Freedom in a chat window
Snapshots of how Facebook and WhatsApp have turned around the intimate lives of three women in rural India
VV is a graduate from Bundelkhand, but works as a shop manager in Lucknow. The 30-year-old is an old-timer at finding friendship online. She entered the world of online social networks in 2009, through her computer training classes, and the friend requests came fast and furious thereafter. A “Hi, Nice Pic" was enough to open the door to an intense friendship. “Sometimes you’re attracted by the photo people put up. I liked chatting with the naughty boys. The ones who get you to keep chatting, even when you don’t really want to."
The first time she fell in love, it wasn’t with anyone she knew. He was from Varanasi and they were “together" for eight years. They chatted for hours on Facebook, and then over the phone. It soon began to feel like a friendship she couldn’t imagine her life without. They would meet often: He travelled to Lucknow, she to Varanasi. However, she was unable to dissuade her parents from getting her married to someone with a “good government job". Her boyfriend got married too. She says she has not had “a second of happiness" in her marriage—she and her husband live apart.
And so, one night in the summer of 2015, she installed Tinder on her phone. “We call it the mousetrap, my friends and I. We were out on a mission, to catch some mice!" There, she met someone. They chatted on Tinder, WhatsApp, and over the phone. Finally, one humid August day, they met. “He had just ended a relationship, I was very upset about my marriage. It was a perfect match," she says. The ensuing romance was a happy distraction. But then, last year, he broached the subject of marriage. “He had already started getting a bit psycho—don’t go here, don’t meet this person, so I knew I didn’t want to get into that trap." She ended it. “I’ve caught enough mice. I wasn’t disappointed when that was over."
Also Read: Caught in the net
In some small, terribly significant way, technology has set astir the intimate lives of some women in the small towns of Uttar Pradesh (UP). Where mobile phones are owned—or can be borrowed or stolen from brothers or husbands—the world of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp chats and dating applications help prise morality, loneliness and desire apart. The stories of desire and pleasure aren’t driven by a happily ever after, and if this resonates with the intimate lives of others in bigger cities, it also has a peculiar poignancy: The momentary pleasure of the midnight chat is achieved at risk from a family that upholds caste and controls sexuality, the deadweight of estranged husbands and tattletale children. The thrill of a private space to explore and befriend, to lose your heart and forget yourself, is specific to these stories.
VV finds it liberating to get to know people without wearing her caste on her sleeve. “Even if I know from his profile that he is a Misra, and I’m Dalit, it doesn’t have the same significance as when you meet someone offline," she says. In the scores of online friendships, she says, caste has not been a barrier. “You can be involved with someone for a long time without it coming up, or (it won’t come up) at all. This would not happen when you meet someone offline."
“I have friends who have met people, chatted, got married, or just had relationships and not got married. Facebook and Tinder give you those choices," says VV. “If I’d met my Facebook friend now, I would have been able to marry him. I have that strength now," she says. This is the age of digital India.
KD, in Banda in UP, ends each day exhausted in bed, her sheet over her head rustling as her fingers move over her keypad. For the 36-year-old digital editor of a local news organization, Facebook and WhatsApp introduces the thrill and danger of intense interactions with a series of strangers. KD is from a Dalit family of farmers and labourers in Bundelkhand. She was married when she was 12, but neglect by in-laws and lack of companionship with her husband ended the marriage. She moved for work to the neighbouring district, where she now lives with her partner of 17 years and his children. KD is addicted to her phone—she is part of 70 WhatsApp groups. She chats with her family, her partner’s family, her friends’ families, colleagues, people she knows from her district and the next, spiralling from there to corners of the country she didn’t know existed.
Her “friendships" start with a profession of mutual admiration, and enter the realm of the sexual slowly. In one conversation, a brave (young) man told her, “You can fulfil my needs," and K responded by challenging him to a meeting where she would also fulfil needs that he didn’t even know he had. He couldn’t get away fast enough: “Shayad aap meri baat galat samjhi (I think you misunderstood me). Mujhe to sirf ek help chahiye aapse (I only want some help from you)."
Unlike real-life flirtations, KD can raise the stakes in these conversations online, and at the hint of violence or a reversal of power, block the person. Perhaps some of the power comes from the age of the men she chats with—many are in their 20s, some students, others reporters, who also gain access to a space of sexual freedom otherwise denied in their offline lives. “There was one from Rajasthan whose response to my age and relationship status was to ask me my waist and bra sizes. I told him, if you saw my belly it would dry the words in your mouth!" says KD.
The stories of VV and KD are by no means representative of all women living in small-town and rural India, but they offer a glimpse of the way in which online social spaces have allowed some to define their own intimacies, think about desire and express it—something that the offline life of women in rural areas provides little scope for. They are in control here—they choose whom to chat with, what language to use, when to meet, whom to block, and when to exit. In that chat window, age, class, caste and other realities of life become secondary, as the story of NR reveals.
“Kahan milogi?"(Where will you meet me?)
“Pata nahin." (I don’t know).
“Main mar jaunga aapke bina." (I will die without you).
“Marne nahi doongi." (I won’t let you die).
“Bas uthne do yaar, aaj bacche zaroor kuch samajh jayenge." (Enough, let me go, the children will know something is up).
NR has been playing hide-and-seek with love for decades now. This 36-year-old from Chitrakoot has five children, and is the survivor of a violent marriage. She’s disarmingly attractive and has worked more jobs than anyone you know—ice-cream vendor, receptionist, tailor, hawker, bangle seller, journalist.
“They’re all so young, 20- to 25-years-old. They want to take care of me, and say that I’ll never have to work a day. I keep telling them, your mother won’t accept a girl like me. I’m not educated, I’m not a virgin and I have five children," says NR, of the men who chat with her: men from the WhatsApp groups she is part of, reporters, officials, shopkeepers, party workers, men from around UP and beyond. Sometimes she blocks them to stop the incessant verbal foreplay and then she unblocks them to throw them a dare. “I tell them, ‘Say these things to me in person, and then I’ll know what you’re about.’ That shuts them up!"
When the chats turn into proposals of marriage, she cuts the connection. Over the last year, things got serious with a journalist from a town nearby. “He said he would move to my town, set up a business for me. So I said, but I already have my own work." Eventually, the relationship petered out. “It is good timepass, it helps when I’m lonely. But no one is going to take my freedom away."
(Initials have been used to protect the women’s identities.)
Disha Mullick and Kavita work with Khabar Lahariya, a rural digital news organization in UP run by women.