Neela sat down with her laptop to surf the net for Telugu stories and poems. Her father had given it to her as she had started Computer Science classes in college the previous year.
Her mother never liked it though. Up until that time, Neela and her mother had been friends, always talking, laughing, bickering for little things and making up. They’d been more like two teenagers rather than mother and daughter until now. Ever since Neela got the laptop, things changed dramatically; she was sitting there ogling on the screen and enjoying her own private moments, actually hours on end, all by herself. For her mother, the room turned frighteningly quiet.
“I’m going to auntie’s next door. Viswam uncle may come to visit us. Talk to him. I’ll be back soon,” her mother said.
“What can I talk to him? He is twice my age,” Neela said.
“He is a human being unlike that sruti box,” her mother said. That’s what she called the laptop, a drone.
Neela shook her head briskly and turned to the story on the screen. She was a habitual reader and the net offered her a wide range of selections to quench her thirst. She even wrote a couple of poems and posted them on the net.
The icon on the lower left corner chimed announcing new mail. She clicked on it.
“Your poem is beautiful. I enjoyed it a lot. I see you’re perceptive. – Radha”
Neela was happy to see the first mail of commendation on her writing.
“Thanks” she replied.
Within a few seconds, she received another mail. “I was wondering if you had written more poems. Are they available on the web?”
Neela was surprised and amused. She replied, smiling, “Oh, no. Just started. Actually, this is the first that’s caught anybody’s eye. J”
“You’re talented. Keep it coming. J”
Neela replied “Okay” and signed off for the day.
A week later, she saw a poem on another site with similar theme as hers. She wondered if Radha had seen it. Radha seemed to be an avid reader like herself. Neela thought for a few seconds and then decided to give it a shot. She wanted to know what Radha thought about the poem.
“Did you see this?. What’d u think?” Neela included the link and clicked on ‘send’.
“Funny, I was thinking the same thing. What’d you think of the poem,” replied Radha.
“Dunno. Feels like there’s something to it, holl’rin at me. Then again, something is missing, I think. Or is it me -L?”
“I don’t think its u. =^D.”
Messages on the poem flew back and forth. Between the two, Neela started feeling like she was learning something new about poetry and Radha was elated that she found somebody to share her thoughts.
That was the beginning of their daily dialogue via LCD screen. Personally, they’d never met and known nothing about each other.
One day, Neela asked, “What are u doing? u also a CS student?”
“No.” The response was brief. Radha thought of asking what did CS meant but didn’t. She didn’t feel like writing that she was no student, CS or any other for that matter.
“I’m studying CS in Hyderabad, 2nd year,” Neela emailed again, hoping to get a reply on par with hers.
“Oh, I see. I am in America, and wondering about the same–what am I doing here? :p.”
Neela looked at the emoticon and smiled. For a second, she wondered if she was asking for trouble, could this person be a net prowler or a wacko? Then she pondered over other possible scenarios: Radha said she had attended college for one year. Maybe while she was in her second year, she had one of those supersonic weddings. Lately it has become common for young Telugu men to come home on a two-week vacation, find a bride and marry right away. Traditionally, it could take months even years to arrange a marriage. But now, there is always a pundit who could find a super auspicious moment [sumuhurtum] per lunar calendar to perform the wedding within the same two weeks any time of the year .
Neela persuaded herself not to worry; her gut feeling told her so. After all, there was no denying that she’d been having interesting conversations with this person, regardless of who’s who.
“You’ve got mail,” the mailbox chimed.
“Did you read The Clear Day of Light?” Radha asked.
“Never heard of it. Who’s the author?” replied Neela.
“Again, nope, never heard o’er. I’m reading the Tipping Point. Awesome,” emailed Neela.
“:p. Never heard o’it.”
“u r talkin a lot about books b’fore my time. u should read some current ones too. -;p.”
“My grandmother was a voracious reader, got herself a huge personal library. ;p.”
“Ah, J,” said Neela and signed off.
“Today, I saw the movie “Chak de India”. Do u get Indian movies there?” said Neela.
“Of course, they show Hindi movies here. I’m not interested in them though. Me going to movies is very rare. Even then, I want to watch only Telugu movies. The last movie I watched was sagarasangamam, I think,” replied Radha.
“What? J). That was made before I was born :D”
For a couple of weeks now they’d been exchanging emails. Radha sat in front of the computer and went over the emails again.
Books –dated and current,
Movies—old and new,
Songs—old and new,
Favorite movie stars—two generations apart ….
Yet, there seemed to be a connection …
Her eyes glowed. Clearly, Neela and she belonged to two different worlds, literally—from either side of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and entrenched in two different worlds of books and movies. Radha remembered the game of four-poles she and her friends used to play in her village. Four kids stand holding on to four poles like the four bases in baseball, and run from pole to pole. A fifth kid tries to knock out one of them while running from one pole to the next. No two kids could hold on to the same pole at the same time.
Despite the differences, the emails continued. It had become an addiction for them. Both enjoyed and pursued this new wave of friendship fervently.
Neela had not received her daily email in two days. She sat there staring at the mailbox on the lower left corner of the screen. There was mail but not the one she was waiting for. Finally, she decided to send one herself.
“Hello, what’re u doing?”
She waited for a few minutes. There was no response. She was getting restless. Was Radha busy with something important? Out of town? Left in a hurry? Fell ill? Couldn’t she send a line before leaving? ….
Somewhat disconcerted, she kept surfing the web. There was a story she knew Radha would enjoy very much. It was by one of her favorite writers.
Hesitantly she clicked on Compose. “Hey, Radha, I just finished reading “Under the Mango Tree” by Sankaran. Did u see that? What’d ya think?”
After an hour or so, the mailbox flashed.
Neela’s heart raced.
“Ammamma [grandmother] is sick.”
“I am sorry. What is it, fever? Did she go to the doctor?”
It was a while before Neela got another message. Then arrived another mail. “Ammamma likes you very much.”
It didn’t make sense. Who was sick, Radha or her grandmother?
“Are ya ok?”
“Don’t worry, Ammamma will get well soon.”
“I‘ope so. She likes u a lot. She calls you ‘my little friend’.”
Now Neela was really confused. There is more to it than she had known or so it seemed. “What’d ya mean?” she emailed back.
“Ammamma ‘n u been writing to each other, aren’t u?”
Neela was dumbstruck. It started making sense, vaguely. She pulled herself together and asked, “I didn’t know she is your grandma.”
Neela was going to type in “Don’t worry.”
The screen chimed again. One more mail. “Is it okay if I mail you? Ammamma tells me everything u two talk.”
Neela replied quickly, “Yes, of course, u can rite to me. Tell me how’s she doing. btw, what’s your name?”
“I will. I’m Rahul. I am nine and a half, in 5 grade.”
Neela burst into a big laugh. She was chatting with a boy not even half her age!
Rahul went off like a volley of tennis balls from a shooter, typing away how Ammamma had been afraid even to touch the keyboard and how he had showed her to log in. … He said he had given her his ID and showed her how to surf the web for Telugu stories, write comments, and send emails. At first, ammamma was shy since her English was not good. He told her that there are no grammar rules on the net, and showed her even to put the emoticons in her messages.
Neela began to mull over with a big grin: Why didn’t Radha garu tell me that she was twice my age? Afraid that I might not want to talk to an older woman? How can I tell her I did not think she was old, not even for one second. But then again, maybe she may have gotten that impression when I mentioned about the little conversation I had with mother about Viswam uncle.
Neela decided to leave the things as they were. It is beautiful that Radha was enjoying their friendship. Suddenly something else crossed her mind. She quickly turned the computer on and emailed Rahul, “Don’t tell ammamma about this little conversation. Okay? It’s going to be our little secret.”
“Can I email you though?”
“Yes, of course. You are my new friend.” And then she added, “Now, you go and do your homework. Don’t worry, Ammamma will be okay.”
That night, Neela jotted down in her diary, “Today I found a new friend. I can say he is ‘my little friend’.”
Click here for Telugu version, neeli terala maatuna
(Published on the writegallery.com. And reprinted on thulika.net, January 2008.
Art by Rambabu Arle.
 Honorific suffix, used with reference to older adults.