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Letter from India: Office, BlackBerry or Me?

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August 2007
Letter from India: Office, BlackBerry or Me?

At the culmination of every monsoon shower, numerous puddles moat our apartment building, perfect to set paper boats sailing. My husband, however, can't remember how to make one for our son. Hand daddy a BlackBerry and he can press the right buttons blindfolded.

BlackBerries are everywhere, like rats. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation claims there are approximately 9 crore rodents currently living in Mumbai. Turn in a dead specimen and earn five rupees, the BMC promises. Credited for having connected the ends of the earth, PDAs (personal digital assistants) create splits in close relationships. How much would wives and children offer for terminated BlackBerries?

"You must instill good family values," instructs my father-in-law from Washington every week. He reiterates the need for family dinners—similar to those he shared with his wife and son decades ago. The earliest my husband returns from work is 9 p.m., after both the kids are tucked in. When we lived in Atlanta, he never left the office before 7 p.m. unless there was a celebration at home. After a quick dinner, dessert included private time with the BlackBerry and conference calls to Mumbai for conversation. All this when he wasn't circuiting the globe three weeks in a month.

In India office hours have always stretched beyond sundown. A decade ago my workday at Elle magazine concluded anywhere between 7 p.m. and 12 a.m. Most businesses, from the panwalla on the street to clothing stores, typically open shop after 10:30 a.m. Bosses usually saunter in post 11a.m. While BPOs (Business Process Outsourcing) function like hospitals with round the clock service, only government offices adhere to the 9 to 5 schedule, with frequent chai breaks.

With the Indian economy surging ahead, more and more companies are providing their employees mobile phones with email access. It is the quintessential electronic leash. Work travels along in one's pocket. Work even vacations with the family. The PDA-charged corporate culture in India keeps countless parents on call 24/7.

As parents, Indian men have evolved little while women deftly intersperse career with familial commitments. Unlike the West where daddies are expected to assist with childrearing activities, men here do little more than play with the kids when convenient—perhaps because they are typically taught to leave chores and children to the women. Add to that training the abundance of domestic help, and most men see no reason to pitch in. Mothers like myself revere husbands who can orchestrate a diaper change, assist with math homework, etc.

Apart from spending television-free time with the kids on Sunday, I expect little from my chronically connected, fatigued husband. (In Atlanta I requested and received a lot more help with household chores.) However, having read a report on "BlackBerry orphans" in TIME magazine, I vehemently oppose the excessive use of the "Crackberry" around the children. I have learnt not to attempt conversation when the contraption is within touching distance, but it is unfair for children to have to compete with electronic gadgets for their parents' attention.

On the flip side the BlackBerry allows daddy to return home earlier than he would otherwise. And it is because he acquiesces to being perpetually plugged-in that we live well in Mumbai.

To celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary yesterday, my husband and I dined at the city's premier restaurant, the Zodiac Grill at the Taj Hotel. Over a glass of Dom Perignon I said to Arun, "There is only room for three in our marriage: you, me, and BlackBerry!"

BY REETIKA KHANNA NIJHAWAN


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