When I was a baby reporter, I was once sent to a posh blood donation camp that was to be inaugurated by the governor of the state. The governor was genial and smiled plenty to accommodate the photographers in the front row. When she swung into the speech, though, the press had to hide its giggles. While thanking the universities for sending students to the camp, she said, “I thank the vice-chancellors because university blood is the best blood.”
This was my first in-person experience of someone in high political office saying something deranged and comical and the world having to painfully make some sense of it. Because to call it out as devoid of sense or just casteist, sexist or violent would be to destabilise power. Better then to describe it as someone being frank or honest or that other thing, realistic.
On 10 October, World Mental Health Day, Karnataka health minister K. Sudhakar noted in a speech that modern Indian women want to stay single, are unwilling to give birth even after marriage, and want to have children by surrogacy. Since then, Sudhakar, having got a lot of unhappy attention, has said he didn’t mean to single out women as the bane of the traditional family and that data shows young people, regardless of gender, don’t want to have children, and so on. Which is what we began hearing from him the morning after.
The truth is, our politicians are so used to just talking aloud without anyone disagreeing that poor Sudhakar must have been shocked to find himself on the front pages of newspapers. To realise you are rowing alone towards the waterfall when everyone else has jumped off the boat must have been very unpleasant. Think of the dozens of times Sudhakar has heard someone say this stuff or said it himself and has only got nods and more nods. Isn’t it a truth universally acknowledged that young women are the pits? And when was the last time the public summoned up the energy to make a politician feel even vaguely apologetic? Poor Sudhakar.
I sympathise strongly with Sudhakar. Having surrounded myself only with people who agree with me IRL and only following people on social media I agree with, my head is in a permanent nod, like the Thalayatti bommais that some people are dusting off for the Golu festival now. And having further isolated myself in the pandemic, my cognitive dissonance is only with the injustice of the universe—not that I or anyone I know is participating in creating this cruel, injustice-filled world.
Recently, I had a rare moment of feeling like an anthropologist among Martians. This week on Twitter, I stumbled across a thread started by a woman feeling angry that young Brahmin women were too “uppity” to marry a priest of her acquaintance when he was suave and financially secure. For every person there to make fun of this irony-free lament, there were five who agreed that Brahmin women—no, all women—are too uppity, too selfish, too unwilling to move to small towns, too unwilling to look after their in-laws, and so on. The helpful suggestions ranged from “there are many poor Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh”, to “find a village girl” (à la the plot of Roja), to “marry a girl from an orphanage”. Much declension narrative, much tyaga, and “pure vegetarian”. I could not, for the life of me, stop reading. What a rare chance to find out what is in some people’s hearts.
Of course, the cruelty and prejudice of the thread was like that moment in a high school swimming pool in Bengaluru when an elderly woman complimented me on my Hindi, and brightened after seeing my Delhiwalla husband. Two sentences later, she paled when she found out where we lived. Isn’t it a dirty area, full of Christians and Muslims, she asked my husband. I felt happy I had learnt to swim enough to backstroke away, thinking murderous thoughts of aunty who had revealed herself as a chudail in a flowered, beskirted swimsuit.
To be online in my echo chamber is to be constantly aware that someone outside is probably having murderous thoughts about me, not me specifically but me, an accident of birth, a vague abstraction of wrongness. But if you are lucky online, you also simultaneously have hundreds of others urging you to swim away to the fun part of the pool. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance. They make the latitudes and longitudes.”
Long ago, as a young person, I thought that everyone who revealed themselves as a bigot was part of “reality” and that I, a member of the jeunesse dorée, had been living in a bubble. Now, though, I actively resist any suggestions that only the cruel and only the petty are real and only the squid games are worth watching.
Perhaps it is the cruel and petty who are the ones living in an uncertain, shifting fantasy and that is why their talons are sharper. Not to say that while they are thrashing about in the maya of politics, they won’t try to drown the kind, the loving, the fun-loving. As the proverbial scorpion said to the helpful frog while they were both drowning: “I could not help it. It’s in my nature.”
As hard as we work to swim, we also have to work hard at believing that the world does not actually, really, secretly belong to scorpions.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.