In chaotic Patna, the nerve-centre of the supposedly backward heartland, lives seventysomething homemaker Tayaba Hussain. She thinks television and electronic gadgets are a "complete nuisance", but has made an exception for the computer. Only because e-mail enables her to keep in touch with her 40-year-old son Khalid, who is a doctor in Muscat. Earlier, mother and son waited two months for a single exchange of letters. Fed up with the snail mail, she started frequenting a neighbourhood cyber-shack two years ago and picked up e-mailing. Tayaba doesn't know how to surf and doesn't care to find out what the Internet is. Now Khalid is buying her a computer at home with an Internet connection. "Now I will be able to talk to my son and grandsons daily," she says excitedly. "Isn't that absolutely amazing?"
All across India, mothers, usually the technophobe stereotype, are going online swapping thoughts, pictures and even moving images with their children abroad. The PC has become the household's favourite machine; and the Internet their valuable and only link with their children around the world. Writing letters in long hand is passe—the e-mail moms are now on a daily fix exchanging electronic tidings every day with their children all around the world. They also form a growing chunk of some 6 million Internet users in India and a burgeoning tribe of e-mailers, which, according to one industry estimate, will grow at an astonishing rate of 300 per cent over the next year alone. "Why not?" asks Purnima Dutta, a 53-year-old Calcutta-based e-mail mom, who keeps in touch with her two sons in Georgia, US, and Oxford, UK, through e-mail. "Short of a human voice, it's the best communication ever."
For homemakers like Dutta, it took some time to discover the intensely social part of using a computer—usually perceived as a world of abstract machines which excel in algorithmic thinking. But times are changing: in the US, for example, more women are logging on than men for the first time; and the percentage of women aged 55 years and older logging on come a close second to teenage girls who are using the Internet most. US-based sociologist and mit professor Sherry Tucker says women are simply reticent about a technology for which "they don't have a compelling use". Finally, Indian moms have found one, which is possibly the most precious of all—communicating with their children. Says 50-year-old, Chennai-based housewife Lalitha Chandrasekhar: "E-mail has reduced my anxieties. Now I know exactly where my sons are at any given time." Lalitha gets in touch with her two sons in Dubai and US at least twice everyday.
The moms are also sharing all their thoughts more than once a day in their e-mailing frenzy. Some like 48-year-old Rayasam Visalakshi of Hyderabad, says she seeks the advice of her US-based computer engineer daughter Sarada on "everything" through e-mail. In Delhi, freelance journalist Humra Quraishi, 45, who is in e-mail-touch with her daughter, doing her masters in London, says she "writes about everyday things...like writing a diary". In Chennai, homemaker Indu Rangan, 60, an avid e-mailer to her two sons, settled in the US, says she "discusses one thousand things" in her mail. Says she: "I can't talk to them about recipes, concerts, politics and literature over phone. But on e-mail I even had a detailed discussion with my sons on Rajkumar's kidnapping and the role of the media, Supreme Court and the two state governments."
Usha Kabra, 46, who lives in Mumbai, writes to her daughter in the US every single day "about my whole day's activities". In Delhi, fiftysomething science teacher Saramma Kuruvilla writes about "everything that's happening in my life" in regular e-mails to her daughter in Johannesburg and doesn't go to bed at night till she's checked her mail. The only person to whom she still writes letters is a nephew in Bihar, whose nearest cybershack is 40 km from his home. Dutta too writes almost about everything to her two sons "several times" daily: "Anything and everything really. How we pass our days, the things we do, the people we meet, the work."
Coming to grips with electronic mail hasn't been very easy for the homemakers though. They initially came to the computer and e-mail after their children bought the machines, got a Net connection and gave them a checklist of commands to log on and e-mail. Then the problems began. Most of them hadn't ever worked on a typewriter before and the maze of icon-driven commands on a flickering blue screen and a treacherous mouse didn't make things easier. Listen to Sudha Parikh, a 60-year-old Mumbai-based homemaker, who keeps in touch with her younger daughter Koshal in New York over e-mail: "I would type with a single finger, didn't know how to erase, how to move to the next line, how to close the page. I would feel so mad because I couldn't understand it. I couldn't put the arrow (read cursor) in the correct place, it would go everywhere else or just disappear. If I did find the arrow, some triangle would appear. I wouldn't know what to do." That was some time ago. Two teachers came and went trying to teach her the basics till she picked up the gauntlet. Now she "writes, talks, prints and draws" on the computer, and even weighs the pros and cons of different browsers.
Clearly, typing and handling the mouse turn out to be the two major obstacles. For Rangan, the major problem was the "double clicks" with the mouse and typing speed. For Raghuram who still doesn't know which e-mail programme she uses, typing is still a grind. No wonder most e-mail moms take their time writing offline and then logging on to send them. Now the problems are more ‘content driven': the e-mailspeak which their children use—u for you, r for are or bcoz for because. Says Rangan: "Their sentences are short and fragmented. I use full sentences, never mime a word and try to retain the quality of prose. Thus, e-mailing has become an interesting word game between me and my children." Most of these generation-Z mothers don't even mind the steeper telephone bills.S.
Prabhavati, 55 and a technical officer with a Hyderabad-based defence research laboratory, says her bill has soared straightaway from Rs 1,000 to Rs 3,000 immediately after a month she began e-mailing—and chatting—with her daughter who had left for the US. "But it's a small price to pay. I feel relaxed all the time knowing she is safe and happy!" she says.
Not surprisingly, now the e-mail moms are getting bolder and beginning to run apace with their geeky children. Raghuram has installed a viewcam, gifted by a relative, on her computer and goes online to watch her grand-daughter in Chicago wearing the chaniya choli she sent her from India. When Madhura Sripad, a 62-year-old Bangalore-based e-mail mom's software engineer son Gurunaga, 28, acquired a new Honda car in US recently, he immediately sent his pictures with the gleaming new car. Says his mother: "I simply downloaded the picture and saved it on the computer." She's even begun browsing religious sites and chatting after the initial heebie jeebies. Visalakshi, now equipped with microphones and a webcam, has actually stopped e-mailing her daughters. "We just chat," she says, picking and choosing her chat software. Another Bangalore-based e-mail mom, Nalini Sareen, 63, who has a daughter working in a health firm in Chicago, has learnt to chat and surf in no time. Now she can't wait for chat with video and wants to see her daughter as they rap.
She's also enjoying herself sending jokes to relatives and friends and has begun trawling the Yahoo! movies section. In Calcutta, 50-year-old Prativa Mohanty, who turned to surfing after starting out with card games on the computer, has begun conference chatting with her daughter in Delhi and son in the Big Apple simultaneously late at night: "It is as if we were chatting in our sitting room." Others like Chandrasekhar have even begun enjoying the cryptic e-mailspeak of her two sons abroad. "I write like them," she says. "I feel like I belong to their generation."
Clearly, e-mail seems to be bridging the generation gap too. Some e-mail moms like Delhi-based Madhumita Roy, 47, feel it is "more intimate." She remembers that she hardly got time to speak on long distance when her father used to call up home from England during her childhood. Kuruvilla echoes a similar sentiment: "On phone, it is not always possible to have a heart to heart conversation." Visalakshi, the quintessential cybermom who became a homemaker with three children after a acquiring bachelor's degree in arts, has the last word: "The age of letter writing is over. Now everyone can communicate all the time. That's the best thing that has happened."
So more and more mothers are signing up for courses to pick up the basics of computing and e-mail. Sareen, for example, joined 10 others in a free eight-day, 10-hour-long course conducted by the niit in Bangalore last fortnight. Emboldened by its success, niit is now planning an 18-hour-long basic course for senior citizens which will cost them Rs 1,800. In Chennai, former civil service officer K.S. Ramakrishnan, who runs two neighbourhood newspapers, has put up seven computers in a reading room to teach "elderly people" keyboard typing—for e-mail. "Self-reliance is one of the important aspects of the computer. Pecking at the machine with one finger does not take anybody anywhere. I notice people struggling for an hour to just key in five sentences," he says. No wonder more than 25 aspiring e-mail moms are expected to sign on for the Rs 500 classes in the next two months.The thrill has, clearly, just begun.
The thrill has, clearly, just begun. The thrill has, clearly, just begun.