Cult of the Indian WhatsApp group

Cult of the Indian WhatsApp group

A to-do list. Your family, whom you trust. Your extended family, most of whom you don’t trust. Close friends. Remnants of a birthday surprise. One with an ex in it. A ragtag party that started with seven and compounded to forty-three. A spontaneous trip to Himachal with two friends. These are some of the Whatsapp groups on your phone.

WhatsApp entered our collective consciousness around 2013–14, when most of us started using it. It had long since replaced the SMS and it was only a matter of time before you made the switch.

One fine day, you were added to a group.

Or maybe you are the adventurous kind who takes life by its horns, so you created one. The first Whatsapp group. Only your close friends. Wow. "Hanging out all the time feels great!" Quips, jokes and selfies, flicked into the phone and onto this group instantaneously.

Everyone adopted their offline roles  online.

At some point, you or your sibling made a group with your parent(s). You called it ‘Home’ or ‘Familove’ or named it after your abode. Parents sent you reminders here. ‘Don’t forget to put milk in the fridge’, ‘Are you guys coming for dinner?’, ‘Spoke to Geeta for an hour, she enquired about all of you’, ‘Cabbage from Nusrat’s terrace garden!’. And the sporadic ‘This country is going to dogs’ from dad.

All cute.

And suddenly you were on another group. ‘Kahani Ghar Ghar ki’ it was called or something worse. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins. The whole lot. This was your extended family group. You felt hesitant about this virtual coterie at first, but went along. ‘At least the cousins are in it’, you thought to yourself.

You now woke up to saturated images of flowers or hat-wearing caucasian babies or kittens that peeked from under quilts. Sometimes all of them in one picture. There was a benevolent ‘Good Morning’ or the impractical ‘Keep Smiling’ plastered across. You winced, every morning.

The Gods manifested soon after. But this blue on Krishna was hideous and looked nothing like the blue you had seen on your grandma’s calendar, when he and you were both babies. You wondered when he had contracted fluorescent blue jaundice. Shiva seemed to be hitting the gym a lot lately.

Occasionally, a dove ‘flew’ across in a video without flapping its wings, holding a lone twig of laurel leaves, in a scenic landscape, to god knows where... all while reminding you to value your family.

It was all new. You were amused.

The aunties on the family group seemed to have a completely different agenda. They exchanged masalas, lentils, leftover batter, snacks from Society Stores, sweets from Madhuram, fresh vegetables from farm visits, prasad from Shirdi and no mangoes ever.

The delivery operations for this were conducted through a network of annoyed cousins. Hence, aunties could never wrap their heads around services like Uber, Ola and Dunzo. “Why pay eighty rupees when Anshu can take a slight deviation” — of 16 kilometres —  “to drop this piece of paper on the way?!” which could be scanned and forwarded to the same Whatsapp group but that ‘won’t look good’.

Uncles never got caught up in these trivial Whatsapp dealings. Pfft. When they needed something, they picked up the phone and spoke to the person straight, as all men do. Or they operated discreetly through their wives or mother or daughters by shielding themselves, as all men do.

The word was out.

Everyone had piled onto Whatsapp, just like you. You were being added to more groups than you could keep track of.  You worked hard to navigate. Even Moinuddin, the Uber driver who picked you from Shakti bar at 2 am, sent you a picture of mutton biryani the next afternoon saying ‘Enjoy Sunday’. You didn’t like his imperative tone. ‘Probably that’s how he dealt with hangovers’ you thought. You considered ordering mutton Biryani before you blocked him.

A compulsion dogged everyone to forward everything they ever received, like a game of ‘passing the ball’. Only here they behaved like they would die from asphyxiation, if they held on to the message for too long without forwarding it.

It was starting to get overwhelming. You wanted to slow down.

You could not. At some point, Whatsapp had introduced the guilt feature– called ‘Read receipts’ or also known as ‘She saw my message but still didn’t reply’. The blue tick. Blue and omnipresent- like the sky, the ocean, Lord Krishna and Facebook.

Whatsapp was now telling you — Look, if you don’t reply to messages soon enough, we will let the sender know that you don’t give a crap about their terrible sense of humour or their ‘talent’ and that you find them disgusting overall.

'What the freak?! ugh.. fine! I’ll reply!'

Hey cool, awesome!👏 …Nice👍 …Good stuff👌 …Hahaha😄… wooOoow…

You never meant any of it. The sender knew that. And you knew that they knew. And they knew that you…

You looked for ways to disable this poopsicle feature. And sure enough, you could disable it altogether but not for groups only. You were not going to disable it altogether. Mad or what?!

There was another feature that you couldn’t disable. It was called 'Modi Modi Modi'. But that was not a feature Facebook introduced; the country did in 2014. Fine, you didn’t. Your "nosy parents, casteist uncles, invertebrate aunts, docile cousins, racist grandparents, status-seeking friends and bigoted colleagues" did. You were very 'proactive' and voted for “anyone but him”. <applause track>

Honourable Mota bhai had divided the country into two impassioned camps, ‘na bolunga’ and ‘na bolne doonga’. You either attacked those who disagreed with your politics or you were on the receiving end of an attack. This high art of mudslinging had made its way onto Whatsapp groups, with a dose of extra shezwan chutney.

There was a third kind, one that tried to engage in civil discourse with the attackers. They were the real idiots.

You had been all three at different stages of your Whatsapp journey and now entered the final stage called ‘politics bad’.

And maybe others hadn't?

You were not to be ‘let off easily’ it was decided. "What about the times you attacked? What about 1984? What about 89-90?  '93? '99? 2002? '14... '19... '24...?"

You didn't know and wanted them to file an RTI.

Around the same time, your friend group discovered that one-upping each other while discussing office politics, appraisals, car features, camera megapixels, prime day deals, TV shows, IPL stats, credit cards, planned vacations, SIPs and all things a google search away ,  were great ways to make up for the vacuousness of life.

Differences of opinion were seen as annoying. Alternative viewpoints were a nuisance. Talking smack in private was routine. Gossip-mongering subgroups formed in varying combinations that followed their own seasonality. Summer mein ye chu*, Winter mein woh gan*. Across all the groups.

The groups didn’t exist without group-think. It was all fun and games until you got sick of it.

You stopped enjoying it. Gossiping was not helping you anymore in dealing with your insecurities. You looked for newer ways; You gave unsolicited advice and preached to others what you didn't have the courage to practice yourself, you drank till you numbed your brain and then told Moinuddin repeatedly how much you loved Biryani, on the way back home.

You had changed your world. And not made it a better place.

Every time you got a group message, you opened yourself to a new possibility, a new future — where you could get entangled in conversations you were better off not getting into. Or someone could mock your life choices with a 'forward'. Or a boomer could cook up falsehoods about tradition and culture they themselves never followed. Or you would multitask by trying to nurse someone’s fragile ego while simultaneously getting snarky with your mother.

You spent hours doing all this. And then you wondered where all the time went. Haha silly you. You even counted the number of dots between sentences and carefully mirrored the sender's text, because you believed in quality not quantity.

But the doubts persisted.

'wtf am I doing?', ‘Is this all worth it?’, ‘Are Whatsapp groups a microcosm of society?’ You blushed when such grand thoughts occurred. You had had enough of it. You. were. done.

You decided to leave these groups.

But– you were not going to spring that on everyone. You made a plan. You stopped opening the group for a few days. The unread messages built up. You impulsively checked your phone every time it buzzed and managed to somehow read as much as you could on a locked screen.

Messages about you started pouring in. People were talking about you. They were missing you. Some were messaging you to come back!

You started having second thoughts. Probably you were taking it too far?

'What?! A message from everyone saying ‘come back plz plz pleazeeeeeee’?! Look at how many e’s they have used! Tch. And, they are calling me now!'

It was three days. You were taking it too far. Come on.

You opened the group, typed “Hi guys! sorry for being off the radar! I was on a ‘digital detox’ for just a few days!😃😃😃” and pressed send.

No one repli — cared.

... so long as you were back in the cult.