PUBLICLY PRIVATE

In our lives, both professional and private, the biggest change that I can think of is the present day constant invasion of our private lives as compared to when I was small. Indeed, there is no private life. We have to somehow conform to the public and the common. Ayn Rand would be turning in her grave.‘Curiosity kills the cat’ has always been true. Remember the olden day joke about the boss who told his secretary, “Mark this memo ‘SECRET’. I want all in the office to read it”? Lovers of yore, for example, wrote volumes about and lamented how the whole world knew about their ‘secret’ love. The more you tried to keep ‘duniya’ or ‘zamana’ (world) out of your affairs, the more they intruded. Historically, varied ways were found to keep the unauthorized out from entering your domain, for example, fences and walls, passwords, torn currency notes, identity cards and even chastity belts. At times these succeeded whilst at others you just had to live with the unwanted intrusions.

During the WW II, a German spy had to detrain at a little known English village whereat he was to contact a counterspy. He knew the password or phrase and its reply and also the name of the person he had to contact. On alighting at the station, he approached a porter and enquired about this person, “I have to meet a Mr. Smith. Would you know anything about him?” At this the porter replied, “Here, Smith is a very common surname; the Station Master is Smith, the Ticket Collector is Smith; the Bookshop vendor is Smith and, even I am Smith”. “Oh, you are Smith?” asked the German spy hopefully and straightway tried the secret phrase, “Well, ‘I have a corn on my left toe’ ”. At this the porter replied, “So, it is Smith the Spy that you desire. Why did you not tell me before?”

You may also recall the good old joke about a Russian calling President Brezhnev a fool; he was tried on two serious charges: one, for showing disrespect to the highest authority, and two, for revealing a state secret.

In the Navy, my erstwhile employer, we took secrets and classified information and books rather seriously. Photographs and Photostats were a big no no. I remember the time when the first of the Photostat machines came to the Navy; well, one had to make an application in sextuplicate to ask for a page to be xeroxed. Many a times, what was already in Jane’s or newspapers was marked SECRET. I remember a fascinating middle in a newspaper penned by Jesse Kochar about the most reliable sources for naval wives about ships’ sailings: the newspaper vendor and the LIC agent.

However, nowadays there are prying eyes everywhere and protecting privacy has become a full time job. As soon as one goes on to the Internet, one is naked to the whole world. The other day I wanted to learn about something that I never had, that is, ‘a flat stomach’. I checked a few articles on the Google. One year later, irrespective of the nature of my Google research, say, Iranian Elections’ or ‘UAVs’, the ads on the sidelines have curiously been about ‘flat stomach’ and these still pop out most innocuously. For example, “Want a flat stomach? Annie tells you how. Cheapest rates in the world”; and all I wanted to find out was whether a certain Poonam Pandey had kept her promise or not.

These days what is available on facebook and Twitter debates and hence known to millions of viewers would have put a person in trouble if he/she had disclosed to a few friends.

It used to be a serious offence to even try to learn about military locations. Nowadays, one can download everything from Google Earth or other equally revealing sites. Many a times, senior officers are answering questions on the television about matters which they had thought even their own personnel did not know about; though, it is a fact that the media mixes facts and fiction into an ever changing concoction; so much so that one is never sure where fiction ends and reality begins or vice-versa. ‘Let it all hang out’ is the catchphrase of the media whereas the armed forces, bureaucracy and government offices would like to have a fig-leaf of secrecy about varied matters. Fig leaf? It reminds me of the time when a group of old ladies went on a botanical tour and came across this tree the kind of which they had not seen earlier. When told that it was a fig tree, one of them could not help remarking in a shocked voice, “My, my; I’d always imagined the leaves to be bigger.”

There is, thus, these days, nowhere to hide. Ratan Tata, for example, moved a petition in the Supreme Court that he had a right to his privacy; and how was it that his Personal & Confidential mail to Karunanidhi was available everywhere? Nira Radia and others who interacted with her; and a certain B Dutt realised that there is nothing like having private conversations and that one has to be guarded all the time. Someone, somewhere is always snooping. Everything is public, everything is common knowledge.

Passwords? Well, words fail me to describe how these have taken over our lives. Remember the good old: “Halt, who goes there” and the reply, “Friend with a bottle”, and the final security clearance – “Pass friend. Halt bottle”? Nowadays, for everything there are hurdles of Login IDs and Passwords; be it bank accounts, emails, secured nets, forums and groups. Many of these are to be changed periodically and mandatorily. Hence, to keep track of your current IDs and Passwords is as difficult as to name the current boyfriends of some of our popular actresses. If you try the wrong combination a number of times, your account gets locked, in the manner of the Chastity belt I told you about, or the draw bridge over the moat, denying you further access.

In all this, what are the chances of unintentionally matching Passwords? Here is a scenario:

One day, at the border with our ‘Friendly Neighbour on Western Side’ (By the way, this is how this country is described in exercises in the armed forces for, hold your breath, reasons of security), the security question and reply for the border sentries matched. A soldier on sentry duty on FNWS met his counterpart on Indian side, without realizing the sides were opposite and boomed, “Kali chhatri” (Black umbrella). On receiving the response, “Neela aasmaan” (Blue sky), both relaxed and started chatting. They described how their officers were b_ _ _ _ _ _ s of very high order, which too matched totally and added to the developing bonhomie between them. Every now and then they exchanged ‘Kali Chhatri” and “Neela Aasmaan” and felt reassured that they were on the same side, until, they came to specifics. And then…despite cries of KC and NA, they were at each other’s throats.

Far fetched? You won’t be too sure if you stop to think that Faridkote is a town each on either side of our border with FNWS.

Shahid Afridi recently aired some private views publicly, which warmed the cockels of Indians’ hearts. No sooner had he finished doing it when he was privately taken to task for being anti-national and anti-Pakistan. He was reminded that the raison d’etre of Pakistan was relentless hatred towards its Unfriendly Neighbour on the Eastern Side (UNES). He then publicly retraced his steps and spat out venom.

The other day, many of my Passwords for various sites turned out to be Fail-words. I tried again and again and was totally frustrated when the account was locked. Exasperated, I turned to God and prayed, “God, I am your humble servant. Keep me from the false security and frustration caused by Passwords.” To my bewilderment, there was lightning and thunder and then I heard God tell me, “Please try again to register prayer; your name and password don’t match.”

Last year when I left the Navy after thirty seven years, I left with a nightmarish thought that if I were ever to be taken a POW by the agents of the FNWS and I had to reveal a secret to save my life, I won’t really know of any.
Are there no secrets anymore? Is there no private life? How much do we want the society and the world to be regulated? Let alone spoken and written words, the other day I read an article that there is research going on to get into the minds of the people so that even before they take a decision their ideas should be known.

God, how is it that when we want to be heard no one hears us? But, when we want to keep something personal or private they don’t let us?

I am reminded of the time when a government official was trying to sell a radio set to a farmer in far corner of USSR. The farmer was not impressed. So the official told him, “Look at it this way. With this you can be in any part of USSR and still hear Moscow.”

The farmer had only one request, “Nah; but, do you have anything by which Moscow can hear us?”

All those who regularly snoop on other people’s conversations, affairs and bank accounts; all those who snooped on Radia and her friends with such dexterity, do you have anything by which you can overhear millions of our countrymen dying of hunger and crying in pain? Do you have anything to make their private misery public?

© 2011 – 2013, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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