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Sharing information to make fortresses tremble

Our main cultural activity seems to be simultaneously concealing how things get done and then boasting about how we got it done. Luckily, there are people with a contrary impulse

Taj by moonlight deserves more attention than bragging about who you know. (iStockphoto)
Taj by moonlight deserves more attention than bragging about who you know. (iStockphoto)

Here is a true story about history—actually, a true story about an historian. In the first few months after I moved to Delhi, two women who barely knew me invited me to hang out. Everyone I met that evening was a stranger and my two new friends did everything to make me comfortable. I asked the man sitting next to me what he did and he said he was doing his PhD on the Tughlaqabad fort. Partly out of politeness and partly out of actual curiosity, I said, “Oh how interesting. How can I go there?”

To my astonishment, he snapped, “Please don’t go there until I am finished with my PhD.” The Tughlaqs had built the fort to protect their city from the Mongols but this dude was behaving like my 20 ticket would shake the edifice of his academic career

That historian was obviously an Olympic-level hoarder—but such information hoarders are common. You know them. If they find a good tailor or a way to get tatkal tickets on IRCTC, they will tell no one. You will find out about a new scholarship that the person has applied to only after he gets through the interview.

They come in all styles and stripes. There is the last mile hoarder. The friend who hears you complain about an accountant and says hers is magical and promises to send you the number but never does. The uncle who tells you: “Beta, you can swim in my club anytime. It’s heated. It’s empty. Just call and get my membership code.” Uncle never seen again. Perhaps he is underwater in the heated empty pool, that is why he never sees your calls, you think.

The last mile hoarder is similar but not the same as the missing link variety. They will forget to tell you a crucial detail to make the motor run but ensure the tank does not overflow. And when you call, a sodden mixture of rage and resentment, you are met with a genial, oh you-didn’t-know-this-from-birth laugh.

If it’s a recipe they have given you, they will somehow forget the ingredient which turns the recipe from not bad to awesome (this is a sub-category called the missing hing). They laugh while you make rotis that look like Patagonia but fail to mention that the key is not to press hard with the rolling pin.

Then there is the marriage detective variety. This is a particular variety of information hoarder who shares, but shares for maximum, sickening impact.

When you tell them that you have finally unpacked and settled into your new flat, they tell you about the infamous drunk who lives on the same floor. When you praise your new colleague’s cheerful ways, they listen and then say, “Good thing she was cleared of those embezzlement charges.” At this point you can either pretend (unconvincingly) that you always knew or you can stutter to a stop and implore them for details.

Years ago, I was booked on a night-time tour of the Taj Mahal, available five nights a month when the moon is on full voltage. It was my third visit and I was still excited. The Taj Mahal is like a celebrity whose photographs you have seen all your life but who still makes you dizzy when you see her in person. But while waiting in the little bus they had put us in, I just wanted to find a marble block to bang my head against. All around were self-satisfied conversations about the cleverness and connections that had got them on the night-time tour. I was in a stage of advanced glumness by the time we got to the Taj. I would never claim to be a fine-tuned aesthete but really, the Taj by moonlight deserves more attention than bragging about who you know. Our main cultural activity seems to be simultaneously concealing how things get done and then boasting about how we got it done.

Cue the recent news story about the Union ministry of information technology and National Informatics Centre both denying knowledge of the antecedents of the super nosy Aarogya Setu app, and then issuing a rather dense clarification.

Luckily, this country also has people with the contrary impulse. Take the Bengaluru-based media outlet Citizen Matters, which recently ran a step-by-step guide to getting your driving licence renewed in Karnataka without paying a ton to an agent or being sent home in disgrace by the regional transport officer, or RTO, for not bringing a ziplock bag.

I followed the steps and it worked perfectly, despite the government website behaving like a Russian puzzle book from your grandfather’s bookshelf (if Ivan is in Bellary and Masha likes borscht, then which taluk are you in?). Even when I was reading the instructions, I felt light penetrating my skull, straight into my cerebrum.

On a much bigger scale, this impulse is behind the RTI Act (15 years old in October), which made questioning of the Aarogya Setu’s incognito model possible.

Also, an imaginative leap: The Nalanda Academy in Wardha, Maharashtra, which responded to India’s fatal hoarding of cultural capital by preparing students from marginalised backgrounds in a dozen different ways for the badlands of higher education. Or The Community Library Project in Delhi, which responded to the pandemic by creating a whole new library to be shared on WhatsApp for readers with limited access to the internet.

Sharing information. A small ticket to make some fortresses tremble.

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.

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