The wars I could do without

How WhatsApp groups have made our worlds smaller, more intrusive and less gracious.

Written by Shalini Langer | Published:October 9, 2016 1:02 am
WhatsApp groups have made us more susceptible to societal pressure. (Illustration: Manali Ghosh) WhatsApp groups have made us more susceptible to societal pressure. (Illustration: Manali Ghosh)

Uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, fellow parents, and people I only know by their perfect WhatsApp DPs, I’m generally a fright in the morning; I approach every festival with growing dread; I don’t exactly go ecstatic on my birthday; the lone plastic Tricolour in my possession died a lonely death; I don’t remember dates well; I hate exclamation marks, I am exhausted by PTMs and school, and, most days, all I want to do is roll over and sleep. Not that any of that matters.

We were always promised the world is becoming a smaller place. It is now little enough for that uncle who frowned upon your life choices, the cousin you were always suspicious about, the friend you had mercifully left behind, and another parent who looked at you with side-eyed disapproval, to squirm their way into your bedroom. One WhatsApp ping at a time — if you are lucky. A series of them together, and my heart races.

I speak from experience. By now, I am an “inadequate parent” who doesn’t know her child’s homework, a “careless housekeeper” — name-called for letting her water tank overflow, a “negligent Hindu” for not setting food limitations for the family on Navratras, a “poor wife” for asking what’s so happy about a “Happy Karva Chauth”, and to top it all, a very, very unpatriotic Indian for not sharing a single photo of the flag. The best I did for Independence Day was to put up a photograph of my grumpy children dressed up in Indian clothes for school.

That was a mistake. Guess how my WhatsApp groups responded to that particular piece of affront?

Once, there was the odd visit or a short family vacation, where people were willing to be charitable till a generally well-known skeleton peeped out of a closet. Now, we are in each other’s lives all the time — through mornings that are always sunny, evenings that are forever nostalgic, and days that fly by. No birthday, anniversary, achievement, occasion, festival or vacation goes by without being shared with photographic evidence, accompanied by candles, flowers, cakes and a wonderfully apt saying. My husband and aforementioned grumpy offsprings will hear none of it, so that leaves me quite desolate in that sea of togetherness.

However, feeling lonesome comes with the territory. Within the comforts of their friend and family groups, people you knew for years — and some you never desired to know at all — have acquired whole new dimensions.

What happened to all those summer afternoons spent watching smuggled Pakistani TV shows and illegal Pakistani TV channels whose signals we caught feebly in Jammu? What happened to talking about the horrific memories of Partition and war, still fresh for the older family members? What happened to having friends of another religion over, and rebelling against family prejudices? What happened to reading banned books hidden inside textbooks, and discussing the same? What happened to the gentler religious times when no one expected anyone to wish each other “Happy Navratras” and “Happy Karva Chauth”, and new gods didn’t constantly pop up on the family horizon?

What happened to welcoming the world into our drawing rooms with the few magazines we could catch hold of? What happened to celebrating family members fortunate enough to have found success in those glorious foreign lands? And what happened to waiting eagerly for those NRI relatives to come back for only the goodies they would get, and not the rose-tinted opinions about the motherland they would share?

Whatever, above all, happened to cursing our government unanimously, not voting, and then sleeping soundly into the night?

In this wave upon wave of WhatsApp-fuelled patriotism washing upon us, where have all the rebels gone?

So, it was with delight that I woke up one day to find myself in a WhatsApp group formed by long-lost school friends. I had spent all of two years with them through a schooling life spread across the country. That should have been a warning. However, I persevered, if only because of the memories of some school friends who looked promising all those years ago. We had shared Maggi for the first time sitting on those school steps, and two-minute food was an uplifting break from tradition. We could almost whiff the liberalisation round the corner.

I exited the group — the one and only time a fight became too much for me — within months. My imagination of those school years is now forever tainted by the almost bloodthirsty hatred for the “others”, as defined in today’s narrative, I saw in the messages. Really, I realised, there was not a single person different from us, comfortable, middle-class, upper-caste students at the time in that privileged school. If we were studying today, we would have weeded the possibility out much earlier.

This year, it took less than 20 minutes from the time I was allotted my daughter’s new section for the parents of the class to have a WhatsApp group of their own. We discuss homework, classwork, teachers, word meanings, math problems, answers to questions, what clothes to buy and where to buy, and again photographs of fantastic achievements — and woe to those with nothing to contribute in the middle of a working day. When we get projects, we form separate groups. We need to car pool, we have a group. We have birthdays, we have more groups.

We leave nothing to chance. Or to the children.

The dedicated administrators of WhatsApp groups were surely motivated by a sense of cohesion. But it was an improbable leap of optimism to believe that people separated by age, distance, places, experiences and, increasingly, media exposure could feel the same way about an issue. Encouraged by the security in numbers forged by family and friendship, and the ease of home and phone, people are out at war, one battle at a time.

There are more than one billion of us on WhatsApp. That’s a lot of bleeding.