In the neighbourhood ♦
I have never found Buddhist kitsch a particularly comforting form of interior decoration. But about two weeks ago, I found myself sitting in Hawker’s House, my neighbourhood’s beloved little sandwich shop, and something about the photo of a standing Buddha sculpture, its smooth, lean arm raised reassuringly in the abhaya mudra, and the roly-poly laughing Budai figurine near him, behind the cash counter, made me feel calmer than I had in days.
It was evening, but still hot; I had stopped by the store in front of Hawker’s to stock up on Rooh Afza, but had been lured into the long back room by the promise of strong air-conditioning and creamy cold coffee straight from the bottle. I squeezed myself onto a corner stool at the counter, which was crammed with young Jangpurians on their way home from work. Next to me, the woman at the till fielded phone calls, dispatching chicken sandwiches with their crusts cut off and veg burgers in wax paper and issuing shorthand instructions to the delivery man: “Wahin, jahan Mr Rajat rehte hain – uske bagal mein.”
I sat dipping my toasted sandwich in green chutney, my heat-liquefied brain coalescing under the cool breeze of the fan, its sun-seared thoughts taking coherent shape. The plastic rotundity of the Budai’s belly in front of me was strangely soothing, but so was the pleasantly anonymous cocoon of strangers around me, a group of which I was both part and apart. With the ambit of daily life collapsed into a constant rotation of home-to-office-to-mediawallon ki mehfil, it seemed like days since I had seen an unfamiliar face.
The wider world—social media’s hollow promise of endless newness and unlimited connections—was limited to being accessed from my desk. “Facebook supplanted MySpace, which supplanted Friendster, which supplanted actually having friends,” John Oliver had quipped the other day in his tirade on net neutrality. “Do you remember physically having friends? It was awful. You couldn’t tap people’s faces to make them go away.”
Maybe the appeal of strangers is that even physical friendships nowadays devolve into “interactions”, fuelled by a relentless need to comment and share with competing wit, and interrupted constantly by the ping of another notification. Lately, some friends in the physical world had been discussing the new app “Secret”, which displays a list of anonymous comments posted by people in a user’s contacts lists. I am incredulous. Twitter has already reduced culpability into near meaninglessness. Secret pairs the titillation of good old-fashioned gossip and leaked fact with a complete lack of accountability—a joyful embrace of misinformation, cowardice and backstabbing.
When offline friendships tend towards extensions of online conversations, the thrill of intimate anonymity in the virtual world is perhaps understandable. But what happens when the corresponding lack of culpability spills out into the real world? As the restorative cold coffee worked its magic, the dark thing that had been lurking on the edge of my thoughts floated into the centre of the congealing soup of my brain.
A mob in Pune had run amok a few days earlier. The rioters had supposedly been spurred on by morphed images of Shivaji, model Kate Upton, Bal Thackeray and various animals—pictures posted by persons unknown, from proxy addresses halfway around the world. Enraged, perhaps encouraged, a bunch of young men went out into their city, singled out a stranger based on the markers of his religion, and beat him to death.
On my phone, I read the latest reports of the “violent response” to the “pictures and comments” defaming two long-deceased men. An FIR had been filed and the image-posting perpetrators of this alleged hate crime would be found, their whereabouts traced, IP address by IP address. The men who had reduced Mohsin Shaikh to a one-dimensional target would also be booked and punished, yet there was no official condemnation of their actions. Instead, there was an odd absolution from responsibility; BJP MP Anil Shirole told reporters “What appeared on Facebook was very painful. Some amount of repercussions was natural.”
In the physical world, a father, mother and brother grieved. A colleague recalled sharing food with the dead man. And the official silence gave weight to the idea that beating someone to death isn’t all that different from tapping an unpleasant image to make it go away.
The woman at the counter cut through my thoughts, calling out an address that happened to be on my block. “Woh kaahan padega?” the delivery man asked. I considered answering, but kept my eyes glued to my phone. Once he had left, I took a breath, looked up and smiled at the woman standing in front of Buddha. “That’s where I live too,” I told her.
Originally published in Time Out Delhi, July 20, 2014