Digital graveyard


By Sahana

When you live half a world away from the people you love, you adapt. You learn, even if it’s not your forte, all the social media and video-calling and trouble-shooting when you can’t see the other person’s screen. It was simpler in 2007 when we’d go to an Indian grocery store and buy a pre-paid card and dial all of the numbers and hear the familiar cadence (that still rings in my ears once in a while): “Welcome to Reliance. Please enter the number you wish to call, starting with country code.” 

But Skype broke onto the scene, so soon clunky desktops and attachable webcams were the norm, and then Facebook and Instagram and Whatsapp made immediate communication possible and we reveled in it. We called at any hour and we would talk for a bit only to call back later on with some new piece of information. 

My grandparents were both pros online. Comments and posts were frequent and status changes were a daily occurrence. My grandfather tagged me and forty other people in almost everything he posted, even if it was in Bangla and he knew I wouldn’t be able to read it. My grandmother commented on almost everything I posted anywhere, even if no one else did. There were Photoshop collages on our birthdays and pictures and videos of new flowers in the garden and of food and of them dressed up and going to work in the community or going to weddings or picture of cute dogs. They left a mark on my internet spaces that I keep going back to and looking at, a once thriving and vibrant internet city, with flooding comments and posts and signals of life that meant things were good and normal and okay, a regular good morning and good night to start and end the days. It’s a monument now. A testament to the community they built. The friends they had and the family they started. I’ve been looking at old posts and messages a lot lately, until it makes me too sad.The posts aren’t sad, but the fact that there is a date past which neither of them were active at all, that’s the part that’s hard to look past. 

Sometimes, despite all the techy-ness that both Didiya and Dadai exhibited regularly, there were some glitches (as there always are). Bios were hard and confusing and not really important. For example, Dadai’s says “At school”, which is honestly kind of amusing. But Didiya’s bio on Whatsapp, I hadn’t looked at for a while. And I don’t know why or when she made this her bio, or if it was a message to someone specific that was typed mistakenly in the wrong place. I don’t know if it was intentional (somehow I kind of doubt it). But still, it felt a little meant for us, for right now, when I looked at her bio on Whatsapp tonight and it read “Love you my sweet heart”. 

The last message on Whatsapp I sent her was on April 15th, though we talked over Whatsapp after that too, ducking my head into the frame every time I saw my mom on the phone with her. The last time I talked to Dadai was the day before he died and he was so talkative that he got in trouble with his nurse for using too much oxygen. We talked about how I was going to be graduating soon and he asked me to send him a link to the ceremony and I said I would. I have a screenshot from that conversation, and in that moment, I don’t know why I took it, but now it’s the last picture I have with the two of us in it. 

And as I go through their posts, and my own, and pictures in my mom’s albums, I think that we should have had more pictures and more videos and more conversations over the phone. More video calls and voice memos and games of ludo in their living room, eating aloo bhaja on the floor as I lose yet another game to my little brother, who had the unfair advantage of Didiya whispering the right moves to him and Dadai laughing at the ensuing argument. But most I think we should have just had more time. It was too quick, too sudden, too abrupt. And the shrines they built themselves online just feel like loss.

Her boys and her one little girl.


Sahana has been cleaning little faces, feeding little humans, making their beds, sanding cribs, washing laundry this past month and a half. Apart from all the chores I mentioned she is also offering her services as a human jungle gym to 4 or 5 toddlers; her boys as she calls them.

At the beginning of the year, she decided to spend her summer volunteering for an orphanage in India. She was, of course, thinking of college applications. But she was also thinking of seeing a bit more of the world, outside the insular bubble that she lives in. And she wanted to know her grandparents a bit more – from a different perspective, not as an indulgent granddaughter visiting for a couple of weeks.

So she packed her bags, filled her suitcase with text books with the illusion that she will be studying in her spare time, boarded the plane and went to live with her grandparents. The first few Skype conversations were casual:

“How did it go?”

“Fine. I sanded cribs today. My arms are sore.” (Do imagine the casual teaanagerish monotone as you read the line).

“I sanded more cribs. The kids are cute.”

Gradually as the days went by, the Skype conversations became more animated.

“Mom, the kids are SO CUTE! I held hands of two kids and crossed the road to take them to school. I was sitting there being a jungle gym while 4 little boys climbed all over me!”

The monotone disappeared, replaced by squeaky enthusiasm.

“I truly appreciate washing machines now, I spent the morning doing laundry! But Mom, the kids are so cute. I kiss their fat cheeks every day!”

I got to hear of her four boys who she took care of, played with, fed them, taught them and hugged them. I heard about how naughty one was, how quiet the other and smart yet another. One day the naughty one bit the other little dude and Sahana had to discipline him. He cried then, and had to be consoled. She was first called Aunty and then she got ‘demoted’ (or promoted, perhaps) to didi (big sister) as slowly she became a playmate from a care giver. One kissed her on her cheeks and her forehead. Another said he loved her. She talked about a baby girl, abandoned at birth, who, when picked up, curled her little body around the care giver and gratefully sucked any shoulder she got. Sahana held her as much as she could, knowing full well, she may never see her again. She got reassurance from the sisters and caregivers, almost all the children got adopted.

Sahana and another volunteer from Spain discussed the relative good condition of the orphanage compared to what they had expected. The facility was clean, the children were well fed, regularly checked by doctors and even loved by the care givers.

Now there is just one week left for her to say goodbye to her boys and the baby girl. She realizes she will never forget them while they will most certainly not remember her. She said, “I did not realize before I came what a life changing experience really means. I thought I would just go and hang out with some kids. But after coming here, spending time with my boys, taking care of them every day, I know my life has changed in some ways. I will most likely not feel about this as intensely as I do now come January. I will get busy again with school work, SATs, college applications. However, I know for sure during my most busy time, I can reflect back on this month and a half to take me away from MY life at that particular moment and give me a perspective of the fact that I am part of a bigger world.”

I believe this is what I wanted her to get out of this endeavor. A perspective that she is part of a bigger world. The life she leads now is simply preparatory to launch her into a bigger system where she will learn, work, live, contribute, accept and hopefully, find fulfillment.