When domestic Internet connections first became common, it used to be possible to search for contacts on Hotmail. Through this, I found some friends I’d fallen out of touch with. Emails were exchanged asking after what they’d been up to in the intervening years. I noticed, actual information exchanged was brief. But number of emails sent was high. Innumerable jokes were forwarded. Greeting card poems followed. Occasionally advice from Archies cardshop posters, such as: if you love someone set them free. If they come back they love you. If they don’t, they were never yours.
I felt a little bad. Were these forwarded jokes and riddles a way of not talking to me about anything important? Had they actually not been happy to hear from me?
In a highly diverse and often disconnected society, maybe ‘forwards’ are a way of finding some commonality
That’s until I became a part of several un-moderated listserves. Here, I found a similar behaviour — not that many jokes. But lots of forwarded advice, chain mail (if you don’t send this to 25 people now an angel will eat your cheesecake and you will never have dessert as long as you live!), urban legends and holiday greetings. I felt a bit better. I realised that in most Indian people’s lives there are some Forwarding Friends and this form of communication is called, simply, ‘forwards’ — as in, ‘he sends me many funny forwards.
We seldom seem to use communication channels for their stated purpose, instead using it for everything else. Don’t believe me, ask the Delhi Police Vigilance Unit. On August 6 they launched a What’sApp helpline number to receive complaints about corruption in the city’s police force.
You will agree that everyone has a story about an unfortunate encounter with a corrupt police person. So there would be many complaints. By August 12, they had indeed received 3,009 messages. But only three were related to the business of the unit.
One of the first messages received wanted to know the price of the phone pictured in the newspaper advertisement for the helpline. There were also questions about traffic, electricity and immigrant crises showing that Indian citizens rarely take their citizenship duties very seriously and expect some general body called ‘the authorities’ to solve problems.
But a large number of messages were apparently, you guessed it, Forwards. Hindi and Urdu poetry, funny sher-o-shayari, Yo Yo Honey Singh song lyrics and I am sure, occasional spiritual advice clogged the inbox. Why discuss corruption when you can forward a couplet about the heartless girl who does not love you back or the importance of parents or a mantra for success? Bhai, don’t get so serious now, sab apne log hain.
The Fire Department has, in the past, faced a more exciting version of this refusal to stay on topic. Apparently they had to regularly contend with female callers calling and saying luridly romantic thing like: Hello, Fire Department? My heart is on fire for you, please come and put it out. This forward behaviour is not dissimilar to the forwarding tendencies of Internet acquaintances, where seriousness is sidetracked with fluff.
I have tried hard to understand what this sidetracked behaviour comes from and only end up with questions. Do Indians find it too business-like or matlabi to stay on topic — as if we have no rishta-nata besides the matter at hand? In a highly diverse and often disconnected society, maybe it’s a way of finding some commonality? Or is it just a search for an old sense of community, time passed leisurely, aimlessly under the village tree, at the nukkad or local adda? No doubt one day someone will send me a
‘forward’ explaining it, complete with vintage photos.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.