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June 18, 2016

The Benefits of Anonymity

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Hemant Sapre

How important is it for journalists, writers and cineastes to be invisible in company?

Each word slurring into the next, as he plonked three pairs of sunglasses into my unsuspecting hands and rushed off, he mumbled, “Here, take these, you will see how special they are.” A bit like the vanishing rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, Michel, an acquaintance in Paris whom I first met when I was a student there in the late ’60s, has the habit of turning up, even at road intersections or favourite cafes in the Latin Quarter. This time it was in the early ’80s when we were in Paris for a couple of months. And, was I glad that my furtive friend — his curly hair turning grey at the sides now — did not linger on to see my reaction.

It was one of horror. There they were — three quasi-psychedelically colourful sunglasses in odd shapes and hues; the green octagonal one was the most horrific. At the time it hurt my bourgeois soul. The lenses were a kind of bilious green — more suited for frogs than us Homo sapiens. But gradually, I began to love them. Secretly, at first. I wondered if Elton John would wear them; they looked like his type. Initially I wore them with a fair amount of trepidation, but soon discovered that not only did they protect my eyes from the glare of the sun but these sunglasses also doubled as a mask. Celebrities wear them in the mistaken belief that they shield their identity from curious onlookers and the paparazzi. Socialites and wannabes with freshly augmented bank accounts slap on the branded ones to announce their status in the hierarchy of ‘the arrived’.

An individual itch
Most others use them to protect their eyes from the glare of the midday sun. For me, putting on those goggles was akin to slapping on another persona, well, like Batman or Catwoman, to stretch the point. It was one that was so unlike who I really was — or perceived to be. For much of my life I was almost always clothed in a handloom sari with a blouse that didn’t ‘match’ according to the high priests and priestesses of the day. Perhaps, it was the only visible sign of the assertion of an individual itch.

The two little octagonal windows were like green drapes. They allowed me to escape categorisation — of being pinned down and slotted into a definition or a type. Those who presumed they knew me were confused by the contradictory signals, as much as they were by the fact that they could not see my reactions. Onlookers couldn’t ‘read’ me anymore. This confusion allowed me, briefly, a whiff of the power of anonymity while they prattled on, oblivious to the fact that they were unburdening themselves.

Being invisible in company, merging into the wallpaper like the proverbial fly on the wall is essential for spies, undoubtedly. But, it is equally important for journalists, writers and cineastes to remain in the shadows, to be anonymous, as it were. It is the next best thing to eavesdropping. Imagine the overheard bits of dialogue, unguarded observations as well as the expressions and insights accompanying them. Now, if you were one of the ubiquitous breed of self-inflated powerful people who strut about the capital, usually throwing the gauntlet of ‘do-you-know-who-I-am’ wherever you go, I doubt if you could come by closely held information easily. You would put people on their guard, instead. In the information game, a puppeteer in the shadows will be more successful in ferreting information than making puppets on a string dance out there for all to see.

Of pen names
Anonymity or pseudonyms have long been useful devices for writers. In previous centuries it certainly empowered women writers. Their pens were powerless without anonymity or a masculine pen name. Male publishers believed and proclaimed that literature was not the business of women. Poet laureate Robert Southey wrote to Charlotte Brontë a decade before the publication of Jane Eyre, urging her not to become a writer: ‘Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be’. Had she signed the novel with her name and not the pen name Currer Bell, it may never have seen the light of day during her lifetime.

Similarly, many other writers, including her sisters Emily and Anne would not have been published while still living. Emily’s nom de plume was Ellis Bell, and her sister Anne’s was Acton Bell. Had Mary Ann Evans not taken on the name George Eliot and Louisa May Alcott not used the pen name A. M. Barnard, literary classics like Middlemarch and Little Women may not have been published when they were. Across the Channel from England, French writer Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dudevant used the nom de plume of George Sand for her first novel, Indiana, which was hugely successful when it was published in 1832. Interestingly, the pen name for Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was ‘A Lady’: anonymity gave her the freedom, the power really, to use delicious satire and parody to illuminate the foibles and expose the flaws in the society of her time.

Zoom forward to the present. In our age of the internet, anonymity empowers men and women and children to hide behind another persona — to say what they wouldn’t dare otherwise. In the virtual world, the assumption of alternative identities allows them to take on people they wouldn’t be able to in the real world. A timid person can puff himself up and become a bully using his or her online avatar. Inhabiting other personas enables you to pretend to be what you admire. Or ‘date’ random people through apps. Anonymity also empowers the not-so-nice amongst us to slander others, spread rumours and wage all kinds of wars on the internet.

For me, those green sunglasses served the purpose of a red herring.

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