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   Gopika Vaidya

Whassup, NM, PAW and kewl - that's part of the hip new lingo teenagers Aarti Mallik and Aditi Patel use. They don't speak this language but type it in their online communication.

NM (Nothing Much) is the standard response to the question, 'Whassup'. And when mum or dad peer over the monitor to see what their kids are discussing, a simple PAW (Parents Are Watching) stops all discussion on controversial topics. And kewl, the derivation of the more archaic 'cool' describes anything from a new hairstyle to Beckham's 'bend it' kicks.

"We correspond every alternate day," says Aditi, who lives in Mumbai, "We feel close because we know each others friends and chat with them on messenger." The girls went to school together in Mumbai and have kept their ten-year friendship strong even after Aarti moved to Jakarta, Indonesia.

"It takes two minutes to send email, so you can send them often. We also chat whenever we find each other online or else we fix a time," says Aarti.

Their mothers, Shaila and Malu, also close friends, have their own special communication online. They, along with another close friend Vinati who lives in Singapore, have kept up a friendship despite cross-country moves, dealing with teenage hormones, and changes in jobs, apartments and lives. "We're like Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh," says Shaila, laughing.

Shaila and Malu are more regularly in touch with each other than with Vinati, whom they call a 'bad emailer'. "We write about our work, homes, children, husbands, parents -- everything," says Shaila, "We use email both as a sounding board as well as to keep in touch."

"It makes me feel a part of her life much more than if I wrote letters," says Malu, "Most of our emails are about our daily routine, like what I cooked for dinner, and important things about the kids, like how they are handling their teenage years. We compare notes and bounce off ideas".

For Vinta Chawla, the Internet helps her strengthen bonds with close friends Shruta, Sarika and Joy: "I mail them at least twice a week and chat via messenger every couple of days. We talk about everything, especially all that's happening in their lives."

Vinta has played the role of online counsellor for several of her friends: "Whenever there's a problem we log on hoping to find somebody online to help us out, and we usually do. I've helped friends deal with breaking up, tough assignments, new jobs, moving into new apartments and adjusting to life abroad. They've done the same for me, and it's all been online."

She believes the Net bridges the gaps in friendship that are normally caused by the passage of time. "Now, conversations that would have to wait two years can happen daily."

It also lets Shaila maintain continuity in her relationship with Malu: "When we meet every year or so, it's easy to pick up since I know what happened to her the previous week. I cannot physically be there for things that take place in Malu's life, but when she's having a party, we discuss the menu on email. When she was moving house, I was part of the discussion on which fridge she should buy. It's mostly trivia, and makes you feel a part of someone's life."

Malu has made email a daily ritual. "Before Shaila moved, we used to talk first thing in the morning, much to the chagrin of her husband," she says, "But now, with her in Jakarta and me here, I email her every evening. It takes the place of our daily phone call".

She doesn't think their friendship would have stayed so strong if not for the Net.

Another person who keeps long-distance friendships going is Amit M, who has lived in Jammu, Kolkata, South Africa, Bangalore and now Mumbai. Using another medium of online communication, e-groups, he finds it easy to communicate with a large number of people at once. Amit is a regular visitor to the group maintained by a bunch of his school friends on Yahoo!: "We nostalgically talk about fun we had during our school days and it doesn't matter if someone's in South Africa or Delhi or next door, for that matter. The distance is irrelevant."

Amit, who couldn't be bothered to write letters, believes he wouldn't have kept in touch with a lot of people if he hadn't been online. "I wouldn't say it's added to the closeness, but it's definitely helped maintain it."

Vinta agrees: "Because I'm online all the time, I can stay in touch with a greater number of people, like old classmates from college. For instance, I knew Joy for six months before he left for California, and our friendship has developed over the Net. At this point, I'd view him as one of my closest friends."

"I have a friend, Ela, whom I'd lost touch with, but thanks to email, I'm in touch with her again," Shaila chips in.

While those who communicate online are thankful for the Net, they all agree it can't replace actual human contact. "I can read what my friends have typed but I can't hear the emotion behind the words," says Vinta, "In a sense it's very cold and clinical."

Similarly when asked if he'd email or call a friend who's in trouble, Amit says, "If something major is happening, I'd call. It's much more personal".

As Malu says, intimate relationships need to be sustained on and offline.

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