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February 14, 2017

Discover The Power Of Old-Fashioned Love This Valentine’s Day

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Hemant Sapre

While distances keep people apart, technology draws them closer; but nothing can take the place of a warm hug

Fluffy lies face down on our bed. Her white fur has turned grey. It was like pristine snow when we first saw her last winter, in the arms of one of our four grandchildren as they walked out of Delhi airport. The airlines had given each one a little polar bear. Three little bears returned to Washington D.C. Somehow, Fluffy got left behind. And are we glad: whenever we miss our grandchildren we pat Fluffy, who has become a proxy for them, mostly on cold winter nights.

The little stuffed toy is silent; there are no gimmicky buttons producing cutesy noises. However, just having it close to us, within stroking distance, brings back the chirpy banter of the children and the patter of happy feet going up and down the stairs. And in the wake of these fresh memories, come the much older ones of our children, taking us back decades.

I don’t remember ever beginning this column with a paragraph so drenched in sentimentality. However, by the time you read it, February will be upon us, as will Valentine’s Day which is now comfortably ensconced in its Indian avatars. This is the month when love and friendship are in the air — and of course in the ubiquitous cards and Hallmark-bolstered commercial exchanges. So one can afford to indulge in a bit of corniness, and stop strapping our emotions behind seat belts.

Rush of emotions
The strange comfort this inanimate stuffed toy provides is perfectly understandable, and explainable. Just as in a more romantic age a beloved’s strand of hair kept in a locket evoked the person from whom you were separated by distance, circumstance or death. Just as we keep bundles of letters from parents, siblings or lovers. Just as some of us park meaningful and precious emails in Google Drive. The authors of the letters and emails may no longer be around or near, but they continue to linger on in our memories. An old toy, a postcard or a fading photograph may be nothing on its own. But it does trigger a rush of memories and the emotions they carry within them.

Ours is also an age of separations. A globalising world has become somewhat of a cliche, even though borders are being fortified as mass migrations increase. However, an escalating number of people are moving in quest of better education, jobs, quality of life or even air. And as they do, they leave behind parents, friends and old ways of being. The family as we have long known it in India is now increasingly scattered across the globe.

The Joint Indian Family was the first to weaken at the joints; even though the Great Indian Joint Family in non-urban India was always a bit of a myth: there was never enough land to support large families and the young moved to towns and cities for their livelihood and a roof over their heads. Just as today Indians migrate to the promised lands of their imaginations. The ties binding members of the nuclear family have also become more elastic — stretchable. Salman Rushdie memorably spoke about this while referring to his superb novel Shame: ‘I tell myself this will be a novel of leave-taking, my last words on the East from which, many years ago, I began to come loose. I do not always believe myself when I say this. It is a part of the world to which, whether I like it or not, I am still joined, if only by elastic bands.’

Hugging robots
Years ago, when I asked psychoanalyst and author Sudhir Kakar whether the joint family was disintegrating and family ties weakening, he said that Sunday traffic on Delhi roads demonstrated the vibrancy of the joint family. Members of families were dispersed in different houses and neighbourhoods; but, Sunday was family day. Today, technology has made family ties and those between friends less daunting, bringing us ‘close-up’ close. FaceTime, Skype, Instagram, WhatsApp groups (family and friends) and much else I don’t even know about are bringing us together despite being continents apart. This allows lovers and spouses to maintain some level of intimacy, even when their respective jobs are in different cities or even countries.

However, something ineffable is also lost in instant transmissions. Decades ago, when my parents were in London for almost a year for medical reasons, and my sister and I were schoolchildren in India, we would get a weekly letter. My mother once smudged a bit of our favourite KitKat chocolate onto the thin, blue aerogramme paper. Not only did I get an enticing whiff of the chocolate but I could read the state of my mother’s mind — in the pauses between words, in the amount of pressure of the pen nib on the paper, and in the handwriting. These epistles allowed us to read between the lines. The packets with KitKats came later, by post.

Chatting and seeing images is one thing, an embrace is something else. Icons for hugs and kisses are not quite the same. Children trace their outstretched arms on paper and then email it to their grandparents. Technology is pushing even further to fill in that gap. You now have hugging robots. However cold and lifeless the embrace may be it does put loved ones in ‘touch’ — of some sort. Just the other day my daughter sent a WhatsApp video which showed her nine year old, Anya, making crêpes. Like a real professional she flipped them over, looking into the camera with a triumphant smile.

I can almost smell them thousands of miles away, especially if I have Fluffy by my side.

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