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Bored, lonely and other words for women who think

This kind of ready-to-mix psychological label morphing into self-contained, interconnected fiction to explain women’s behaviour is not uncommon

Jennifer Aniston accepting an Annual Screen Actors Guild award for her performance in ‘The Morning Show’ in 2020. For decades, the media held that Aniston was destroyed forever by Brad Pitt leaving their marriage. (Getty Images)

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Have you heard about the recent waves in the world of Chinese Wikipedia? For a decade, a Chinese woman known as Zhemao has been writing the history of the Kashin silver mine in medieval Russia, especially the battles fought over it for a hundred years between the dukes of Moscow and the princes of Tver.  

Turns out that the mine, the battles and the parties involved are all pure fiction. Zhemao has spent a whole decade writing thousands and thousands of words and knitting a self-contained, interconnected universe full of fake references. It has given Wikipedia editors, often an earnest lot, the shakes and trembles.

Headlines reporting the story called Zhemao “bored” and “lonely”. I am very suspicious of such labels in headlines. If you work in news, this kind of ready-to-mix psychological label morphing into self-contained, interconnected fiction to explain women’s behaviour is not uncommon. Observe, for instance, the decades-long global media standard by which it is assumed that actor Jennifer Aniston was destroyed forever (and ever and ever) by Brad Pitt leaving their marriage for Angelina Jolie.

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I looked up Zhemao’s apology on Wikipedia and used a Google translator to try to piece it together, much like those trying to piece together the Lalit Modi-Sushmita Sen romance. The apology note does seem to use the words bored, lonely and mention financial distress, a husband away and even (I think!) pregnancy.  

Why did Zhemao do it? There seems to be no political gain or tangible personal gain other than finding a community of fellow nerds. Who knows what the truth is in this case? Missing some vital information, all of us Nancy Drews and Sush Files investigators have had to at least temporarily close the files.

It was hard to stop once she started, Zhemao says in her note. I read this line, in one translation of her note, “My current knowledge is not enough to make a living, so in the future I will learn a craft, work honestly, and not do nebulous things like this anymore.” Nebulous things. What is the pursuit of art, if not nebulous?

In another world, Zhemao could have been writing massive reams of fan fiction—the genre that once seemed inexplicable and has now achieved almost full respectability. Rainbow Rowell, for instance, wrote Fangirl in 2013, a book about a girl who writes novel-length fan fiction online about an imaginary book series (which bears a striking resemblance to the Harry Potter world). This is how fan fiction works. It is full of passion, stamina and art created for love, not money. Rowell then wrote a novel called Carry On, based on the snippets of fan fiction written by the main character in Fangirl. It is intriguing that the person who found out Zhemao was making up stuff on Russian history was Yifan, a fantasy novelist who was first sucked into the rabbit hole that Zhemao created and then became suspicious. Fantasy as a genre is infamous for the stamina and appetite required for what is known as world-building.

Zhemao has been asked to delete everything she wrote on Wikipedia. This is in striking contrast to what happened in 2015 when an American Wikipedia editor, Ksenia Coffman, started flagging material on Wikipedia that is carefully and systematically rehabilitating Nazi history. The backlash she has got for her efforts to de-Nazi Wikipedia has been immense, given the number of people invested in glorifying war and blond, masculine flourishes. Coffman carries on in the face of this self-contained and interconnected Nazi fan fiction. She has found her calling.

In India many bored and lonely people seem to have found their selves currently by building whole fan fictions of a country whose greatness was lost and can be found by digging. The Deccan Herald reported that a National Education Policy (NEP) position paper on “Culture and Pedagogy” said Indian students should adopt “age-old memorisation practices” and that the “evidence-based thinking” of the West affected Indian ways. Okay, then. Love me some Indian ways.

This week in Indian ways, young film-maker Kunjila Mascillamani staged a protest at a film festival in Kozhikode, Kerala. According to The News Minute, “by occupying a chair on the dais and raising slogans against the CPI(M) and the Chief Minister on Saturday, the opening day of the event. She was forcibly taken away from the venue by the police, taken to Beach Hospital in Kozhikode for medical examination and later released”.

While it is not particularly fun for anyone organising an event to have a young artist show up and show up your lack of inclusiveness, diversity and imagination, the chances of being embarrassed come hand in hand with the glory of being Organiser Uncle or Organiser Aunty. But if your tolerance for embarrassment is so low that a film-maker is dragged off by the police, oh what a great curator you must be.

Anyone who has ever been to a film festival in Kerala or hung out with male film-makers from notable southern states (actually, let’s call it a national phenomenon, why should I be partial to my own) can tell you the range of grotesque, selfish and/or comical activities that pass off under the guise of genius and/or inebriation.

If Mascillamani had been a man who smelt even faintly of alcohol, a wave of “himpathy” (a useful word created by Australian academic Kate Manne) would have embraced her, taken her to a back room to lie down and sleep it off. Her actions would have lived on in the legends of the festival, told and retold every year in the drinking sessions after the festival. Remember when he tried to sit in the chief minister’s chair? Remember when he tore off my name from the chair? Hohoho. Oh, the fans that version of Mascillamani would have had.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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