Special Thanks To
Shreya Kaul (voice)
Arna Seal (voice)
Purab Seal Acharya (voice)
Sources: Audio Clips
“Notification Pop” by elmasmalo1 Freesound.org
There’s a big bad world for a girl like me. So I can’t go to the hills with my friends, says my father (my protector, my guardian, my overlord, my supreme…okay I’ll stop). I need to be saved from the faceless monsters who hunt 15-year-old girls. I would love to meet these monsters one day, I’m sure they would know the hills better than my father. One more battle lost for now.
Rima (Californian cousin who has access to all the faceless monsters, a.k.a. my friend, philosopher, guide and inspiration), wrote to me today: a letter with detailed information about her crushes. I have to hide this letter from my parents – just the way I guard my diary. Rima keeps asking me to email her over the internet. I wonder when I will be able to write to her about my secrets for a change.
My mother’s preoccupation with the illegal settlements of dust on our furniture (and my father’s disdain for any activity he considers ‘domestic’) offer me those brief moments of liberation after school. As instructed, I walk to the neighbourhood market to buy groceries. Such joy it is to walk freely on the street and buy milk.
I spotted something called a ‘Cyber Cafe’ on my way today. Is this where the internet lives?
The place had a bunch of chairs, computers, and a few random men (they definitely do not look at you). I stood there for a while wondering whether I should go take a peek and finally decided not to. The street at that hour has many known monsters (relatives) who love to chatter.
Yahoooo!! I went back to the cyber cafe today. I really wanted to have an email id – just like Rima has. I told Ma that I would be staying back in school to rehearse for a play. She couldn’t say no. (A battle won). I was nervous when I arrived. The guy who runs the place saw me looking in and asked me if I needed help. I said I wanted to create an email account but I didn’t know how. Next thing I know; I was sitting in front of a screen that makes these sounds. I could feel my heartbeats. The guy helped me understand how to switch the computer on and how to connect with the internet. I finally made my own email address. I can write my secrets to Rima now.
Every step I take, every desire I express has to face the censor board in our drawing room, with my father presiding. Once more, a big NO looms in front of me. My friends are leaving for a trip to the coast for the weekend and I am home writing this diary. For the first time today, I left the house in anger. I couldn’t stand them, I still can’t. I went to the cyber cafe to write to Rima but my luck was running low. The internet connection snapped while I was writing to Rima. When it came back, it was so slow that I couldn’t complete the mail. It’s been a terrific day.
I can’t believe I’m writing this – we are getting a computer at home! Yes, it seems too good to be true. My parents didn’t approve of my frequent visits to the cafe to do “research” for my school projects (surprise, surprise). So I convinced them to get a computer at home. I will have to acknowledge Rima and her parents’ contribution to this seemingly impossible turn of events. When my father called me to the living room in the morning and told me that he finally decided to buy a computer and an internet connection, I was over the moon. The computer will be home in a week he said. I just can’t wait.
I’m writing here after quite a few weeks. I’ve been spending most of my free time on the computer. Not that I can be at peace – my parents keep checking on me, asking me what I’m doing and when I’ll stop. Once my mother crept up on me and started reading an email I was writing to Rima. Thankfully I hadn’t written anything particularly incriminating at that point. Rima suggested that I could look for jobs on the internet. She said that this has become quite common in the US. Many of her friends have found jobs through websites. I found out about naukri.com, a job search website specially for India. I haven’t found anything I like yet. But I don’t know what my parents’ reaction will be if I tell them that I found a job on the internet. I don’t think they would even understand what that means. I’m not sure even I understand how it all works. But I’m happy to explore. I’ve started to play a game called PAC MAN. It’s mindless but fun in a way. My father gets really agitated when he sees me play it, so I try to play it when he is not home. That hasn’t been easy of late – he has been at home after his angioplasty. I worry about my parents and their health, but I am restless. It’s time for me to move out, maybe move to another city. It’s all too overwhelming to think about. For now, my plan is to keep looking for a job. I don’t want to be one of those girls who get pressured into marriage at this age. I can imagine nothing worse.
I got a job! Yes! Me, with all my confusion about ‘who I really am’ and ‘what I want to do’. I found the job on the internet: Customer Executive at Singapore Airlines. I didn’t tell my parents until everything was finalised. There were tears, lots of them, and shouting of course. But I stuck to my guns.
I’m writing this now sitting in my new bed in the PG I’m sharing with some other girls. It’s been two weeks since I got here. The days have been a blur. The first few days were bittersweet – I was excited but missing home (can you believe it?). Everyone at the office is polite, but I haven’t made any friends yet. It’s hard to fall asleep at night – I stare at the ceiling and imagine my future.
I’ve been noticing something strange within myself. Every time I spend a couple of hours on Orkut, I begin to feel a certain kind of insecurity and self-hatred. I feel inadequate about where I am and what I am doing with my life. Until now, I was quite satisfied with the way my career was turning out (I managed to escape home didn’t I?). But now when I see Rashmi from VIII B working as a Bank Manager, and Rajat from my English coaching classes publishing his own books, I feel like a failure of sorts. When I first joined Orkut I was excited to reconnect with everyone. I loved Ruchira’s updates about her new baby (who would have thought?), I talked to Ankit about the best places to vacation in his state (pretending not to understand his hints about staying with him). It felt like a carnival, and endless reunion. But now – I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m just jealous because I thought my life would be something more. I really hope this is a temporary feeling.
I spent three hours looking for a photo to use as my Facebook profile picture. (On a Sunday. At 10 am in the morning). At first I went with a picture of Marilyn Monroe that I love. I used some tools to make it black and white. Within a minute of uploading the picture, I felt embarrassed and took it down. Then I found a scenic picture of green hills washed in rain. (It seemed like the right choice, but it was too small). I sifted through a number of photographs I clicked with my new digital camera on our office trip last month. I tried to crop my face from some of them, but none of them did the trick. Ultimately I dug up some childhood photographs from the locker, took pictures of them with my camera, and then used one of them as the profile picture. By the time I was done, it was past lunchtime and I had a terrible headache. Ma called to ask what I was doing – I lied and said I was out shopping for groceries. How would I even explain what I was doing? That I was hoping that the picture of me in a red hat standing in front of a lake would fetch me 20 ‘likes’? That I was waiting to see if Rajat would like the photo, because that would mean he was still keeping an eye on my activities despite our break up?
Rajat doesn’t use Facebook as much as I do. He would always get annoyed when he saw me chatting on messenger with old friends or colleagues. He would smirk when I posted song lyrics or showed him posts from Hollywood celebrities he loves. But he uses Facebook too. Yesterday I noticed that a friend of his tagged him in a photo, taken somewhere in the suburbs. They must have taken a trip together.
I don’t know why I’m still keeping track of Rajat. It’s not like I miss him or anything. In any case he’s still at Singapore Airlines but I’m about to move on. But I want him to see I’m fine.
Something that happened last week has shaken me to my core. I got back home one evening and logged in to Facebook like I always do. There were a few notifications and two new messages. One was from Rashmi, asking me for suggestions on what to get Pranav on his birthday. The other was from a man whose name didn’t seem familiar to me. I clicked on it to open the chat. It was a picture of a penis. I started to tremble, I ran to my balcony for some fresh air. But I couldn’t erase the sight I had just seen. I was mortified. Why had this man sent this picture to me? What did he want from me?
I remember feeling like this before. On trains and buses when office going men had let their hands stray, brushing against parts of me I didn’t want anybody to touch. Each time, my ears grew warm and my heart would start beating faster. This man who had sent me this picture wasn’t near me. He was probably in a different city, maybe even a different country. But I felt that same feeling, that same embarrassment. I didn’t know how to tell anyone. I went through all my Facebook posts. Was there anything there that could have made him feel like I would like this? I don’t know.
I just called Rima and told her what happened. She started laughing. “Oh honey that happens to me every week. That’s just what men do on the internet.”
“That’s just what men do on the internet.”
I see what men do on the internet. I see the random “compliments” under photos of women, the jokes and threats, the unbridled lust. But somehow I’d never felt personally affected. This was different, this was invasive. On the night this happened, I couldn’t sleep. I imagined terrible scenarios where this man was breaking into my apartment and attacking me in my sleep. I bolted the doors and windows, I checked once, twice, thrice. At 5 am when I still couldn’t sleep, I decided to take a shower. I realised that I was feeling dirty. Just like I had felt after those incidents on the buses and trains. I would come home and scrub myself with soap. This time, no one had touched me. But I still felt violated. Funny how the internet bridges the gaps between everything – both good and bad.
I haven’t returned to Facebook since then. There’s a part of me that longs to scroll through my feed, to see what my friends are up to. But I’m dreading that little red dot. What if it’s another message from that man or someone else like him?
Today I’m about to do something I’ve never dared to do before. I’ll be meeting a group of people I know only through Facebook. Couple of weeks ago I joined a group for young people new to this city. People share tips and advice on how to make it here. I found out about a bakery that makes the kind of sugar cookies I like, contacts for reliable plumbers and electricians, news about concerts and exhibitions. Some people also share photos of street corners they like, or neighbourhood shops that sell specific ingredients you don’t get anywhere else. I’ve been pretty active in the group, interacting mostly with women. Some of them suggested meeting up at a weekend market. I agreed instantly. I realised that I had grown to feel a sense of kinship with them even though I had never met them face to face. Well, until today.
Just got back from the meet-up. I can’t remember the last time I felt so happy. Tanvi, Reba, Sushma, Jasmine, Reeti, Meghma, Fatima and I got along as if we had known each other for ages. We had a round of introductions in the beginning, followed by rounds of coffee at an outdoor cafe. We already knew quite a lot about each other’s’ lives from Facebook. I knew Tanvi worked nights at her call centre job, I knew Reba had a cat who’d recently given birth to two adorable kittens. I know Sushma loves to knit, Jasmine is obsessed with Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai, Reeti is very concerned about the 3G spectrum auctions, Meghma relies on horoscopes and Fatima enjoys videos of siblings pranking each other. They seemed to know me too – Tanvi knew that I used to work at an airline company, Reba knew I love to watch sunrises more than sunsets.
We all shared a laugh about how much we know about each other, thanks to Facebook. Of all the women I met, I connected most with Reba. Like me, Reba lives alone while conservative parents (sounds familiar?) live with her brother back in her hometown. She told me she loves taking photographs and had recently bought a new camera. She has a good eye – the pictures she took today reflect the warmth we felt when we were there.
Reba and I have been chatting ever since we returned from the meet up. We’re planning to start a blog together – she would take photographs and I would write. We would document our new lives in this city. It was Reba’s idea. At first it seemed crazy to think that anyone would read what I wrote. I remember trying to get some writing published in local newspapers and magazines when I was in my teens. No one accepted my submissions. Crestfallen, I gave up writing. Well, almost. I still write here in my diary. That is if you call this writing. Anyway, I’ve never tried to get anything published since then. But Reba pointed out that on the internet, there are no gatekeepers. No strict editors waiting to decide if you get to be heard or not. You can create anything you want and put it on the internet. Someone out there will read it, or look at it, or listen to it. I had never thought about this so deeply.
Reba didn’t give me the chance to think much. She created the blog and sent me the link. She told me to just start writing.
The blog is thriving. More than 800 people come online and choose to read my blog. Reba and I have found nooks and crannies of the city (thanks in large part to Google Maps) that people seem to enjoy finding out about. Reba is thinking of resigning from her day job and taking up photography full-time. She said a lot of people have found the strength to pursue their passions because of the internet. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of them. I’m happy with how the blog is going though. Just last week, we got an email from a cafe owner requesting us to write about his cafe in exchange for 3 free meals. We laughed a lot – the internet is such a strange place.
These days I write a lot of posts directly from my phone – even though I have a laptop now. I’ve been taking pictures on my phone too. They’re nowhere close to Reba’s photos of course, but they help me remember places and things. Sometimes I imagine an ever growing pile of photos – if I keep going the way I am, I’ll have millions of photos by the time I die. Will I even remember all the moments I will capture?
I didn’t think human hearts could flutter at this age. I didn’t think I would ever feel butterflies in my stomach again. But he has made it possible. He and I became friends when our boss put us in the same team at work. There were two others in the team who basically did nothing. S and I had to do everything by ourselves. This meant spending almost all of our time at the office together. Afterwards we’d visit a nearby cafe to relax with a cup of coffee. We bonded over work, but I found myself thinking about him even at home. The way his collar is never symmetrical, the way he brushes his hair off his forehead when he’s nervous.
The project we were working on together is over now- we’re back to our usual roles. This means we aren’t on the same floor anymore; our work hours are different too. We’ve been texting over Whatsapp though. I find myself checking his ‘last seen’ every five minutes. I just can’t help it. Reba and I even try to decode his emojis. I send her screenshots of our chats.
Reba is very busy with her photography. She works with a lot of brands; she even shoots weddings. She says people want to make their weddings look extra splashy for social media.
My mother has been pestering me to get married. This is why I’ve stopped going back home almost entirely. She has even asked me if I’m dating someone – I know it must have taken her a lot of effort to ask me this question. I said I wasn’t. To be honest, I don’t know if I’m dating someone myself. S and I have never spoken about it. But I think he knows it too – there’s something between us.
S threw another one of his tantrums today. That’s what I call them – tantrums. He took issue with the picture I posted on Facebook last night – a picture of me at a wedding wearing a sari and revealing a bit too much skin (according to him). His tantrums have become so frequent that I’ve switched to default response – silence. This morning I found him checking my WhatsApp and Facebook messages. I was incensed – we had a shouting match which I’m sure the neighbours heard. I don’t know how to deal with him.
Our blog hasn’t been doing too well either. The number of visitors has reduced. I’m a bit upset with Reba because she hasn’t been putting in much effort – we were supposed to be in this together. She opened her own Instagram account, and the last time I heard, she was rapidly gaining followers. I want to be proud of her, I AM proud of her, but I can’t help but feel hurt. I don’t even feel like sharing my issues with S with her. She used to be my go-to person. But things change I guess.
Today marks 6 months to the day I finally ended things with S. I remember crying into the bowl of chips in the kitchen. And then I felt relief. Relief from his endless snooping, his constant desire to monitor my social media posts, and his tedious superiority complex. I will never forget the face he made when I was finally closing the blog after months of inactivity. His expression seemed to say “I would never have failed like this”. He didn’t even try to comfort me or help me feel better. I doubt whether he even read the blog. He had a disdain for everything on the internet.
After he left, I began to spend more and more time on the internet. I have my own Instagram now – something I know he would hate. I listen to audiobooks; I use a meditation app to help me fall asleep. I’ve also started watching YouTube videos to exercise.
Scroll. Stop. Click. Covet. Surrender. Pay. Repeat. A 6-word portrait of my travels in the dark and mysterious woods of Instagram. It just seems to know what I want. It also knows what I want but I don’t know exists – if you know what I mean. Instagram reads my thoughts before I’ve even had them.
Especially since the potential groom my parents picked out for me (Ashok, an IT guy – don’t my parents know what gets me going!) turned out to be perfectly normal (read blah and boring) when we met him but unimaginably vile and misogynistic on Facebook. FB just seems to bring out something in these men.
Jio has done what I thought (hoped/wished) would never happen – brought my parents to WhatsApp. I am greeted every morning with a rush of badly photoshopped dogs wishing me good morning, followed by diligently combined ‘facts’ about how the universe makes an ‘Om’ sound (cementing Hinduisim’s stature as the greatest of all religions of course), how Venezuela is an ancient Indian colony, how having 24.33 gms of honey mixed with 62.89 gms of cow piss can cure cancer and so on. What a welcome addition to my life.
I think I’m at that point of my life when I can confidently say that I am no longer interested in men. All I need at the end of a long day at work is a show about serial killers on Netflix, and a glass of red – that’s what keeps me going. Plus, it makes for good Instagram stories. Most of my married friends complain every other day about their spouses and/or kids. My only complaints are about my eyes burning from too much screen exposure. Okay that sounds kind of sad, but I’d rather wipe my own tears than a baby’s.
Lately I feel that I’ve been facing more and more hatred and aggression on the internet. I don’t feel like voicing my opinions like I used to. It seems like everyone is a closet fascist.
I’ve had so many discussions with my parents about it but to no avail. They are obsessed with misinformation. So for my own sanity, I’ve decided to do a digital detox. I don’t know how long I can hold out. I’ve got emails, I’ve got bank work. This is one of those marriages – the ones you can’t get out of because divorce hasn’t been invented yet, but I will try.
Who would have known? Who would have thought? Who would have imagined? I don’t have any words to describe what the last couple of months have been. Everything I loved, or was used to doing every day – I hate it now. Sometimes I feel like throwing my laptop across the room. I know I’m not the only one who feels like that. It’s like a parasitic growth, an infection that just won’t go away. Last year I tried so hard to reduce my time on the internet. I succeeded too, somewhat. But then the world turned upside down.
Sometimes I remember myself as a teen – skipping to the cyber cafe, as if enamoured by a secret lover whose charms I found irresistible. What would she say if she saw me now? Is this what it was always supposed to be like? Is this how it is going to be?
I don’t feel certain about anything anymore. I doomscroll through my news feed, reading about disease and death, violence and injustice, despair and conflict. I try to feel hopeful about the people still rising up, still raising their voices, trying to keep the fight going for all of us. But how can I keep hoping in this world we’ve made – where machines created by global corporations manipulate our behaviours, our goals and dreams, and we let them, knowingly. Where governments exploit these technologies to erect smokescreens, which most people, including my parents, think of as truth.
Even writing all this down in a diary seems futile. Nobody will read this, nobody will care. At least as a Facebook status it might have gotten a few likes.