Public Policy

“What? You must be kidding. There’s gotta be a mistake. This can’t happen.”

Though I could not hear what had been said as the speaker had plugged the headphone wire into his mobile and the other end in his ear, I could sense that my one-seat-away-on-account-of-social-distancing neighbour in the Delhi metro coach was beginning to get excited. My Indian ears perked up as another opportunity to pry into someone else’s affairs presented itself.

After a brief gap, when he was apparently listening to the person on the other end of the phone connection, he said, “You mean they are not a non-profit. That is news. Do you know what you are saying? That the sole purpose of their existence is not to selflessly serve people like you and me and that they need to earn money. I am shocked. Why did nobody tell me earlier? I am sure there is a mistake.”

After a few seconds of silence, when the voice on the other end presumably became active, he erupted, “Like hell I will agree with their updated policy. That too for free? That is rich. This is India, my friend, India! Not some first world country where these things are allowed to happen with impunity. There are laws here, OK. Laws. We don’t follow them but we have them. These companies cannot do whatever they feel like. Remember, we live in a society driven by the rules of a free market.”

During the silence that ensued while he was presumably listening to the voice on the other end, I could not help but admire his nationalism.

“Over my dead body! Next, they will ask for permission to use my phone number. Like hell I will give them permission. Do you have any idea what this number is used for? I use this number when sales people in Delhi malls beg me to fill forms with my personal information so that I can stand a chance to win a lottery. This number is the one I register with on online websites that promise to teach you tricks with which one can become rich overnight. It is personal and confidential. How can it be shared with a company whose service I am using.

It was a powerful argument. I could hear the silence on the other end.

“Just what do you mean by that? What if I did not read the T&Cs when I signed up? What if WhatsApp and Facebook already have my personal data and are using it for commercial purposes? Does it mean that whenever they ask me to agree to something, I should do it without protesting on ethical and moral grounds? No means no. I will not agree. I will not sell my soul and self-respect to a monopolistic foreign nouveau imperialist capitalist plutocratic hegemonistic…”

There was a pause. Perhaps for catching breath after the effort of stringing together so many important-sounding words together.

“…company,” he finally found the word to complete the sentence, and submitted to the voice for a few seconds, before standing up and bursting out, “Why should I move to Telegram? Or Signal? Just why? Have I done something wrong? Am I a criminal that I should seek refuge elsewhere? After this call, can you message me the URL for downloading Telegram and Signal?” He was a man of principle.

Though I could guess about the subject of this conversation, the last couple of sentences confirmed it. It was about the recent action by WhatsApp, the messaging App, of asking users to agree to their updated Privacy Policy, or lose access.

“Look, I don’t expect the common man to understand or appreciate. But I am a responsible employee of the Indian government. I can. Do you know that even for official matters I don’t use my official government email ID and instead use my personal gmail account? Even my bosses cannot see what is going on. Beat that for privacy and security.” He had continued with his principled stand.

For the first time I looked at his face. My eyes perhaps betrayed my respect and admiration as he immediately frowned and looked the other way, and, after a brief pause, continued. “What? You don’t know the changes made in the new policy? Even more reason to not agree. These companies are trying to make changes without even asking or telling us. We have to resist.”

After a brief period of “hmm”s and “OK”s, he was on the warpath again. “Let them cancel my account. I don’t care.” He paused, looked up as if in deep thought, as a realisation of the impact slowly dawned.

His voice came out softer. I had to strain my ears to keep up. “Bbb…but how will I communicate with my mates from school receiving and forwarding random messages? More importantly, how will I claim it is so wonderful to be connected again on WhatsApp? We may be connected on Signal or Telegram, but then we cannot claim that it is good to be connected on WhatsApp, isn’t it?” A dispassionate, objective analysis if there was one.

I could sense it was all getting too much for him. His eyes had turned a shade of red while he was still speaking. He could speak and think at the same time, that was certain. He could not take it anymore and started sobbing. “How will I send condolences? How will I wish people on their birthdays and anniversaries? Do you think I have the time and energy to call or personally greet people who I love so dearly? What will happen to my connections if they stop receiving my Good Morning messages with pretty flowers? How will I show my patriotism to my connections? How will I receive and forward messages that I have no clue are fake or real? How will I waste time in meetings? How? How? How?” His plaintive cries rang out in the coach.

He stopped. Everyone in the coach was looking at him. It was perhaps a common issue they were all struggling with at that moment, but he had articulated everyone’s innermost feelings. I realised I was not the only one listening in on this conversation. I wanted to hold him and express my support but the Covid-19 protocol was in operation. I could only watch him while he cried himself out. It seemed to calm him down. He blew into a handkerchief. He was able to speak in a more composed tone after that.

“They have my age? OK.” The voice at the other clearly had been active. “Sex…Music playlist on Prime…OK…Sounds good…Netflix serials I am watching,” he was perhaps repeating what he was hearing on the phone. “Location…Milk delivery time…Blood group…Bank account number…Bank account password…What I had for breakfast today…Breed of my dog…Childrens’ vaccination schedule…Websites searched…Tax returns filed…What? They know my golf handicap…That is not fair…Credit history.”

There was a pause again.

“Is that all? If this is the only data they have, I have no problem in accepting the new policy, whatever it be.”

The voice was perhaps active again as he seemed to nod his head occasionally. “There, what did I tell you? If, as you say, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has said that they are collecting personal data to improve their services, it must be true. He is a good man. After all, he runs a large company. It must be a non-profit like all large companies. And his sole objective must be to provide us free services and protect our interests. By the way, when are we getting free Tesla cars?”

Without waiting for a response, he added, “And why not? Do we pay for Google? Do we pay for Facebook? Do we pay for WhatsApp? We sign-up without reading the T&Cs and use. Why should we pay for Tesla?” as he got up to get out of the coach.

Everyone in the coach was smiling. Having just accepted the new WhatsApp policy, they were perhaps busy choosing the colour of their free Tesla car.

Going Viral

It was Gol-Maal on Saturday. The original Hindi comedy about imagined twins, of early eighties vintage, with Amol Palekar in the lead.

On Sunday it was Article 15, about the reality of equality versus the utopian hope enshrined in the Indian Constitution.

Yesterday it was Highwaymen, a tepid, predictable period film with Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson tracking down Bonnie and Clyde.

Today’s movie is still to be decided. I expect a lot of decisions regarding movies will need to be taken over the next few days.

No football on TV. No cricket. No tennis. No nothing. At least nothing live.

A lot of people clapped at 5 PM on Sunday, as asked by the PM, as a token of appreciation for the medical people, working with integrity and at great personal risk, in these troubled times. I did not. Tokenism is not for me. I appreciate medical people at all times. Don’t need to clap at 5 PM to show my appreciation. I also appreciate the armed forces. Despite random people insisting we need to show appreciation for the armed forces, and that one would be unpatriotic if one did not forward a random WhatsApp message supporting them. And the police force. And the cleaners. And all sincere, honest, hard-working people trying to make a difference to the world we live in.

The people who did not clap are likely to be name-called by the people who did. Like unpatriotic. And asked to migrate to a neighbouring country. In my humble opinion, that is the nature of herd mentality. But, to be fair, the people who clapped are also likely to be name-called by the people who did not clap. Like sheeple.

One got to see pictures of many leaders, business leaders especially, clapping as asked by the PM. On LinkedIn. On Twitter. What good is clapping at the request of the PM unless you can get someone to take a picture and post it in places where there is some possibility that the PM or his minders will notice. Along with a patriotic, motivational message. In other words, a message that appreciates the PM’s vision and leadership. My neighbours who clapped are fools. I don’t think they took any pictures when they were clapping. Nor did they put up patriotic, motivational messages on LinkedIn and Twitter. I wonder how the PM, or the CM, or even the DM (District Magistrate) will know they clapped. But I will leave them to solve their problems. I have to focus on mine.

In my defence, I was misled. Or unled. How was I to know that the request from the PM to make sound at 5pm had a “very hidden scientific message” that I saw only too late. “Sound waves if created all over the country at a fixed common time will surely disrupt the travel of virus & repel them not to enter our vicinity. This is the reason why sound & noise is made at the dawn & sunset in the temples, in the old Churches in olden times and the holy Aazaan by the Muslims. Without the sunlight the virus & bacteria and all evil Spirits become more active. Hence this stand to create an aura of sound waves to shoo away all the negative forces entering and to save our country and the whole world.”  What would I not do to shoo away negative forces. Or weaken and starve evil spirits, and virus and bacteria, with sunlight. Since it was a scientific message, it had to be hidden. And since it was hidden, I could not see it.

As if that wasn’t responsibility enough for the spread of the Covid-19 virus, I also broke the chain. The one that required an uninterrupted chain of 10000008 people chanting the Mrityumjayamantra to be formed. If you must know, even people in Canada are chanting Mrityumjayamantra. Maybe one or two people, maybe in an entirely different context, but people in Canada nevertheless, which the person sending out this missive certainly would have known. And hence so must you.

When all this is over, and mankind looks back on this chapter in our evolution, and our struggle with Covid-19, I think I will be held responsible. Not only no clapping, but breaking the chain too. What was I thinking? I wonder if there will be second, or, in this case, third, chances.

By now we know that it affects the Chinese but not the French or Germans. We know it affects people living in hot climates but not those living in cold ones. We also know that It affects children and young adults but not the elderly. And it affects white-skinned people but not dark-skinned ones. Also, it affects people living in the Northern hemisphere only, and that too people speaking Spanish but not those who speak Mandarin or Russian. Most importantly, it affects the poor but not the rich. More specific to the Indian context, it impacts Jats and Rajputs, but not Kayasths and Brahmins.

Of course, we know nothing of the sort. If we do know something, it is that Covid-19 does not discriminate by nationality, language, religion, caste, or any other difference that humans like to highlight from time to time as a justification to maim and kill others for. If ever there was a doubt that human beings are a common race, hopefully the spread of Covid-19 dispels it.

This too, then, shall pass, is my belief. Of course, there will be Hell to pay. The old order will changeth, yielding place to the new. Some ways of life will undergo a drastic change. Many industries will be severely impacted. As will some sincere, honest, hard-working people, for no personal fault of theirs.

It seems President Trump was right. About the environment. We make too much of a fuss about it. Let us go about our assigned task of messing with it while we can. After all, nature will eventually reclaim its spaces, as people seem to be saying with Covid-19. Witness the once again beautiful sunsets across the Arabian Sea, or the once more breathable air in Delhi. Perhaps we have not crossed the point of no return. Yet.

It seems we had forgotten what it meant to go viral the old fashioned way…

Stay Blessed

As if the goodness thrust upon us by leaders of various types was not enough. We now have goodness coming at us from family and friends as well. You could have too much of a good thing.

It could be in the form of:

“Smile more than you cry

Give more than you take

And love more than you hate.”

OR

“Don’t overthink things

Don’t stress about what might not happen

Just chill out.”

That make you go HOW.

Smile more than you cry;” great idea, but please explain how.

…love more than you hate;” what a great piece of advice, but can you please elaborate and tell me how.

Don’t overthink things;” you are the best, please help me understand how.

A bit like the popular cook-book that publishes a recipe for cooking “delicious hare meat” but forgets the crucial first line, which is, “First catch your hare.”

Did it not strike our benefactors that they should also have provided an instruction manual? To answer the crucial HOW.

It could be in the form of:

“That being who neither runs away from disagreeable karma (unpleasent work, which causes bondage to itself or its fruits) nor gets attached to agreeable karma (pleasant work, duties), without any doubt such pure Satvik being is intelligent & true renunciater. As none of the human can renounce, entirely & completely, all the karmas, one who doesn’t gets attached to the karma & doesn’t desire fruits from Karma, is the true renunciater.”

OR

“Beings who dont get free from attachment & desire of fruits from Karma, get good, bad or mixed fruit of their karma after their death (in terms of how & where they r born in next life). The one who doesn’t attaches himself with karma & doesn’t desire fruits from Karma, doesn’t face any fruit of it (as enlightened ones move out of circle of life n death).”

That make you go WOW. How come I did not receive this advice earlier (even discounting for the spelling and grammar issues)?

…one who doesn’t gets attached to the karma & doesn’t desire fruits from Karma, is the true renunciater.” You know I have been dying to become a true renunciater, no pun intended (on “dying”).

Beings who dont get free from attachment & desire of fruits from Karma, get good, bad or mixed fruit of their karma;” so it seems there is a choice of fruit available, please tell me where I need to click to indicate my choice?

Anyone can see that the advice dished out is so unique that nobody in his right mind would ever even dream of it on his own. Let’s be honest, without these messages, would you have guessed that you ought to “smile more than you cry?” Or even “don’t overthink things?” And it talks directly to that part of us that has been waiting for it eagerly from the time we were born, like becoming a  “renunciater” when we die.

Yes, we are talking about the greatest tool for peace, goodwill and harmony invented by mankind, Jan Koum and Brian Acton to be specific; the Group messenger on WhatsApp, the Wonder App, as christened by my friend N V S Sastry, and the favourite tool pf people who bombard unsuspecting, inveterate do-badders with these messages of love and goodness.

For years I have been bombarded with these messages, I believe they are called “inspirational”, on WhatsApp Groups, and for years I have been ignoring them.

It is not difficult to understand why I have not become a “true renunciater” or I don’t “smile more than cry”.

Suspicious as I have been of these messages, I have to reluctantly admit that they have been an invaluable source of strength for me in the most trying of times. Like at work, where they have helped me consume the tedium of office life by pretending to secretly read messages and responding, thereby appearing to be busy to others. They have also helped me in rapidly consuming my phone memory and equally rapidly upgrade to a phone with a memory, and cost, several times larger. And, above all else, by randomly forwarding messages that very few recipients will read, I suspect I have become a far more popular member of society. As has I believe everyone I know. Everyone has become more popular in equal measure.

And the do-gooders continue to boldly go where no WhatsApp Group message blind forwarder has been before.

They now blindly forward Good Morning messages. With the picture of a flower too.

Not any flower, but a rose. Not to me but to the whole group. Not to one but many many groups. And mind you, yesterday, it was yellow roses. And tulips a day prior.

They blindly forward videos of spiritual gurus, many of whom will probably later end up behind bars on account of sexual misconduct, on these groups.

Even inspirational quotes from unknown people, people who may have never existed.

All to reinforce the HOW and WOW effect.

In order to atone for past sins (some of them) and become a “true renunciater”, which I could not earlier, and to “smile more than cry” which, again, I could not earlier, I have started reading these forwards.

The first one I read was “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Almost immediately thereafter, the phone beeped again and came “Dreams don’t work unless you do” into another group.

Can someone please explain if I should dream or I should work.

The next one said “If someone points out your mistake, be happy that at least someone is interested in your perfection and success”, immediately followed by “Stay away from negative people, they have a problem for every solution.”

Can someone please confirm that someone who points out your mistakes is a positive person.

Then came “The secret of success is to know something nobody else knows.” I swear even my wife does not know the Password to access my bank account. I am waiting for the success that is about to envelop me in its fold.

I was afraid these messages might stop after the Madras High Court recently foolishly ruled that forwarding a message tantamounts to deemed ownership of content and the person forwarding can be held accountable for spreading slander and misinformation if that be the case.

I spent many a sleepless night with my mobile clutched tightly to my chest. Each blindly forwarded message in every group being reason for me to eagerly lap it as if it would be the last.

But I had reckoned without the tenacity of the forwarders. They took as much notice of the forwarded message announcing the Madras Hight Court ruling as they have been doing of other messages they have been forwarding.

Needless to say, the goodness continues unabated.

I am nominating WhatsApp Group messages for the Nobel Peace Prize with an honourable mention for everyone who has blindly forwarded such messages to foster goodwill, peace and harmony in the world.

Like the ending of many of the blindly forwarded messages, “Stay Blessed!”

How?