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Mohan wrote me a Tamil love poem.
unparvai en mele vilathaa,
ne en kitta vanthu ninathaa,
en dehgam suda marathaa,
I found it in my Twitter “Message Requests.” Translated to English, the poem reads: “Rega Jha, won’t you let your gaze fall on me? If you come stand close to me, my body temperature will rise, Rega Jha.”
It’s the kind of message that, 15 years ago, I might’ve screenshotted and shared with girl classmates for a laugh. Bonding over the “creeps” in our social media inboxes was an early internet experience for us, where “us” was girl teens from affluent families, enrolled in English-medium schools, born and raised in urban India; and “creeps” were boys and men we didn’t know, who had made an overture, usually in broken English or a vernacular language, on social media.
I can’t remember my first creep, nor, sadly, can I remember how seeing that first message felt. What I do remember is being 12 and 13 years old, feeling flattered and impatient to tell my friends about my inbox hauls, anticipating their cracking up with me at every “Will u do franship?” and “Lukin nice.” I remember the crackle-beep-trill of dial-up modems punctuating sleepover giggling, PC screen glowing in semi-dark, our parents asleep in the next room. I remember comparing inboxes with prettier friends, hoping (anxiously! insecurely!) that the creeps had come through for me. And bless them, they always did. As we made our way from Hi5 in 2005 and 2006, to Orkut in 2006 and 2007, and finally to Facebook where we practiced seeing and being seen for a decade, the creeps came everywhere.
To be clear, though, Mohan is not a creep.
Mohan is a 26-year-old software engineer who sincerely wants to build friendships with women and is open to more-than, but he specifically doesn’t want to creep anyone out. When we spoke on the phone, he was pacing the terrace of his family home in the small Tamil Nadu town where he grew up, and where he’d returned last year when the first lockdown began. He told me about a girl he once messaged on Facebook with whom he ended up chatting for days. When her responses grew shorter, Mohan perceived a drop in interest. He stopped trying to keep the conversation alive. “I was definitely interested in her but I didn’t want to freak her out,” he said. “I don’t want to freak any girl out by sending messages often.”
We do tend to get freaked out, and for good reason. Mainstream Indian portrayals of heterosexual romance unambiguously charge men with initiating courtships, but they either fail to account for consent or, famously, encourage violating it. Meanwhile women, each of us having experienced a rattling array of violations at the hands of male strangers, have been conditioned to simultaneously expect to be (even long to be) pursued, and to be wary of our male pursuers. For us, this means the work of finding love is impossibly tied up with the work of avoiding danger. For Mohan and other well-intentioned men, “the problem comes in finding a border,” he said. “If we cross the border, it will feel like we’re stalking the girl. But if we aren’t reaching the border means our existence won’t be known to the girl.”
So when it comes to DMs, Mohan makes creative attempts to break through the clutter of ‘Hellos’ he correctly presumes is piling up in women’s inboxes. In my case, he’d seen that a childhood photo I’d posted on Instagram was geo-tagged to Chennai so he thought a Tamil rhyme might do the trick. “My initial thought was just to get your attention,” he told me. When I asked why he wanted it, Mohan said he saw me as a “crush.” In one message he’d sent long before we spoke, he’d written: “I love ur style & and I love ur attitude.” Genuinely flattered, I thanked him now on the phone. He laughed. He didn’t actually message me in hopes of a romance, he explained. Among his guy friends, it’s fairly normal to send social media messages to women they don’t know, “just for friendship.”
Mohan’s hometown doesn’t afford easy opportunities for men and women to befriend each other. He told me about a girl he used to see at the bus stop when he’d commute to college. They’d often lock gazes and exchange smiles, but neither figured out how to approach the other. When he moved to Bengaluru for work, Mohan was struck by the ease with which men and women would go to coffee shops, bars and overnight trips together.
“You live in Mumbai, right?” he asked me. “There the lifestyle might be much easier. Maybe that barrier won’t be there.”
I’m writing these words at a café in Bandra West. At the tables around me, men and women are laughing, chatting, rolling American Spirit cigarettes, drinking flat whites or Biras, nobody batting an eyelid at anybody else’s choice of company. Mohan was right, of course. In cosmopolitan bubbles of privilege, mixed-gender mingling is uncontroversial enough that one can forget there are towns and townships quite close by where it could fuel anything from gossip to violence. I text Mohan and ask if he’ll have coffee with me when I’m back in Chennai soon.
Just for friendship, I think as I hit Send.
e didn’t yet know what a “meme” was then, but back in the early 2000s, as small groups of girls and women around India LOL’d together in Orkut groups,  in blog posts,  and in lunch-break huddles, “Will you do franship?” got as big as a meme can get. It became shorthand for a very particular reputation that South Asian men held, and continue to hold, on the social web. “Approach life with the same confidence with which Indian men approach women online,” one popular joke goes. I recently came across another viral classic on a major film producer’s Instagram: “Has your man told you how beautiful you look today or does Rajesh in your DM requests have to tell you that?” (It had over 40,000 ‘likes’ in 24 hours.)
By 2011, Hindi cinema acknowledged the trope in the film titled Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge. And by 2015, the babez, franship? phenomenon was so well-documented that the dating app TrulyMadly used it to drive their marketing. Their campaign slogan instructed women: “Don’t let boy browsing turn into creep browsing.” And their most viewed ad  featured two women singing a qawwali, competing over whose creeps are creepier. The first woman kicks off the contest with a Hinglish lyric that translates to:
“When maestro Zuckerberg made his invention,
there was one thing he forgot to mention,
that everyone would have not one but two inboxes.
Friends in one, and creeps in the Other inbox.”
As she sings the next verse, graphics pop up on screen, with an example of a message from a creep: “Hey thr u lukn gr888.”
The Othered Inbox
hen the idea of the creep with imperfect English first found its cultural footing in the 2005-ish social web of Hi5 and Orkut, fewer than five percent of Indians had internet access. We were, for the most part, and for obvious reasons, urban-dwelling caste-class elites. To those of our social position, social media felt like a brand new world with brand new rules, but it really wasn’t. Like the classrooms and living rooms we were raised in, our internet was homogeneously occupied by a cohort we were taught to identify only in vague euphemisms such as ‘People Like Us.’
Today, with 45 percent of the country online,  internet spaces look a little bit more like India always has offline: the hyper-privileged still form a disproportionately platformed minority, but marginalised majorities are watching. And they’re calling out the rampant classism, casteism, and linguistic discrimination that characterises all of elite India’s cultural output. This tradition of critique is as old as the problem itself, but social media may have expedited such call-outs reaching their targets: People Like Us.
In 2018, when a #MeToo wave swept across creative industries in India, it was Dalit writer Christina Thomas Dhanaraj who noted that most accusations were against men from dominant castes. “Dalit men don’t have caste power, yet their caste identities (when calling out abuse) are always specified as though it is their caste identity that is the cause of the wrongdoing,” she tweeted. “Why are Savarna men, despite their caste power, exempt from this custom?”
When Netflix’s 2020 reality show Indian Matchmaking became a global hit, Dalit feminists lambasted its uncritical portrayal of dominant-caste Hindu arranged marriages. “There’s no way to talk about love and romance and marriage in an Indian context without looking at the fact that our society is being ripped apart—is at the edge of genocide—primarily because we are at an unbridled moment of Brahmanism,” the writer Thenmozhi Soundararajan said during a conversation between anti-caste commentators and the show’s creator. 
For many of us born into caste and class privilege, these conversations on social media offer a worldview that was notably excluded from the syllabi of the posh private schools we were sent to: a worldview that emphasises introspective criticality about structural oppressions.
Gen Z may be unfamiliar with “franship,” but has embraced its successor, “bobs and vagene.”
Listening in has helped me begin to untangle the dual conditioning that plays out on oppressor-caste female bodies, i.e. bodies like mine; bodies that serve as border control to a society whose elites are obsessed with maintaining impenetrable boundaries around caste purity.
First we were taught, like all girls, to keep our guards up against sexual violence in realms where families or institutions weren’t guarding us. “We trust you, we don’t trust the world,” our families told us in restricting our movement, so we learned to move, socially and physically, with a valid mistrust of male strangers.
But as for which ones in particular to mistrust, we inherited the suspicions of the elders around us. Our families worried about leaving us home alone with male domestic workers but not with “family friend uncles,” no matter how sleazy. We were warned against travelling at night with cab drivers and instructed to get rides home with male classmates instead, with the latter’s surnames speaking for their trustworthiness. Subtly, our education in prejudice came disguised as an education in safety. “Franship” was a mark of our passing with flying colours.
Gen Z may be unfamiliar with “franship,” but has embraced its successor, “bobs and vagene.” A misspelling of “boobs and vagina,” the phrase made its way from obscure Facebook message screenshots to the famous Reddit forum r/IndianPeopleFacebook. It achieved the notoriety of global meme-hood when the Swedish YouTuber Pewdiepie used it as the title of a 2018 video in which he browsed r/IndianPeopleFacebook.
This mockery has served various purposes. If “franship” was a symptom of domestically contained classism and casteism, “bobs and vagene” is global racism directed towards Indian men. It allows young Indians participating in the meme to find expression of their own localised prejudices. For elite girls, the “creep” may be partial fact, partial bogeyman, while for less privileged women, disdain of the creep could be a way to cope with the genuine terrors of widespread harassment.
A Smartphone of One’s Own
ndu has been getting messages and calls on Facebook Messenger from a man she doesn’t know. She’s never intended to speak to him. She’s terrified. Indu is 20 years old and doing a management course in a small town in Himachal Pradesh with the help of an NGO. She lives in a room with five other girls, all coursemates, while her family and husband are back home in a village in Bihar.
She joined Facebook a few months ago, when she heard about the platform from friends, but she barely uses it and is now considering deleting her account. The men are getting to her. The night before we spoke on the phone, Indu got a Facebook Messenger call at around 11pm. She declined. The caller messaged: “Kya hua meri jaan? Kuch bolo na.” What happened, love? Say something, no?
“I’ve stopped putting anything on Facebook.” Indu told me. “I don’t understand who this man is. If he finds me, what will I do?”
Researchers at the University of Chicago interviewed  199 women across South Asian countries and found that 66 percent had faced some version of cyber-stalking—defined as “receiving constant, unwanted contact from male strangers online.” The rate of incidence was highest among Indian respondents, at 73 percent.
It dawned on me, talking to Indu, that the best actual use case of Franship: The Meme might be to confirm to women new to the internet that what’s happening in their inboxes is happening in all of ours. But Indu, rather than gleefully swapping screenshots with friends, has been secretive about the messages. In particular, she needs her husband and family to never find out. “They’ll say, now anything could happen to you, come home, get off Facebook,” she explained. “It’ll become a big deal for me at home.”
Indu’s 18-year-old coursemate—who asked me not to use her real name—is even more wary of her family’s reactions. She was the first girl in her village, also in Bihar, to get a smartphone. She got it in August last year, a day before Independence Day. Before she had her own, she’d borrow a neighbour’s phone for five or ten minutes at a time to make urgent submissions or glance at notes on days she missed classes. When she topped her twelfth standard exams, it became clear that she would be continuing her education, and so a smartphone of her own had become a necessity.
Still, tongues wagged. People began calling her “mobile rakhne wali”—a girl with a phone. “Only boys get smartphones,” she explained to me. As for what “mobile rakhne wali” actually implies: “As soon as there was a phone in my hand, people started saying, she must be talking to boys.”
I asked what would happen if she really were talking to boys. Say she liked someone in person and began messaging them, or if someone who reached out on Facebook genuinely piqued her interest. She shut the thought down: “The family’s name will get spoiled, di,” she said. She explained that in her village, just like in Mohan’s hometown, if a boy and girl are seen spending time together, “Hungama mach jaata hai.” All hell breaks loose.
For both women, having a phone is too important to risk it being taken away. Indu wants to be a social worker. Her coursemate wants to clear the UPSC and join the Bihar Police. They’d rather not discover what their families might do to them, or their hard-won freedoms—to study, to work, to be online—should they be discovered talking to men who weren't chosen for them as husbands.
Jagisha, another woman I spoke with, found out first-hand.
agisha and her husband Prashant started speaking in the comments section of a mutual friend’s Facebook photo over two years ago. She was a postgraduate student. He was a journalist. Their banter moved to Facebook Messenger, then to phone calls, and finally to a first date where they drank chai, ate momos and found themselves so deep in conversation that when it was time to part ways and go home, they walked together for six kilometres instead. So Jagisha thought nothing of it when one evening, after they’d been together at a protest at Jantar Mantar, she posted a photo of the two of them on her Facebook profile. But, as Indu’s coursemate might have predicted: hungama mach gaya.
Jagisha’s brother was furious. He showed the photo to their mother who asked Jagisha to take it down citing that classic shackle, khandaan ki izzat—the family’s honour. Jagisha refused. Then her brother asked. She held her ground. He told her to leave home. She called Prashant, who said: come stay with me. She shoved some books and her laptop in a bag, and left.
As her cab sped through Delhi, Jagisha’s phone rang. It was her brother, insisting she come home. Then an uncle. Then her brother’s friends. Their tenor grew more threatening with each call. Sensing the possibility of violence, Prashant and Jagisha went to a police station. There, they were caught off guard—the police already knew their names. Jagisha’s family had called ahead to report that she’d left home and was going to meet a man.
“When there’s playfulness, there’s also the possibility to transgress boundaries without social consequence.”
Soon her family arrived at the thana. Her uncles, her brother, her brother’s friend, her mother, and even the police began browbeating Jagisha to change her mind. Meanwhile, Prashant was being warned of different dangers. If this girl changes her mind, the police told him, her family would likely charge him with kidnapping. But he knew she wouldn’t. Prashant kept speaking in measured tones. Jagisha raised her voice. “It was not about the picture,” she explained as they told me the story on a phone call. “It was about my agency.”
Prashant and Jagisha went back to his place and decided, that same night, to get married as soon as possible. It was about love, sure, but also about safety—they needed to legitimise their living together. A month and a half later, in an Arya Samaj temple ceremony that cost a total of ₹10,000 and was attended only by close friends, they were married. Prashant’s parents watched on a WhatsApp video call. Jagisha’s family “socially boycotted” her. Still, the two of them wanted to make the moment special. Jagisha hosted a small function at home and put on mehendi. Prashant played his guitar and sang her a song.
At one point at the thana, Jagisha’s uncle had told Prashant to just come home; they could discuss everything there, he’d said. Prashant had declined. He was aware of the dangers couples like them could face in the privacy of family homes. And he had one particular reason to worry. The very reason women are policed as strictly as Jagisha is to prevent their falling in the kind of love she’d fallen in. Jagisha is Brahmin, Prashant is Dalit. It’s B.R. Ambedkar’s dream and oppressor-caste India’s nightmare. “The real remedy for breaking Caste is inter-marriage,” Dr. Ambedkar had most famously declared in Annihilation of Caste. Prashant’s fear for his life was a testament to that truth.
etween 2014 and 2016, India’s Supreme Court officially counted 288 “honour killings.” According to National Crime Records Bureau data from 2018, there were 30 such killings that year. These numbers are likely lower than actual figures. A. Kathir, the founder and director of Evidence, a Tamil Nadu-based organisation that tracks caste-based violence and offers aid to its victims, told me that in 2017 alone there were 1370 such murders in India. In 2018, Evidence counted 1581. That’s 50 times the official NCRB number.
Murder is the worst-case scenario but there are others. On the Instagram page India Love Project, which highlights inter-identity love stories from around the country, I read about parents cutting communication with their children, refusing to attend their weddings, hitting them, seizing their phones, and refusing to meet their own grandchildren.
Niloufer Venkatraman, who co-runs India Love Project with journalists Samar Halarnkar and Priya Ramani, thinks of this negotiation between disapproving parents and ‘transgressive’ couples as “uniquely Indian.” “There’s so much emotional blackmail,” she told me. “People reach out to us saying, ‘I can’t decide whether to go for my own happiness. After all, my parents raised me for 25 years and they’ve been such good parents otherwise, now they’re saying this isn’t possible. Now what?’”
Families may be the most basic institutional unit working to prevent unions across caste and religion lines, but the infrastructure extends far behind them. Mobs of young Hindu men, quietly sanctioned by right-wing political authorities, regularly make news for harassing and threatening Hindu-Muslim couples, particularly if the man is Muslim. In the last year, states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party have introduced or passed laws that impose undue bureaucratic burdens on interfaith marriages, mainstreaming the discredited view that Muslim men conspire to dupe Hindu girls into marriage and religious conversion.
Hadiya and Shafin Jahan, a young couple from Kerala, had to appeal to the highest court of the land to confirm their individual autonomy and even the validity of their union. Hadiya’s Hindu parents alleged that their daughter was a victim of ‘love jihad’—she had been forcibly converted to Islam on the pretext of love and marriage. The Kerala High Court had declared that Ms. Akhila—Hadiya’s name when she was Hindu—was a “weak and vulnerable girl capable of being exploited.” As Jagisha had perceived at the police thana, most attacks on inter-identity unions are usually an attack on a woman’s agency.
It was in response to this increasingly divisive backdrop that India Love Project’s founders decided to launch the page. They didn’t mean for it to be a support portal but were quickly flooded with distress messages from young couples. They then tied up with lawyers who work pro-bono to defend the radically in-love against their own families.
The founders had meant for the page to be “a happy place,” Niloufer told me, and despite the hair-raising conflicts with parents at the core of every story, it is. It’s a glimpse of a different India––one in which care, curiosity and resilience fill the spaces between birth identities, rather than coinages like “honour killing” and “love jihad.” Prashant and Jagisha’s story is on there too.
n the year 2000, an ad for Coca-Cola took over TV screens around the nation. It opened with a shot of a PC, on which a chat window sat under the banner “LOVE@CocaCola.com.” On screen, user AKman said “Hello there” to user AshR, who responded, “You again? Hahaha. What’s happening?” Cameras zoomed out to show movie stars Aamir Khan and Aishwarya Rai seated at their computers—Khan at a cyber-cafe, Rai in her home. They agreed to meet, and the next scene showed them wandering through a crowded food court in a mall, trying to identify the other. They recognised each other at the beverage counter, when they simultaneously uttered a phrase AKMan had typed on chat: “Coca-Cola ho jaaye?”
In those first years of the millennium, only a sliver of India was online, and it congregated in the original meeting spaces of the unwalled internet, where AKman and AshR had—chatrooms. Richa Kaul Padte, researcher of India’s online sex cultures and author of Cyber Sexy, uses a specific adjective to refer to that era of the Indian internet: playful. “What happens when there’s playfulness is that there’s also the possibility to transgress boundaries without social consequence,” she told me in a voice-note. “It was possible to find companionship outside of the same social regulation that you experience offline.”
I tweeted a call for evidence of Richa’s observation and the stories I heard back made me sympathetic to those early-internet optimists. I heard from Ceejo and Alpa, a Malayali Christian and Gujarati Hindu respectively. They met in a Yahoo! chatroom in 1999. After chatting online for a year, they finally met in person in Mumbai, when Alpa travelled there for work. They’ve now been married 17 years and have three children.
I heard from Neil (“on papers a Hindu”) who, in 2006, while bored and browsing through a Takeshi’s Castle-themed group on Orkut, came across a display photo of a girl wearing a witch’s hat. He found her “cute,” so he went to her page and posted a Takeshi’s Castle joke. Evita (who’s Mangalorean Catholic) responded. They spoke on Orkut in publicly visible “scraps'' for a few weeks before moving to Yahoo! Messenger. From there, they graduated to phone calls. (“So expensive back then!” Neil remembered.) Four months later, Neil travelled to Mumbai, where Evita lived, “for an alumni party.” On that trip, they met in person for the first time. (“He totallllly lied about the alumni party,” she quipped.) They’ve been married 11 years.
There were more stories, all very sweet, but it’s worth noting: all were recounted in emails with near-perfect English spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
“Franship” kept alive the learned distinctions between which suitors Indian women wanted, versus which ones were so unsuitable that it made us laugh.
Yahoo! chatrooms and Orkut groups only played cupid for a few years before the rules of the social web changed fundamentally in a couple of ways. First, the central pillar of Facebook’s architecture is and always has been the barrier between ‘friends’ and strangers. This barrier is strictly policed.  And second, when Facebook started to become popular, Richa explained, “There was a shift to the Real Name internet, when online you were one person, and that person was preferably who you were offline.” Social media became less a space to explore an alternate social life, and more an extended arena in which to inhabit one’s IRL identity, with IRL networks in tow.
Intricacies of the architecture have evolved, but those core norms stand, and have been adopted by other online social platforms. Even now, on both Twitter and Instagram, messages from folks one isn’t already connected with land in a separate “Requests” inbox (where I found Mohan).
Richa also brought up another significant way that Facebook’s architecture interferes with assessments of who we’re happy to flirt with and who we aren’t—algorithmic recommendations. “I’m being fed back people and accounts that reinforce my own view and position in the world, and when those norms aren’t met, we perceive a threat,” she explained. “But the men I feel like I’ve been truly burned by in my fucking DMs—they’ve pretty much uniformly been men with perfect English and likely belonging to upper caste, upper class backgrounds.”
As social media became less conducive to flirting with strangers, another type of platform emerged to take the baton. Taru Kapoor, head of operations of Tinder in India, told me that 10 crore single people in India’s 18 to 30 age bracket own smartphones, and two-thirds of new relationships in that demographic now begin online. Taru foresees those wild numbers growing wilder as smartphone penetration reaches those Indian women currently left out of the swipe-o-sphere. It’s an optimistic outlook, I think. I think of Indu, her coursemate, and Jagisha––all women who own smartphones, but all far from free to play swipe-swipe on them.
Many families who would punish their daughters for being on dating apps instead embrace that other cyber-industry promising eternal love to young singles: the matrimonial matchmaking web. Or, as Taru put it, websites that promise to “give you somebody your parents will approve of.”
All major online matrimonial matchmaking services have a required “sub-caste” field. Shaadi.com has one. JeevanSathi.com has one. The third top player in the industry, Matrimony.com, goes above and beyond, offering sub-sites for hundreds of sub-communities, from BrahminMatrimony.com to DhobiMatrimony.com. If your family’s net worth surpasses ₹5 crore, you’re eligible for personalised services on Elite Matrimony. If it’s above ₹30 crore, you can go for Supreme Matrimony.
Shaadi.com claims to have 35 million users. 40 million are signed on to the Matrimony.com umbrella.  These services understand their market perfectly. According to a 2018 survey,  only five percent of India’s marriages are inter-religious or inter-caste. 93 percent of urban Indians marry a person of their parents’ choice. Only three percent of respondents were in “love marriages” and another 2 percent describe their marriages as “love-cum-arranged”—the term for when one happens to fall in love with a partner their parents chose before actually marrying them. When urban respondents were asked if inter-caste marriages are acceptable, 80 percent said no.
But unsurprisingly, arranging virtual meet-cutes around socioeconomic compatibility means nothing for sexual safety. Between April 2020 and January 2021, Cyber Blog India, a team that reports on cyber safety, heard from 18 women  who were being blackmailed by men they had met on matrimonial websites. The men would initiate a conversation, get intimate to the point of sexting, then use the photos and chats to blackmail the women.
In some high-profile virtual sexual violations of the last few years, perpetrators have occupied the same socioeconomic positions as their victims. The first was arguably the “MMS Scandal” of 2004, when a Delhi Public School student non-consensually filmed a girl classmate half undressed and having oral sex with him. During the 2018 wave of #MeToo conversations in India, multiple women described receiving unsolicited dick-pics from men within their own professional and social circles. In 2020, when an Instagram group-chat called “Bois Locker Room” went public, it revealed male students at posh Delhi schools exchanging sexually explicit messages about girls from their own school networks.
According to NCRB data,  94 percent of rapes registered in 2018 were committed by men known to the survivors. Overwhelmingly, Indian women have more to fear from men we know than from strangers, be it IRL or online. Ultimately, associating socioeconomic difference with ‘creepiness’ doesn’t hold up to the realities of who is and isn’t a sexual danger at an individual level, but it holds up fairly well to predict who we can and cannot fall in love with, so that the khandaan’s izzat can be kept intact.
The Eyes of Beholders
can’t consider it coincidence that 20 years ago, as brand new virtual spaces theoretically threatened to allow for inter-identity mingling, tropes like “franship” bloomed alongside, keeping alive the learned distinctions between which suitors Indian women wanted, versus which ones were so unsuitable that it made us laugh.
In 2021, there are as many ways to find love on the internet as there are types of love but even the most subversive of these spaces reflect the prejudices that animate offline matchmaking. In a 2015 essay  on India’s virtual kink forums, one member was quoted as saying: “People say on their profiles that they won’t talk to you if your English or your grammar isn’t perfect.” A gay friend told me that Grindr remains a hotbed of discriminatory biases. “Some Brahmins will say on their profiles, ‘I’m looking for a Brahmin,’” he said. As Christina Thomas Dhanaraj wrote, “Apps don’t kill caste, we do.” 
It’s a miseducation that Sonal Giani, a Bengaluru-based advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and safety, works hard to counter in herself.
Sonal regularly receives DMs (from people of all genders) that others may call out or laugh off, but she doesn’t. “I call it ‘forward’ and not ‘creepy,’” Sonal said when we spoke on the phone. Sonal assumes that the person on the other side of that message, irrespective of their gender and social position, is worthy and loveable, as any potential friend or partner would be taken to be. And she responds. Once, a message from a woman she didn’t know referenced the song Sarkai Lo Khatiya—a “tharki song” as Sonal politely put it. She went on to date its sender for five years.
It obviously doesn’t always end up that way—as a long, fulfilling romantic relationship—but it often ends in a friendship, Sonal said. Her particular method, cultivated over years of trial and error, is to respond to such messages with voice-notes. It pulls the conversation away from the realm of English-keyboard typing where so much of our discrimination plays out, and humanises both people. In her voice-notes, Sonal asks follow-up questions about the intent behind the message and she tells the sender, sincerely, about how it made her feel.
“The vast majority of men actually don’t send creepy messages. But the few who do, do it a lot.”
Like any woman, Sonal does encounter men who genuinely intend to harass her. But rather than making that assessment based on language or other identity markers, Sonal pushes herself to identify and spell out the violation in terms of consent––like men sending her chats with hyper-persistence despite her only having consented to a once-a-week pace of conversation; or people interacting with her on one platform then finding her non-consensually on another; or anyone leaping straight to overly sexual messages without having first received indication of her interest. Only if the person in question doubles down on his behaviour—and refuses to demonstrate repentance or reform—does Sonal hit ‘Block.’
Sounds exhausting, I told her, but she insisted it isn’t. “It isn’t like dealing with a troll,” she said. “I stopped looking at it like that and started looking at it as an equal relationship where they also have things to offer.” For the most part, she said, it turned out the person on the other end was well-meaning—they were curious about her sexuality in order to learn about their own, or they really had a bit of a crush on her and were trying their luck. “I enjoy people who are comfortable enough to flirt,” Sonal said. “I think shutting people down like this creates a negative atmosphere around love.”
Sonal’s assessment of men on social media mirrored an observation Taru made about Tinder: “The vast majority of men actually don’t send creepy messages. But the few who do, do it a lot.”
It would be foolish for straight single women, in our own pursuit of sex and romance, to shut ourselves off to the world of perfectly loveable strangers just because of a legitimately creepy minority, but that’s often the prescription. When I asked a government official who works in a state police cyber-cell how women looking for love online should go about it safely, she told me, in no uncertain terms, that we just shouldn’t. “It’s purely common sense, first of all,” she said impatiently. “You should not romance strangers. If there is to be a committed relationship, it cannot start from an online one.”
I wanted very badly to tell her she’s wrong. I wanted to tell her about the woman who had emailed me and, on condition of anonymity, told me that six years ago, she’d begun talking to a man on the anonymous secret-sharing app Whisper. Their conversation had moved to Skype, identities still hidden, and then to WhatsApp, where they told one another their names. She’s a Kshatriya; he’s Sonar, that is, from a bahujan community designated OBC. Last December, they celebrated their first wedding anniversary.
I wanted to tell her about the Hindu man and Muslim woman who, he told me, began chatting as strangers on Instagram DMs, got to know one another on Snapchat, and finally said the word “love” to one another on a Google Duo call; and that other couple, also interfaith, who started talking to one another about music in a Discord chatroom, then moved to WhatsApp, and are now making wedding plans with both families on board.
I wanted to tell her that Neil took flowers for Evita’s mother the first time he went to meet her family 11 years ago; and about Prashant and Jagisha, laughing over momos on a first date that changed everything; and about Ceejo and Alpa’s three children, for whom the possibility of an Indian love story across inherited divisions is on display at home every day—nothing radical about it.
n a Sunday morning in March, five months after I’d first seen his poem in my Twitter inbox, Mohan sent me a selfie on WhatsApp. “So you’ll recognise me,” he wrote below the photo (denim button-down, right hand throwing up a peace sign). I got ready and left home.
On the rickshaw ride over to the Café Coffee Day where we’d planned to meet, I marvelled at the bright quiet that Chennai’s streets are able to assume exclusively on Sunday mornings. I wondered what the next hour of my life might look like. I hadn’t carried a notebook or prepared questions. Unlike our past conversations, this one wasn’t an interview. It was just a hangout.
When I arrived, Mohan stood up from the corner table he’d gotten us and extended a hand for me to shake. Both of us beamed. He suggested we go order our coffees and, at the counter, said this would be his treat. I resisted. He insisted. We smiled some more.
I didn’t miss having a list of questions. It turns out we had plenty of common ground to wander through, and we wandered effortlessly. We talked about our parents—we’d both been back at their homes through lockdown after years of living away from them—and exchanged notes on how our relationships with them had changed. We talked about work—we were both at the cusp of professional transitions, so we swapped mutual motivation. We talked about cooking, about YouTube, about how our lives have wound in and around Chennai; about our childhoods, our ideas of a good life, the challenges en route to manifesting them—you get the picture, no?
We talked about the kinds of things friends talk about.
Rega is a writer whose work, for now, focuses primarily on online social cultures. She lives in Chennai.