Facebook to Bhaktbook

A Hindu devotional song calls out to Facebookers seen as sinners in need of redemption
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(Photo imaging | Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

Mornings come to me not in bird cries, but in an untidy chorus of man and machine—a neighbour singing Om Jai Jagdish Hare to the accompaniment of a weary and much-cursed sound system.

Having been brought up in a family where prayers were conducted as privately and soundlessly as matters in the toilet, I am conditioned to protest and rebel against religion transmitted through loudspeakers. And yet, in spite of vowing to build good (soundproof) walls to be a good neighbour, I forget this encroachment of the sacred space of my sleep by mid-day; such is the secular and aseptic nature of the offices we work in.

My neighbour is not my Facebook friend. In fact, going by the song that entered my bedroom a month ago, I doubt whether he is a Facebook citizen at all. The notes are familiar, common to many Hindu devotionals, but not the lyrics. In my morning sleep, that is all my head can process, and then, the day dissolves all such useless accumulations. When the same thing is repeated the next morning, and then the next and next, I become a fisherman trying to catch the words. First the singer’s prefatory words arrive, always in the tone of a guru, an enlightened one: ‘Aaj ke generation ke paas samay hee nahin hai, Maa ko pujne ka ... Yeh hai bheint—woh bhakton ke liye mein gaa raha hoon jo Facebook pe byast hain’ (Today’s generation doesn’t seem to find the time to worship Ma; this is a gift from me, and I am singing for those bhakts who are busy on Facebook.)

Ah, so this is about me. I sit up in bed, waiting for a mix—catching gossip red-handed, and since this is a devotional, perhaps also a possible cure. I spend some time on Facebook every day, always with guilt, the reason for which remains a mystery to me—there is this strange dichotomy in my online life, one where emailing is work and Facebooking play. And like all adults caught playing children’s games, I stick out my tongue in embarrassment: the emoticon with a colon followed by ‘p’ helps. But guilt is one thing and sin another. Eating ice cream might fill one with guilt, but sin? Why then does this morally superior person make the Facebooker in me feel like a sinner in need of redemption?

I catch the rest of the song over successive mornings, and then eventually on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB-4BpwEUKA):

Roj roj kyon Facebook pe friend banatey ho/ Arrey kartey kartey chat yeh apna samay gawatey ho/ Bata doh maiya ji ka naam dil se kyon bhulatey ho?

(Why do you make friends on Facebook every day?/ Why do you waste your time chatting online?/ Tell me, why has your heart forgotten the name of Maiya-ji?)

That last line of the stanza, about the heart forsaking the name of the mother goddess, first arrives solo in the singer’s voice and then as chorus, its query posing a rhetorical question. In the following stanzas, arrive instructions one by one: ‘Apne mann ke computer mein Mata ka naam bithha lo/Jai Mata di ka naam apna password banalo’ (Set the Mata’s name in the computer of your mind, make ‘Jai Mata Di’ your password).

‘Friend toh roj roj hee tum banatey ho ...’, you make friends every day. Making friends is easy, it implies, and that is indeed true—‘He doesn’t make friends easily’ is a bit of an anachronism in the age of Facebook. ‘Jeevan ki iss hard disk ko format kar lo’, format life’s hard disk. ‘Laptop ko kandhey pe latkatey ho ...’, you hang your laptop from your shoulder. A mix of accusations and instructions follow, in the new Hindi (with English words for objects of technology); for the A-for-Apple, B-for-Bluetooth, C-for-Chat generation, only such words make sense. Hence the use of ‘laptop’, ‘chat’, ‘friend’, ‘antivirus’ and so on.

I also discover the singer’s name: Ram Kumar Lakha. Anger, the kind one feels for the alarm clock, soon clouds my reasoning, and I find myself telling my husband, a non-Facebooker, about the cultural difference between RAM and Ram, both the singer and the one in the epic. This of course while the chorus keeps up its ‘Bata doh Maiya ji ka naam dil se kyon bhulatey ho’ nagging. The last stanza arrives as a DIY religion kit:

Maiya ka jo naam na lega kucchh bhi na payega/ Chalte chalte iss jeevan mein mayoos ho jayega/ Arrey antivirus kyon na jeevan ko banatey ho

(He who does not take Maiya’s name will get nothing/ He will be depressed in life ...)

And then the solution arrives: ‘Arrey, why don’t you make this your antivirus?’ asks Lakha, pointing to a statue of the goddess.

The video, produced by T-Series, a music company known for its Hindu devotionals, sharpens the binaries. First, there is one between light and dark, a Biblical borrowing. A dark room, scanty ‘hidden’ lighting, a table lamp and the light of a computer screen falling on the faces of two girls, their long nails painted silver. Against this shadowy setting, with the girls’ eyes glued to the computer screen, Ram Kumar Lakha’s litany seems to hold extra force: ‘Bata doh Maiya-ji ka naam dil se kyon bhulatey ho?’ This deliberate displacement of location, from an urban living room to a temple-like installation, is in keeping with the tired opposition between ‘Bharat’ and ‘India’, one that is used to address subjects as diverse as rape and technology. If khap panchayats pass indictments against the use of cellphones by girls in Bharat, Lakha tells me not to be a Facebooker. (It would be a good pastime to imagine matrimonial adverts in Lakha’s world: ‘... someone who does not smoke, does not drink, does not Facebook ...’)

Then there is the nomenclature. The song uses the English word ‘friend’ throughout, almost as an admonition, so that it begins to seem that on Facebook, the new age ‘drug addiction’, ‘friend’ is the new LSD, a delightful but lethal indulgence. In Lakha’s world, the antonym of ‘friend’ is ‘bhakt’, the English word for which would be something between a ‘devotee’ and a ‘follower’. Now ‘follower’ is a word with significant political and religious connotations, one that Twitter turned into an alloy, a mix of the friend and the friendly neighbourhood stalker. In the ideal moral universe advocated by Lakha (and I suppose his bhakts), being a follower, of course of Maiya-ji, the goddess, is infinitely better than being a man’s friend. What is being praised and recommended for imitation is a passive ideology, an obedience to an ethos presented as ancient and timeless compared to the abruptness of an upstart like Facebook. ‘Friend banatey ho ...’: Making friends is an action that entails consequences that are portrayed to be detrimental to a person’s mental health.

Also encoded in the video is a gender bias as old as the Garden of Eden. There she is, all fingers, nails painted silver, stroking the keyboard, playing seductress—Facebook is the new Garden of Eden and accepting a friend request the equivalent of biting the forbidden fruit. In this social malady, it is the woman who triggers the social conspiracy, for the video shows the woman operating as part of a group—this is, we have often been told, the truth, that the internet is a woman’s medium, whatever that means or implies. The man, on the other hand, is alone, either sitting in front of a computer in his office cubicle or alone in his bedroom. There is joy and curiosity on the faces of the girls (in Western wear); the male Facebooker, on the other hand, is in a visibly disturbed psychological state, throwing up his hands in despair, shaking his head in desperation. Lakha will not allow us a moment to ask questions about the man’s emotional intelligence that allows him to substitute Facebook for institutionalised religion. Instead, it is the woman in blue, impure as a result of contact with the city and Facebook, who is held responsible for his condition. Quite strangely, the sequence of images in the video gives one the alarming feeling that the female Facebooker is the ‘other woman’ to the married man, whose wife, still uncorrupted by Facebook, arrives with a cup and saucer of some hot drink to soothe her husband. The religious affinities are also left clearly pronounced: the female Facebookers display no sign of any religious affiliation; the harassed male Facebooker, in need of the grace of the goddess, wears astrological gems and his mother carries a puja-thaali.

The implied claustrophobia of the Facebook world is held up for scrutiny: the dark room from which the girls chat, the tiny office cubicles, even the harassed male Facebooker’s bedroom, all of these are posited against open space, a sunrise reflected on a river, a mountain peak in the background, a prayer flag fluttering in the wind. The immediate binary that is set up is between ‘nature’ (river-sun-wind-tree-dawn-flautist, the kind that a religion like Hinduism always serves for breakfast) and the ‘unnatural’, the constricted city spaces. Needless to say, the woman, whether as the sinning Facebooker or the devoted wife and mother, is always seen within the house. The man, with his laptop on his ‘kandhey’, is entitled to a life ‘outside’.

What one does not fail to notice is how these characterisations operate through colour coding. There is, of course, the ubiquity of the colour blue (who knows, there might soon be a shade of blue called ‘Facebook Blue’): the girls wear blue, the curtains in their room are blue, and even when the setting shifts to the temple, a broad blue shimmering curtain hangs in the background. The two male and female dancers, in ‘traditional’ wear, dance to Lakha’s devotional in a place where the background is coloured blue and has the word ‘facebook’ written right across. It is as if Facebook is as dirty as a ‘blue film’ (I remember reading about a social experiment in the Tokyo underground which concluded that there was a direct relationship between the incidence of sexual harassment and women in blue), for against it is posited the white of the goddess and Ram Kumar Lakha’s kurta-pyjama. The male dancers wear white kurta-pyjama with a saffron scarf, the female dancers, the wife and the mother wear the sacred ‘married’ maroon. The surreptitious blue is also held up against the yellow and saffron of the flame of the diya, the sunrise, the prayer flag, and the man’s yellow tee.

A word on the ‘antivirus’ espoused as a cure. Lakha wants you to deactivate your Facebook account and load the Mata-antivirus onto your life’s hard disk: these are not my words but a reading of Lakha’s communal manifesto. What is being advocated here is the substitution of one kind of communication for another. The non-hierarchical network of relations between ‘friends’ on Facebook, with their implied two-way (even poly-vocal) communication is excoriated as harmful, and in its place is prescribed the one-way communication between the Mata and her bhakts. ‘Chat’, held up as evil, becomes unnecessary in this new (actually ‘old’, older than ‘purana’, a sales assistant in an antique shop once told me) order—for there is only one possible relation between the bhakt and the goddess: prayer and a pile of ‘likes’. In this Bhakt-book, the most important relation is not between one proper noun and another (for that is my estimation of Facebook—a medium of interaction between names, not people), but between man and a non-person.

This world without a priest as mediator between God and devotee sounds much better than all the ‘likes’ and comments below your profile photo, until you ask the question that you often put to friends on Facebook Chat, this time on God’s Timeline: ‘Are you there?’