In her short story, bureaucrat and writer Daribha Lyndem offers a glimpse of the lure and temptation of the World Wide Web of half-truths and new connections.
Out of the smooth matte cardboard box Phukan gingerly picked up the cold metal slab with the shiny glass screen. He turned it in his hands and his reflection stared at him. With his thumb he pressed the side button and his face glowed green as the phone read “Welcome”. He tapped on the screen and his movements belied an unsurety that permeated every aspect of his life. He always hesitated, even at work, when he laid brick on the gooey grey slush, a mechanical operation he had been conducting for 10 years. He followed the instructions, marvelling at how this phone was different from the clunky qwerty key mobile phone he had been using.
“Get ready and come meet us in the field,” the sms read.
“Ok,” he replied, slinging a fresh gamcha on his shoulder, the cloth crunchy after having been dried in the sun. He waited for a reply.
“I have to get back early,” he texted again, the letters clicking under his fingers.
All his friends rarely replied to his texts and it bothered him that his messages went unanswered. He always replied to each unanswered text with a rejoinder, hoping to get a reaction.
When he got to the field, his friend Bora from two houses down was already waiting, his hand raised, shielding his face from the sun. It was November and the sun had begun to set by five in the evening. The humidity that they could never get used to had dissipated and the wind blew a cool breeze from the hills to the north. They wanted to conduct the search before it got too dark under the custody of light.
“When will you get a new phone? I could have sent you a picture of the guy so you wouldn’t have any doubt. This clunky phone of yours can only receive smses. No one uses those to communicate any more,” he said pointing at his phone as Phukan drew near.
“What could I tell from a picture? I would have had to come anyway,” he grunted as they waited for the rest of the men to arrive.
Phukan went to Guwahati to pick it up because he did not trust the local stores to stock genuine phones. Malick, his next door neighbour, had had his phone fail on him after a week’s use. He did not know if that was because of Malick’s inability to say no to his children when they asked for his phone, or because the phone was a fake, either way he was not risking it. He took Bora with him. Bora, who had got his touchscreen phone three months earlier, knew a thing or two about phones and had been talking him into an upgrade. He had hoped that Phukan would get a new phone before he would. He did not like to be the first who did things. The elder of two brothers, he had always been able to convince his younger brother to take the first leap into the pond, or eat the strange mushroom. But he could not contend with Phukan’s indecisiveness.
“Have you decided about the phone?” Bora asked every evening, blue light illuminating his face.
“I am saving up, don’t worry. All that is left is convincing Nita. You know I had to help my mother out when her house washed away this monsoon,” Phukan said, not taking his eyes off the screen.
— “That is why I am lucky my parents are dead.”
— “Oh, also, Nita is worried about the expense because last year Das lost his phone in the floods two days after he had bought it.”
— “Your wife is always worried. How is that a reason?”
— “Floods and water, rice and fish, that is all she worries about.”
— “There are bigger things to worry about these days. I hope you make sure your kids don’t go out after dark. One of Malick’s kids is missing. Been gone for two days now. Anyway, you get the phone and I will tell you what apps to download.”
“Come let’s go,” he called to his sons who had begun running in concentric circles, their arms outstretched, their necks bent upwards towards the darkening sky. “Teri meri galla ho gaya mashoor,” they sang, their throats getting caught as they tried to sing and swallow.
“You take them home soon. It gets dark too soon and you cannot be too sure these days,” Bora says.
Husband and wife reached an agreement that he would only buy the phone after Bihu in January. Till then, Phukan watched videos in the evenings with Bora, and played Snake on his own phone before bed.
The days got longer and the nights shorter, and he had saved up enough money to buy the phone. The mosquito nets came out of storage and the fans ran at full speed. Work continued for longer as the light lasted and the children only came home at seven. Bora’s younger child got bitten by a snake and died that summer. The hospital was too far from where they lived and he could not save his son. More than two children were lost to the village that year.
“I cannot come with you tonight to Guwahati,” Bora said, the evening they had set aside for their trip.
— “What? Why?”
— “Arey we heard about some trouble in the next village.”
— “Why did no one call me?”
— “No time. It was on the WhatsApp group. Anyway, come now. Bring your dau.”
— “That bad? Again, are they sure this time? I went last time and it was a lot of walking around in the dark and staying quiet and being sucked on by leeches.”
— “I don’t know. But I’m going. We all cannot use excuses like Malick.”
So Phukan’s excursion was postponed and he was not able to go out with Bora either because his son had fever and his wife was worried it was dengue. When Bora got back, Phukan was outside smoking in the dark, and Bora only grunted at the lit bidi, as he hobbled home.
Three days later, a sombre Bora and excited Phukan took a bus to Guwahati. There Bora took Phukan inside the lowest floor of the Fancy Market, deeper inside the subterranean shopping area, past the stores selling mobile accessories, phone cases that presented themselves from their clear paper plastic encasing dangling from shop fronts and slapping them on their way past crowds. They stopped at one of the stores where Bora greeted a jocund man who slapped him on his forearm as he drew him in for a hug. He introduced Phukan, who made the purchase and left the store as confused as he was when he got in.
Bora wanted to start using the phone once they were out but Phukan was scared about opening it anywhere else except on his bed, where the mattress could catch the phone if it slid off his hands. The cardboard box was still in its plastic packing and a part of Phukan wanted it to remain in this pristine condition, unsoiled and in a state of perpetual newness. Bora was finally able to convince him to open it outside the stall once they got back to the village. When he removed it from its case, the heavy rectangle felt cold against his skin and he wondered if he had done the right thing by indulging in this extravagance. He had little time to think because Bora, whose phone was now three-months old, was already enthralled by the new one before him.
He taught him how to download the instant messaging applications and added him to a group. The group contained all the men in the village.
“Hello Phukan here, this is my number,” Phukan messaged the group.
Everyone welcomed him.
Two minutes later as they sat and drank their third cup of tea, their phones beeped simultaneously.
“Look at this,” Bora said as he showed Phukan a picture he had just received on the group.
“God! They look so strange. Why would anyone put rings like that on his face?” Phukan continued.
— “The other guy has red hair and look how he has tied it!”
— “These ones look different. A lot more frightening than the last ones.”
— “The messages say they were seen close by.”
“Everyone is heading to the field now, let us get this over with,” Phukan said, as he placed his new phone inside his pocket and walked toward the direction of the crowd.
Daribha Lyndem is a writer and civil servant from Shillong. Her debut novel Name Place Animal Thing (Zubaan) was shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2021. She currently works with the Indian Revenue Service as a deputy commissioner of Indirect taxes