This Article is From Oct 20, 2015

The SMS Came When I Was in Hospital

"Every single time, she just throws me under the bus," shared someone at a dinner table a few months ago with a blend of awe and pride at his wife's predilection for publicly dismantling him. Boom, he said excitedly, gesturing how she would publicly detonate him.

Is this new-age savoir fare? Somehow, we have written ourselves into the age of the mean-spirited one-liner, where it's terribly important to be terribly funny.

Not so long ago, love presumed that you might lurch - even if only half-heartedly - into zig-zagging traffic to stop a partner from being run over. Or at the very least, shout a warning from the sidewalk. Next Valentine's Day, throw that special someone under the bus.    

Or roast them - a cheap trick, where mean masquerades for funny and gets a lot of laughs. Like with most things I struggle to make sense of, like can clashing prints be office-appropriate wear, I turn to Mindy Kaling, whose pronouncement as the next Dalai Lama is frankly overdue.    

In her book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, she writes, "Do they call up their parents excitedly, like, Look Ma! I made it! I'm eviscerating Pamela Anderson on television tonight for having STDs!" adding later in the chapter, "I'm sad that a legitimate rung on the ladder of making it in comedy is writing hateful stuff about total strangers."

The tech that was meant to squeeze routines, endow us with more time, has conned us into believing we are busier than ever before. So we communicate with absurd abbreviations and abbreviated emotion. Mean is funny, and funny is short.

That's risky business and we are sold on it, taking bite-sized chunks out of each other. "Casual cruelty", a phrase used earlier this month by The New York Times, is now a thing.
I was in hospital, my wrists tethered to a tangle of wires, so that my hands when they moved looked like jellyfish in half-hearted search of sea. My head felt like it was being used to roller paint a wall. Monitors lined the top of my bed, sentinels trained to sound alarm if something went adrift. Till then, they transmitted the nonchalance of so far so good, droning in low and largely off key.

The soundtrack clarified that my organs, apparently, are not melodic. You would think they would try a little harder given that it is their serial shortcomings that had deposited me in a space where nurses fritter pillows and pills, asking "Okay?'' as they check their phones, making it clear that an answer would dissemble the expectations we hold of each other. That would be very un-okay.

Hospitals, like airports, are exponentially lonelier at night, cloistering strangers that really just want to be elsewhere. So when the SMS announced itself with rude health, my jellyfish hand reached for the phone with some relief.

It was from a friend, live-texting a quote from an expert whose lecture he was attending. It was dispatched to me because it stoutly supported my friend in an argument that rages between us with such delicious flourish that I think neither of us wants to see it resolved.

We have disagreed, amicably at times and rancorously at others, depending on the quantity and caliber of drinks on the table. Score settling and keeping is par for the course.

But he knew I was in hospital with a serious infection when he texted me. What he passed on wasn't a particularly clever observation - or a unique one - so it didn't dent my side of the debate, I quickly decided. But it did damage in a different way - it came with neither prologue nor epilogue asking how I was feeling.

With accoutrements, I suppose, it would miss its mark as the boo-yah it was intended to be. But the truth of it is that there is no long and short of it anymore.

Even kids get that. Duh. I have encountered a not insignificant number of children, poised one arm on hip, half-a-teapot style, countering parental instructions by emitting, "Seriously? Seriously?" This, I'm told, is cute.

Banter used to be more. Back-and-forth, to start with. That was then. Who now really has the time for he said, she said? Quick and dirty does nicely, thank you. Like Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy if they were on Day 3 of a juice cleanse.

All this arrested development, this economy of expression and feeling, is stunting us at a time when we are in desperate need of a surfeit of both. Our interactions are too carefully measured, sanded down to conceal more than they reveal. Of mirth that is dark, let us have much more, for it is most appealing as a rescue act, performing the incomparable service of sucking in the black and refracting it as light. But of mirth that is skimpy and preys on others because it has lost its hunting skills, let us reconsider.

A few years ago, I called cricketer and all-round class act Rahul Dravid to discuss an ad he was to film that day. "No More Mr Nice Guy" was his opening line, I informed him. "But what's wrong with being a nice guy?" he asked, bewildered. What indeed? The ad was meant to show a more rumpled version of Dravid, one where his commentary would be gruffer, edgier, grittier. Essentially, he was required to mean it up. Nice hasn't had a seat at the cool kids' table for a while, but at least it was used in recent years by pop culture to denote old school; now, it has been minimized so consistently that it gets virtually no screen time. We have boxed it up, consigned it to the attic along with fax machines and hopefully, stirrup trousers. Dravid, ever the gent, shot the ad without demanding a rewrite. But he sounded a little bemused through the entire spot, a touching exercise in the futility of civility.

In the same hospital, my recovery crawled at a distinctly untrendy pace. That same night, a few hours later, came another SMS, impelling another jellyfish hand salute.

From a time zone where the lights were disappearing in skyscrapers, one floor after another calling it a day, a friend said he had heard I was unwell and thought some lines from a film he had just watched would cheer me up.

"We're not laughing at you. We're laughing with you," says one sister to another in Todd Solondz's Happiness. "But I'm not laughing" is the response.   

If that doesn't make you twinge at least a little, I'd like you to consider the option that you're dead inside. Boom.

(Suparna Singh is Director of Strategy, NDTV and Managing Editor of