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Opinion: Dear Diary, so, this is what I have done

Reading early blogs was like watching ‘Prozac Nation’ in Tirunelveli

The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sofia were well-known diary-keepers.
The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and his wife Sofia were well-known diary-keepers. (Alamy)

I kept a diary through school and college. And then, for a couple of years, I wrote what came to be known as meta-fiction. These were thinly veiled stories in which, an older male writer complained, nothing ever happened (he then proceeded to write long sentences in long books in which nothing happened, so whatever). And then it was the age of the blog for a whole decade or so.

As soon as my blog acquired more than two readers, it changed in tone. It began showing signs of “curating". I began talking about books and music and movies that I wanted to evangelize or complain about. True feelings and preoccupations of the “B ignored me. I felt bad" variety didn’t make it to my blog. Plus, I had long-suffering real-life friends who were willing to listen. I stopped writing any private notes, which I experience as a loss now. Most of the feelings of vagueness, rage and joy of my 20s are lost to me. This is perhaps a good thing because I am not sure I can take reliving some of it. Yet, I would love an opportunity to cringe-wince-read.

It’s only in 2018 that we learnt it was not just diarist Anne Frank’s father who cleaned up her notes before publishing. Apparently, after she heard a Dutch politician on the radio say that he wanted to collect stories of Nazi occupation, Anne too started censoring and revising her diary entries. As a child, I would not have found the idea that Anne Frank meant her diary for publication astonishing.

We were all aware that diaries were part of our effort to carve out posterity. Even the extra-lucky girls who were gifted pretty diaries with little locks on them. As a reader, I have never found a published diary (written without an audience in real time) dull. Even the most carefully pruned diaries of civil servants, when published, take on a significance and gossipy albeit good-natured quality that I find rewarding.

In the early years, I read Indian blogs avidly and often found them so grown-up in their drama. Self-harm, hook-ups with strangers, baroque fantasies, tattoos in strange places. Hangovers and puking. Fears that you will always be broke and that your parents are going to die. It was all Prozac Nation in Tirunelveli and I loved it. Sometimes, this was in people’s “secret" blogs or, in some folks’ case, “public secret" blogs. I was once amazed when I pieced together from hints friends dropped that a journalist who covered national security had a secret blog that explored his S&M tastes. Obviously, the kink itself was not surprising—it was almost a movie cliché. But his cheerful persona on this blog was unlike everything I had ever heard about him (as an annoyed friend put it, if a terrorist’s body was found, this fellow somehow knew everything about him, including his star sign).

The old blogs with no revenue model died with the triumph of social media, and, to a lesser extent, the online personal essay. Now, I don’t know any truly confessional places online despite the complaints of over-sharing.

Even without a diary, I remember the splurge of buying the mighty Oxford India Ramanujan in 2003. I was a giddy fan. Sixteen years later, reading the poet A.K. Ramanujan’s newly published journals, I got an unexpected laugh from this passage: “Trouble writing this diary. Molly (wife Molly Daniels) said she’d read much of my diary (don’t know when) and checked against what I said to her and found me a liar. Curious situation: Should one write a diary to suit a possible snooper, a reader over your shoulder?" Then the lovely literary nerd turns to precedent and writes: “(Leo) Tolstoy and Sophia are supposed to have kept two diaries, one for each other’s spying (and to outrage the other when he/she does), the other truly private." And, finally, using the diary for its classical purpose—thinking—Ramanujan decides earnestly: “I am going to contrive to write what I think and feel. For the first honesty is with oneself. And what I don’t put down, vanishes—as my memory blurs and doesn’t keep details." I wondered whether the always fascinating Molly read this entry too and what she made of it.

The truly private diary in which you spill can be soothing in the moment and fascinating in retrospect. Confessing on social media has a tendency to want to be found fascinating in the moment. It’s soothing only when you publicly deactivate your account with a martyred and just-you-wait air. Confessing your unhappiness or happiness online, it always seems to me, is a way to tempt fate, to put yourself in Ginny Weasley-meets-Tom Riddle-like situations. It is, to misappropriate Ramanujan, “absorbed unselfconscious privacy where love (and hate) matures".

One of the world’s most famous English diarists, Samuel Pepys, began a million-word practice when he was 26. Half a dozen apps on my phone would like everything Pepys wrote down: food, sleep, poops, sex, fights, money, gossip. He also famously wrote during the Plague Years (1665-66). Pepys was a busy boy climbing up a government job by day and partying at night. It’s not a reach to think that his honest diaries helped him keep his complicated life from going off the rails.

Today’s mental health practitioners suggest diaries to chart your moods, to record moments of gratitude and so on. Today’s journal keepers can’t help announcing online that they have been journaling. Some day, survivors might find in these diaries details such as the number of glasses of water drunk in the week since the city shut down its water supply. And what it is to be driven to madness by a beeping app insisting you record steps walked when you haven’t left your house for weeks because of the air quality.

Cheap Thrills is a fortnightly column about millennials, obsessions and secrets. Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger.

She tweets at @chasingiamb

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