At the end of August, India's moon vehicle, Chandrayaan, was successful in its mission, and the country's social media became an over-the-top block party. That news cycle is over. But I am only just recovering from what happened to me then.
Remember how you couldn't even watch a dance reel on Instagram without a picture of the moon being shoved into your face? Our scientists were congratulated profusely, and the real man of honour, Prime Minister Modi, appeared at the Indian Space Research Organisation to scoop up credit looking fresh in another neat outfit. Our next-door neighbour and, one day older sibling, Pakistan, was being taunted about not being as good as us. All elder siblings would relate.
Indian patriots were over the moon. Misogynists and activists, thrift store owners and industrialists, influencers and the not-so-influential cinephiles and Bollywood stars were scampering to make declarations about India's moment of pride for the next twenty-four hours.
I was to learn only later that on days like these when your country is "put on the world map," you are not free to challenge the overt expression of patriotism. Indian scientists did say that this success shouldn't be seen as a competition. But their job is to bring us nationalistic pride, not to give us lessons on humility.
I continued to scroll through, somewhat sadistically fuelling my discomfort. I ignored a post with a soppy caption over a photo of outer space and unfollowed the NRI cousin who shared the image of the rocket to say how proud he was of being Indian. I escaped to Bumble only to find my long-forgotten match had shared five edgy memes about the moon.
Since Indian patriotism has become deeply entwined with mandatory Hindutva, predictably, the characters of the Ramayana entered the conversation. Even though King Ram is the main lead, it’s Hanuman who plays a secondary role who is often credited for every national achievement. Someone had taken his image, cropped and morphed it, and there he was, sitting on the moon.
If you ask me, the guy looked awkward and spaced out. The fact that he was shirtless and on one knee also did not help his dignity. Legend has it that Hanuman was adept at flying, though, if I remember correctly, not as far as the moon. But now, he was being unfairly put on the spot and wrongly credited for something he did not do.
I took to social media to ask a few questions: "Why is this guy here?" and "Isn't it awkward because his nips are showing?". After I published my story, I casually moved onto a reel about a summer clothing haul. But within minutes, hoards had swooped into my comments to explain why I couldn't use the words guys and nipples in the same sentence as Hanuman. "He is a bachelor for life, and you are using words like nipple for him?" said one mortified misogynist. "She is a so-called reporter but looks like a buffalo's ass," another wrote. I still have not quite grasped the full intention of this one.
Then one @maxji_123477 and his trolling brothers-in-arms came up with collages of me being likened to a character from the Ramayan—Taadka. In my experience, when men, online or offline, are trying to insult you by comparing you to another woman, it's always safe to check this woman's background. More often than not, that woman will turn out to be a badass. No matter which version of Ramayan you consult, Taadka has the strength of a thousand elephants. Who doesn't want that? That is badass.
Clearly, the slightest religious irreverence is a golden chance for Hindutva trolls to assert their supposed supremacy—it’s their raison d’être. Presumably, threatening to rape a woman is the most appropriate and quickest form to avenge the bachelor god. Detailed accounts of how I ought to be raped started surfacing. It was noted that I was fat, so they should rape me even more. Besides, I had presumably brought disgrace to Hindus, upper caste Baniyas, and all Bansals born on the face of the earth.
At first, I tried to focus on how the animals, mostly buffaloes and pigs, I was being likened to were kinda cute. But eventually, the rape threats became more explicit, and the comments on my appearance went from funny to confusing. The journalist in me thought the mass trolling might even be my upward ladder to the group of journalists who "dare to speak the truth." To be fair, I did speak the truth. I was being honest by suggesting Hanuman was stealing the limelight. Only, I didn't ask the question in the format submittable to the Laadli or Ramnath Goenka awards. My reverie was brought to an abrupt end when, a few hours later, the phones started ringing—six out of the fifteen members of my conservative joint family were now under attack. Callers were asking them in steady voices to make me apologise on Instagram or else. The flurry of calls and messages informed them I'd be raped or FIRs would be filed against them. Chaos ensued.
My phone was also ringing non-stop, with family members calling me. My father begged me to apologise. I didn't. It was midnight when the META admin ℅ , Mr Mark Zuckerberg, joined the rumble. They issued a verdict that I was more at fault than the guy who described the endless ways he'd like to rape me—my Instagram account was taken down permanently. The long day of horror didn't end with Instagram. A relative associated with the Indian National Congress happens to be in my social media network. I am not even in touch with them. But zealous Hanuman bhakts, with the aid of a Twitter handle that claims to fight Hinduphobia, branded me and my family as "Hinduphobic Congress supporters" and started spreading vitriol on Twitter. That went on for an entire week.
I was summoned to my family's home from my little nook away from them.
Since my family saw my comments on Hanuman on the moon as "a stunt to enjoy cheap thrills", the question of reporting the rape threats and intimidation to the police didn't arise. Supposed well-wishers said I was guilty of teasing sensitive men lurking on the internet.
My IG account is public. I use my Insta as anybody in their twenties would—show off my outfits, rant to my heart's content, and sometimes talk about my mental health. So naturally, it led to someone calling me a "Chinese, three-feet asshole who deserves to get slapped." It is an ingenious insult rolling absurdity, racism, and sizeism into one. I feel less inspired to transcribe the threats to "bonk" me and parade me naked. The IDs weren't traceable to known people, and the numbers were masked on true-caller. It could be anyone, and they could be in my vicinity. When a next-door neighbour hoists a BJP flag on their terrace or a co-worker doesn't want to eat with "non-vegetarians",—I feel besieged.
Recently, I took an Uber ride. A tiny Hanuman figure sat on the dashboard. I panicked about whether my clothes and make-up were appropriate and if I hadn't said something "offensive" during calls I made from the cab. On the way to visit my therapist, I ran into a swarm of college students, all men, shouting pro-BJP slogans. They could well be @maxji_123477 and his pals. But I was trembling at the thought that they'd recognise me, yet I faked courage.
The malicious bullying my family and I were subjected to sent out a clear message: "Think before you speak your mind, or else." So now I think before I speak, but then I think a little more and speak my mind, anyway. You can threaten me in a hundred ways, but you cannot deny that Hanuman did look out of place sitting on the moon, was not wearing a shirt, and had vividly drawn nipples. I don't make the rules.