Saturday, July 15, 2006

In praise of the unannounced visit

SANTOSH DESAI Saturday, 15 July, 2006
Every time we heard the sound of an autorickshaw entering our lane, the conversation would trail off till either it passed or stopped short of our house. In the event that it stopped in front of our house, then of course the conversation was over as we all rushed out to see who it was. Every time the front gate creaked, we expected some new visitor, someone dropping in unannounced. Doorbells ringing at odd hours contained the possibility of a delightful surprise, of some uncle or cousin dropping in for the night en route somewhere else. Growing up in middle-class India meant that one was firmly enclasped in the bosom of a large family with very blurred and decidedly elastic boundaries and this sense of kinship was kept alive by the institution of the Unannounced Visit.
You dropped in on people without warning and usually without purpose. The thought popped into your head that you hadn’t seen someone in a while and that was enough for you to make the trek using the bus, cycle or train and land up unannounced at the doorstep of the remembered one. If it was morning, you got a cup of tea, if it was meal time, you were quickly accommodated and served. No questions were asked about your purpose and in a few cases, no real conversation was also expected. I remember a grand-uncle who for years dropped in for a visit and never said a word; he spent the day with us and left before it got dark.
We lived in a time of an extraordinary elasticity of accommodation. For all the middle-class tightfistedness that one grew up with, there was never any problem accommodating four surprise guests who decided to drop in for a fortnight. There was a mysterious limitlessness of food that I find difficult to explain today, looking back. Along with the tightness, there existed an ability to stretch what you had quite seamlessly. So even when obscure relatives and relatives of relatives dropped by, there was rarely any resentment at being put upon by these visits.
Of course, this also meant that you did the same and as a child the idea of landing up at some distant relative and having to spend hours listening to tales of even more distant relatives was an act of colossal boredom but at that time boredom had no currency; it was bereft of the exchange value it has today.
In fact, relationships were based on the draining out of visible purpose and came without the expectation of any immediate or tangible reciprocity. They necessarily involved large tracts of barren time; it was as if the land was kept fallow so as to underline the fact that it was the land that was important, the crop was transient and would follow. Relationships were built on the rock solid foundation of boredom. Time was a communal property as was space, to a large extent. You could not intrude on someone’s private time or trespass on their personal space because these didn’t really exist. Individuals were the form in which the collective manifested itself and were treated as such.
Technology today has been a key force in changing this conception. Technology individualises us by offering us the ability to stay connected on our terms. The telephone, particularly the mobile phone, offers us the possibility of endless, continuous connection and in doing so frees us from purposelessness. We can call anyone if we want to and we end up doing so more food time for the visit which in turn makes us more circumspect as to whether they are merely being polite. The relationship becomes ordered, it takes on the contours of our mutual expectations. We are in control of the relationship and mould it as we see fit. As a result, last night when the doorbell rang at 11, I didn’t bother thinking who it might be. I knew it would be no one I would be surprised to see.

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