Returning to his hometown of Kolkata after almost two years, Arnab Ray spoke to Annesha Das Gupta at the Victoria Memorial soon after wrapping up with his session at the Kolkata Literary Meet in January. Lucid, eloquent and firm in his convictions, Ray talked about Trump and his social media tactics, Durja Puja abroad and ISIS, humour as a dynamic tool and what it means to be a ‘Great Bong’.
Winner of Indibloggies’s ‘Indiblog of the Year’ in 2006 and being featured at India Today’s Bestseller’s list for his first non-fiction ‘May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss’, Ray has managed to garner the attention of the people throughout the world with his sharp humor and quirky posts on his blog. Ranging from cinema to global politics, terrorism to Mithun Chakraborty, the veteran blogger has tried his hand at it all.
Wikipedia mentions you as a person who is popularly known as the ‘Great Bong’. And well, we see that your Twitter handle is of the same moniker. Tell us what does it mean to you?
For me, the ‘Bongness’ essentially defines who I am, even though I blog in English and I primarily do communicate by using English, at least in the written sense. However, I talk in Bengali of course. And Bong represents the pride in where I am from; it also says the kinds of opinions you will get. I am opinionated and I am very, very Sourav Ganguly in the sense that I will take my shirt off and I will swing it around even though I should not. And over the years, this has kind of become my brand so I have never really changed it. The only problem is that the word Bong in the U.S. refers to something, which you take ‘ganja’ from. And I had no idea when I made the name ‘Great Bong’. So over the years I found out that when dealing with Internet service providers and other things that the word Bong; often gets caught in their filters and sometimes that is kind of a minor problem. And that is when I regret now a days that I have ever used the word Bong. Just for that reason.
So ‘Great Bong’ is the blog persona. Arnab Ray is the person.
You are the author of four books now. And the latest of them being, Sultan of Delhi: Ascension published just a few months back. From a blogger to a novelist is quite an impressive feat to say the least. Take us to the beginning of your journey. What motivated you to start a blog? Why not keep a personal journal instead? What was the initial enticement?The fact is when I started off blogging I actually thought that blogs meant a personal journal. And there I started writing about my daily life. But then I realised that this is so boring. I don’t want to read out my daily life. Nobody wants to read about my daily life. It was extremely uninteresting. I started writing about not really my daily life but the things that I experienced through my daily life, which I found out was a little bit more interesting. So I started writing about the movies, I started writing about the politics, I started writing about the news I saw or the cricket matches I saw. And that basically grew into what my blog is at the present conjecture. Though it is still very personal, as it is about my personal opinions and nobody else blogs on my blog. I do not per say and as a matter of fact I consciously do not blog about my life because I want keep my professional life and everything to do about in my family life separated from my blog persona. So ‘Great Bong’ is the blog persona. Arnab Ray is the person.
And that was my first book, which is ‘May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss’. I wrote that book even though I didn’t want to write it. Because what I really want to write was fiction, which has got nothing to do with my blog but maybe I am a bit old-fashioned but I believe that legacy can done only through fiction.
Over the years the thing is that one of the reasons for which I started the blogging was that I was actually a frustrated writer. Because I was trying to not write novels but I was trying to write articles in newspapers and I realised that because I did not have any brand, and because nobody knew who I was – and this was pre-social media, so there was really no way that you could make a name for yourself. Ultimately people, they go by the name; they don’t really go by what you have written. I doubt they even read it sometimes. So I started this blog as a way of showcasing my writing. So that I will not go to anyone else, they will come to me. And this is what many years till Harper Collins approached me to do a book on Mithun Chakraborty. A non-fiction book because I have written a lot about Chakraborty in my blogs. But I said to them that it was not possible for me to do a book on Mithun because they would not pay me enough and because a serious non-fiction requires a lot of resources especially for a book on somebody like Mithun Chakraborty, for which one needs to go to Russia, where he was very influential. So I said rather than doing that book why don’t I take my blog, you know rewrite some of the stuff that I have written for my blog and again put some more material. And that was my first book, which is ‘May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss’. I wrote that book even though I didn’t want to write it. Because what I really want to write was fiction, which has got nothing to do with my blog and maybe I am a bit old-fashioned but I believe that legacy can be done only through fiction. So fifty years from now when I am dead, what I have in blogs nobody will care. And there is a feel of immediacy about the blogs. I mean what I say about Narenda Modi matters now, but it will not fifty years from now, perhaps for historians but nobody else. Books, fiction on the other hand, good fiction has a timeless quality about it. So even two or three hundred years later, you would be Dickens. I know I would not be Dickens but I am going to try. And the first book, I did not write fiction because I did not have any kind of track record in fiction. I knew that it would be tougher for me to get published. So I wrote something I was comfortable with. I wrote about Bollywood, the 90’s pop culture. I knew that it was already written about in the blog and was fairly popular and had a market for it. Once that book became a big success, I then decided that now I can do what I really wanted to do. I started writing fiction. First book was horror, second was I would say literary fiction – Yatrik and this third book is a mafia, a crime-drama.
And it was very difficult to attack humour because if humour is done right, it can attack. I mean humour can bite. You can bring someone down through humour. So it is an extremely powerful weapon. It is also a very benign weapon because it is also a weapon, which does not really have a counter weapon.
You use the sense of humour to connect with your audiences. Do you feel presenting one’s opinions in a humorous manner make it ultimately more efficacious to send the message across the board? Do you think that a scholastically written piece will be given more cover than a satiric one? Or the latter will be able to create more of a word of mouth and thus sustain the attention of the people?
Yes absolutely. Humour is a great weapon. The bad way of taking somebody down is by abusing him. Though making him into a joke is really the best way of bringing anyone down. And over the years and it is throughout the history, court jesters or those who have been comics have always being a contrary voice. Why was there a court jester? In many cases, if we read the history of Birbal for instance, Birbal was actually an adviser to Akbar. The fact is that in those days, you know how you would talk to the ‘Jahapana’. Birbal, he used humour as a way of conveying his ideas. He was a funny person. Though many of the things that are said about him might not be true but we can kind of reasonably say that he was a funny person. He used humour. And it was very difficult to counter humour because if humour is done right, it can attack. I mean humour can bite. You can bring someone down through humour. So it is an extremely powerful weapon. It is also a very benign weapon because it is also a weapon which does not really have a counter weapon. Because if somebody is making fun; you can always say ‘Mei Mazaak Kaar Raha Tha’. So there is always this duality about humour, which I like. And it is always popular. So if you rather write an angry piece versus you write a humorous piece, you will find that the humorous piece is obviously going to be more liked. Even by people who don’t agree with you. They will still like the humour. They might not like the content but if you write something in anger then only people, who are angry as well, can similarly relate to the piece which you written.
The good thing about U.S. cities is that they have always looked the same, they are very homogenous. Calcutta is very different from Bombay, very different from Delhi, very different from Bangalore. Language and culture and everything.
As someone who has relocated to another country for their employment, an NRI, you have depicted this particular motif quite artfully in your blog Random Thoughts of a Demented Mind. The Issue, a short story that you have posted concerning what takes place abroad during the Durga Puja, the epicentre of Bengali culture, can be cited as a good example. Can you tell us about the vicissitudes of leaving behind one’s own birthplace behind and to recreate its montage in a foreign land feels like? Does it help the person to reconnect with their own culture or are there certain discrepancies in the end result?The fact is that I left Kolkata in 1999 and it has been many years. I have worked in no place other than India. I was in Jadavpur University till 1999 then I want to the United States. I have almost reached the stage where half of my life I have spend in Calcutta and the other half of my life abroad. Although the majority of it is still in Calcutta, but within four or five years it will be the same exactly. So for me, sometimes I am confused as to what my home is! Definitely when I come to Calcutta there are places which I cannot recognise. Actually do not physically recognise because they were not there. So I sometimes feel in a greater sense of being not at home when being in Calcutta than I am in Chicago. The good thing about U.S. cities is that they have always looked the same, they are very homogenous. Calcutta is very different from Bombay, very different from Delhi, very different from Bangalore. Language and culture and everything. The look and the feel of the cities are very different. As a person staying in America, I am very much in tandem with what goes on in India. Through the Internet I basically stay in India. In my home, I do not have a US cable TV but an Indian one. So I watch everything real time as it happens in here. Personally, I do not personally interact much with Bengalis living there and that is because I do not have the time. There is a bit of a simulation of what Bengali life is in the US. I mean it can never be really. Because you know when Durga Puja is taking place here in October it is already snowing in the US. And thus you have this ridiculous sight of women wearing sarees and wearing all these huge jackets over it, which covers them from here to here (indicating from neck to knees). But they are wearing a saree inside because of course it’s Durga Puja, so they can’t wear jeans. But I find that ridiculous. I mean I understand that of course, but it is not an event for this place. This happens in India at the time when the weather is at its best.
You don’t do Durga Puja, right? You go to the pandals for a maximum four days – finished. Over there it is not the case. Durga Puja in the U.S. is a two-month thing. Everybody participates, they organise the whole event. They meet up every Saturday and Sunday. So it is a big deal.
The best time of doing this would be, let’s say summer in America. So there is always this dissonance from what they believe the truth is and what it actually is. Durga Puja rarely takes place on the actual day that Durga Puja is taking place in West Bengal. That thing which you are calling Saptami is not actually Saptami. I have seen the purohit there doing Puja reciting the scriptures that is performed during the worship of Devi Saraswati and them doing ‘Bia’ not knowing which slokas to refer from. Not in many but at one place I did witness such a thing. And another point I will like to mention that initially I used to find it funny but then once I went in one of these Pujas in Toronto where I was invited to do a bit of a stand-up routine. There I realised that I am the real fool in here because for them it is a big thing. Perhaps it was the artefact of that Puja. But the group of people there were really great. They have worked for the whole of two months. I mean, what happens in Calcutta is that most of our experiences in the Durga Puja is as a passive observer. You don’t do Durga Puja, right? You go to the pandals for a maximum four days – finished. Over there it is not the case. Durga Puja in the U.S. is a two-month thing. Everybody participates, they organise the whole event. They meet up every Saturday and Sunday. So it is a big deal. Though for me, since I am not part of the organisation, I do the two-day weekend thing and I find it silly. But I realise that for people who were actually there, it is not the two days, it is what that leads to all of it – all the decorations that they have done by hand, all the arrangements for the food. So I can understand that is really the part of the Durga Puja experience outside India.
For instance, if you will look at things thirty years ago, you could only write for a newspaper if you are a journalism student or if you are already employed or else if you are a politician and of course if you are somebody rich. It was never contemporary.
What do you think about the advent of the cyberspace? It has given countless opportunities to certain sections of the society who were earlier subjugated and marginalised. The examples of the increasing visibility of alternative sexualities and narratives of the people living along the fringes, is one. So it is all hunky-dory or are there deeper ramifications of it? Nigerian fraud scams, hate speech and cyber-bullying are some of the insidious instances that come to my mind. How was your own experience in the ever expanding world of the internet?
So the point is again that it is true. Social media has given voices to people who otherwise will be marginalised. And it is not just for people of subjective backgrounds. It is true for the LGBT* community but so is it true for the ‘normal’ people. For instance, if you will look at things thirty years ago, you could only write for a newspaper if you are a journalism student or if you are already employed or else if you are a politician and of course if you are somebody rich. It was never contemporary. I mean no newspaper published someone just because that person was interesting. Now social media affords and it lets people become celebrities. Being an engineer who does not roam in the literary and poetry sphere, there would have been no way I would have been established as an author in the media space and in the book space if I was forty years old in the 1970s.
Well, it is actually that this person committed an act of terror and declaring that he is from ISIS. This is kind of a self-identification. So in a way, when the world is saying that it is fighting ISIS and that we are going to bomb ISIS to the ground, they are in reality taking about the organization of ISIS – which is in any case not really a threat to anyone outside the people in the region.
Your post on the dimensions of terrorism identity can be a generator of immense discussion and may even create a paradigm shift. The Two ISISs, the name of your article carries out the detection of the crisis while pointing out the differences between ISIS the group and ISIS the brand. Can you elucidate further on this particular theory for those who are not acquainted with it?
Whenever you hear this news that ISIS has done this and ISIS has done that, it is important for people to understand that the ISIS as an organization is very small; powerful in its own space but not globally powerful. In a way it has no branch. It is a mortal group of Sunni radicals who are trying to gain control in a very lawless section of the world, which is roughly, in Iraq and in Syria. But the danger of ISIS is that it is more a symbol, it is more an emblem. So anybody can take a black flag and put ISIS on it and become ISIS – anywhere in the world. Thus again danger is its franchise and so when you hear about these isolated lone wolves committing acts of terror, saying it is ISIS terror. Well, it is actually that this person has committed an act of terror and declaring that he is from ISIS. This is kind of a self-identification. So in a way, when the world is saying that it is fighting ISIS and that we are going to bomb ISIS to the ground, they are in reality taking about the organization of ISIS – which is in any case not really a threat to anyone outside the people in the region. Of course, they are a threat there but ISIS as an idea has deeper roots. And that is even if you kill ISIS the group, it will just be rebranded again in another name. Before ISIS it was Al-Qaeda. And now it will become something else depending on who basically appropriates that brand of a global Islamic terrorist.
When Trump is tweeting, he tweets as himself. He tweets things that are often against the interest of his own party. He tweets because somebody has said something to him and he needs to react. So he mostly tweets like a common person does. Modi and all these other different politicians, they use the social media as a platform.
You talked about Trump during the session as someone who is ‘U.S.’s Social Media President’. Can our own Prime Minister Narenda Modi, be defined as of the same ilk? From being promoted by Zuckerberg to creating a wave among the both younger as well as the older generation. The hash tag of the Abki Baar Modi Sarkaar was the much trending phenomenon during that period. What are your thoughts on it? Was it a fad? If yes, it ultimately did veer the whole nation and even influential countries of the world into a completely new path.See the difference between Narenda Modi and Donald Trump is that Modi does not tweet himself. His Twitter account is managed by the BJP IT cell and that is usually the case for most heads of state. So even when Obama was the president or let’s particular take the case of Hillary’s tweets; is that it is not the person themselves are tweeting. The only exception is Donald Trump. When Trump is tweeting, he tweets as himself. He tweets things that are often against the interest of his own party. He tweets because somebody has said something to him and he needs to react. So he mostly tweets like a common person does. Modi and all these other different politicians, they use the social media as a platform. It is a very organised way of doing it and they have an IT cell, they have a messaging. It is not that he decides what is going to go there. There is a group of people who thinks as to how that Tweet will be structured, how language is going to be – whether they will tweet on something or not. As a matter of fact, the committee does everything and that is how it is operated all over the world.
Though the part of Trump’s mystique and the reason of why he became the President is that a lot of people could see that this person is kind of not a politician. He is kind of an anti-politician. He tweets whatever is there on his mind. No politician would pick up fights with random people. He does pick up fights with random people. Although as a president now, he may now not legally, constitutionally say what he wants but I am pretty sure he is not going to listen to that. The use of social media by other politicians is a way of messaging, while the use of social media by Trump was a way of getting elected. I don’t think anybody in the world has used social media like that. And as I said, Trump’s main allure and his biggest USP is that when you read his tweets you feel like ‘Hey! This guy is talking from the heart’. And this is exactly the way he is feeling. You automatically think that everything else that comes out of his mouth is spontaneous. And that’s kinds of separates him from everybody else whether it is Bernie or Hillary. And specially, from Hillary, because everything about her is sanitised and nothing comes out of Hillary’s mouth, which has not, been approved by hundred other people. While with Trump, it is the very volatility of him, which kind of reflects all of us, is what kind of endears him at least to a certain section of people of American constituency.
Though at most of the other instances what is passed off as Trolling, are essentially people calling out on other people, pointing out on the hypocrisy, presenting a counter argument or just saying that what one is telling is actually a lie. And in the social media world, just as there is in the real world – there is a pyramid of privilege. So, not everybody is same.
As a social media personality, can you run us through the power politics, mainly the phenomenon of ‘trolling’ which is much a dominant action disseminating in this particular sphere?
See, it is very difficult to say what Trolling actually is. When it comes to the matter of death threats or other threats of violence, it becomes pretty unambiguous at that point of time. It generally becomes a legal issue. Though at most of the other instances what is passed off as Trolling, are essentially people calling out on other people, pointing out on the hypocrisy, presenting a counter argument or just saying that what one is telling is actually a lie. And in the social media world, just as there is in the real world – there is a pyramid of privilege. So, not everybody is same. Then there are those who are in power and power can be defined by the social capital, let’s say, are the number of followers they have. If a person with 1.2 Million followers says that ‘This guy is trolling me’, that automatically becomes the truth. Examples can be given of Indian media figures, specially the mainstream ones, who have been used to not being questioned. I mean they are used to not being questioned is because they control the airwaves. This is a close cabal, who all go to the same place and who all know each other. So they are all friends. And this circle of friends, they never get hypercritical about each other.
So ‘Oh they are trolls. I won’t engage with them’ but what are they really saying? They are not abusing you, they will take a screenshot of a tweet that they made and then you deleted. Why did you delete that tweet? Why did you that tweet you made? Because you realise that it is wrong.
Now for the first time in their perfumed existence, they are encountering a group of people who are taking them on. And these people are stars in their own right; they have their own number of followers. They may not have as much as the media bigwigs have but they have a pretty significant number who are calling them out at every step. So now when a media figure comes out a 9 o’clock and says something, one knows that it might not be actually the whole truth. There are other forces working behind what you hear and this is the kind of challenge, which the mainstream media is not being used to. So the word Trolling has been used as some kind of pejorative, some kind of negative word which is being used to basically, I would not say silence because nobody is silencing anyone but it is used to disparage the opinions of the ones they find inconvenient. So ‘Oh they are trolls. I won’t engage with them’ – but what are they really saying? They are not abusing you but just that they will take a screenshot of a tweet that you made and then you deleted. Why did you delete that tweet? Because you realise that it is wrong. And now that you self-accept that it’s wrong. And we are just doing what the media will do. If media finds that a file is being destroyed they will basically keep the file. We in the social media are holding the same media accountable to what they say, in the same way they expected to interrogate those in the political power accountable. So it is just one more step down the ladder of power.
And the last one, what new and exciting projects can we expect from you in the near future?So I have a big mystery novel releasing sometime this year most probably in June, called Mahabharata Murders and it is at least in terms of publisher interest, is my biggest novel yet. Not in terms of length, but there was definitely an enormously of publisher interest when this came out. And I am also working on Sultan of Delhi: Part II, the first of which has been optioned for a TV series. Although it does not mean that it will be made for certain into a series, but it has most certainly been taken by a production company who wants to transfer it from the book universe to our small screens and then try to sell it. And I am at present almost thirty percent done with the second part and expect it come out by 2018. Then I am working on another project, Shaatchurni. It will be in English and is set in East Bengal and last days of the zamindars. The story is about the wife of the zamindar family being possessed by a Shaatchurni. So yes, these are the exciting projects I am working on. And I will also be on the Twitter and on my blog, may be not as much as it was three or five years back because I have all these projects but I will definitely be present.
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