The Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay–School Winner

Living Online
Shalom Gauri
11C, Mallya Aditi International School, Bangalore.

Jury Citation
Shalom’s essay is a laugh-out-loud funny expose of alternative school pretension. Bangalore’s multiple online subcultures star in this wry yet strangely hopeful fly-on-the-wall dissection of teenage social life.

“Shalom, do you think you could stop writing like that, I honesty don’t understand anything you say.”
“wrtng lk wat”
“Like that, with all those horrible spellings.”

It was then that I realised that the 11th grade students from my school, were different. Different from what? Or rather, different from whom? Before I joined school, before, when I was a rare case of a homeschooler in Bengaluru city, my only connection with my peer group came from the YMCA badminton classes I went for, and my childhood friend’s neighbourhood gang in Kammanahalli. With them, writing without “all those horrible spellings” would be considered sacrilege of the highest order.

When I was 13 I wanted a Facebook account and argued with my parents about it, every single day. Why was it so important to me? Why was it my sole purpose in life? Facebook was like an I.Q test for social popularity, Facebook was my ticket into that vast network of “mutual friends”, Facebook was the way to get people to know me and more importantly, ‘Like’ me. It continued to be that way for the longest time, and in some ways, for that hiding insecure part of me, I suspect it still is. And yet, while I had the excuse of being home-schooled, why did everyone else want Facebook?

In schools like Bishop Cottons, CMR, or St.Josephs, the average number of kids per class is around 60. Sometimes more. Naturally, I assume, such a large number of fellow students ought to leave kids with more than enough friends. Why then was everyone so desperate to expand their friend network? So anxious to ‘find’ new friends that all opportunities must be grabbed at?

When my parents finally did grant me a Facebook account, one of the many restrictions placed, had to do with the matter of ‘Mutual Friends”. The rule was, that unless I had personally met this person at least a few times, I was not to friend them. No matter how many mutual friends I had. No matter if I knew someone who knew someone who knew this one. It seemed like the most unreasonable thing. Like a conscious attempt by my parents to limit the number of friends I had. Because without friending ‘mutual friends’ on Facebook, how does one make new friends? Even if only online?

Getting to know someone online, or rather, getting them to know you (for that’s what matters at the end of day), is an art in itself. You have to come across as cool. There are many ways to be cool, to be accepted, to fit in. To begin with, you’d use “S.M.S language”, but oh, before that you have to ensure you’re pouting in all your profile pictures. Nobody cares for funny faces or silly ear-to-ear grins.

People in this network of online friendship tend to fall into two categories. Either you are dating someone and are in a perpetual state of joy and happiness, or you are single, dying to mingle, and all alone and depressed in this wide, wide world. It is almost social law to be depressed if single, it is unheard of to be content with “just friends”. And wait, if blessed with a boyfriend (the one and only person who can bring you happiness) you must never ever forget to take pictures with him. There is no point in not being single if the world (by which I mean of-course, your online world) isn’t aware of it. You Facebook relationship status must be updated, Instagram must be flooded with adorable “cute puppy” pictures of him and you, he must be in your Snapchat story, in your WhatsApp status, the internet must know how cute you two are. How perfect. How lucky.

It is generally assumed then, that all single people are just sitting on their bums, staring at their screens and waiting, just itching, to meet Prince Charming. Or, since this is real life, meet some random guy and make him a deal to be your Prince Charming in exchange for an “In-A-Relationship” status. Last November, I went for the Mount Carmel P.U Fest and happened to meet two guys. Two single guys. Both instantly added me on Facebook and sent sweet “hey, tday ws d bomb” messages. Before I knew it, we’d switched to chatting on WhatsApp and were doing so on an almost daily basis. I had met them but once. By the time a week had passed, I knew all about how pathetic and lonely their lives were, how unlucky they considered themselves to be, how both had had girlfriends but were now all alone after some unfortunate misunderstanding. They spoke like such old experienced human-beings, like 16th century poets, like Sir Walter Raleigh. They spoke with such a grave tone, with such bleak, exaggeratedly tragic perspectives on life. I myself had never even paused to choose a perspective on life. And I said so. I responded to their sob-stories with the sarcasm I felt it deserved.

One of them later described me as “witty”.

What I didn’t realise, was that all this dramatic fallacy was merely part of a larger scheme of social trends. That it was the done thing for guys to play this role, for girls to be able to ‘aww’ and ‘so sad’ over them. Listening to love songs about the pain and betrayal of true love, saying things like “I made a promise to myself never to break a girl’s heart because I know what it feels like”, this was what made girls feel for you. Teasing and fooling around was forbidden, as though a little lightheartedness would undermine their agony.

One of the guys in the Kammanahalli neighbourhood gang I previously mentioned, has a motorbike. A heavily jazzed up Pulsar. He wears tight t-shirts and gyms every evening. As a female of around the same age as him, it has become obligatory for me to ‘ooh!’ and ‘aah!’ over these charming details and when I failed to so, he grew immediately hostile. Because of my rather sober response, it was assumed that I was uninterested in maintaining any sort of contact with him. Which, in fact is entirely untrue. I was just, personally not as impressed as other girls may have been. Yet I was open to talking to him, I was more than willing to find a new friend in him, but no.

If I had never met him and had just friended him online, would things have been different? I would have seen pictures of him and his bike. Would I have instantly ‘liked’ them? Yes, yes I would have. But now I am just left with 532 friends instead of 533.

Somehow at my school it’s the other way around. The girls are constantly teasing, playing silly pranks and making loud noises. They like my crazy funny-face pictures. Initially I found it really strange, but in my school, people who do not have Facebook accounts, who do not use WhatsApp actually do exist. And by exist I mean without being labelled as nerds or socially ostracised. It is possible here, for someone to have a fantastic social life and yet not flood everybody’s ‘newsfeed’ or actively participate in group chats.

A few months after I joined school, I was invited to a classmate’s birthday party. There were enough selfies taken, and yet, surprising as it was for me, these pictures did not appear online until nearly 4 whole weeks after the party. Didn’t people in my school want to let their other friends know that they had a party? Didn’t they want to show others their new short, black dresses?

The reason for this could just be because my classmates have very few friends outside their school. Their friends all belong to the same school. To our school. When all your friends are attending the same parties as you, the need to put up your pictures online reduces considerably. You don’t need to show all your friends how beautiful you looked that night if all your friends actually saw you that night!

But I think not.

Perhaps it is just that social trends are different at my school. Perhaps, just as they look down on The Twilight Saga and The Fault In Our Stars, they look down on mainstream trends that emerge out of social networks? Is it considered too ‘normal’ to care about the number of likes you get? Is it maybe, too predictable to pout in all your pictures? The norm here is different. The norm here is to be different. Which of-course makes it a whole lot harder for when you think about, how many kinds of different are there?

I think the difference is in actuality, largely straightforward. There is a mainstream, and there is a not-mainstream. There is an online, and there is an offline. Most kids my age follow mainstream, live the kind of life online where the border between your real self and online self grows blurred. In my school it is mainstream to not be mainstream (by liking Gone Girl and Interstellar?). And because of this the online world is seen as… well, overrated?

And where, does this leave me?

I still care to be ‘liked’. I can’t help but change my profile pictures every now and then, or post pictures of a party as soon as possible to let the world know I exist. Yet it is wonderful to be able to actually discuss a book or movie without just saying “oh I loved it” or “oh I hated it”. It is freedom to be able to tease and taunt without being called witty. And not as much of a failure to be single anymore.

I now use full grammatically correct sentences with my classmates, and that scatter of short-formed, vowel-less words with my Kammanahalli peoplez. It adds difference to my life, both online and off it.

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