In Kochi, high-schoolers drink espresso at the Cocoa Tree. Starbucks is coming for them. They are ready.
In the mornings, before it gets so late here that I can’t begin my reading, and before it gets so late there that the household is asleep, I sit with my coffee at my work desk and phone my grandmother. Last week, we read the same news story about Newt Gingrich and the moon. Yesterday, we watched Dhanush’s tribute to Sachin on YouTube (me) and heard it on Airtel Super Singer Junior (her). An email has already made the journey between us three or four times this morning—send, reply, forward, reply. So, in a way, we have already spoken today, and yesterday, and last week. In the afternoon, I’ll eat a snack of murukku from Grand Sweets, and my grandmother will read a New York Times bestseller.
Between here and there, between Pacific Daylight and India Standard, there are too many time zones to count: Alpha, Charlie, Oscar, Papa, Armenia Summer, Tiempo del Este, Bangladesh Standard, Kuybyshev, Cuba Daylight, Romeo, Tango, Mountain Standard . . . more than one for every letter of the English alphabet, every hourly and half-hourly movement toward and away from UTC, our “Coordinated Universal Time.” We used to calculate our positions relative to Greenwich Mean Time, but UTC more ambitiously clocks the rotation of the earth, ensuring that human time doesn’t differ from the earth’s by more than 0.9 seconds, keeping time so that we don’t lose one second of it, giving us a leap second when it seems that we’re behind. On June 30 of this year, Coordinated Universal Time will give us three seconds, where normally there are two: at 11:59 p.m. we will have 59 seconds, then 60 seconds; 0 seconds, then 1.
It’s a funny business, counting nanoseconds in a world of terabytes. The instruments of our technology grow ever more precise, identifying moments on sub-atomic levels and seconds in their naked singularity, as everywhere else the world grows fuzzy. In Delhi, two million people rode the metro yesterday. In Berkeley, a grocery-store owner lines shelves with Vicco Vajradanti and watches, out the corner of his eye, a pirated Bollywood film.
We have heard it so often that it becomes nauseating to repeat: “everything is available in India now.” So, too, “everything is available in the States.” You can eat McDonald’s there; you can buy dosa maavu here. We know this. The requests from family back home grow fewer. Foolishly, we pack overweight suitcases filled with gifts (American chocolate? Velcro? shampoo?) that they shrug at from over iPads. But it’s not the standardization of products that interests me. We are more than what we can buy, other than what we consume. It felt like an accomplishment to have the Naz theaters in Fremont, but does anyone honestly celebrate KFC in Aurangabad? With tongues hanging out, the likes of Wal-Mart and Tesco survey the Indian “market size” and “potential.” But just as corporations are not people, human beings are not markets. It should make our skin crawl to hear the excitement in the voice of a Starbucks executive, rapturous at the thought of half a billion mochas sold.
Oh, the twin forces and internal contradictions of capitalism. On the one hand, it flattens the world, homogenizing markets as it globalizes. On the other hand, it diversifies, multiplying distinctions, demanding variation, and creating unevenness in a world of Universal Time. Often, however, the differences seem to reside on the level of Domino’s paneer pizza. This is not meaningful difference. It is just a way for a business to masquerade as authentic so that the unwitting customer feels she’s been heard before laying down her money.
Everything is available here; everyone is available overseas. Tomorrow, my grandmother and I will read the same piece by Paul Krugman, syndicated to newspapers everywhere, as if there were only one op-ed that needed to be read in the world. Another blogger will announce that the future has moved to India, although it was already there, in a way, in the half day lived in advance of us, here. A one-year-old baby in Chennai friends me on Facebook, and I deactivate my account.
We’ve talked for twenty minutes; my cell phone is warm in my hand. My grandmother tells me that Oprah will be introducing Aishwarya Rai’s baby to the world. We laugh about this, though I’m not sure what we find funny. I talk to my grandmothers now more often than in years before. We email and talk on the phone; once in a way we Skype, and we’re in touch daily. When my parents came to the United States in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it wasn’t even affordable to call. Now the world is small and everyone listens to Akon and the American “O” is hanging out with India’s “Big B.”
Maybe we laugh, as they say, to keep from crying. Because despite all the ways that global technologies and media have advanced connections, we remain so very far apart. When everything around you conspires to demonstrate closeness and equivalence, the substantive difference of distance is magnified. The disembodied voice on the other side of the line might as well come from outer space. And how painful it is to say goodbye to a two-dimensional face with the click of an x in the corner of a screen.
Did they know, I ask my grandmother, what they were doing when they left home, when they left India to come to the United States? Did they know how far it would be?
I knew, she says.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.