How Smartphones Killed the Art of Sitting at the Window Seat and Doing Nothing

POV

How Smartphones Killed the Art of Sitting at the Window Seat and Doing Nothing

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Itravel by public transport in Mumbai every day. If it’s a decent day, I manage to enter the bus without breaking a bone. If it’s a good day, there’s place to stand in the train without me being forced to smell the breath of another man and guess what he’s had for breakfast. If it’s a lucky day, I get to rest my skinny arse on a seat, and when all the stars align and I hit the jackpot, I get a window seat.

Today was one such day, and the joint winner of the jackpot was a father-son duo who had landed the window seat opposite mine. The dad and I hurriedly scrambled for the seat like our lives depended on it, but once we settled in, we did what everyone does these days – lowered our heads and stared at our phone screens. Our ride lasted an hour and neither of us cared to peek outside, even once. I was hooked on to The Umbrella Academy on Netflix; the father was simply scrolling through his phone, and the kid was playing Ludo Star on his dad’s second phone. I looked around and realised everyone was doing the exact same thing – everyone was lost to their cellphones.

Technology has been a giant slayer of many things wonderful and one of them is the joy of sitting by the window seat.

As a child, I remember that most of the thrill of travelling by public transport, whether it was the train or a bus, long-distance trip or a short ride across town, revolved around the drama of the window seat. The moment my cousins and I boarded a bus or a train, we scanned it for an empty window seat, and made a dash for it – if the four of us found four different windows, it was like Christmas come early.

It wasn’t just a kiddie thing; I’ve seen adults break into a brawl over the coveted seat. These were simpler times, when a handkerchief would be used to call dibs, and arguments would break over whether what was ethical when it came to claiming the seat. Does hurling your purse on to the seat count? What if you smuggled a kid through the window? There were no rules to this game. Passengers that didn’t get the window would keep waiting for the occupiers to get up, so they could slide in and feel the wind in their hair. And children like me used their cuteness to their advantage. An innocent, “Uncle, uncle mujhe window seat do naa, please” mostly did the trick.

Back then, the window seat was the envy of all travellers, more sought after by passengers than a seat in Parliament by our greedy politicians.

As a kid, I played my cards well. I’d often move through the crowd in a packed train – mostly the Churchgate-bound local, when dad took me to the movies at Eros – and stood right in front of the window. And if I got lucky, a kind passenger would either vacate his seat for me or pick me up and make me sit on his lap. It might not have been the most comfortable journey, but the window seat was worth it. I can close my eyes and still feel the breeze on my face. And the view and the smells are unmatched. We did not cross green fields and high mountains, but the aroma from the Parle biscuit factory as you crossed Vile Parle, a tiny glimpse of Bandra’s faraway marvels, and the hustle bustle of the chawls as the train sped past Lower Parel, were more engrossing than any Netflix show. The pièce de résistance of this joy ride was of course the view of the sea as your train approached Marine Lines. Every head turned to get a little glimpse of the blue. But today the only blue that we seem to be drawn to is the light from our smartphones.

Back then, the window seat was the envy of all travellers, more sought after by passengers than a seat in Parliament by our greedy politicians. And then came the mobile phone. The lure of the window seat waned along with any interactions that we had with our fellow commuters.

Much like every public place in cities the world over, our buses and trains are now filled with people with their necks craned at a screen. The college student is binging on web shows, the middle-aged man is watching HDRips of Bollywood films, the old woman is reading the Hanuman Chalisa on her phone and the rest are too occupied with Candy Crush to care.

I’m not different from the crowd; looking out for a whole minute without reaching for the next new notification is a challenge. Each time the phone wins because the need to feel “connected” all the time is infinite.

Who cares about that little patch of blue at Marine Lines when you scroll through the pictures of your friend’s Maldivian honeymoon on Instagram? What can be so engrossing on a Mumbai road that it diverts your attention from the Twitter fight over Pakistani artists?

When we watch movies where humans turn into machines, it almost always begins with the protagonist’s hands turning metallic and their speech robotic. But in the real world, change begins with tiny and unnoticeable compromises, like a slow erosion of our faculties of fascination, curiosity, imagination, and wonder.

The phone makes us feel guilty for “doing nothing”. It does not even spare us a moment to stop and stare out of the window. And for that we must be worried.

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