Sharing secret lives and riotous deaths

Your family, or your FB ‘friends’?

Shoba Narayan
Hindustan Times

Death comes riotously to my neighbourhood. Posters are put up on trees. “Smt. Mangamma: Sad Dismiss,” says the fluttering photograph of a serious, spectacled woman, announcing her demise or rather “dismiss.” I don’t know Mangamma. I do know that she lived in a slum down the road from my apartment complex because the auto drivers who congregate in the street corner tell me so. There is a funeral procession in the evening, they say. I watch it from my balcony. Mangamma lies horizontal and stiff. She is clad in a silk sari with a huge red bindi. Lights shine on her turmeric-yellow face. Rose garlands weigh down her dead body. A marching band walks in front. Men in red velvet uniforms and India Coffee House style turbans play the trumpets and drums. A dozen street urchins dance the “dabban-kuthu” made famous by Rajinikanth. Mangamma exits the mortal world in style – song, dance, silk sari, and relatives wailing full blast.

You go online and see what all your “friends” are doing…. Yet, you feel lonely, somehow adrift, vaguely bereft of company

The next week, I get a WhatsApp message from my neighbour with the line: “My mother passed away last week.” Her mother, Aunty Sheila, was an acquaintance but one who I met daily. I would see her stand outside her building, waiting to put her grandson on the school bus. She was perhaps about the same age as Mangamma, but there was no procession for her. No band, lights, wailing crowds and dancing boys. Death in the middle and upper classes has become sanitised, quiet, private. Rituals are followed, but in private. People visit and condole, but quietly.

What is your idea of privacy? When you have some news, who do you want to share it with? How do you want to share it? My mother-in-law cannot keep a secret from her siblings. Births, deaths, weddings, all news travel instantaneously through the family grapevine with a well placed phone call. “Did you hear? Jayant’s daughter is engaged.” Or “Seema died.”

If you are 20, however, the last thing you want to do is share news with your family. You worry about whether they will judge you, whether they will ask awkward questions, whether they will ask your salary and how much your new house cost. Why bother, when you can announce the news on Facebook where your 1,000 followers – many of them strangers – will read it and be jealous. Of course, the headline has to be funny, modest and if possible, mysterious. “This college graduate is going to Silicon Valley,” you might say. Or something like, “Guess who is going to be eating bagels in New York?” or even a plain “Delhi, here I come.” Your 2,365 “friends” will know the news. Your grandmother may not.

When is the last time you picked up a phone and talked to a relative? Not a colleague, not a friend, but a blood relative – someone from your community, who shares the same roots as you? Today’s social media gives us a false sense of connection. You go online and see what all your “friends” are doing, or at least the public persona that they put on. Yet, you feel lonely, somehow adrift, vaguely bereft of company. When you feel sad, who do you hug? When you feel angry, who do you vent to?

Now, there are many things that Facebook and Whats-App can do, but they cannot give you a hug. Which goes back to the first question: In sickness and in health, who do you share with?

Today there are two parallel trends. Young people have a keen sense of privacy. There is identity theft, data mining, threats that Facebook is giving away your information. You have to be careful about what you disclose to your employer and on social media. At the same time, the only place where a 16-year-old shares her day seems to be on Snapchat and Instagram. The only place where you air your views are on Twitter and Facebook. When you get engaged, you change your status from “Single” to “Taken,” with one click. The question is how does that make you feel? Is the point of sharing to crow about your accomplishments or expand your human connections? For our parents, it was definitely the latter. You shared to connect with community.

People of the older generation would be horrified with this generous over-sharing of good news. “Nazar lag jaati hai,” they will say. “Stop boasting. Don’t say anything.” For our mothers and aunts, sharing within family was necessary and porous. Any news or event travelled from one to another like a dandiya stroke. Good and bad news (sukh-dukh) after all, was to be shared. You celebrated and grieved together. You hugged each other in joy and sorrow.

Now, there are many things that Facebook and Whats-App can do, but they cannot give you a hug. Which goes back to the first question: In sickness and in health, who do you share with? And what is the purpose of your sharing?

(This column addresses the issue of parenting our parents, an integral part of This Indian Life and our culture. If you have stories about the weird and wonderful relationships that enrich or enervate your life, write in.)

This Indian Life appears every fortnight

From HT Brunch, July 22, 2018

BRUNCH Updated: Jul 21, 2018 21:38 IST

Shoba Narayan

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