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Home >Opinion >Online-views >Minority report | The Munni Meme

What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life’. It is information, words, instructions," Richard Dawkins said in 1986.

Already recognized by then as an influential evolutionary biologist, Dawkins, who had authored the memorable book, The Selfish Gene in 1976, is most remembered for authoring the “meme". As his work moved from the evolution of genes to the evolution of ideas, Dawkins spoke of the meme as a “replicator" of all ideas. “Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation," he wrote.

I stumbled into one such meme recently. Invited by former school friends—a thick circle in which most of us studied together since kindergarten, I joined a “Classmates" group on WhatsApp messenger. This was many months after resisting the thought of making a smartphone my favourite accessory and ally, my theatre of expression. What opened up was a virtual classroom—schoolmates posting memories of teachers, who teased whom, who had a crush on whom, pet names, boring subjects, school games, growing-up hurdles. Some came up with old photographs, sparking a series of nostalgic conversations. Others intervened to say they needed the help of “forwards, borrowed poetry, sayings, comments and jokes" to keep up with this free association. Once we adapted to what I call “a classroom with adult differences", we all felt a common tug of attraction towards “going online". Humour and uproarious laughter (indulged in privately wherever we access the phone), warmth and love, and that very elusive notion of trust began to uncoil.

True, some of it is digital addiction symbolizing Google’s control over our lives, but what has emerged in this fun space clouded by idiotic jokes and childish ribbing is, well a “meme". That’s what this article is about.

With a reunion function ahead of us, organized by our former school teachers in our hometown, Gandhidham, I posted the idea of Mission Munni. It first seemed like the day’s joke, with me saying that if I lost a few kilos, I would dance to Malaika Arora’s item number Munni Badnaam Hui from the film Dabangg. What cottoned on with the group wasn’t the dance but the “weight loss" theme underlying it. Most girls and, soon enough, most boys started posting their hits and misses with weight loss over the years, their current dietary habits and their now hardening resolve to lose weight before the reunion. Mission Munni soon had two competing groups—Munnis and Munnabhais.

We began posting photographs and details of what we now call the Badnaam diet—food consumption aimed at losing weight as well as our individual fitness plans. Many other side themes get blared out in this nano theatre, but weight loss rules the moment. Now called the Badnaam Classroom—Munni-Munna’s Weight Loss Centre, it inspires our group’s administrator, a warm and loving girl, to create funny display pictures with computer graphics giving the classroom a visual identity.

Dawkins would call this a meme. “Whether an idea arises uniquely or reappears many times, it may thrive in the meme pool or it may dwindle and vanish," he wrote. Collectively, we have latched on to one large and relevant idea and gone on replicating, adding, multiplying and fattening it. Not coincidentally, weight loss is one of the most discussed and written about subjects in the world—social media or anywhere. The school reunion is alas more than two months away but we have found a shared goal. These exchanges also reveal how human beings form communities through shared expression, shared beliefs or shared pasts. They needn’t be similar in intellectual, spiritual or professional quests—but they must have some commonality—the same god, the same crossword, the same aesthetic but definitely the same language—to belong to a group.

Interestingly the Badnaam Classroom is in the process of creating a common language with codes plucked from the repertoire of smileys, emoticons and symbols inside smartphones. There are some hilarious icons hidden there—a caterpillar, a fire engine helmet, a Halloween pumpkin, a screwdriver even! But the most used among us are facial expressions and the thumbs up sign. This collective selection and rejection of symbols is revelatory.

What’s also happened is that despite everyone’s efforts to sync in, individual personalities, wakeup and sleep hours, attitudes towards marriage and parenthood, even politics, have begun to play their game of show and tell. On sex, the single most explored subject in the digital space, we are all curiously silent—“good children (Class of 1985) don’t talk about sex" you see. But on fitness, the second most surfed subject in global media, we have become authorial and eloquent.

To stay on as an engaged part of this meme, a community of friends lost and found, I am currently cultivating texting and WhatsApp writing skills. Privacy be damned.

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