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Opinion | Why gossiping is an essential service

During the pandemic, when all conversations are about shrinking incomes and illness, let’s please have some gossip instead

To be outside the world of gossip is to be left out of knowledge.
To be outside the world of gossip is to be left out of knowledge.

Last evening a 28-year-old friend called, giggling and snorting because a family friend had just tried to set him up. “He has known me and my family my entire life. Why would he think arranged marriage would work?" While it was funny, I told him he would have been a little less astonished at suddenly becoming a rishta boy if he knew that this is how arranged marriage is done nowadays. And considerably less so if he had been keeping track of how much leeway is doled out to continue classifying boys as “suitable".

At the end of this conversation, he correctly blamed his parents and himself for not tuning in to family gossip. Which is ironic, since his was the first piece of harmless, jolly gossip I had heard in weeks. I should have fallen upon it like manna from heaven instead of lecturing him.

During the pandemic, it is not just the quality of mercy that is strained, it’s also the quality of rumours. When all conversations are about shrinking incomes and about who has tested positive and whose illness is only mild and whose is terrifyingly not-mild and about our incredible isolation of spirit, then please let’s have some gossip. The screenshots of the squabbles that have broken out on social media after two months in lockdown do not compare with the real stuff, the good stuff, the wrapped in thin gold foil stuff. You know what I mean. You are not the kind of person who says boring, untruthful things like “I never gossip".

Because you know gossip is the bedrock of literature. Even the book that has become hot this quarantine season, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. This Italian classic, as you know, is a collection of stories that a group of seven affluent young women and their three male companions tell each other while hiding in a villa outside Florence to escape the Black Death, the biggest pandemic the world has known till now. In their two-week “quarantine", they tell 100 stories of sex, comedy, punishment, fraud and virtue—the best kind of gossip—in famously elegant, bawdy prose.

You and I know that gossip can be the weapon of the rebellious. It’s how we know about the lives of our bosses. It’s how we hear how to really navigate the Olympic-level hurdle race of red tape in our cities, especially, but not only because of the pandemic (how to show you are corona positive or negative to get admitted into a hospital without the benefit of a test is a new subgenre). It’s how we confirm that our feelings of rage and grief and disorientation are real because those feelings don’t get reported on television. Gossip is the original peer review. Of course, just like peer reviews, gossip can fail and be its sad version, misinformation. Or as Boccaccio said in the introduction to The Decameron: “Such fear and fanciful notions took possession of the living that almost all of them adopted the same cruel policy, which was entirely to avoid the sick and everything belonging to them. By so doing, each one thought he would secure his own safety."

Despite the danger of misinformation, to be outside the world of gossip because of lack of privilege, because of our caste or gender or class, is to be left out of knowledge. It is also to be left out of the knowledge of knowledge. The 17th century Braj Bhasha poet Vrind wrote in a doha (couplet), “Pisuna chalyau nara sujana soṁ karata bisāsa na cūki jaise dādhyau dūdha kau pībata chācahiṁ phūṁkia." Meaning, the person who has been burnt drinking hot milk will blow at even buttermilk before drinking it. And that trust once lost is hard to regain.

The nice thing about gossip is that you don’t need to get burnt yourself to know what is too hot to drink. Gossip is a cautionary tale with a faster beat.

But you, my friend, you also know we need gossip for less non-artistic, non-utilitarian reasons. It is both medium and message in intimacy. That first exchange of gossip between acquaintances is as significant as the first time you accidentally-but-not-so-accidentally brush against someone. It’s hot, titillating and calibrated. Will the other person be disapproving? Did you imagine that she felt the way you felt? Will the other person double down and offer you the kind of horrible gossip that makes you shout TMI, TMI and run away? The offering and receiving of gossip must be like the trading of bonbons, sweet, light and greeted with a laugh. Else, where is the jolly?

Which is why you and I lean a few dangerous inches closer and glint above our masks and ask hopefully: got any gossip?

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

Twitter - @chasingiamb

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