We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less.
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Sonali is just seventy. Life looks at her expectantly and she smiles back. It is their morning ritual - life and the living in a unique harmony. In the dusk of her life, she has her hard earned luxury to sit back and admire the beauty that life is. All her years of slog has borne fruit now; now she has the time to rest and to look around and appreciate. Now is what she wants to savour bit by bit, like a bar of her favourite chocolate, enjoying its melting in her mouth with every tiny bite, not at all in any hurry to gulp it down at a go. These days Sonali often looks back at her days of lonely struggle, her successes and failures. She truly deserves some treat for herself now.
Her day begins with a game of choices. She takes out her laptop and logs into her account at taskchoice.org.in the first thing in the morning, and the usual dialogue box opens. The checklist rolls out on her screen - her daily chores, awaiting her mouse click. She was first introduced to Taskchoice by her sister-in-law, Shruti, almost her age but way more tech savvy and self-dependent. In Shruti’s words, self dependence in today's world is just the other name for e-dependence. But in spite of spending more than half of her life dealing with e-banking, Sonali is still not very comfortable with non-human dealings. Hesitantly, Sonali had registered her name two years back and was pleasantly surprised by their service. Since then, it has been a journey of comfort and pleasure with Taskchoice.
Today she will choose gardening and cooking as self help choices. The rest will be taken care of by those people. Since she prefers human company to robots, they usually send some young girl to complete her household chores. At seventy, one cannot obviously be expected to do everything oneself. Thankfully, this government initiative helps people like her. Taskchoice is very discerning in their services. They help with most of the unavoidable domestic chores that involve physical labour too like cleaning the house, cooking, washing etc and for everything else there are home delivery and service apps catering particularly to the old people. There are a few similar private organisations too, but they are both expensive and qualitatively inferior. She loves the fact that taskchoice lets her choose her daily chores. Who does not like to be pampered with choices? For Sonali it is the ability to choose which makes this human life so special and that's where taskchoice has its appeal.
She too had chosen once. And it was a hard choice - a choice between death and life. Thankfully there was support from Dwijen, her ex husband. And they decided to go on with her complicated pregnancy which ensured that the child will be born, but with some medical conditions. Little did she know that a few of years with a hearing impaired child will be enough to make Dwijen feel trapped. All his promises turned into cribs and curses and as is the case quite often, all responsibilities fell on Sonali. Things had gone so bad that when Dwijen finally left them to lead a solitary life of comfort and freedom, she felt relieved. And then began her actual journey with Ritwik, a journey towards self reliance, a journey towards a humane existence. Her bank job offered her financial security but it also robbed her of a large chunk of her everyday time, leaving only a bit for Ritwick and none for her own. Thanks to the push towards cashless transactions, her bank had just around that time became fully online, and she got the opportunity to work from home. This at least saved her creche fees. She cannot forget those days of extreme toil. Ritwik has always been her greatest source of comfort.
She moves in and out of her reveries as she prepares herself for the day. A habit acquired during her office days, she still continues to plan her entire day in the morning. This has always helped her to be more organised. Today's morning involves two creative tasks. The physical effort involved in gardening weeds out her negative energy and tones her body. Unlike most of the old or middle aged Indian women, Sonali still loves her body as much as she loved it in her twenties. Why not? After all it is going to be with her till her last breath, it is to be the deciding factor of her life’s pace. So why not keep it pampered and happy? She also loves the sense of creation and fulfillment that soaks within her along with the hard earned sweat after each session outdoor, looking after her small patch of kitchen garden. And cooking gives her a creative kick too. When the spices blend together in her cooking pot, she feels a heady pleasure in their aroma - each distinct spice contributing it's individuality to create something new. Each ingredient for her is a creative presence, awaiting Sonali's expert direction to evolve or to fuse into a new avatar.
The ring of the doorbell is accompanied by a young face on the small screen beside the door, enthusiastically waving the taskchoice i-card. Sonali’s eyes rests on that identity card for a few moments before she moves towards the door. In the past two years, the taskchoice logo has become a panacea for her - an instantaneous answer to all her difficulties.
The girl walks in with a confident stride and flashes a smile at her - good morning ma'am!
Sonali instantly takes a liking to her.
This interplay of human touch and technology is what she finds so endearing regarding this organization. As usual she switches her house Wi-Fi to the offline mode as soon as the girl walks in. Sonali does not like her conversation with these ‘help-folks’, as they are called, to be recorded by the agency for future correspondence. That programmes the talk because taskchoice feeds its employees with as much data as possible on the client, including a short update on all past conversations. All this is done to give the customer a sense of familiarity and continuation even if the help-folks change almost daily.
But it's the unknown that thrills Sonali. She loves to create her own thread of conversation each day, sometimes with a new girl, sometimes with the girl who repeats her day at Sonali's place. Bereft of most of the other channels of direct communication, Sonali savours her limited interaction with the help-folks like some delectable dessert at the end of a tiring day.
- Ma'am shall I put the coffee on the table?
Sonali smiles, the girl is as efficient as the rest. She plans her conversation with her. It strikes her suddenly that these young people who come to her house day after day must also have a life beyond this. Unlike the robot helps sent to the people not much interested in conversation, these human helps have a life beyond the walls of her house, beyond the client database of taskchoice. Robot help - Sonali wonders, how would it feel to be served by a machine day in and out; how much comfort can it bring to her? She has yet neither felt the urge or the need to try that option out. Even in this era of increasing automation, it is the human touch that she prefers.
- What's your name girl?
- No, the real one. The one that you grew up with.
She knew that all taskchoice girls are called Lina and the boys, Leo. Instead of answering, Lina busies herself in dusting the huge antique furniture strewn across Sonali’s huge drawing space.
Sonali does not persuade her further. She knows that unlike herself, the employees are unable to go offline from their company server during work hours and whatever they speak goes through some sort of surveillance. Even with her limited technical knowledge she could understand that much. She understands the limitations therefore.
Weeding out the wild grasses around her flower bed, Sonali feels Lina’s eyes upon her. The girl takes hesitant steps towards her and picks up the lying spade.
Can I help you loosen the mud a bit aunty?
Sonali nods, quietly noticing the change in the girl's addressing. Gardening was a self help chore today.
Plodding the earth lightly she casually starts, “When I took up this job, aunty, my mother said, Rosy, you are a good conversationalist and you know how to care. Render your services to the senior citizens of this country; in most cases they are lonely souls, with years of conversation bottled within. Our youth passes in building a career and our middle age in its execution. It's only when we grow old, we have the time to speak and therefore the need too.” Saying all these in a breath Lina, alias Rosy, pauses and smiles through her eyes. Sonali looks at her, takes her by the arm and sits her on the chair. She takes a decision right then.
- Your task for the day is to talk about yourself.
She smiles back.
- Aunty I have already overstepped the personal data limit by divulging my name. Any more personal data will jeopardise my career. Please.
- The data analytics in the Taskchoice will filter and penalise you for only those data which reveals your personal details. But I don't want those. I only want your stories. Stories that are building within you, that make you what you are. Tell me your stories so that they don't have to wait till your retirement to see the light of day. But before that, wait!
Sonali moves away, leaving Rosy in a sea of conflicting emotions. No client has ever engaged her so personally, has never considered her a human being with a life of her own. She suddenly feels a burst of admiration for this extraordinary client. Yes, she has many stories jostling for space in her mind. Stories about her childhood, her education, her professional experiences, her first love, her transgressions and so on. Each story important by its own scale, each of them wanting to come out of her mindspace, out in the open air to reach an empathic ear. Now the opportunity has arrived, she can vent out a bit of her stored memories and unburden her heart and mind.
Rosy orders some food for both of them, selecting the homemade Bengali cuisine mode. No cooking today, she thinks. Today she wants to indulge herself in stories. She can store these stories then in her own audio journal where all the stories that she has collected will join together as a collective memory, a journal of her times. Then she pings someone on Skype. The huge plasma screen on her drawing room wall comes alive with the full view of a neatly dressed young man in his impeccably uncluttered office, waving enthusiastically to them.
If Rosy is surprised, she hides it efficiently.
Meet my son, Ritwik.
As a garbled hello reaches Rosy’s ears, a perplexed look flickers across her eyes and vanishes immediately. But that's the cue Sonali is waiting for. She hands her an earphone.
“Here, use it. Ritwik has cognitive hearing and speech impairment. The software in this is programmed to translate his garbled version in proper pronunciation”.
There is pride in her voice - pride of a mother of a successful entrepreneur son, especially when the son had to face so many extra challenges.
Ritwik is surprised to see a Taskchoice girl sitting beside her mumma. By the beaming smile on his mother’s face he can guess her happiness and excitement. It is the same flushed eyes that he had seen throughout his growing up years. Dilated pupils drunk in excitement peered out of her eye sockets whenever he achieved anything, however small; even as insignificant as learning to cross the road without any help.
His thoughts go back to childhood too. Not a normal childhood of football matches and school busses but one confined to his constant company of his ayah didis of his crèche and home. His mother had to work very hard, and harder after his father had left them due to his own disabilities. That was another dark phase - a slogging mother, dwindling resources, his constant need to be attended - Ritwik still bows to that woman’s perseverance. Sonali had to hire help for Ritwik in order to juggle between her home and her work.
- Here son, meet Lina, my friend for the day. Like old times, shall we have another story session today? Only that the stories will not be just between you and me, Lina has brought her own stories too. And i have my audio journal ready, to collect all of them.
Lina has an endearing smile, thinks Ritwik. She can keep my mom happy. Moving to Bangalore from Kolkata, Ritwik had moved away from his comfort zone, in his quest for a foothold in this big world. Today he is a successful entrepreneur; his firm caters to thousands of people with hearing disabilities throughout the world. He designs the speech to text adapter for them, to understand those who do not use the sign language. He has also designed a very high precision data analyser that can convert the garbled speech of people like him and convert it into a more understandable spoken language of any place of this world. But he knows that in his pursuit of his goal, he has also left his mother lonelier than ever. Yet both of them knew there was no other option. Ritwik had to prove himself in life as an answer to their combined toil.
He is thankful that Shruti aunty visits his mother often and was very happy when she got her to register with the Taskchoice. He had never seen any of the girls who had come to work for her. But today he is feeling more relaxed. If the girls have half an innocent smile as Rosy, they must be good enough.
Stories tumble out of a unique gathering of a septuagenarian woman, a twenty something girl and a differently abled young man in his late youth.
Sonali loves this inclusivity. She realises how this world, her country has changed to make a more comfortable space for its old, dying, marginalised people and she thanks god once again.