A few years ago, at a quiet little place in the Himalayas, I met a Briton who discovered while talking to me that I was a fan of the British sci-fi/fantasy show Doctor Who. He was very surprised that an Indian (who, at the time had never even travelled abroad) had not only heard of something as ‘quintessentially British’ as Doctor Who but even identified herself as a ‘fan’ of the show. He was even more surprised to find, during the course of that conversation, that I thought David Tennant (the Tenth Doctor) had played an excellent Hamlet... that I even had a ‘favourite’ Hamlet – out of actors such as Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, Mel Gibson, etc. That was now two ‘quintessentially British’ things that I was a ‘fan’ of.
Doctor Who in some regards is a curious and telling example of something with a fan following. One of those unique TV shows that have withstood the test of time and actually celebrated a 50th Anniversary, it is an interesting case also because the title character these days is played by the brilliant Peter Capaldi, who was himself famously a fan of the show while he was growing up. He had written letters to the fan club and even asked to be made President of the Club. That he now plays the very character he grew up being a fan of is the sort of thought that makes fans of the show chuckle knowingly, not least because The Doctor is a character of re-incarnation who travels through time and space.
To be sure, my being a fan of something as far removed from my physical surroundings as Doctor Who must have something to do with the diminishing of physical barriers for this sort of thing with the advent of the internet and Netflix and torrent sites; and a fandom that easily navigates these boundaries. However, this was the first time that I encountered the feeling of being unique, or to put it more bluntly, singled out, other-ed, looked at as an outsider.
In online forums and television review sites, I had never felt like I was something out of the ordinary (in terms of the fandom, I mean). I was just one of several anonymous, faceless, race-less, accent-less people engaging with stories, themes, cuteness of actors, etc. I was taken at comment-value; disagreed with and praised for my opinions about the show. My online handle did not reveal my Indian-ness, and neither did my display picture. But now, suddenly, as I was encountered in person by someone who also knew the show, I felt other-ed. I acutely felt the difference in accents between us, and suddenly I could see a gulf of differences opening up, something that I had never encountered before. I felt as though I was doing something...not wrong exactly, but maybe aspiring to more than I was...for lack of a better term, allowed. As though I were reaching too far – to something that I was not normally allowed to reach for. As though I had presumed too much.
The person, in his defence, seemed pleasantly surprised at my enthusiasm for the show, its authors (Neil Gaiman! Mark Gatiss! Douglas Adams!). He praised me for knowing so much about British TV in spite of being an Indian. Even though he meant it as a compliment, it was that appreciation that felt prickly. His reaction was one of pride, as though he was personally responsible for the show, because he was British. I know several Indian fans of the show, and we regularly talk about it, praising its scope and depth, its acting, its ability to transform everyday things into scary monsters; and criticising its weak women characters, plot holes, bad jokes – the usual stuff that fans tend to usually discuss. I had never before encountered this sort of response to my analysis, and it left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Discriminated against.
He kept expressing surprise at my knowledge of the show, and of other things that David Tennant and Peter Capaldi had been in (I’ve seen Broadchurch, The Thick of It, The Politician’s Husband, The Hour), and smiled indulgently at me as I spoke of Scottish accents and unique monsters. I wondered if this was his response to American fans of the show as well? To be sure, there are many – what with the ringing endorsement it gets from another famous TV show from the USA The Big Bang Theory – and my question was if he would have reacted like this to an American fan of sci fi/fantasy fiction like he was reacting to me. He admitted he had never met any American fans of Doctor Who, but also sheepishly conceded that that wouldn’t have surprised him as much.
‘Because, you know...’ he stuttered, ‘the cultural difference isn’t that much.’
My ‘real life’ Doctor Who friends all came from the same “cultural contexts” as I do and all the online discussion I had was with people who may have subconsciously assumed me to be the same as them (or had I assumed they were the same as me?). It was only when we met offline that it came to pass that I wasn’t just a ‘fan’. I had become an Indian, a woman, and also a fan.
The internet had allowed me to simply be; and as this real offline person began to put me into my identity boxes, it was making me uncomfortable. The power of the internet in allowing free expression is really that immense. That anonymity which has been known to encourage trolling, bullying and abuse has also been responsible for so many of us to be freed of so many patronising shackles. To be, just for a little while, simply a Doctor Who fan.
We were sipping hot tea in the Himalayas and I had just translated into Hindi his request for something to eat along with the tea; and that was when I realised that he was wrong. There was probably a far greater gulf between me and the boy who brought our tea, even though we were both Indian, than there was between a British fan of Doctor Who and an Indian one. But so strong is the impulse to categorise and put into boxes in this – our offline, real world – that we don’t realise how similar all ‘connected’ people may have become.
Those who are not ‘connected’ through the internet live far more different lives than those who are. And that is the real divide. I am not suggesting that the internet has managed to resolve the problems of class and caste and race. But across the world, those who live an ‘online’ life and have access to the awesome power of the internet have far more in common than those on the other side of the Digital Divide.
Globalisation has created a class of people who can engage with the election of Donald Trump and have Twitter wars about the rise of the right wing, whether they live in New York, Birmingham, or Trivandrum. Of course we have our differences, but we are more similar than we think; allowing the online to shape the way we see the world, using Facebook to keep in touch with friends, and downloading TV shows from around the world for entertainment.
(Vidya Subramanian is at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU)