This week I got a forward. It’s a picture of actor John Travolta walking about captioned “one of my favourite photos of 2020. Nicolas Cage out shopping with his mask on”. Several things happened when I got it. I got a big case of the sniggers. Then I immediately sent it to the correct demographic: my brother, three favourite WhatsApp groups of friends I have known now for 30, 20 and 10 years, respectively. Of course, I sent it to the woman I watched Face/Off with at what was then Symphony Theatre on MG Road in Bengaluru.
My friend in group 1 complained about my sending her a forward she had already sent me three months ago. I apologised. My much younger friend Jugal in group 3 sniggered and said Face/Off would never get old. A short argument later, it was established that he had watched it as a half-ticket person and I as a new adult. But then the conversation went on to Jugal making a video meme that involves the singer Rihanna and my Hindustani pun on warq/work. My Face/Off-watching friend and I complained about our To Be Read list, as we used to even earlier, when we had time for weekday-morning movie-watching. All in all, a happy mid-morning Thursday that didn’t involve filling a KYC form or contemplating vaccines or wondering if vaccines will require KYC forms.
This year has been a strange combination of seismic change and mind-numbing sameness. Are we moving or are we stuck in mid-air?—it was hard to tell from the newly limited view through the tiny window. But whether standing still or moving backward, one thing I continued to love is the forward. My Rihanna meme-making friend is the kind of Quick Gun meme-making Murugan who fuels this cultural idiom of our times. If you ever doubted that speed is a hallmark of the meme maker, I will refer you to the Gmail outage on 14 December. Minutes after she discovered Gmail was down, my friend Shabani sent out messages on WhatsApp asking me and others, is it down, is it down? Before I could check, before even Google could check, I suspect, she sent me a message saying “doesn’t matter. Memes work faster than news”. In that minute she had already received a forward saying, “In the season finale of 2020 we live without Google.”
Memes are art but forwarding is small talk. Forwards are my remembering what you like and what you snigger about. For my friend Rhea, forwards are her love language. When she likes you, she threatens affectionately to assault you with memes. And she does. When a particularly excellent forwardable Malayalam cultural artefact emerges, it’s a point of pride for Rhea to get it to her friends first. She says: “When I can meet my favourite friends, we make the jokes and laugh and it’s so good. Good memes fill that void when I cannot. It’s a short-cut way to saying, ‘I am thinking of you and I miss laughing with you.’ I sustain quite a few long-distance friendships with meme love.”
In recent times, you may have seen phrases such as meme engineers and meme marketing. Let us avert our faces from the inevitable trajectory for the moment. That’s not the stuff that has kept my boat afloat in 2020. It is not the stuff that made me do unintentional imitations of small dogs in the middle of the night. Those Pomeranian sounds were prompted by classics such as the Venn diagram of where incel and excel overlap (“incorrectly assuming something is a date”), the one about a prime minister, his mother and Kissan jam. There was the vast trove of memes specific to the year of the pandemic, more and more sophisticated as the year progressed. Danish Sait videos, a category in themselves in their Quick-Gun-ness.
The dance videos forward is my all-time favourite category every year and it remained so this year. The BTS/Chunari Chunari video, the Jerusalema videos, the stream of videos from Lebanese choreographer Sara Karrit, dancer George Akram and his choreographer mother Anita Vivas—beauty and pure joy from all round the world. I have sent them to friends in unbearable lockdown, friends roaming annoyingly free on the beach, friends I don’t know when I will ever see again, my husband so near and yet so far quarantining in our bedroom.
And yes, yes, our phones are under assault from annoying forwards, wife jokes and political disinformation and misleading science. And we are socially obliged to tsk at our forward nature. But the clue to the joy of forwards lies in the incredibly good-natured face of Yashraj Mukhate, the music producer who made the superhit “Kokilaben-rasoda-pressure cooker mashup” and “tuhada kutta Tommy sada kutta kuttaa”. A record 30 people sent me the pressure-cooker video in one day and I giggled every time with the sender. Like Mukhate’s expressions, the best forwards are kind, yet sharp and comical.
Other ages had mushairas, we have forwards. They tap into a trove of deep cultural knowledge that you didn’t even know you had and leave you satisfied with yourself, with the (frequently) unknown mind from which this gem emerged, and with humanity. And what more could you ask of a few hundred kilobytes or of a stranger in any year, especially in this year?
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger. Her first book of fiction, The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories, was released in August.