Mangalore, May 7: After the United States Navy successfully killed Osama, many people have pointed out or expressed regret that India cannot do similar things. America can conduct a military operation inside Pakistan and get away with it, but we can’t. America can catch Osama in Abbotabad, and we have to live with Dawood Ibrahim living it up in Karachi. It’s very galling.
But there is a silver lining. True, America is a global superpower, has freedom of speech, a judicial system that doesn’t have a twenty year backlog, and academic and business institutions that attract the most talented people in the world. But India can point with pride to two things it has that America doesn’t: assjets and missed calls.
The assjet, also known as hygiene faucet, is that specialised small spray tap with a lever control that you use to wash your bottom. This is much more elegant, refined, and hygienic than fiddling about with toilet paper or the dipper that our fathers and forefathers were forced to use. Yes, less than half of all Indians have access to a toilet in the first place, but at least the new toilets that are being built come with assjets. I alluded to the assjet in this column too, but honestly it needs a column all to itself.
Which turns the focus back on to the subject of this column: missed calls.
India invented the zero many centuries ago, to the great benefit of mankind. In the modern era, India invented the missed call, which if you think about it, is a sort of reinvention of the zero.
Consider! Zero has no value, but even so it, it is so useful. It lets us write large numbers easily. It gives us information that there is nothing, as opposed to the absence of information, which is a different, less useful kind of nothing. (People who have programmed in C and C++ will of course make the analogy between zero and NULL.) The missed call is very similar. It does not pass on all the information you want to, but it passes on crucial information nevertheless: that you want to be called back. And of course, it costs you zero rupees. What a wonderful concept. No wonder Anuja Chauhan devotes three chapters of her excellent book Battle for Bittora talking about the economic impact of the missed call on India and the world at large.
While the missed call my not have spread beyond India and the developing world, there is a related concept that has: the Facebook ’Like’. This too is a reinvention of the zero, but not in the same way as the missed call - similar to how white and black are both the absence of colour but still complete opposites. The missed call is useful for the person who makes it, because at zero cost, it says ’Call me back.’ The Facebook Like on the other hand, is terrible for whoever uses it - he or she just gets spammed by everyone else’s comments - and lets face it, most comments on facebook are boring, written lyk dis, or both. What a tragedy. Even the person whose status, photo, or whatever has been liked doesn’t really get much out of it - there’s no communication on why something was liked or what the liker feels. It’s marking attendance at best. What a waste.
It would be interesting to see what would happen if we extended the zero-information concept to other forms of communication. For some, it could be as useful as missed calls. For others, it might be useless. And for some, it might lead to different consequences. Let’s take a look.
Email: The parallel here would be sending an email without any body or subject. Like a missed call, you could use it as a simple request to send a detailed email back. But the advantage of a missed call is that it costs nothing but when a call is picked up it costs you money. With email, you’re not losing anything - except the time it takes to type it out - whether you send it blank or complete. The benefit here could be for extremely busy people who don’t even have the time to type but have people willing to send them detailed responses.
The big advantage is that blank emails would probably be more readable than emails with text in them, given the current level of email writing in this country. Official emails in India usually contain things like ’the same’ - guys, ’it’ or ’this’ mean the same thing and are shorter to write; ’please revert back’, which literally means ’turn into what you used to be’, and ’Awaiting a positive response from your end’, which implies that you’re expected to reply with your bottom.
In fact, people who work in PR agencies should only be allowed to send blank emails - it would save time for everyone concerned.
SMS: Unfortunately, blank text messages are already widespread and mean that the sender has shoved the phone into his or her pocket without locking the keypad. Also, they cost money. So there isn’t much scope over here.
Twitter: Twitter doesn’t let you send blank tweets, but you could send a blank @reply. This could mean ’Let’s talk on Direct Message, away from the inquisitive public that goes ’HAUN!’ at every available opportunity. Nudge nudge. Wink wink.’
Facebook: Like I mentioned above, the Like button is essentially a way of saying ’I was here’ without communicating any other information. Why discuss further?
Columns on Yahoo!: I’m not sure what purpose a blank column would serve, but I’m willing to bet that within an hour of being posted, it would still get a comment saying ’What is this nonsense? Yahoo should not allow writers to post like this. There are limits to freedom of speech.’
When not writing a humour column for Yahoo! India, Aadisht Khanna works at a factory making bespoke conveyor belts, edits the travel writing section for Mint Lounge, and writes a weird books column for the Sunday Guardian. You can email him at email@example.com and he’ll respond eventually, even if not immediately.