Chatting up family

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

My family tree has branches in five continents so it was quite exciting when random relatives began adding me to different WhatsApp chat groups last year.

At the time of writing, I am on five groups involving 100 individuals. Conversations are conducted non- stop over 24 hours so my fingers and brain are racing to keep up.

Almost every member of the clan is genetically disposed to debate, dissent and play devil's advocate. Here is a typical group chat: At 11pm Singapore time, a cousin in India posts in support of the new ban on eating beef in his state, using economic arguments. My brother and I write rebuttals on the theme of secularity and religious freedom until we fall asleep.

At 2am, a cousin in Edinburgh joins in where we left off typing. Insomniacs in India and Kenya keep the debate going until Canada enters the fray at 5am. When I wake, there are over 100 unread messages in the group, most the size of the average e-mail.

Such ongoing exchanges have made me feel exponentially closer to several dozen relatives who were a few months ago mere unknown numbers on the WhatsApp screen.

Many of the new contacts in the WhatsApp groups were relatives I had met only at weddings or clan gatherings.

At these, I sidestep the question of identity by hugging any vaguely familiar form and addressing him or her by the Hindi or Marathi equivalent of "uncle" or "aunt". (With younger people, I just say "you", very affectionately, then find out more over ice cream.)

WhatsApp displays profile names for unknown numbers but some of those on the new groups used initials or, worse, emojis.

The titles of the chat groups were little help. The Ladies Lunch group had my mother, my father's sisters and me starting separate chat windows to puzzle over the identity of the 31 members. After two days of shielding our ignorance, my youngest aunt finally asked.

The group was for women - and only the women - born into or married into my paternal grandmother's side of the family.

Yet another group brings together both men and women from that branch of the family tree. Thankfully I am not on that one. Already, I have muted some of the family chats to prevent my phone from vibrating at the frequency of light as new messages come in.

I still check them several times a day. Reminders of birthdays and anniversaries have helped me save face more than once - I lose track of time so easily that I'm often the last to wish my parents, let alone their siblings or my cousins.

The groups have also helped me learn a lot about far-flung relations. A cousin in New Zealand is a vet specialising in very small pets such as lizards and fish. An aunt in India housed and fed for free a female pilot-in-training 30 years ago, back when women were battling entrenched sexism in the field. That house guest became the first female pilot to guide international flights in Air India.

Last month, a family WhatsApp chat group saved my sanity and possibly the life of my mother's sister. Heading home from Singapore after a Diwali visit, my 73-year-old aunt was stranded at Chennai airport during the floods. Phone lines were down and we could not reach her mobile. I tried calling the airline she was flying on and the airport authorities, growing more and more frantic as only pre-recorded messages or static came through.

Then, 36 hours after my aunt's plane had taken off from Singapore, a relative - the one who helped the pilot - decided to try calling on WhatsApp. She got through. She only had the number thanks to the still-new family chat group.

Chennai had intermittent Internet access despite no cellphone coverage, so we followed and partially coordinated my aunt's extraction via WhatsApp calls and messages. My mother's sister is a tough woman but sleeping on newspapers and subsisting on dry sandwiches while the water level rose higher and higher in the airport had taken its toll. She was desperate to leave the city and was convinced to stay put only when we fed her information about the floods on WhatsApp.

She made her way to a school, which sheltered her for two days. Next, to the regional bus interchange, where a kind stranger took her to Bangalore in the same car he had hired to evacuate his family. His daughter charged my aunt's mobile phone and helped her call me on WhatsApp - again identifying me from the family chats. My aunt was too exhausted to remember my number.

For a few weeks after, that family chat group posted mainly greetings, jokes and motivational quotes, giddy after the release of tension. But recently we have been returning to form. Our members are equally divided in support and hatred for the new Bollywood movie Bajirao Mastani. A cousin in India is furious at the historical inaccuracies, while the one in Kenya loved the visual spectacle.

In Singapore, I can't find a single person willing to watch it with me. Perhaps I'll go alone and post commentary in the chat group. It will be almost the same as viewing it with all 40 relatives.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2016, with the headline 'Chatting up family'. Print Edition | Subscribe