We went to the same school, but we certainly all went to different WhatsApp universities.
On 30 January, a forward showed up on my school WhatsApp group.
“The biggest kalsarpi who was responsible for making so many men viklang and women the victim of rapes died on this day… God’s listened to the prayers of Hindus and made end game for the biggest butcher of the 20th century Mohandas k. Gandhi.”
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 celebrating Gandhi’s assassination. I didn’t quit the group because this was just a shade removed from the Hindu Mahasabha leader trying to grab national eyeballs with a repugnant stunt, firing an air gun at an effigy of Mahatma Gandhi.
I left the WhatsApp group because 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 because a friend I respected told the ones complaining to “chill” so that there could be some “peace in the group”. Just ignore, they said. I couldn’t. We took great pride in the values our school had supposedly instilled in us. One of those, I hoped, was in calling out shit when it stank. On the other hand, I should have known that a good Indian education mostly teaches us the value of keeping our heads down and our mouths firmly shut. Good schools don’t teach us to rock boats, even WhatsApp boats.
The school WhatsApp group is a most curious 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 longer 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 irritated 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 there.
A school WhatsApp group can feel like a Neverland for middle-aged Peter Pans still trapped in about the same hormonal frustration as they were at age 15. But it was still rather nice to encounter 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 encounter classmates we’d never hung out much with in school and discover that they were genuinely nice helpful people. It was convenient to organise meet-ups when someone came to town from America or Australia. We pulled each other’s legs. We argued politics. We tried 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 very different from other groups that are bound together by a common interest. We are bound together by a common history, a history that certainly defined 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.
Every WhatsApp group comes with usual suspects. There is the Relentless Forwarder who spends all day forwarding things – jokes, news articles, conspiracy theories, fake news. The Relentless Forwarder forwards, and having forwarded moves on. Then there is the Lurker. The Lurker rarely posts but reads everything and occasionally pops up to say “Happy Birthday”. The Silent One has the group on mute and only checks it when stuck in traffic in an Uber or sitting in the toilet. The Cheerleader is usually the most affable member. That’s the gung-ho person who keeps trying to rally the troops and organise a get-together with drinks. There’s always a Shit Stirrer whose goal it is to needle someone and stir up controversy just because things are getting boring. Of course, there’s the Group Bore who posts long pedantic messages, which no one has time to read. The Head Hunter goes to extraordinary lengths to track down long-lost schoolmates and add them to the group even as the rest of the group wonders who’s that guy. And then there is the Arsonist. The Arsonist’s job is to lob fireballs into the group, usually in the form of such way-out paranoid conspiracy theories, you wonder whether you really all went to the same school together.
In school, the Arsonist would be relegated to the fringe. But in a WhatsApp group there was no fringe. I post, therefore I am. And the more you post, the more real you are. It can be invigorating to get outside your echo chamber, to hear the opinions of people whose views are unlike yours. There can be real impassioned 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 colours.
That’s when you realise those lynching videos, the fake BBC polls, the spurious Mark Tully quotes about Narendra Modi, they are just not being spread to the gullible, semi-educated in provincial towns. They are being consumed and forwarded with gusto by people just like you. And when confronted 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 realise we went to the same school, but we certainly all went to different WhatsApp universities. It’s as if we had scattered all over the world and then suddenly the WhatsApp group had found us and sucked us all back into a classroom except we no longer fit behind our desks.
My friends said quitting isn’t the answer. One should stay and stand one’s ground. The silent majority surely don’t agree with messages that celebrate the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, even those who have their own issues with the old man. However, 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 quiet 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 uniform once. We’d always have that history and it would always be precious. But it didn’t need to be artificially grafted in the hothouse of a WhatsApp group.
I’d finally left school. And it would be OK.
Sandip Roy is a journalist, commentator and author.