Let me begin, dear reader, with a confession. I am probably one of India’s most assiduously disliked internet personalities. I could tweet a picture of the most gorgeous spring bloom and someone will abuse me because the flower is not a lotus. It is not too depressing though, and I carry the title and notoriety with a sense of ownership.
I have learnt to inure myself to the litany of hate that comes my way every time my fingertips graze the keypad. I simply do not read comments and replies. My parents, however, have been unable to learn this quality of cyber detachment and continue to stalk my profiles, read comments and then worry for my safety in what is now a habitual exercise in emotional self-flagellation. One of their most consistent fears is that I will meet one of my internet-haters in real life and they will attack me. That worry is not illogical. Celebrities are vulnerable. The fact that our faces are recognisable is both the Samson’s locks and the Achilles heel of being a celebrity. Our trolls will know us in any crowd. Moreover, we live in the Age of Exhibition, where almost nothing is too personal or intimate to be shared. From our breakfasts to our period stains, anything and everything is ‘Instagrammable’. And, from our current location to our political opinion, everything is tweet-worthy.
Of course, my mother worries that some hater will recognise me at the airport as I wait to board a flight. I will be recognisable and thus vulnerable in my celebrity-dom and that person will be safe in his anonymity. That is precisely what happened to me at an airport recently. In line to board an early morning flight, my insomniac stupor was disturbed by a man shyly asking me if I was Swara Bhasker. I said I was, and he asked for a selfie. He took the selfie on his iPad, thanked me and left. A while later, he hovered in my line of sight again. He seemed to be looking at me, lurking here and there and then looking at me again. As the line crept towards the aircraft, he returned.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
“I am a Modi bhakt.”
“Oh!” I said, caught off guard and surprised at his proud self description, but also not sure what to do with the information. I nodded and smiled politely.
He continued: “I have often written anti-you on Twitter.”
“I see! So you are one of the people who abuse me,” I retorted.
“No, Ma’am,” he said. “I never abused you. But I wrote against you a lot. Now I won’t, because we have met live now.”
I was disarmed. I asked him about his job (IT professional), where he lived (Dhanbad, Jharkhand) and made small talk (he worked in Hyderabad). I joked that I would take a selfie with him and tag him on Twitter so he could partake in my daily dose of slander and he told me to tag his handle—@ChowkidarRanjan... something.
How could such a polite, well-mannered man be an internet troll? Is all the smugness, power, sense of achievement and the rush of internet trolling nothing but a cowardly reaction stemming from the safe anonymity of cyber interaction? An anonymity that allows us to sink so easily to our basest self because we know there are no consequences! Mr Chowkidar Ranjan must have never thought that someday he would meet me. And, when he did, perhaps being recognised made him accountable, and thus made him subconsciously rise to his most decent behaviour. Or, more simply, perhaps, humans, despite our internet wars, still have the capacity to be civil to one another when we meet offline.
Perhaps the 240 characters of Twitter cannot comprehend nor contain the full complexity and nuance of human interaction outside the virtual space. Thank God for that! Godspeed, Chowkidar Ranjan. May we both rise above our cyber enmity!