WhatsApp and That Millennial ‘Thing’: When Friendships Turn Sour

He connects with me on Facebook via private message, with a simple line of condolence:

Shan: I’m very sorry for your loss. I just had to reach out. Is uR WhatsApp number still the same?

It’s a sultry Delhi Tuesday in September 2018, a fortnight since my elderly father’s passing. I have made a formal announcement on social media and posted an emotional tribute to my beloved parent. Many friends, colleagues and acquaintances that I’ve lost direct touch with over the years, respond. Shan, who I stopped talking to many moons ago after a pointless argument devolved into verbal aggression, is one of them.

At times of life-changing loss and grief, petty grudges are dismissed. A month later, by the time I am back in Mumbai, Shan and I are regularly texting on WhatsApp. I’ve never quite been a fan of this aspect of millennial culture – which seems to involve human connection purely through the digital medium.

But strangely, right now, it’s emotionally easier than direct conversation.

Shan and I have known each other, on and off, for 30 years, ever since we met under the Hindu College banyan tree in our first year at Delhi University. It was his High Noon moment, Shan said then. We fell into a brief romance, which ended for no reason other than my boredom and his inability to stay mentally focused on anything beyond ten seconds.

Still, our lives have cross-connected every half decade or so. Shan is aware of my early career in video journalism, then my extended stint in film and television screenwriting, my recent avatar as an online columnist, and now, finally, the version of me that’s enmeshed in writing my debut novel.

He is curious – but respectful – of my long live-in relationship with my partner, a filmmaker, and admiring of my sirshasana, one of many yoga poses I obsessively post on Instagram.

Shan is married. He makes brazen attempts to flirt with me, which I shrug off in good humour, and uses a lot of abrasive language, which I tolerate with mild annoyance. But I’ve come to understand that people who care are rare and so here we are, WhatsApping several times a day, or night, with the peculiar intimacy of life-long acquaintances.

At present, Shan’s Facebook profile describes him as less of a multi-talent, more of a drifter. He lists himself as krav maga instructor, yoga teacher, sailor, blogger, life coach, social media expert and overall provocateur.

Shan gives me some good advice on the real estate market. In return, I support his next project, a weekend workshop he plans to teach in Panchgani called Martial Self Defence Techniques for Women and Girls.

This time around, I sense we have a real connection, a sustainable one. Shan has changed over the years. Gone is the hot-headed aggression and reactionary defensiveness of old; now, at 48, he appears to have discovered balance and a path to self enquiry. He is chuffed when I tell him this, and credits his newfound inner glow to a Yoga Sutras class he attends. He compliments me too, by calling me a ‘sublime free spirit’ and wishing aloud that he had more female friends like me.

Also read: ‘Do You Mind If I Vent?’: How to Share Emotional Burdens

Shan and I share a common space, and not just because we’ve each lost a parent. We’re the In-Betweeners; neither old nor young, a generation that is nostalgic about landline telephones and pre-YouTube musicians like Bob Dylan and A.R. Rehman. We are sarcastic towards millennial Tinder addicts, outraged at Mumbai’s civic chaos. We over talk the crisis in national politics, the hopelessness of public transport, the rape culture that is Bollywood moviedom. We are admirers of the philosophy of Patanjali, and crack up at the hilarity that is commercial spirituality.

And so, inevitably, on one pleasant March evening, we found ourselves in a fast-typing discussion over another pressing topic.

Shan: I see from your Facebook posts that you’ve jumped onto the #MeToo bandwagon.

Me: Never been the sort to ‘jump onto bandwagons’. But I think it’s awesome that women are calling out abusive jerks.

Shan: Don’t get co-opted into this crap. I’ve found that women in these situations always have an agenda.

Me: Huh?

Shan: They’re pissed off at being rejected, or whatever, and boom…here comes a chance to destroy random men.

Me: The men who’ve been called out are arrogant misogynists who’ve actually assaulted and traumatised women – but I guess that doesn’t mean anything to you.

Shan: Listen. Don’t play the victim. #MeToo is just some elite movement so privileged whiny females like you can feel they’re bringing about social change. You have no idea what real abuse is. Rape, violence, daily harassment. What REAL women in this country go through.

Me: REAL? I’m real. Sure, I’m lucky I haven’t been raped. But ask any woman you know. Our experiences of being assaulted, abused and gaslit by men – all kinds of men – are real. I can’t tell you how many such encounters I’ve had.

Shan: If that’s the case, maybe you should reflect then. Maybe it’s you who asks for it to happen? Like, maybe it’s your ‘sublime free spirit’ that needs examining?

Six smileys follow this specialty insult that characterises Shan’s trademark banter.

I put Shan on mute and ignore him. This aggravates him. Shan hates being ignored.

A few hours later, my phone pings.

Shan: You know, you have such ISSUES! So much ANGER. Let me help you. Let me teach you how to meditate.

Shan sends a huggy bear icon, with a blissed-out expression and a trail of yellow hearts. I ignore it.

Another few hours later, at 1 am, another ping.

Shan: K. Thanks for your courtesy. Your loss. I wish you peace.

Within seconds, Shan’s small, square photo on my phone chat list is replaced by a blank grey slate. He’s blocked me on WhatsApp. A quick check and I see that he’s also unfriended me on Facebook. So that’s that. The aggressive instigator is now playing hurt victim.

Two Sundays later, I’m driving home to the suburbs from my mother’s apartment in Mahalaxmi. I am near Shan’s house, and I think of him. That morning, I had checked my phone and seen that Shan had unblocked me on WhatsApp, possibly in anticipation of a message from me. I think of some nicer moments in past months – his concern when I had a viral infection, his keen interest in the structure of the book I’m writing. Despite our last exchange, I think of the many positive changes that have evolved in Shan.

I imagine that he too, has his own struggles, fears and vulnerabilities.

I turn onto the Sea Link, the ocean on my left, the almost-full moon glinting on the waves, the reflection of the city’s orange-blue electric lights dazzling in their cold beauty. I suddenly feel old, tired and alone. I had overreacted to Shan in that silly conversation 15 days ago.

What have I become, I wonder? An uptight fascist, unwilling to engage in genuine debate, smug and polarised in my opinion, adept at labelling others trolls if they dare to disagree with my self- righteous, victim-survivor narrative.

Here I am, at 47, ironically behaving like a spoilt millennial, unable to hear the other view-point, and abandoning a friendship simply because there is another view-point to my own.

I call Shan. To hell with messaging, it’s time for a real conversation and a proper hello.

Shan picks up. There is noise in the background; it appears he is at a party and somewhat inebriated. I blurt out what I’ve called to say:

“Hi, Shan. Let’s talk sometime, you know, about the other day.”

Shan laughs. He says: “Babe, don’t worry, I forgive you. It’s all okay. Call me tomorrow and if I’m free, we’ll talk.”

Humility, anyone?

The phone dies just then, thankfully. Because I’m really angry. In this moment, I realise that even though our WhatsApp connection had created the illusion of a new-found friendship, nothing had really changed between us from 1989 to 2019.

In these last two weeks, I had been the only one doing any inner thinking. For Shan, there hadn’t been the slightest reflection, leave alone a twinge of empathy for the 500 million women of India he claimed to venerate. Funnier still, was that this silence between us had been a mere amusement to him, a jokey pause before we made up so that he could provoke me all over again.

I decide now to do the millennial ‘thing’, something I generally don’t do. But I’m too tired to fight this one out. I block Shan, for once and for all, and delete his presence, his number and our chat history from my phone. I thank God for WhatsApp, that miracle of digital technology which makes this removal swiftly possible.

Easy come, easy go.

Then I laugh, switch on the radio, and think of other things as I drive on home.

Selina Sheth is a writer currently based in Mumbai.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty