Stranger things: 2017 was the year of Blue Whale, holy cows, #MeToo, Aadhaar
A look at what defined society, politics, culture and personal spaces in the past 12 months.long reads Updated: Dec 31, 2017 09:37 IST
A death game and delaying divorces, social media movements and the fight over the fictitious, the rise of women power and the fall of global icons – this was the year that proved that fact can be, and is, stranger than fiction.
Millennials Showed Us Just How Little We Know About Them...
They carved blue whales on their arms and vied for spots in an online suicide challenge
The Blue Whale Challenge was baffling in a way few other things have been. Amid a government crackdown, a new hashtag began trending, #CuratorFindMe. Why were so many Indian children desperate to sign up for a game that offered no perks, threatened to hurt their family if they tried to opt out, and demanded strange things of a player… leading up to suicide? Things got even murkier as people began to cry ‘Blue Whale’ for a series of unrelated deaths. By August, the union ministry of electronics and information technology was demanding that internet companies remove links to the game. The Supreme Court (SC) asked the government to ban the game (they couldn’t, since it had no official presence). None of the cases have yet been officially linked to the game; it remains a convenient smokescreen for India’s high incidence of student depression and mental health issues.
They turned #AvocadoToast into an inexplicably popular catchphrase, food fad and eventually, slur
Adults will remember 2017 as the year Western millennials ruined breakfast for everyone. Two bland ingredients, avocado and toast, combined to create a dish so insipid and so pretty, it inspired more than five lakh Instagram posts. There’s not much more to it than its two titular ingredients (though hipsters have been known to add olive oil, Himalayan salt, lemon zest, hemp seeds or the also-trending turmeric and microgreens). But it’s been on health-blog recipe sections, in celebrity social-media feeds, on restaurant menus with a 400 per cent markup — and became a catchphrase for privileged youngsters with more money than good sense.
They combined relationships and virtual gaming with apps for everything from hooking up to threesomes
Tinder, with its swipe rights and super likes, is so last year. On Truly Madly, interests and preferences beget matches. So if someone liked the TV show Rick And Morty, the world was their oyster. It also let users play virtual games against a potential partner – a good way to start conversations. On the more discreet Hinge, people only looked at matches connected via a mutual friend. And on Frivil, users were ranked based on their attractiveness, raising their popularity score and giving them access to a super game every night. None of this made relationships easier, if new relationship terms are anything to go by. Users could still Bench or Stash someone (keep them on hold while they browsed for better options), Breadcrumb or cushion them with non-committal text messages to keep them buttered up or simply Ghost or disappear when things got dull or uncomfortable. To top it all, it was even possible for the Ghosted to come back (a move called Haunting).
Big Govt reached Into Our Wallets, Homes And Lives
The year when Aadhaar almost took over our lives
Dying in India became a complicated matter this year, as the Central government made it mandatory to provide the Unique Identification Number or Aadhaar for obtaining a death certificate. Its rationale – to prevent identity fraud. That’s a good objective, and Aadhaar does seem like a good idea – but one which is clearly being over-used. Civil society and privacy activists dragged the government to court over Aadhaar. In response, the deadline for Aadhar linkage to bank accounts and phone numbers has been extended to March 31, 2018, from December 31, 2017.
National anthem – stand or else. Or can you sit?
Standing to sing the national anthem is routine in school. In 2016, the Supreme Court acting on the petition of a Bhopal resident ordered that the anthem be played before the screening of films in public theatres. In October Justice DY Chandrachud of the SC observed that sitting while the song played must be allowed. But in between 2016 and 2017, much water had flowed under the bridge. A wheelchair-bound person was called a Pakistani at a Guwahati cinema. A group of men and women in Chennai, who had decided on principle not to rise when the song played, were heckled. Whether one sits or stands is hardly the issue anymore. In the hyper-nationalistic mode that India finds herself in today, it doesn’t seem as if the pressure on citizens to enact their nationalism will go away anytime soon.
Things turned Upside Down, And How...
A cow was no longer just a cow
The first few times it happened, there was shock and outrage — people beaten, killed, because they might have been transporting cows, even legally? By the end of the year, the mention of the word on a front page meant trouble. The gentle bovine had been turned into a tool for a deadly and divisive politics. Gau rakshaks were taking the law into their own hands with a sense of pride and entitlement. Dalits were threatening to leave carcasses on the street if they could not safely move them any more. Mainstream politicians were talking about funding cow-protectors with taxpayer money. People began to be sacrificed for the supposed good of the animal.
Triple Talaq Could Not Be Instant
From talaqs over phone to writing talaq in an email, the practice of instant triple talaq - where a man could say talaq thrice and end his marriage on the spot - was getting stranger by the day, forcing women to move court in 2016. And then in August this year, the SC braved opposition from a section of Muslims to ban instant triple talaq for being arbitrary and unconstitutional and not integral to Islam. Muslim men will now only have to resort to talaq which is finalised over a period of three months. A Bill making instant triple talaq illegal and void and awarding a jail term for anyone resorting to it, was also introduced in the Parliament on December 28.
The Cricket team was not only about men
Remember the sexist quip by one of the male characters in Shah Rukh Khan’s 2007 blockbuster Chak De! India, where he insinuates that the hockey field is not meant for women? Well, the situation was not vastly different for women’s cricket in the country either. Cricket crazy as Indians are, not many can sincerely claim to have sat through a women’s cricket match. Before the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup, that is. While the women in blue did lose the finals to England, they managed to win national adulation and ensure that cricket in India will never again be only about the men in blue.
Newton was not about gravity, but about the Oscars
Isaac Newton was always the 17th century scientist who discovered gravity. But in 2017, for Indians , Newton meant an acclaimed film, a dark comedy on the country’s election system. Even before it got its glowing reviews here, the film had opened to a positive response in the international film festival circuit, including the Berlin Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival. The same day it released in theatres, Newton was announced as India’s entry to the Academy Awards in the foreign language category. The film did not make it to the shortlist, but director Amit Masurkar’s film is a reminder of the quiet revolution brewing in small-budget Hindi filmmaking in India.
Arundhati was a disappointment, and Rushdie’s didn’t even make a mark
Salman Rushdie won the Booker Prize in 1981 for Midnight’s Children. Arundhati Roy won the award in 1997 for The God of Small Things. Both writers had books out this year, but received a lukewarm response from readers and critics. Rushdie wrote The Golden House, whose main character, René, some critics found to be “tiresome” with his love of launching into lectures. Roy’s The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness, was awaited by fans for her style of breathless prose. While critics paid her a backhanded compliment for being able to package topics as diverse as Dalit politics, Kashmir and the issues of the eunuch community in a single work of fiction, readers may have found it all too much. The book, many say, is a showcase for her “concerns”. But “concerns” alone don’t make a novel or a good one.
Suu Kyi found herself on the other side of the human rights debate
The year 2017 saw the clear fall from grace of one of the greatest icons of democracy of our times. Aung San Suu Kyi’s non-violent protest against the military junta endeared her to the democracy-loving West. But when reacting for the first time to the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar in September, Suu Kyi told Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyin Erdogan, that the situation was being distorted, it didn’t take long for the world to gasp in disbelief. The New York Times called her the “much-changed icon”, and in November, the city of Oxford stripped her of the Freedom of the City of Oxford award. It is today almost an irony that Suu Kyi won the Nobel Peace Prize for her “struggle for democracy and human rights”.
Dhinchak Pooja became a celebrity singer (who would have thought?)
Wikipedia describes cringe pop as a genre of music in which the videos are so bad that people cannot stop watching them. Pooja Jain aka Dhinchak Pooja — the Delhi girl everyone woke up to this past year — may or may not be aware of this description, but it is likely she doesn’t care. Pooja is a star in her own right. The YouTube singer found herself crooning all the way to the Big Boss house. For those wondering how far being bizarrely bad at something could take someone, Dhinchak Pooja was a case study.
Twitter became long form
Wish you a very happy and successful New Year 2018. May God grant you health, wealth and happiness and may all your dreams come true in the coming year…. In the past, trying to tweet this would need some editing to keep within Twitter’s character limit, one of the key features of the micro-blogging site. But in November, Twitter doubled its character limit from 140 to 280. Comfortable. But let’s not make Twitter like other social media sites with their neverending posts.
Aarushi’s parents were not in jail, but Ram Rahim was
In October, Nupur and Rajesh Talwar walked out of Ghaziabad’s Dasna jail after the Allahabad High Court acquitted them in the double murder case of their daughter Aarushi and domestic help Hemraj. The case remains one of the most sensational in the country. No one knows who killed Aarushi and Hemraj. Meanwhile, in August the CBI court in Panchkula convicted Dera Sacha Sauda chief and self-styled Godman Gurmeet Ram Rahim for raping two woman disciples. His supporters created mayhem in Haryana, Punjab and Delhi, leaving 41 people dead. But one of the strangest images of 2017 has to be that of the once-flamboyant Dera chief in tears, begging for mercy.
Alternative Facts Became A real Issue
Padmavati became real
Some historians have gone hoarse in the past one year -- ever since the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming film Padmavati was vandalized in January – explaining that the first mention of Rani Padmini can only be traced back to Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s poetry, but it wasn’t enough to change popular belief. For many, the queen is an epitome of Rajput honour, and hell broke loose when it was rumoured that Bhansali’s film showed a romance between Padmini and Alauddin Khilji in a dream sequence. The filmmakers tried their best to quell such rumours, but the first promos of the film had the Rajputs up in arms again over the depiction of the queen and alleged distortion of facts. The latest is that the film has received the Censor Board certificate for release with a few suggested changes. The title is also likely to be changed to Padmavat.
The Taj became controversial
2017 was a difficult year for the Taj Mahal. First, the Uttar Pradesh government reportedly did not include it in the list of heritage sites that were to benefit from a newly-announced state fund for their upkeep. Then, it was not included in a list of tourist attractions in UP. No sooner had chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, cleared the air, than the Taj found itself at the centre of another debate. Members of a Hindu group chanted Shiva Chalisa at the Taj, and said that if namaz could be held at the Taj – there is a mosque at the heritage site comples – then Shiva chalisa could also be read there.
Satire emerged as a means of protest (Humans of Hindutva, comedians on the web, Unofficial Subramanian Swamy etc)
If you are funny online, you may be threatened, thrashed and even arrested. But that hasn’t stopped dissent disguised as humour. 2017 was the year of online satire. Parody accounts and anonymous Facebook pages like Humans of Hindutva and Unofficial Subramanian Swamy played with facts and fiction too, picking news from the day and adding a twist of wit to it.
Similarly, Twitter pages like @roflgandhi and @RealHistoryPic combine real images or events with bizarre takes.
Social media warriors fought untruths
There were dubious, misleading and false reports, videos, forwards and statements flooding the social media. Apart from influencing the political discourse and triggering communal violence, these stories resulted in explosive situations when circulated in an already charged atmosphere. And thus emerged the fake news warriors – organisations such as AltNews, Boom and SM Hoaxslayer – who took it upon themselves to monitor social media, identify such information, verify it and communicate the truth.
We Thronged Cinema Halls ...
... To see Baahubali 2
Katappa ne Baahubali ko kyon maara (Why did Katappa kill Baahubali)? For weeks before the release of the second and last installment of the Baahubali franchise, this was the question on everyone’s mind and social media walls. The answer was finally out on April 28 and even the success of the original Baahubali film had not prepared us for the phenomenon that the concluding part would be. The dubbed Hindi version of the film alone earned Rs 125 core at the box office in its first weekend. The film’s opening weekend earning worldwide was more than Rs 400 crore. It zoomed past the Rs 100 crore mark on the very first day of hitting screens in India, became the first Indian film to enter the Rs 1000 crore club and one of the biggest Indian hits worldwide.
We Saw What People Really Thought Of Us
The Sarahah app
An anonymous messaging platform named after the Arabic word for ‘frank’, was meant to show us the truth about ourselves “to enhance our strengths...”. Instead, it revealed not just the funny and sweet but also the abusive and nasty truth about people, when given the power of anonymity. For every “ur smile makes me believe in magic”, there was a “Why are you gay? Why don’t you cure yourself of this disease”. Facebook timelines were flooded with screenshots aimed at women, even children. It was a harsh reminder that behind a mask, many of us are as much beast as beauty.
We Gasped And Wheezed...
... Especially if we lived in Delhi
Starting November 7, the air quality index (AQI) in Delhi remained at “severe” (polluted) levels. On November 14, after a week of foul air, the AQI finally came down. But what caused this air apocalypse which saw schools declare holidays, trucks being stopped at the Capital’s borders and all constructions halted? Two air circulatory systems — one bringing pollutants from crop burning in Punjab and Haryana, (and according to one theory, dust from multi-day dust storm in Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) while the other bringing moisture from the east — collided over the National Capital Region.
We Cheered Our Scientists…
When ISRO launched 104 satellites at one go
In 2014, ISRO became the first Asian country to launch a Mars Orbiter. A sneering New York Times cartoon drew flak after it showed India knocking on the doors of the elite space club represented as a dhoti-clad farmer with a cow in tow. In 2017, ISRO responded to that jibe in kind, creating history by launching 104 satellites into orbit — three for India and the rest for a range of client countries that included the US, Israel, UAE, Netherlands, Kazakhstan and Switzerland. The feat broke the previous record of 37 satellites launched in one go, by Russia in 2014.
The BrahMos Missile Was Successfully Launched
The satellite launch record was not the only aerial triumph of India this year. We successfully tested the fastest supersonic cruise missile, BrahMos, from a Sukhoi-30 warplane for the first time against a target in the Bay of Bengal. With a range of 290 km, it makes India a leader in supersonic missiles. An Indo-Russian joint venture, it is named after the Brahmaputra and Moscowa rivers. The missile is now ready to be launched from land, sea and air.
And Our Women...
The hashtag found resonance with nearly half the online world. When actress Alyssa Milano urged netizens to use #MeToo (initiated by activist Tarana Burke in 2006) to highlight how pervasive misogyny was, the trend quickly went viral. It trended in India and garnered more than six lakh uses worldwide, across social media platforms. #MeToo was 2017’s #YesAllWomen – and stories are still coming out. The hashtag got women talking about their experiences with sexual harassment, got men to stop and think about the cost of casual sexism, and men and women talking to one another about the need for change.
Shubhangi Swaroop became the first woman pilot in the Indian Navy…
...In November this year. Three other women cadets, Astha Segal, Roopa A and Sakthi Maya S also became the country’s first women officers at the Naval Armament Inspectorate branch. For years, the armed forces were a male bastion, and women were only employed in non-combat roles. But change is underway. Last year, three female fighter pilots were inducted in the Air Force for the first time. This month, the IAF inducted two more women fighter pilots.