Freedom Posts : Sumana Roy
On Facebook, we are all freedom fighters.
Rare is a woman who likes wearing bras. At university, where professors behaved like the patrol police in making sure that we got the various discourses on “Home”, sociological theories having turned Post-colonial literature into a version of Home Science, I revolted in my own private way by beginning an essay on the subject with this line: ‘Home is where a woman doesn’t need to wear a bra’. Surprising though it may sound, I cleared the entrance test.
It was no surprise, then, to discover that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. The poster photos that friends post from time to time carried one such message. There I was, meeting an illustration of a common social malaise (for what else is the ‘side-effect’ of a bra?), but I was too shy to click on ‘like’. This must have been three months ago, and a feminist friend had shared it. The feminist was a man, and in a society where trees are classified on their furniture making possibilities by poachers, it would be obvious that he was taunted by his male friends. How could he know the kind of freedom he had eulogised? Thus went the question, making it obvious that birds in the sky should not sing freedom songs for what would they know about being caged? In the end, the friend had the last word: ‘You guys need to unhook yourselves. I guess it’s too tight. Change your size’.
Around the same time (Facebook is a stream of simultaneity, I’ve discovered in my three year old life there), I discovered a woman’s remarkable cover photo in a gender studies group of which both of us happened to be members. She must have posted an interesting comment, a propellant to my curiosity about her. An American living in California, the public posts on her page were about her grandchildren. She could not have been younger than sixty. It was her cover photo, however, that interested me most. In it, the Eiffel Tower stood to the left in the background, a sombre witness to a joyous throwing of bras in the air. Bras in all shades of colour – black and white, red and blue, and the many shades of what we call ‘nude’. If only these two inanimate things, both engineering marvels in their own way, the bra and the Eiffel Tower, had been the protagonists in the photo, the impact wouldn’t have been as great as it was now – hands, many many hands, tossing their breast-shields into the air, against a blue sky.
Below the photograph was a man’s shy question: ‘Tag your hand, will you, Susan? Which one is yours?’ Perhaps he was too shy to ask which bra belonged to her, I told myself in a wicked solipsism, a surreptitious metonymy for the hand to the bra.
The woman was patient. She explained that this was a famous photograph. ‘It’s called “Liberation”,’ she said.
In the next comment, she wrote: ‘I put this up after I began chemo for my breast cancer’.
Freedom is a piece of clothing in the sky, sometimes a bra, oftentimes a flag.
I’ve often wished that Facebook was not just a place for people. Everything, and certainly the parts of speech, should be allowed membership there. Imagine your favourite abstract nouns sending you friend requests: Would you – could you – decline friend requests from Peace, Happiness and Success, for example? Yes, all such thoughts come to my mind when I am compelled to invent stories for an eight year old niece who points to the many people on my News Feed and says, ‘Tell me stories about your friends’.
‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’ she asks me one afternoon.
I can’t remember when I was last asked this question, so long would be the gap between that question and the existential questions that now govern my life. ‘I’d like to be free,’ I say, like a lost romantic.
The child understands. Or so I think. For she offers a solution: ‘Consider me your friend. I am Freedom. Your Freedom Friend’. Her words are so lovely, so new and utterly devoid of drama that one would normally associate with such a statement, that I find myself overwhelmed. With these words, the little girl falls asleep, and an afternoon siesta not being my magic handkerchief, I lie down next to her and put those words in a search engine: “Freedom Friend”.
It’s for a lark, as so many of my random search curiosities are. I am reminded of a wonderful winter afternoon by a river, a philosopher-friend talking about the complicated relationship between randomness and freedom (Is freedom a random occurrence?), but that is not what makes me take the thought-stairs here. There indeed is a profile by the name “Freedom Friend”. Being a great patron, facilitator and benefactor of uselessness, I am filled with joy at the discovery.
Freedom Friend’s cover photo captures a moment of lovemaking between a heterosexual couple, a naked woman sitting on her man, her face pointed towards the ceiling so that only her half open mouth and neck communicate her pleasure. The profile picture is a line drawing, a repetition of the woman-on-top sex position – here instead of a bed, they are sitting on a chair. I am surprised at first, but having seen the often hilarious results of searching for “Freedom” on the Facebook search engine, I am not shocked. The brave, even if they chose to remain anonymous, equated freedom with clothes-shedding.
On Facebook, nudity is a freedom flag.
I found the writer “Ru Freeman” on the list of several friends. I envied her her surname. There were many “Freedom Roys” on Facebook, but it was “Freewoman” that I wanted to be. And on Facebook I had the freedom to change my name without a queue-waiting paper-stamping affidavit. So, planning my move, at the stroke of midnight this 15th August, sixty five years after Pandit Nehru declared that India was making her tryst with destiny, I changed my Facebook name to “Freewoman”. Three hours, from midnight to 3 am, would be my curfew time at playing Freedom.
I began by putting everyone on the “Restricted List” category. Freewoman would restrict the freedom of her friends: no I-spy on me anymore, I say! Next, I sent a request to two people with the same name: Freedom Singh. The first Freedom Singh was female, and in a relationship with Manmohan Singh. I wanted to be her friend – I wanted to know what kind of relation Manmohan Singh shared with Freedom. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stood behind a bullet proof shield collecting salutes of everyone who passed by him. What could be his relation with Freedom, even if she was a Singh? But I shall never know: I deleted the friend request after the Independence Day ceremony.
The male Freedom Singh has a profile photo of himself as a naked child, his hands acting as fig leaves. He was online and accepted my friend request immediately. And then he popped up in my message box with a question: ‘What happens when Freedom and Freewoman become friends?’ he asked in ungrammatical English. I was stumped. I confessed that I didn’t know. ‘Buy One, Get One Free, ji,’ he wrote, sending me two free laughter emoticons for free.
My next friend request was to “Freedom Friend”. The response was prompt: ‘Why?’.
‘Because sending a friend request is still free,’ I replied cheekily.
‘Listen Freewoman, I know who you are. Why haven’t you turned off your bathroom lights tonight?’ she wrote.
I leapt out of my bed to go to the toilet. Indeed, I’d forgotten to switch off the light. It was uncanny, a bit like the idea of Freedom itself.
‘Who are you?’ I asked, cancelling my friend request.
‘I am your neighbour, Freedom, the woman on top,’ she wrote.
That has been my ultimate discovery. That Freedom lives next door.
What is the opposite of Freedom? I ask my driver. “Slavery,” his answer is immediate.
“I am not a Slave” is a luscious phrase on Facebook. Groups and individuals go by this name and its regurgitated variations, all reiterating the claim that Freedom cannot be a private limited enterprise. The most interesting of these, for me, is a “DAD” who wants freedom from cleaning the kitchen. Even more interesting, in a quirky way, are those who claim freedom as slaves, a delicious proposition. These are not just the S&M slaves who go by names like “I am a Bunny Slave” or “I am a house slave to a really crazy woman” or the Facebook-is-Holy-Book followers who claim their identity as “I am a slave to Allah”. There are a few hundred who claim to be sex slaves, and the one who lists himself as a “Freelancer at Sex Slave” and has “8 subscribers” is undoubtedly worth a study. Freelancing yes, but sex is not for free, as another man from Allahabad who says that he is “free” at the moment because he is “currently not working as Slave or Dog” makes it a point to remind you. His favourite quote, completely in sync with his idea of bathroom freedom is “Come, lick my feet”, an act and action he seems to be very good at, as his profile photo indicates: he sits licking a woman’s long legs, her feet in Roman slippers.
I am a Slave for you; I am a Slave to my children; I am a Slave to my hair straightener; I am a Slave sold to the Highest Bidder; Diet Coke, I am your Slave; Painting your mate black so that your neighbour thinks you have a slave … the list runs into pages. Tired, I type my nickname and add “Slave” as a surname – that is the closest I shall allow myself to be a slave. And lo, a slave’s profile appears, but minus the slave: “Mona Slaveless”. What is it about slaves and feet? She, like Freelancer at Sex Slave, professes her loyalty to toes and calluses: “feet slave” is her occupation. My head aches of the sameness that loyalty to voluntary slavery induces in people on the site. A head – and not a foot – massage is what I need. A slave would be good. And one is available. Just type “Your Slave”.
There is no freedom here. And hence the two groups, both closed: Slave on Facebook; Slaves on Facebook. The one that’s open however is “I am a digital slave 2 facebook”, perhaps a metanarrative version of Facebooker Anonymous. What I suffer from, in the language of Facebook, is “Unfreedom”. If freedom is a condition of the earth alone, then freedom on Facebook is a bit of hocus pocus.
Freedom is http://macfreedom.com/. Freedom is a de-addiction computer software.
Bhai-Rus is a hacker. Like most of my students in engineering school, he calls himself an ‘ethical hacker’, for him an unproblematic phrase, for me an unhappy oxymoron. How I met Bhai-rus on Facebook is a one-line story: he tried hacking my account. He couldn’t – I wonder what it might have been that saved me, an amulet of a ‘strong’ password perhaps, I don’t want to know. And then, like an honest thief, again an oxymoron (my relationship with him is a string of oxymorons tied like shoelaces of a pair so that something moves but remains stationary at the same time, again an oxymoron), he wrote a message to me saying this: ‘You’ve taken away my freedom. I tried hacking your account but couldn’t. Who do you think you are – the CBI?’. I was more worried than angry. I signed out immediately. I signed back in after some time, after prayers, phone calls to tech-wizard friends, and a resolution about changing my passwords frequently. The last, I’d been told, was the equivalent of changing your shampoo every three months – it controlled the equivalent of hair loss.
There was a new message from Bhai-Rus. ‘Where could you be hiding? Didn’t you know that hackers are like ghosts? You could sign out of your computer, but that’s only your front door. I’ll find a way to sneak into your house.’ I could no longer be timid – what was there to lose after all except photos and status updates which were only, if one could be a little objective, as unnecessary to one’s life as rheum and sebum?
‘Facebook is a free country,’ he told me, and then quoted Zygmunt Bauman from his book Freedom: ‘In a condition of freedom you and I may do what under a different condition would be either impossible or risky. We can do what we wish, without fear of being punished, thrown in jail, tortured, persecuted. … Being in a free country means doing things on one’s own responsibility. One is free to pursue (and, with luck, to achieve) one’s aims, but one is also free to err’.
What about freedom to privacy? I asked the Bhai.
‘One is free to be private just as I am free to decrease that domain,’ he said. ‘I want a world without secrets – then only will we all be free’.
Freedom is a password.
I have a Facebook friend who goes by the name “Kim Ismail”. He wouldn’t mind me mentioning him – all his posts are public, and certainly the one I would like to talk about. I first met Ismail when he must have been no more than a young boy of eighteen or thereabout, with deep-set questioning eyes and a reserve uncommon for his age. I was immediately taken in by his name, and it was impossible for me to resist saying this to him: ‘I’ll call you Ishmael’. Yes, Moby Dick has had that kind of effect on me, and ever since I first read Herman Melville’s novel, possibly as a girl of six or seven, from an abridged edition, the kind that fuelled “library class” in junior school, I’d made it my personal allegory on freedom and its lack. Literature classes in university would impose other kinds of reading regimens on me, but grades and degrees notwithstanding, I stuck to my ‘original’ interpretation. Prefacing that famous surname was “Kim”, perhaps a borrowing from Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous novel. Together, the Facebook pseudonym was like hitting two balls inside the Freedom goalpost. Penalty kicks.
Kim Ismail, a resident of Bolpur, a place made famous by Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan, took me to visit historical sites around the university town where his acquaintances called him “Anondo”, a name he never mentioned to me. (Very early in our relationship, he had made it apparent that I had to call him “Kim” or “Ismail”. About that I had no freedom.) Explaining contexts and the quirky turns of history – a palm tree that was supposed to have given birth to Tagore’s poem “Taal Gaachh” or how the famous Amro Kunjo came to be – he would often point to the winter sky and ask me why tourists should care for history. I gave no answer. Who likes being called a tourist except in one’s bucket list?
‘History doesn’t allow man freedom,’ he said at least twice, I remember though it’s been two years since that day. Quite clearly, he valued freedom a lot. I could never be sure about his mapping of freedom through history: it made me feel like a freedom tourist, which I now realise, is what all of us are, at different times.
On our way back to the main town, he showed me a strange looking road, which he said was a “short-cut” to the “border”, local-speak for where passports come out of pockets and purses. ‘Bangladesh,’ he said, as if that was question and answer itself. I kept quiet, trying hard to gauge the barometer of his late adolescent proper name manual. The Indo-Bangladesh border, I knew, was miles away from Santiniketan, a blur in the political and geographical consciousness from here, but Ismail seemed obsessed with it, mentioning it several times in a low voice.
As we were about to alight from the cycle rickshaw on which we had toured the town, he only said ‘Freedom’. And then a ‘hoo’, the sound of a Bengali’s smirk.
In early August this year, Kim Ismail put up a drawing of barbed wires as his profile photo. The background was dark, the barbed wires silver white, as they might appear on a moonlit night. I was one of the first ones to hit ‘like’. For the next ten days, as the profile photo appeared intermittently on my news feed, I began to suspect that it was Ismail’s response to the grand march past of Indian Independence Day that awaited us on Facebook.
On the 14th of August, also Pakistan’s Independence Day, I learnt from a mutual friend that Kim Ismail had sneaked into Bangladesh, from near the border near Haldibari. There’s a new profile photo now: the barbed wires in the older illustration have been “cut”, yes, as one would with a pair of scissors, perhaps an amateurish erasing through a software like MS Paint.
Freedom is an edited profile photo.
If Facebook were really a book, I could have called her posts the “Book of Job”. I will call her by her nickname here. “Chhatoo”. On Facebook, Chhatoo is a flat character. There is nothing else you would know about her except that she hates her job. If clothes hadn’t been cheaper and easier to acquire than gainful employment, one might have looked at Chhatoo’s life and invented a new simile: One changes whatever (boyfriends, houses, shoes, FB profile photos) the way Chhatoo changes jobs. Attrition rate is a polite statistical decoy used to describe the escape velocity that goads someone like Chhatoo to yearn for a new job as soon as she takes up a new one.
Her “Relationship Status” is “Complicated”, and she is “in a relation with” “Kaam Ke Bojh Se Mara”, a profile that she confesses to have created. ‘It helps to deal with my job-life bipolarity,’ she told me once. The name made me laugh, taking me back, as it did, to my childhood when the actor Javed Jaffrey, then with a moustache and specs for an advert, broke open a window after drinking a spoonful or two of the health tonic Cinkara. This was in the late 1980s when work had still not acquired the vital statistics that it does now. Weekend, that capitalist invention now celebrated with verbs and verve, catalogues and cocktails on a place like Facebook, was still a quarter of a century away. It was amusing to see my parents, both salaried employees with meagre leave banks, react with delight, enthusiasm and empathy to the advert. The tagline came in a rhyme: ‘Bechara/ Kaam ke bojh se mara/ Inhey chahiye Hamdard ka tonic Cinkara’. I’d, by then, discovered the meaning of Hamdard, and it never failed to inform my appreciation of unpaid worklessness that excluded me from the group that my parents had formed virtually with the ‘Kaam ke bojh se mara’.
Freedom was leave from work, freedom was a vacation, freedom was a bandh called by a political party. In all three cases, freedom was essentially outside. As a student chained to study schedules and school bells, I liked to think of myself as a slave. Only adulthood would bring freedom, I guessed. That it didn’t is perhaps a concession we have made for Freedom – that it actually never is, that it shall always postpone appointments at the last minute.
Chhatoo’s status updates every evening made freedom seem like a ‘See you tomorrow’ caller tune. With curses and abuses, pleas and desperate shouts to be free, she rang in her workday chronicles. I was her Hamdard. I laughed reading her descriptions of her co-workers, who seemed to me to be as programmed to the work-life as worker bees, of her analogy of her cubicle as a cell in Kaalapaani, and of the tags she used to complain about her freedom-starved life: #The Diary of Freedom Frank; #Freedom911. Though I was in a situation similar to hers, except that I hadn’t equated freedom with changing jobs, her posts gave me hope. It made my frustration and lack of freedom seem like a blunt perspective: she wanted a view of the sea, I could see the water from the submarine and was happy to take it for the sea. In that our calibrations of freedom were different.
Before Chhatoo went off Facebook, I remember telling her one day that I often felt like a slice of apple turning inedible red while on the site. She diagnosed it as “freedom from common sense”. I never bothered to ask her what she meant.
On her twenty-ninth birthday, Chhatoo changed her relationship status. She was “Single”, having broken up with “Kaam Ke Bojh Se Mara” (whose profile photo I now notice is a tie doubling as a noose). The hometown entry, listed as “From”, showed “Freedom from Gravity”. I liked her pun on gravity, especially as it came below her new profile photo – her last paycheque.
‘Now I am free to be poetical?’ she asked in her status update, quoting from Robert Frost’s poem, “Birches”. Below the many likes and quizzical comments, she had said, ‘I’m testing my compatibility quotient with Freedom from Work’.
Freedom is a borrowed quote. It is also anti-gravity.
And now Freedom, Facebook’s warranty and guarantee, seems to be under threat. After the Arab Spring, it is impossible not to think of Facebook as Saviour. This feeling has been abetted by the United Nations Human Rights Council affirming Internet access as a human right. So while governments around the world find ways to build Facebook-resistant secret bunkers in which to hide confidential documents with new legislation on censorship (and some chief ministers get Facebookers arrested for forwarding cartoons), we campaign for it to remain the last zone of non-governmentality, giving the impression of this blue and white space as being a Freedom Sanctuary. Censors, please open your shoes before you enter.
A few days ago, I spotted a friend sharing a poster after the largest power outage in the history of the world:
Wikipedia: I know everything.
Google: I have everything.
Facebook: I know everybody.
Internet: Without me you are nothing.
Northern Grid: Keep talking bitches.
Freedom is only a plug in a socket.
“No free man needs God; but was I free?” asked Vladimir Nabokov.
No free man needs Facebook; but are we free?
On Facebook, we are all freedom fighters.