You hate it, you mute it, it makes you want to throw your phone against a wall – but if you leave it, you feel guilt and FOMO. And now, in the middle of a countrywide lockdown to flatten the Covid-19 curve, family WhatsApp group chats have taken on a new role.
Or, perhaps, it’s a return to what they were intended to be in the first place, before ‘WhatsApp University‘ took over and turned every family group into a platform to share unverified information to support one’s political views.
More than Modi and his politics, the talk now is about maida in your pasta.
Modi ‘left’ the groups
A PhD student in Delhi recalls that, for the past three or four years, a WhatsApp group comprising her extended family has been devoted largely to politics. “I remember that it began around demonetisation, in November 2016. Before that, the group, which spans at least four continents, was largely dedicated to vacation photos and birthday wishes, but suddenly there were uncles and aunts who insisted that this [demonetisation] was the best thing to counter black money and that Narendra Modi was the strong leader we needed. A few cousins shared photos of long queues at ATMs with funny captions, someone pointed out the number of people dying and so on.”
And ever since then, she says, it’s been one political argument after another, ranging from Yogi Adityanath being “not as bad as everyone thinks” to the Kashmir lockdown being “blown out of proportion”. “Suddenly, we were 80 per cent politics and 20 per cent birthday emojis, and I realised so many uncomfortable truths about family members and their views. It was mentally draining, but I also felt like it would look bad to leave it, so I just stayed silent.”
But where she once wanted to leave the group, the academic says she is now grateful she didn’t. What changed her mind? Coronavirus.
For the past month, there has been nothing political on the group at all. Instead it is a comforting place of “How are you holding up?”, “I have two capsicums and five potatoes, what can I make?”, “We watched Parasite on Amazon Prime, what a movie!” and “Any idea who will deliver olive oil?”
Her uncle, once a repository of fake news that his own son delighted in fact-checking on the group, has now taken to sharing photos of bright blue skies and of his cooking experiments, while her own father has been “asking all the youngsters to check out his photos of Dalgona coffee“. “It’s so cute,” she says.
Sexist jokes out, aloo paratha in
Much has already been written about how the pandemic of 2020 and the resultant lockdown could and should change things in India. But among the larger issues of environment, lifestyle and workplace policies, a smaller, but no less important, change is taking place in family conversations.
Family WhatsApp groups are now becoming places of concern for each other’s well-being and tips on how to cook the perfect aloo ka paratha or make the best gin cocktail.
“There are daily photos of nieces and nephews doing jigsaw puzzles or performing plays at home, endless holiday plans are being made for ‘when this is over’, and, sometimes, when there is no real update, just a message ‘Checking up that everyone is fine’,” says a strategy consultant in Mumbai who has a group with his Hyderabad-based family.
He adds that the group had become something he avoided participating in, because it was “mostly pro-BJP and anti-BJP, and it’s really tiring to try to explain to my sister that I’m not a raving bigot just because I voted for Modi”.
“But I live alone, and it’s quite lonely in lockdown with no one to meet. The family group is really nice now, because, regardless of political differences, you still care about each other’s health and you still want to know how everyone is doing. We do share some news articles, but they’re Covid-related, so everyone is suddenly a lot more careful to share factual information about testing and what the doctors are saying.”
A lawyer in Delhi says her groups with her husband and in-laws are mostly about “music, a little Left politics and a regular supply of sexist jokes”. But there hasn’t been a sexist joke in weeks, because, these days, it’s more about what people need, how they can help each other out, what’s for lunch, and general supportiveness. “We did a Bollywood quiz on the group a few days ago, which was great fun.”
Of course, there is the fact that many elderly uncles, the ones who typically love to send sexist jokes, are now spending their time doing household chores, so they don’t have as much free time to find and send jokes, and, secondly, they’ve probably learnt a little more about how hard and exhausting “women’s work” is.
Some things don’t change
While relatives might be eschewing political debates in favour of quizzes and games, the one thing that even the lockdown hasn’t managed to change is the older relatives’ obsession with getting everyone married.
“In fact, the marriage pressure has become worse!” laughs the strategy consultant. “My parents have pointed out regularly that if I had got married in my twenties like they wanted me to, I would not be in quarantine alone.”
Another lawyer in Mumbai agrees, saying her family groups are the same as they always were, “but with extra medical advisories, mostly incorrect”.
The PhD student says that while her parents were never too hung up about marriage in the first place, there are still plenty of jokes from the extended family about organising Zoom weddings. She doesn’t mind, because “it’s weirdly nice to know some things will never change”.
And for some, the lockdown itself highlighted an unwelcome side of their much-loved family. A Delhi-based editor says she left her family WhatsApp group shortly into the lockdown. “Some of it was sweet, people were taking the time to do quizzes and fun stuff, which was a nice change since a lot of my cousins are Modi-loving people and that political chatter has always been there. So it was nice that it was taking a backseat,” she adds. “But when the Anand Vihar bus thing happened, they were all like, ‘Oh, idiot daily wagers?’ That’s when I checked out.”
Views are personal.