These are dark times. We had not anticipated this but it happened. We knew it was inevitable but when the news came in, we were taken by surprise and then shock. There were expressions of grief and anguish flooding my social media. The voice of reason, of hopeful scepticism, of cautious promises, had died. The face that has become the most memorable icon of our time was staring back at me in woeful grumpiness and meme after meme was witnessing this catastrophic event. Grumpy Cat, aka Tardar Sauce or Tard, is dead.
Tard, who is possibly the most recognised shorthand for “I am not pleased”, with his deadpan eyes, down-turned lips, and a judgmental sneer, passed away in the arms of her owner at the age of seven. The world is never going to be the same. Tard was an internet phenomenon. Second, perhaps, only to Hello Kitty (who is not a cat at all!), Tard was one of the first “petfluencers” who launched a million-dollar business in memetic merchandising and even got her wax replica in Madame Tussauds. Tard’s personal views on politics have remained a deep enigma, but if the millions of memes featuring Tard are to be believed, she had no patience with nonsense.
Her grumpiness was not just an object of laughter but a strong stance against the devolution of the world that we live in. Across social media platforms, Tard emerged as a voice of protest, a face of dissent, a critic who eschewed any pretense of tolerating the vileness of our world. Tard mocked at megalomaniacs, dismissed people who came wearing false colours, disguising hatred as religion, and amiably sneered at those who tried to revise histories for their own agendas. In escalating meme wars across social media platforms, I have witnessed Tard emerging as a strong reminder that there is no gain in tolerating what is wrong.
Many have tried to analyse the cause of Tard’s grumpiness. She has been singularly silent about why she is so grumpy — probably because she is a cat and can’t care a rat’s arse about what we think, but for her fans, the answer was spiritually clear. In a world filled with dancing cats, boxing cats, cute cats, jumping cats, riding cats, LOLing cats, and cats craving for cheezburgers, Tard was an exception. In her supreme grumpiness, she refused to be distracted from the truths that we have to face and acknowledge.
In her chronicle of the world, Grumpy Cat Memes have shown that there is space for grump and gumption in the world. She refused to back off, and even when talking against populists — climate-change deniers, venomous nationalists, purveyors of fake news, graduates of WhatsApp universities — she continued to express her displeasure, demanding that things be better. If she saw something, she said something, knowing well that inaction and silence are never the answer.
And she did it all with humour. Even in the darkest of moments, Tard’s displeased face never lost its hint of bemused cynicism and scathing irony, capturing in her unblinking stare, a humour that captivated people across the globe. Tard was unrelenting in expressing her displeasure at the turns of our times, and emerged as a strong voice of protest against the tyrannies of today. When things fall apart and centres cannot hold, Tard will remind us that we can still fight it with humour. In all her grumpiness, she invited viral collectivity, telling us that if we come together, and take collective action, we can change things. Tard was cruelly optimistic, telling us that this too shall pass, but as it passes, we have to make sure that we fight against the lingering after-effects.
Tard died a week before the Indian election results were announced. We will never know what she thought of the mandate. But in her wake she left a mandate for us. Tard was the Bertolt Brecht of the memeworld, foretelling that in the dark times, there will still have to be songs. The singing will be hard, and often attacked by armies of trolls and bots. But we will sing them together, with humour, and we will sing them grumpily, as befits the legacy of the grumpiest cat on earth, who refused to take things as they are. RIP Tard. Long live Grumpy Politics.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bengaluru. This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Digital Native: Purring in the Dark Times’