Do as I tell you and keep away from the gossip of people. For Pheme (Rumour) is an evil thing, by nature, she's a light weight to lift up, oh very easy, but heavy to carry, and hard to put down again.
-Hesiod, Works and Days 760
--a swift-footed creature, a winged angel of ruin, a terrible grotesque monster, each feather upon whose body--incredible though it sounds--has a sleepless eye beneath it, and for every eye she has also a tongue, a voice, and a pricked ear.
Virgil, Aeneid 4.
Rumors. We’ve all started one, at one point or another. With a secret thrill, slight foreboding at consequence, a twang of guilt (consoling ourselves perhaps, that the target had it coming?), out of boredom. A light footed sprite, flitting mischievously, carelessly, between your lips and mine.
Born in bedrooms, at the corner store, in weekly meetings, on the evening news, over the internet. From the wagging, idle, wicked tongues of women, to cunning political conspirators, to anxious mothers inciting fear in wayward children, to desperate mobs, the rumor occupies an intimate position in our social lives. We whisper it furtively and then hide, collectively.
A feather bodied creature full of sifting judgments, doubts, unanswered questions, fantasies, perversions and moralities.
Far from trivial, the rumor is packed with potentialities, attaching itself to a person or group like a leech. And sometimes, with the passing of time, contradictions dissolve, with the emergence of an essence.
Like an echo, the rumor travels across geographies, histories and generations. Though often disparaged and dismissed, our dealings as social beings are governed far more by whispers, doubts, secrets than rigid statistics and steadfast opinions. Brewed from incomplete information, suspicions, carelessness, fear, vengeance, idleness, the rumor is a Chinese whisper, mutating with each teller.
A plausible rumor, remarked Kobe Abe, seems a lot more believable than the truth itself.
In early 2015, an article appeared about a curious vaccination, the ‘anti rumor’. Created to fight the ‘malaise’ of the rumor, the anti rumor was designed to erase a person’s belief in the original rumor, and prevent the person from believing it in the future. The vaccine was born from increasing alarm over the harmful effects of rumors..
The rumor often clings, persistently, an odor that is difficult to get rid off.
A silent whiff, a shadowy presence, lurking, ready to show itself when the occasion demands it.
Like on 27th march 2017, when three young Nigerian students were beaten within an inch of their lives by a mob. Rumors floating across Greater Noida, are convincing in their representation of the cannibalistic African, fueled by drugs with a unique penchant for licentious sexual behavior. Toxic rumors borne from the heart of darkness.
Or when, late at night on 28th September 2015, when a rumor about a ‘stolen calf’ being consumed led to the beating and lynching of a man by a mob armed with sticks and bricks. Some people had observed the victim surreptitiously disposing of a ‘sack’ of meat bones, whilst others had ‘smelt’ the betrayal. The media coverage for a week after the event chose to focus on the identity, not of the murderers or victims, but of the meat. Was the cause of trouble a goat or a cow?
And recently, when seven men were lynched on suspicion of being ‘child-lifters’. This time, the rumor was born through a series of WhatsApp messages. The rumors were successful not just in instigating murder, but in setting the stage for the playing out of resentments- tribal vs non tribal, state vs tribal, Hindu vs Muslim.
And the list goes on.
The rumor can be speculative.
It crystallizes, depending on interpretation and context.
Rumors are produced by, and reinforce distinction.
The rumor is fertile, begetting from its body, many other rumors, that find their own feeding routes. Parasitic, the rumor requires nourishment.
The tenacity of the rumor depends on how much we feed it.
Rumors offer an easy way to other-ise, a simultaneous possibility of violence and reconciliation.
A socially sanctioned circuit of resentment, propaganda, faith and doubt.
This circuit runs from inner private domains out onto streets, into newsrooms, and legislations.
The rumor seeks the exceptional.
Branding us as targets, because of the clothes we wear, the length of our beards, the food we eat and the language we unfortunately know to speak.
Rumors confirm purity and pollution, confer respect and taint.
Rumors fuel aspiration, desires and incomprehensible terrors.
Rumors act as suffix.
as punctuation, as verification in a world where reality truly is stranger than fiction.
By Angarika Guha