akin to that set rolling by the death of a loved human being. Loss, then, is not necessarily less traumatic if it is of a loved object. Love of objects is not fundamentally different from that of persons. Mourning loved objects may pass through a comparable series of successive and progressive healing phases depending upon the intensity and the depth of the association. The process is cut short if the object or person is supplanted with unseemly haste. If the empathy shared with a specific object is subject and particular, as with a person, then the concerned object becomes technically as irreplaceable as such as person would be. The term objectification, therefore, is an insult to objects, born out of an implicit faith in a hierarchised chain of being.
As a matter of reflex rather than rational reflection, my gaze has since been drawn towards every passing “Toto” (the name by which battery-operated auto-rickshaws go) along the road to work and back. It is impossible that I should catch sight of the very Toto that I presume to have dropped my phone in. However, what if such a miracle happens, by sheer coincidence? What if somebody were to return my phone? I wondered if I would still consider it my own after it has changed strange hands. Would its aura suffer from its acquired status as second-hand?
Already, my phone no longer feels my own. It is somebody else’s. I have renounced it and am desperate to forget it. It is now a memory, and an irretrievable one, while the memories it had stored I have reclaimed into my mind’s store. True I could buy exactly the same phone – the same model, brand, colour and configuration. If I do so, I will somehow have betrayed my memory of the previous one. I will mourn it a little longer, suffer its absence. I will try to divine, in retrospect, what it had meant to me when present and what it means not to have it now. And then I will make peace with my loss and, perhaps, sooner or later, reach out for a new one, one whose difference from the lost one will be absolute.
P.S. Two months on, I am back at the museum, nervously clutching the sling bag bearing my new, “improved” smart phone. I am greeted by empathetic security personnel, who remember the fateful phone and my sad countenance. Two months on, however, my sense of loss has healed, or just about. The detachment that has replaced it leads me, in course of my peregrinations across the Uttarayan grounds, to a new epiphany. The phone had not been the only thing I had lost on a visit to the poet’s abode. On the way back from the same place, many years ago, I had been robbed of a piece of jewellery. What an unsettling coincidence, I thought, as I held my bag close to my person! Would history repeat itself, I wondered? … No, it would not. Not on that occasion. Life, loss, memory – everything reflects an unfathomable grid of adjustments between cosmic inevitability and conscious human agency.
Ananya Dutta Gupta has been teaching at the Department of English & Other Modern European Languages, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, for the past twelve years. In 1999, she was awarded a Felix Scholarship to pursue an M.Phil. in English Literature, 1500-1660, at the University of Oxford. In January 2014, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, awarded her a Ph.D. degree for her dissertation on Renaissance English representations of the city under siege. Her revised Orient Blackswan Annotated edition of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I (2012) is currently in worldwide circulation. In 2013, she edited and wrote an Introduction for a special peer-reviewed volume on The Renaissance and its Afterlife of the journal apperception. She was awarded a Visiting Research Fellowship jointly by the Charles Wallace India Trust and Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), Cambridge University, from 21 September to 15 December, 2015, to work on a short project on early modern English literary representations of the city. Her occasional forays into creative non-fiction may be found at Musings, a column of personal essays on Tinpahar. Her travelogues based on travels in the United Kingdom in the year 2000 have been published as ‘Chilmark and Cheltenham’, Parts 1 & 2, Coldnoon Travel Poetics: International Journal of Travel Writing, ed. Arup Chatterjee, July, 2012 IV: 1(4) & November 2012 V: 2(1) issues, www.coldnoon.com, online and print E-ISSN2278-9650 & ISSN 2278-9642; Links to pdf files here and here. Her earlier newspaper contributions appeared in The Statesman.
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