What does love mean in our times? This question can invite a horde of different responses and opinions. Is it traditional like what most of our parents had or has it become easy thanks to services like online dating applications? What happens to the idea of love once technology takes over? These are interesting questions with equally interesting answers and possibilities.
When I was a young kid in high school, it was a very big deal for me to approach a girl and say a simple hi or a gentle hello. Forget speaking, even making eye contact took a lot of effort. It wasn’t because I was extremely shy but because that was the social conditioning I had seen and understood. Even though we watched western movies which had kissing scenes and public displays of affection, all of that seemed unrealistic within a small town in India. That did not mean I wasn’t attracted to anyone. The first time I liked someone was in third grade. She was a classmate and like every other classroom, we got teased a lot. So much, so that we started noticing each other just because people teased us. This happened in third grade, what were we even thinking?!
It was all we had, noticing each other and her wishing me “Happy Valentine’s Day” one fine day and me not responding anything because I didn’t even know what the hell that meant. I remember being really sad during the summer vacations of that year because I couldn’t see her for fifty days straight. To make things even worse, she didn’t come to class for some extra twenty days after that. Sometimes we played ‘Ice-Water’ and that was it. As far as I can remember, she never shared her lunch with me. There was no Internet at that time. The only thing to do after school was to look forward to the next day in order to resume the occasional-eye-contact-smirking game.
The first time I had a phone in my hand was in tenth grade. My mother’s Nokia some number phone which had Bounce in it introduced me to the idea of SMS-ing. Vodafone was new to this country and offered 15000 messages for 34 bucks a month. That created a revolution and then emerged an army of night owls. A few of my friends with more liberal parents than my own were able to get hold of their parents’ phones after dinner hours and send text messages to each other which sometimes continued till the crack of dawn. What could they have possibly talked about? In tenth grade, there was nothing much to discuss and it wasn’t like the place I lived in was extremely happening either. I loved talking about Dragonball Z and Linkin Park a lot but I ran out of things to say within half an hour. Maybe they talked about the girls in class and beyond. Anyway, SMS married technology to love. All around me, peers and seniors were thumbing away, annoying the hell out of their elders and parents. There were no touch screen phones at that time. Internet was still a luxury for the privileged few. I was quite jealous of those guys who could use their parents’ phones without any hassle. My parents thought some spirit had taken hold of me because suddenly I was keeping their phone inside my pockets, checking every 2 minutes to see if a new SMS had arrived and then thumbing away on the keypad to write something as a response. Instead of looking out of the window at passing trucks while travelling, I was more interested in waiting for the phone to vibrate. I was attracted to this one girl in class and my classmates continued teasing us; this wasn’t the one from third grade. Slowly, a more advanced entity called GTalk came into view. Internet was becoming cheaper as BSNL had launched their BroadBand services with an immense 1GB of data usage per month. My father had got a connection for his work and this is where I discovered the World Wide Web. My privileged friends with liberal parents soon got their own Nokia Express Music phones and were exploiting the same to the core. They talked about Gtalk and using Facebook on their phones and playing cool games like Asphalt 2 while I was stuck with my mother’s Nokia something number phone. I did not complain though, because I was able to text just fine amidst my mom yelling at me, snatching the phone away or hiding it occasionally. But I managed, I texted that girl as much as I could talking about things. Even in that time, love meant frequent eye contact in class followed by a microsecond of smirking and nothing else. We never talked in class and made sure nobody except a chosen few knew about us, that we were ‘girlfriend-boyfriend’. Even the utterance of such words was beyond our brains. There was occasional small talk in class but never a full-fledged conversation. The teasing continued and it started getting annoying cause puberty and raging hormones resulting in aggression. And this was fuel for those who teased and I was, sadly, not one of those who punched people when annoyed. Apart from SMS and GTalk, there was one more platform called Oracle ThinkQuest which was made mandatory in all CBSE schools. It was a social networking website for kids and it encouraged them to make pages and projects about things they found interesting. What I found interesting was the messaging option and before I knew, I was texting some random 14-year old guy from the Netherlands. GTalk was also the place where I saw emoticons for the first time. The kiss and kiss with a heart emoticons were never touched cause shyness and conservative upbringings. It was a very weird phase because this girl and me, we kind of liked each other but had difficulty accepting it while the entire class thought that we definitely liked each other. Somehow, we thought we liked each other simply because the class was confident that we liked each other and we had to make sure that we didn’t disappoint them. It was absurd.
After that came WhatsApp and eleventh grade meant a personal mobile phone was necessary because guess who had to go for Physics, Chemistry and Maths tuitions now. Nokia Asha 311 was my first phone, nothing too swanky but it served the purpose. The texting continued and the trending thing at that moment was Internet Packs which meant more frequent data pack recharges. WhatsApp had more interesting emoticons with better graphics which made the texting experience highly enriching. Love, at that stage, had a little more verbal aspect to it than before. More calls, limited but more conversations in class and the rise of voice notes were the new things in my life. This was also the time when minutes recharge packs came into the picture. 3G was slowly starting to come in which meant faster Internet although I stayed away from it because it was expensive. 2G was slow but it was enough to fulfil my needs. The usage of the kiss emoticon finally saw the light of day and it felt like an actual kiss although the latter didn’t happen. Heart emoticons also flew here and there occasionally. Amidst theories of thermodynamics and calculus, this was what love looked like to me. Many of peers were going a stage further by going to the limited restaurants in town but all that was beyond me. Going on a ‘date’ somewhere on your own was non-existent. It required a certain kind of courage which I did not have at that time. This phase lasted till 2015.
Things were even more primitive during the time of my parents. A letter from someone you admired was a prized possession. Sometimes, those letters were accompanied by a photograph of the sender, taken very carefully in an appropriate setting. A lot went into planning such things. Also, one letter took a minimum of a fortnight’s to travel from one small town to another. These letters were written meticulously, each word was carefully chosen and many drafts went into the dustbin before the perfect one emerged. We still have a picture of my father posing with his then Bajaj Chetak which he sent to my mother months after they first met. My father is donning a blue shirt and his curly, long hair is neatly combed. Needless to say, he dressed up for that photograph. There is a message written in Assamese behind that picture and somehow it is more original than anything else. They didn’t have a lot of verbal conversations though as they were mutually shy, so letters served the purpose. This held true for most people belonging to that generation.
It is 2018 now and children have iPhones. Things have changed tremendously and today’s high school kids are far from being shy about their feelings. Online dating has spread like a wildfire and every second someone is matching with someone in a world of left and right swipes. The idea of love has changed and metamorphosed into something else entirely. Hookup culture has been embraced by the populace because it has become an effective tool to meet someone instead of being lonely. You choose a potential partner by reading a small bio and checking a few pictures of them that they post. While it was so difficult for me to even say a ‘hi’ to a girl in school, one can match with innumerable people on the Internet. It has become fast and easy like instant coffee, as Prof. Etienne would say. Technology has taken over and human feelings and emotions are shared virtually than verbally; we rely so heavily on emoticons, after all. A text can either make or break things. If you don’t receive a text from your beau for say, half an hour, all hell breaks loose and explanations are demanded. Innumerable selfies, Snapchat stories with tongues hanging out are taken every day and exchanged. A very Hang the DJ-esque atmosphere is slowly dawning upon us when technology completely takes over and ends up deciding who you should be sleeping with or who should be your “ultimate match” while boasting about a 99% success rate at the same time. Love has been commoditised and instead of aspects like mutual affection, support and trust, the physical aspect reigns supreme. Just like in an assembly line, humans come, get orgasms and move on. The conveyor belt keeps going forward with the same cycle. Loyalty is measured by looking at chat and call logs while not having enough couple photographs in your gallery attracts wide-eyed stares from friends and peers. A check-in into every restaurant, museum, art gallery, cinema you go to with your significant other ensures that your relationship meets the current community standards while being topics of conversations among your mates, which invokes jealousy among some of them who secretly loathe you.
I am not saying that I have kept myself away from social media or WhatsApp. What I am trying to understand is how far we have come and whether it is all worth it. When I look around, I see people who crib about how lonely their lives are without romance once the drink starts settling in and who go back, the very next day to online dating or to the school of thought which claims that amorous pursuits are a waste of time because he or she is going to leave you at some point anyway. In a post-modern world, love has reached a state of “post-love” as well and is now being widely accepted as a commodity and service into which two mutually consenting humans subscribe to and unsubscribe anytime they see fit and continue to do so in order to fulfil their carnal desires. Sounds very pessimistic, but these claims are drawn from my observations.
All this doesn’t mean that genuine affection doesn’t exist; it is very much there if one looks around instead of gazing at a screen.