Decoding digital meetings and partings in the WhatsApp age

Dubai - Is there any 'right' way to exit a WhatsApp group chat? In this column of Life's Like That, Suresh Pattali ponders over the shortcomings of bidding goodbye in the digital age

By Suresh Pattali

Published: Thu 12 Aug 2021, 4:44 PM

Last updated: Thu 12 Aug 2021, 5:51 PM

“Lekshmy left.”

When the WhatsApp group alert rang out soon after we cut the cake, gooey enough to sync with the last day of our longtime colleague and friend, I wasn’t sure whether to feel glad or sad. Because strange are the ways Lekshmy’s motor response works. What she shows isn’t what she feels. What she tells isn’t what she thinks. She’s a wickedly idiosyncratic person who jokes about how she celebrates a tragedy by ordering a plate of biryani, if possible, a dum one. Until I met Lekshmy, I wasn’t aware of the therapeutic qualities of biryani. Since we have the Indian delicacy in the name of every region in India, let’s not wade into such troubled waters.

To chew the cud is Lekshmy’s own quirky way of grappling with grief. That’s fine but what batters my psyche is the WhatsApp alert indicating someone has exited a group — on his or her own volition or due to exceptional circumstances. So, the message “Lekshmy left” hurts my conscience. I am pretty sure — and my colleagues wouldn’t dispute — that WhatApp could one day crumble like an ember over a corporate misstep, but Lekshmy wouldn’t go away from our hearts. So, the social media platform’s interpretation of left is totally incongruous with the sentiment that runs in the newsroom.

Are we short of words in the dictionary that could tell us gently and comfortably that a person has quit a group, which had been his or her loving abode for so long? Whether WFH or WFO, we live our lives within the four walls of the digital platform in the time of Covid.

It’s there we share our agony over four million Covid deaths worldwide. It’s there we shed a tear of joy when someone bats an eyelid after fighting a protracted war on Covid in the ICU. It’s there we joke about diamond-studded masks and gloves. It’s there we lend support to each other when the pathogen knocks on our doors. It’s our home, mall, park, restaurant and gym during the lockdown.

The fact that Mr X wouldn’t be around to witness all the fun and camaraderie that permeates the group refuses to sink in. So, I have a problem with the word left, which reminds me of one of those old obituary ads that read, “Mr X has left for his heavenly abode”.

Back home in the 1980s, we had community groups that offered undertaking services pro bono. One such body in my place was cynically named the “After-death Committee”. It might sound as alarming as a politburo set up in the heavenly abode.

As soon as wails of mourning rose over a home, committee members would unpack printed obituary notices and fill in Mr X’s name and send them out to relatives far and wide. Volunteering youths would cycle for kilometres after Yours Truly, one of the committee members, signed off the “left for heavenly abode” notices. This practice would later give way to loudspeaker announcements from a roaming car and then to WhatsApp broadcasts. The word left has since been so pestilentially sticky in my life.

While some digital departures with the left notification could leave you agonised, there are others who would quit abruptly in the middle of a conversation. They come into your life with a Hi but leave without a Bye. They vanish into very thin air, leaving you in suspended animation. My children never tell me before they take leave in the middle of a chat. When your interest wanes, topics dry up, energy and attention dissipate, one should ideally excuse himself or herself before walking off. It’s a basic human courtesy.

Such people expect you to spring up from the animation when they require you the next time. To wait without hope in such cases is slow death, so you too move on finding solace in what Rabindranath Tagore’s Postmaster evokes: “So the traveller, borne on the breast of the swift-flowing river, consoled himself with philosophical reflections on the numberless meetings and partings going on in the world — on death, the great parting, from which none returns.”

But some digital departures deprive you of the elixir of life. You never meet them. You don’t even know their real name. They don’t show their visage. You don’t have their number to call. Yet you trust their digital identity. They are godsends; they offer a helping hand when you drown in the maelstrom of life. You can smell their words. You can hear the music their heart hums. Their messages are like oysters where you harvest pearls. Their philosophies drench you to ecstasy.

Such relations are metaphysical. They transcend normal definitions of romance. And when they disappear without a word, you wait without despair. Every moment waited is a moment relished. And when the silence and solitude thicken, you cringe in the reading nook and recite T.S. Eliot. Like a prayer. Louder and louder, until the frost on your soul melts into a tear.

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,

For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith

But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.”

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