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January 7, 2000


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Aunt Sheila's Wake -- In Cyberspace

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Shoba Narayan

Have you ever given a eulogy by email? Well, I have and I can assure you that it is nerve-wracking. This particular experience was inflicted on me by my eccentric cousin, Vikram and was the culmination of a family newsgroup that I belonged to.

Aunt Sheila was dead and Vikram took it upon himself to arrange a wake for her in cyberspace. It made sense, he said. After all, we were a large family scattered across five continents. There was no hope of congregating in one physical location.

Vikram chose me to deliver the eulogy against my bitter protests and better judgment. My fondest memory of Aunt Sheila was of her forcing us kids to drink spoonfuls of castor oil every Sunday morning saying that it would clean our bowels out. Why me, I argued with Vikram over email. "Because nobody else will do it," he blithely replied.

So there we were, members of the KDR Family Newsgroup (named after the first three letters of my grandfather's name). Thirty-six cousins who had put as much distance between us as humanly possible. It wasn't that we hated each other. It was that we had little in common besides our ancestors. Ours wasn't the first generation to travel widely from our ancestral home-town in Kerala. My father's generation was just as diverse -- in their choice of professions, places to live and methods of raising their children. His brothers and sisters were spread all over India- brash New Delhi, intellectual Calcutta, mercantile Bombay and traditional Madras.

There was the age difference as well. Forty years separated my eldest cousin from my youngest. All the older cousins who sneaked off to drink beer, and discussed Satyajit Ray movies with aplomb seemed so far away to us younger ones who could only indulge in card games and that too, without placing monetary bets.

Finally, there were professional differences and in that, we were all over the place. An uncle once joked that he could start a million-dollar conglomerate and needed only to look in our family for personnel.

Engineers, doctors, advertising copywriters, Amnesty activists, chefs, lawyers, entrepreneurs in esoteric ventures ranging from sheep-farming to tea estates. We were all there. Here again, snobbery and reverse snobbery were rampant. The documentary film producers disdained the accountants. The lawyers turned up their noses at the Rock musician. Through it all, we made tentative connections and close friendships based on age, interests and personality. I bonded with cousins who were close to me in age, shared my passion for books, and weren't snooty in nature. These are the cousins I gravitate towards when we meet at family weddings these days.

I had hoped to age gracefully into grandmother-hood without the sterling company of my relatives. But the Internet intervened and that was not to be. One day, I received a 'Welcome message' from a moderator inviting me to join the 'KDR Family Newsgroup.' The moderator was my brother from London.

"You are actually seeking out the company of these people?" I asked. "Are you nuts?"

"I am a father," my brother replied. "Our children need to know their family, their roots."

So it began, an email kaffeeklatsch, a family gathering in cyberspace. Bit by bit, byte by byte we reached across continents and established digital connections. A cousin from Bangalore wrote saying that he had bought a new home and issued an electronic invitation for his house-warming party. A cousin from Sydney said that his daughter had got admission into a prestigious Australian medical school and would we send congratulatory email to his daughter.

A cousin from Portland wrote that he was thinking of starting a business and was looking for wealthy investors. Someone asked for information on cheap airfares to India, someone else about the job situation in Australia. A 40-year-old uncle famous for his reticence wrote a long travelogue about his recent trip to the Himalayas. The family was more vocal in cyberspace than we ever had been in person. I renewed relationships with my favorite cousins and compared life-positions with the ones l cordially disliked. Problems became apparent almost immediately.

The problem in cyberspace is that everything is a shout. When my oldest cousin Ramesh wrote from Lyons about how he had accomplished so much in his life 'despite the fact that nobody in the family had supported him,' I couldn't turn around and whisper, "Pompous Ass" like I usually did. The Internet didn't allow the luxury of snide asides or giggled whispers.

It didn't allow me to choose my conversational partners. I had to speak to the whole clan or not at all. Sure, I could have taken the trouble of finding out individual emails and corresponded only with those cousins that I got along with. But, by the time, I read and deleted the 25 emails that I was receiving everyday, my daughter would wake up from her nap or there would be some other interruption.

It wasn't the whispers I missed as much as the gossip. Nobody, for instance, knew what Vikram did for a living. The family hadn't forgiven him for eloping with his high-school sweetheart and he hadn't forgiven the family for not forgiving him. So he exiled himself in Auckland, New Zealand and continued his rabble-rousing over the Internet.

There were rumors that he ran a sheep-farm for a rich heiress, that he was a 'kept man.' Had we met at a family reunion, it would have been ridiculously easy to chat Vikram up and casually pop the question. "Oh, Vikram. So what are you doing in Auckland?"

Somehow the very same question when written on a blank email took on a confrontational tone. It was as if my suspicions that Vikram was in jail were imbued into the one-line question. Vikram would be offended and he was right to be. Cyberspace removed context and made the most innocuous questions sound portentous. It enforced politeness in a family that sought out gossip like bees seeking honey, that thrived on ribald stories, insults and brawls. Cyberspace made my family civilized.

We decided to put aside all old enmities for Aunt Sheila's wake. By then, we had all become hooked to a 'real-time chat' software that allowed users to send emails to each other in real time. Vikram picked 7 pm on a Sunday as the time for the wake. After some questions about "7 pm in which continent?" to which Vikram's selfish reply was, "7 pm in my continent, of course," we convened at our computers at the appointed hour.

After logging in and identifying myself, I found that everyone was present except my notoriously late cousin Ramesh. "Just because he is getting a PhD in archeology, he thinks he has to play the part of the always-late, absent-minded professor," I shot off an email.

It was 3 am in New York and I was groggy, grumpy and ruing the day I joined the family newsgroup.

"May I remind everyone that we are here for a sacred event?" Vikram replied pompously, "Sorry for being late, folks. Couldn't get out of the lab. Here I am," Dino entered the fray.

"Dearly Beloved," began Vikram.

"This is not a wedding. This is a wake," my brother reminded him.

"I know," Vikram emailed back. "I've never conducted a wake before. Have some patience, would you?"

"Hindus don't hold wakes," Dino said. (As if we didn't know.) "Besides, Aunt Sheila was cremated."

"Don't I know it?" Vikram was getting testy. "All I wanted was to hold something in the spirit of a wake. You know. A moment of silence. That sort of thing. After all, she is our beloved aunt."

"Did you say 'beloved?' Are we speaking of the same lady?"

"Speak no ill of the dead."

"Hey, don't get on your high horse. All I was saying was that this lady poisoned us with castor oil all through childhood. Why are we holding a wake for her?" This was our cousin from Bangalore.

"Gentlemen, Ladies, Please. Couldn't we all just try to act our age for a change?" Vikram asked. "Now Shoba will deliver the eulogy."

I cleared my throat. "Cousins, Friends, Ancestors," I typed. "We are gathered here to celebrate and mourn the life of our beloved Aunt Sheila who has passed into the hereafter."

I paused, feeling utterly ridiculous. I mean, saying those words to a roomful of gloomy people looking suitably bereft was one thing. Typing them into a glowing computer in a dark house at 3 am on a New York morning while listening to my husband and daughter's rhythmic breathing in the other room made the whole exercise seem unutterably silly. What was I doing? "May her ashes rest in peace," I finished abruptly.

"Amen," came the heartfelt reply.

I signed off.

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