26 November 2005 was a dark night for my family. I was in Budapest where my dad was on a posting and had lost his short struggle for life after a sudden brain hemorrhage. I had no idea what had just hit us as he was a perfectly healthy and fit person. In that state of shock it was inconceivable that he had left our lives forever.
As the eldest sibling of my family I took the call from embassy staff 36 hours earlier that he was in hospital. I left London with just a rucksack of some clothes. My brother and sister who I lived with at the time were at the flat in London. We were no strangers to talking to mum and dad on webcam every week, something we had done since around 1999. Dad liked calling us on video on MSN messenger. We were all university students at the time and were used to chat programs on those old desktop computers. Dad would always try to catch us online and call us on video two or three times a week. He was never to be online again on our MSN list.
For those last 36 hours I had held myself together for my mum and my siblings. I knew dad was in far more a serious condition than they all realised while me, mum and embassy staff were visiting hospital. I held hope, great hope that he will recover and that he would be in ICU for a few more days and then be out. He wasn’t even there for 2 days. At midnight we went to see dad as he had lost his last struggle for life. My mother was inconsolable at the hospital. I called my siblings on the phone as my brother and sister tried to console her. I was a student on a roaming pay as you go phone and my £50 top up ran out in minutes.
I reached our home in Budapest and started the MSN video call with my younger brother and sister. 2005 webcams were grainy but still we were able to see each other, see the sadness in our eyes, some of us cried and some were still in shock. This was the era in which the term 24/7 internet was coined as broadband was still in its infancy. It was about 2am and we decided to try and get some sleep. I told my brother in London to just keep the video call going, whether or not we were sleeping. I don’t know why I did this at the time, I needed to know that even if we were not talking to each other live that we were connected together.
I couldn’t sleep, the reality that my dad had just died hours ago and that I was the one now who had to inform his brothers and sister in rural India dawned on me. None of them had phones, they were too poor and mobile phones in India were expensive at the time.
I frantically looked around for phone numbers of relatives with a landline or mobile phones. I couldn’t do it, every time I saw a piece of paper with my dad’s writing I realised the writing is of my now dead father, and that I will never see any new writing from him again. Shock finally turned into mourning and I started wailing out loud, I turned into a screaming 5 year old again. My mum woke up and to my surprise even my brother who was on a live link to the MSN call woke up in London. We talked for a while and I calmed down. I then located the phone numbers and called various relatives in India all night. How can anyone ever be prepared to call up to tell the news of a brother’s death? You can’t. I did my best at the time and talked to them as long as I could. They didn’t know what to do either, mourn or console me? They consoled me and my mum who were at the flat in Budapest.
2 weeks later I travelled to India and met my family in India after 12 years of not having gone to India. In a suburban poor part of outer Delhi, my mother’s brother, my uncle found us four a small room. We were lucky to have running water near that room but my uncle’s flat didn’t. I helped my aunt in those next 3 months to bring buckets of water in the morning to her flat. It became a morning routine but never a chore as the temple blared out holy songs and India woke to life with that life energy of India that is hard to put in words. I even got used to cold showers in December. My aunt’s food was delicious, the Indian sun, Hindu philosophy and a sense of community in that suburb was nourishing to me.
My uncle’s grandchildren were three boys, the eldest of them was 13. The boys were amazed by the the tales of London and the Western world. They were inspired by what my dad had done for me and my siblings. Tales of how total dedication to education got my dad a school scholarship and eventually a job in the Indian diplomatic service. The prodigal son had escaped poverty, travelled the world and represented his nation. If he could do it, then so could they all.
I travelled to wrap up my dad’s paperwork, pension, bank accounts etc. from suburban Delhi to central Delhi for the next 3 months. It was such a trip, a tiny minibus that rattled through the rough suburban dusty roads with loud Bollywood music blaring. I had just finished my PhD and was in debt myself, so the 5 Rupees (~6 pence) journey suited me fine. I couldn’t afford a car or taxi either and was far from being a middle class Delhiite. So I ditched my GAP flares, bought clothes from local markets and just fit in with everyone else there.
The nearest cyber cafe with a webcam was about 45 mins bus ride from the suburb I lived in. I went to the cyber cafe to chat to my brother, sister who were now back in London after two weeks in India. I also got to keep in touch with my friends from Imperial College and catch up on the local student news, MSN was just about to be replaced by MySpace and Facebook. My nephews started to come along to the cyber cafe with me. I put two of my older nephews into an IT skills and English speaking course three mornings a week as that part of Delhi had more resources. The eldest ended up going to university, got a degree and is now working in an accountancy firm. He and his brothers got my uncle’s family new luxuries. 15 years later they have running water, plenty of appliances, a bigger house, a motorbike and more.
In those moments when I had left that video call on and continuously running shortly after my dad’s death, I felt that my flat in London was joined to my dad’s flat in Budapest virtually. It is as if the walls and boundaries had disappeared, as if that the room in London just became an extension to the room in Budapest. They were one. We could see each other and talk to each other. The quality of call didn’t matter, the fact that there was a live connection put us in a virtual space. That space is perceived and enhanced in our minds.
This idea of interconnected virtual spaces has never left me since that night in 2005. I started tutoring in 2006, fast forward to 2012 and I started tutoring online. Many of the things I learnt back then on how to stay connected with my family is what I now apply in my teaching. A vast part of that is forming very real and human connections with my tutees and their families. The tech has always been secondary, I just used whatever tech I had at the time to do the teaching I wanted to do. I turned the limitation of the tech into a strength, a pedagogical tool in itself. I made ‘remoteness’ a powerful tool. The engineer and problem solver in me has just learnt to adapt and innovate with whatever tools I have at any given moment of time.
Over the next weeks and months, I will try to open out from my head what these tools are. What it might mean to hold a space for someone online, to get them to articulate, to articulate myself, to value the silence and realise that perhaps the most important communication is happening in that silence between the talking. Once I have my own clarity on this, I will be able to convey it to the wider world.