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A file photo of a chat room in a social media group. (Photo: iStock)
A file photo of a chat room in a social media group. (Photo: iStock)

Opinion | Angry when they spoke your name in ordinary places

In the mid-90s, one still spoke of certain things only in certain places, but last week’s 'boys’ locker room' scandal placed in stark relief how the private realm and public domain have blurred

What’s her name?" asked my friend, after I finally conceded I was seeing someone. We were sipping coffee in a coffee house across the Hyatt on Ring Road in Delhi.

And I remember reciting to him Ezra Pound’s poem Francesca. “…Now you will come out of a confusion of people/ Out of a turmoil of speech about you./ I who have seen you amid the primal things/ Was angry when they spoke your name/ In ordinary places…"

This was the mid-90s. One still spoke of certain things in certain places only.

Last week, as the phrase “boys’ locker room", leaped at me from every other post on my timeline across social media platforms that I am now reconciled to age on, I wondered what happened to our public space. And I remembered this moment of innocence from a time when things could still clearly belong to places that defined them and gave them meaning, from where one didn’t wrench them unless one intended violence or the forging of a new space.

I leave the debate on the “scandalous" details of the Boys’ Locker Room case to those with better felicity in these matters. What I do wonder is if the boys (and I am told girls) involved knew that it was a public space? More importantly, was the space where they engaged, public? And if it was private, then what turned it public?

Before the internet, and before the general meltdown of most boundaries civilization developed over the years—and I deliberately use the term “meltdown" not shifting—there was a neat divide between what was private, say one’s bedroom, and what was the public space. But since one gradually moved into leading a parallel vigorous life in a virtual living room, which is also a public square, it has made the private and the public difficult to discern.

In the 80s, the most popular jokes one cracked at school, sharing pickles and sandwiches during lunch hour, frequently featured Gyani Zail Singh, Indira Gandhi and Zia ul-Haq; and “divine" references were common in humour. I wouldn’t say girls were not discussed. We were usually a group of four to six lads. The circle may have expanded—considerably—since the delinquent circus moved online. And that complicates matters.

For instance, if I were to create a family “group" where one shares jokes, bitches a little, and engages in politics, how would it pan out? If it is a public group—available for anyone to see—it is definitely a public space with private salads stirred. But if it is a private group, with a private setting, it is akin to having a family chat in the living room, where I assume, one can engage in a degree of below-the-belt mud-slinging.

Is it? I have 60 first cousins. Is it still a private space?

If a group member complains against a comment, will it be a comment made in public or in private? And if one has shared something in confidence, knowing the group is private, and the group later changes its setting to public, what then?

For us, schooled in simpler times, it becomes exceedingly difficult to negotiate the ethics, the morality and the legality of utterance, which are fine in private but not in public. For those grown up in the brave new virtual world, it becomes a space to feed the babble. It’s like suddenly having all the walls of your city painted with graffiti.

In the 80s, people feared the invasion of the Public into what was seen as Private. The radio and TV set in most homes threatened the private. Little did we realize that soon it was the private which would invade, disrupt and appropriate the public.

Every time someone tells me to be cool, formality mat karo (don’t do), I wince. When you follow form, you show awareness of context, of meaning, and give dignity to both the private and the public.

Zygmund Bauman writes in his seminal work Liquid Modernity: “It is now the public sphere which badly needs defence against the invading private —though, paradoxically, in order to enhance, not cut down, individual liberty… The ‘public’ is colonized by the ‘private’; ‘public interest’ is reduced to curiosity about the private lives of public figures, and the art of public life is narrowed to the public display of private affairs and public confessions of private sentiments (the more intimate the better). ‘Public issues’ which resist such reduction become all but incomprehensible."

While the virtual world has hastened the appropriation of the public space, it was already much depleted even in the 90s, especially if you did not have the money, power or privilege to occupy it. As students of literature in a college impoverished for funds, we did not have seminar rooms and clubs and fraternities. And I remember, my friend and I, reading the classics all week, and on the weekend, dressing up in our best, and walking down to the nearby Deer park, where we’d make a clearing in the thickets, and take turns, reading papers to each other. We were seeking form. I hope we still remember what it is.

Arvind Joshi is a Delhi-based poet and artist and holds a day job as COO, Imarti Media

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