We went to the same school, but we surely all went to different WhatsApp universities.
On 30 January, a forward showed up on my school WhatsApp group.”
I quit the group that day. As did a few others. I didn’t leave because someone who went to school with me was sick enough to post that message praising Gandhi’s assassination. I didn’t quit the group because this was just a proposal removed from the Hindu Mahasabha leader trying to grab national eyeballs with a different stunt, firing an air gun at an effigy of Mahatma Gandhi.
I left the WhatsApp group as too many of us stayed quiet or tried to lighten the mood by posting a Pappu joke or a picture of a scantily clad woman. I left the group as a friend I respected told the ones complaining to “chill” so that there could be some “peace in the group”. Just neglect, they said. I could not. We took honorable pride in the values our school had supposedly inspired in us. One of those, I hoped, was in calling out shit when it stank. On the other hand, I should have remembered that a good Indian education mostly teaches us the value of keeping our heads down and our mouths firmly shut. Good schools do not teach us to rock boats, even WhatsApp boats.
The school WhatsApp group is a most interesting beast. I joined it with some trepidation, feeling as if I was being sucked into a time machine back to a world I had long left behind. I was no extended the boy the rest of them remembered and I wasn’t sure what I had in common with the men they had become. I worried we would wallow in memories of what we did in Class 4A. I feared being bothered by cheery ‘Good Morning’ messages with nodding flowers, R-rated Playboy jokes about girlfriends who put out and wives who don’t, and stock market Gyan.
All of that was beyond.
A school WhatsApp group can handle like a Neverland for middle-aged Peter Pans still trapped in about the same hormonal difficulty as they were at age 15. But it was still rather nice to meet people we had not seen or heard of since school, to catch up with their lives in far corners of the world. It was fun to meet classmates we’d never hung out much within the school and discover that they were genuinely nice helpful people. It was easy to organize meet-ups when someone came to town from America or Australia. We pulled each other’s legs and argued politics. We worked to help teachers who had fallen on hard times. We bugged the doctors in the group for medical help. We helped each other out. School loyalty can run strong.
But a school WhatsApp group is quite different from other groups that are bound together by a common interest. We are bound together by a common history, a history that certainly marked us, but still a very old history. We called ourselves Friends Forever, but unlike most friends, we had little in common other than a school tie.
In school, the Arsonist would be expelled to the fringe. But in a WhatsApp group, there was no fringe. I post, hence I am. And the more you post, the more real you are. It can be refreshing to get outside your echo chamber, to hear the views of people whose views are unlike yours. There can be real intense free-for-all debate. But there can also be out-and-out bigotry because in the encrypted playground of a school WhatsApp group we feel we can all let our hair down and expose our truest colors.
That’s when you realize those lynching videos, the fake BBC polls, the spurious Mark Tully quotes about Narendra Modi, they are just not being published to the gullible, semi-educated in provincial towns. They are being absorbed and forwarded with gusto by people just like you. And when faced with a fact-check they shrug and say, ‘So what if BBC didn’t conduct that poll, the Congress is still corrupt, isn’t it?’ It might well be, but that’s not the point. You realize we went to the identical school, but we certainly all went to different WhatsApp universities. It’s as if we had spread all over the world and then suddenly the WhatsApp group had found us and sucked us all back into a classroom besides we no longer fit behind our desks.
My friends said leaving isn’t the answer. One should stay and stand one’s ground. The silent majority surely don’t agree with messages that praise the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, even those who have their own issues with the old man. Nonetheless, that’s the problem, whether in a school WhatsApp group or the country. The silent majority stays silent.
This morning when I woke up to an uncharacteristically calm, WhatsApp icon I felt a strange sense of liberation. I don’t have to be friends forever with anyone just because we wore the same dress once. We’d always have that history and it would always be precious. But it didn’t need to be artificially grafted in the greenhouse of a WhatsApp group.