What else your housemaid is doing
She is probably glued to an addictive Chinese short-video app and posting faux Bollywood videos of herself online
Smita was missing her lover. Her dilrubha was in distant Tamrastoli, out of network range, and her WhatsApp messages were going unanswered, even unread. Lovestruck, heartbroken, bereft, all Smita wanted to do was curl up in bed in the servant's quarters of the house where she worked. But she had to cook dinner for memsahib before she returned from work.
Her mind far away, she placed the kadai on the gas flame — upside down. Unaware of her bloop, she poured oil on it, followed by a handful of mustard seeds and curry leaves. Everything ran off the wok, spluttering over the fire, but Smita was oblivious, her eyes filled with tears for the love to whom she meant so little.
She's just 21, a fetching, playful lass from Jharkhand, surging with hormones. She's maid, cook, helper and general factotum to my friend Urmila. They live together in a symbiotic relationship marked by affection and exasperation. Smita (not her real name, of course) cooks well and takes excellent care of Urmi, who she calls 'mummy'. Urmila, in turns, treats Smita like a daughter, pampering and scolding her by turns.
What drives Urmila crazy is that Smita's ears are always blocked — a Bluetooth earset in one ear through which she chats 24/7 dialogue with the young Jharkhand shopkeeper she married recently. The other ear is fed a continuous stream of music from her other smartphone, albeit at a lower volume. Urmila must compete with these sound streams to be noticed.
Smita does all her cooking with one hand, since the other is welded to a smartphone.
One day, I asked Smita what she watched round the clock on her smartphone. And this is how I tumbled, like Alice, into the flirty, softcore world of Chinese short-video apps that are hoovering up India's latest Internet and smartphone users, millions of them — all in small towns and villages of the Indian hinterland.
Vigo Video, the app that kept Smita busy, has over 20 million Indian downloads, most of them from Tier 2 and Tier 3 towns in rural and semi-urban India. Vigo is the largest of a stable of short-video streaming apps like TikTok and LIKE from the Chinese developer ByteDance, who reportedly spends $15-20 million monthly to gain users. Almost 40% of TikTok's 500 million global users are in India. Helo, a vernacular social media app also from ByteDance, has over 13 million Indian users.
The Madras High Court tried, unsuccessfully, to block TikTok for what it deemed to be content with "pornographic, lewd and with sexual undertones". I downloaded Vigo and TikTok and spent an afternoon swiping through 15-second videos of young men and women lip-syncing to romantic Bollywood songs, chasing each other in slow motion through fields and gardens, salacious come-hither lines (Tu baat nahin karegi to main tujhe woh karke dikhaoonga), and reenacting villainous dialogues.
One buxom lass, call her Chameli, had posted over 3,000 videos of herself, sometimes specific parts of herself, garnering 30 million likes and 2.7 million followers.
A young man posted visual poetry of his yearning for a blond-haired lover (Mujhe maloom nahin woh meri kismat mein hai ya nahin, magar khuda se use mangna accha lagta hai).
For its users, Vigo and TikTok are earning platforms. Upload an original video and you can get paid into your Paypal or PayTM account instantly. Get a 100 flames — a deluxe version of Likes — and you can earn more.
What should worry you most about these short-video apps is the built-in chat button, which allows any user to chat with another user in complete anonymity. One thing can lead to another, and online could become offline. Young lads and lasses from rural India are moving to the big cities and connecting with each other through sexy video streams for edgy meetings full of risk. What if your house was the venue?
Thus, one day I stumbled upon Smita's videos. The maid, alone at home all day while her employer is at work, makes up her face, puts on her best clothes and makes glamorous videos of herself soulfully singing romantic Bollywood ballads to future lovers and past paramours. She uses Vigo's one-click button to extract and re-use other users' soundtracks in her video. She has already earned 22 cents. She can ask to be paid as soon as her earnings cross a dollar.
And so we come to how she nearly set the kitchen on fire. The song was of a long-lost lover and Smita, with the instincts of a natural comedienne, decided on a story about an absent-minded, lovelorn cook. She poured oil and ingredients on an inverted kadai while her smartphone captured it all.
Her eyes wet with tears, Smita crooned in perfect sync as the food burned.
Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org Send your feedback to email@example.com
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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