It’s the summer holidays. I’m a worm in the Instagram vortex one morning falling in deeper and deeper until I don’t know where I began. We text each other from two rooms in the same home. “Ammu I’m the b word” (bored) <smiley smiley hugs kisses heart> (sic). I am disgusted with myself and drag my daughter out to Commercial Street.

We walk in the heat looking at trinkets, fake antiques, junk jewellery and shiny slippers. We walk briskly, wasting no time, it feels good to have an agenda for a moment. We slow down after a while and linger. We drink coconut water, slurp up the tender white flesh. My mother, who is with us, tries to match blouses to saris in a sari shop busier than a railway station. The saleswoman insists on bringing rolls of contrasting fabrics, orange for green, green for orange, insisting it is trending in the latest TV serials. My mother shakes her head, she doesn’t succumb.

This is fun, I think, it beats the lonely scrolling through Amazon, dropping things into a shopping cart icon. Here, they even give us a steaming cup of tea. We have lunch in an old-fashioned multi-cuisine restaurant, climbing the narrow stairs with ornate mirrors. Ceramic plates are served warm, there’s sweet corn veg soup and finger bowls for when we are done — the ultimate in fine dining when we were growing up. The experience still beats every five-star meal I’ve had till date. Especially the crisp conical wafer stuck in my ice cream next to the artificial cherry.

Sound of guns

I explain this excitedly to my daughter. She still shares my enthusiasm for small mom-and-pop shops, auto rides and collecting flowers fallen from trees. Her eyes are not glazing over yet. We hear the sounds of guns and tinny music, a small boy in the next table is playing on his mobile phone while eating. I look around and see that barring one or two tables with older people, most have their heads in their phones. The elephant I tried to escape from at home is back.

Let’s talk about the elephant in my living room and your living room too. Are we letting our gadgets think for us, fantasise for us, live for us? I once saw a poster of a child and a tattooed prison inmate side by side. The lines in between them read: ‘Children now spend less time outdoors than a prison inmate’. This was chilling. Then I saw a beautiful photo titled ‘Enlightening’ by Gregoire A. Meyer of a Gothic stone sculpture of a woman lit by the glow of a phone she’s holding. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it seemed to be speaking to me about a very particular feeling.

Am I overthinking it? Panicking about screen time and the impact of gadgets on us and our children? Maybe we gadget worms are like the bookworms of yore. Just more evolved; in tune with the times; tech-savvy. Bookworms were considered nerds, didn’t speak much, wore thick glasses, had their heads in their books to escape reality, a small, serious, socially awkward tribe who didn’t get much sun. Gadget worms have no distinguishing features, they are not defined by age or appearance; but they have a great appetite for content: news, editorials, TikTok videos, art, gossip, natural catastrophe videos, hate tweets — you name it.

What did the poor bookworm do when his books were taken away? Did he lift his head and look around? Did he take a walk and smell the roses? I’ve known bookworms who brought their books to the dining table and ate while reading; my daughter watches her tablet as she eats, sometimes I do too.

The next day I plan another outing. We go to the bookshop. A rare one that lets you exchange old books for new. Its walls are filled with a vast collection of new and used books. I’m a sucker for second-hand books. It’s very romantic, reading a book that belonged to someone once. My daughter and I pick a bunch of books excitedly. I make her promise we will read every night for an hour. No looking at gadgets. She agrees. I have to bribe her a little — Trevor Noah’s mother paid him to read, I tell her.

We read that night, not for an hour but for more. When I look up sometime later, she’s asleep with a book on her chest. I take the book, close it. I automatically reach for my phone, pause, change my mind and hit the lights. The elephant is still there in the darkness, I can feel him. But for now I ignore him.

Tomorrow we are planning to eat dinner at the dining table, three of us. No gadgets in the vicinity.

The writer is a cinematographer, the non-bearded variety, and is called ‘Cameraman Madam’ on the sets.

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