Ravi lounged in his garden, typing on the phone, when his eight-year-old emerged out of the hedges, and plopped in a chair before him. “You were right, Dad!” he said, eyes bright.
“Right?” He straightened, curious. “About what?”
“The universe,” his son said, dragging himself closer. “You said it helps when you want something.”
“Ah! Paulo Coelho. Why? You done with the quiz?”
“Oh.” Ravi sat back. “Then what?”
“I’m talking about Pokemon.”
“Yes. It’s always the same old episodes on TV. I was fed up. Then I searched.” He grinned and pulled out the phone they had recently given him. “And guess what?” he said, tapping the screen. “New—”
Ravi plucked the phone from his hand. His son sprang up. “Sit back down!” he shouted.
“But its mine,” he whimpered, dropping back in his chair.
Ravi glared at him. Then removed his glasses. “Five hours of online classes, Aarav. Daily. Then your homework and tests. And then this? You know what it’ll do to your eyes?”
The main gate creaked opened, and his daughter pushed in her bicycle, back from her game.
“But Di is always on the phone,” he complained, eyeing her kick on the cycle stand. “You never say anything to her.”
“Prisha!” Ravi called out to her.
She looked over, pulling out her earphones.
“Come and sit here for a minute. Would you?”
She walked across, and took a chair, the earbuds hanging around her neck.
Ravi winced at the muffled beats still spilling out of them. “You really like your music loud.”
She rolled her eyes, and shoved a hand into her pocket. The music stopped.
“Better. I was just telling Aarav how too much of phone can be harmful for you.”
He scowled at her. “For him, I mean.”
“Oh, yeah.” She looked at her brother, nodding. “It’s very harmful. Drop it the moment your classes end.”
“Do you?” Ravi asked her.
“Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I? I hate specs, Dad.” She pointed at the thick glasses in his hand. “I don’t want them around my eyes. Ever.”
“Ah!” He cleared his throat, pushing them back on. “And what about you, son? You want them around yours? Like this?”
Aarav gave a frightened shake of his head.
“Then you know what you have to do.” Ravi dropped the phone back in Aarav’s hands, and his daughter rose to go, grabbing the newspaper from the table. “Wait,” he said. “I want to talk to you.”
“But Dad. I’m tired.”
“Five minutes, Prish. We rarely sit together.”
She slumped back down.
“Tell me about your classes.”
“What about them?” she said.
“How they’re going.”
“As usual, Dad.”
“On Google Classroom?”
“Yeah. And Whatsapp.”
“Okay. So… tell me what other apps you have in your phone. That you use.”
“God. Dad, I’m fourteen. I know—”
“I’m not prying, Prish. Trust me. Just answer me. Will you?”
She folded her arms in a huff. “Amazon. YouTube. Spotify. Real Guitar. Kindle.”
“Netflix,” his son screamed, raising a hand.
“Only if I get some time. Like on a Sunday morning. After Badminton.”
“And Google search. Right?” Ravi said, ignoring the jibe.
“But obviously, Dad.”
“FaceBook Di?” his son added, really enjoying it now.
“You are on FB?” Ravi said, as her eyes locked on to her brother’s, narrowing.
“My whole class is,” she replied, without blinking. “For study purposes.”
“Oh. I didn’t know you had an account.”
“She has an Ariana Grande pic as her profile—”
“Would you shut up!” she burst out.
“Easy Prish! It’s okay. And you”—he turned to his son—“you’re not going to speak unless asked. Understood?”
Aarav shrank in his chair and got busy with his phone.
“Now Prish, I’m not going to preach to you or anything. You’re smart enough. But since it’s such a big part of our lives nowadays, I just want to discuss a few things you should be aware of about internet. For your own safety. Shall we?”
She looked back at him.
“Good. So you must have noticed how all these apps you download ask for permissions.”
She nodded, pushing the hair out of her eyes.
“You know they make a record of all your details? Especially Google. Whatever you browse, wherever you go. Your likes, comments, downloads.”
“Yeah, Dad. I know.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
She shrugged. “They do it to help me only.”
“Yeah. If they know what I like, they’ll know what to offer to me.”
“Ah. Like movies and songs and ads?”
“And books,” she added, shooting him a look.
“All right. So you watch the videos they want you to, buy the stuff they want you to, read the—”
“Not always, Dad. Only when I really like them.”
“But you do like them more often than not. Don’t you?”
She tipped her head in thought. “Maybe, but…”
“Don’t you see what they’re doing?”
“Okay. So they’re doing some business on the side too. What’s wrong with that?”
“I’m asking what they are doing to you, Prish.”
She looked at him as if he’d gone crazy. “Nothing Dad. They are doing nothing to me.”
“But they are, darling. They’re intruding your brain. Influencing your decisions.”
“Oh, please Dad.” She laughed. “All they’re doing is giving me some options. I am still the one making the final call. And it helps me save time. Even money.”
Aarav got up. “Can I go in, Dad?”
“No. Sit down – and listen. It’s important,” he said, before turning back. “Time and money? Of course. But where do you spend them? Watching another movie downloaded for you by Netflix. Buying a new earphone flashing on your scree—”
“But I like it, Dad!” She threw up her hands. “I like this whole system. It’s really smart what they do. You know why? ‘Cause it’s all based on my interests and my likes for once. Not my teachers’ or my paren—” She broke off, staring, her hands clenched.
He leaned forward. “And that’s exactly what scares me the most, Prish,” he said, his tone soft. “They knowing so much more about you than we do. Or you yourself do. I just want you to be careful. Be aware. That nothing on your phone is private. That they have their eyes and ears on everything. On all your photos. On your calls and chats.”
“But chats are encrypted?” She jerked forward, brow furrowed.
“You tell me. You read the newspaper.”
“Oh, that she does,” came his wife’s voice as she came rushing towards them. “But only the celebrity section. Actors, Actresses. What they eat, what they tweet.” She stopped beside their son and thwacked him on the head.
“Mom!” he yelped, twisting.
“I sent you to call Dad, not sit here play games.” She looked up. “Come on in. Breakfast is ready.”
“One minute!” Ravi said, raising a finger, as the kids jumped to go. He squinted up at his wife. “Aren’t you telling them anything at all about phones and internet?” he said. “’Cause they literally have no clue of the harm. And they are glued all the time.”
Prisha raised her hands to protest, but his wife beat her to it. “And who’s to blame for that? Who gave them these new phones?”
“It’s your old one, mom!” Aarav said.
“Shut up! And Prisha. One more of your stupid pics online and I swear I’m really going to stop your pocket money.”
“That’s not fair!” she cried, turning to Ravi. “She posts stuff all the time, Dad. Why would I be—”
“Only good thoughts.” His wife glared at her. “Not selfies and things like you do.”
“Good thoughts?—‘Watching Money Heist Season 5’, ‘Feeling excited about—’”
“But Dad, she does. I swear. Like every hour. Feeling this. Doing that. How could you not notice?”
“Enough!” Ravi said. “Go in. Now.”
She lurched to her feet, and stomped away, Aarav running behind her.
“See how loud she’s getting?” his wife said, watching her go.
“But she’s right, you know. You shouldn’t be—”
“Don’t you take her side,” she warned.
“I’m just saying it’s not very wise to share everything you do out there on the net.”
“I don’t share everything—”
“Is it Appam you’ve cooked?” he asked, cutting her off, sniffing, the yeasty aroma reaching him, riding on a breeze.
“You can smell it?” Her eyes grew bright.
“Of course I can. And I’m hundred percent sure,” he said, tapping on his phone, and swiping around, “that I’ll be able to see it too. Ha!” He grinned up at her, triumphant. “On your timeline.” He looked at the picture she had shared just five minutes back. “Eating Appam,” he read aloud the post. “With my special tomato-garlic chutney. And a very special family. A Delicious and Happy Sunday to all my—”
She whirled around, and stormed back down the lawn, towards the porch. And a moment later, the door slammed. A little too loud.
Ravi waited a few seconds, looking at the hedges that were still trembling. And then he returned to his phone. He quickly backed out of his wife’s profile and touched on the Messenger icon on the top-right. This new colleague he was chatting with had gone offline now, but her last messages sat sparkling on his screen, just like her profile pic above them.
You there? She had written.
And a minute later: Anyway gotta go cook something. See ya.
He thought a second, then typed the reply.
Sorry. Was cooking too. Appams.
With my special tomato-garlic chutney.
He snapped to attention as the door opened in the distance. And with amazingly swift taps of his finger, he deleted the conversation, logged out of FB, and crossed the incognito tab, before opening his browsing history and selecting all.
His son stood before him. “We’re going to finish the Appams, Mom’s saying,” he relayed the message, “If you’re not coming.”
“Oh, I’m coming,” Ravi said, pushing off his chair. “I love Appam.” He touched the phone one final time, erasing all the evidence. “And the Chutney.”