People make New Years’ resolutions. I decided to make something easier. On 1 January 2012, I created a fake Facebook account. No, it was not because I wanted to chat with ex-boyfriends or interesting men, watch pornographic links without worrying about it showing up on my friends’ feeds, test my husband’s loyalty (he wasn’t on FB anyway, I might have tried if he were!) or find out Pakistan’s nuke secrets. I wanted to stalk my stalker.
A year or a little more before that, I became aware of a female stalker. I had never met the girl in life outside Facebook, but had said “yes” to her friend request because of the usual so-many-mutual-friends syndrome. Her profile photo was the cover of Albert Camus’ The Outsider, and one of her ‘public’ status updates was in praise of Che Guevara: In all this, she could have been one of my students. I said yes to her without paying much attention. It was, I have to confess, the men that I ‘ignored’, not women. And so I promptly forgot about her, as I usually do about two-thirds of my FB friend list.
Until one day – it must have been summer, my energy was low, my temper high – I noticed someone tagging all my profile photos as hers. Let me call her ‘A’ – ‘A’ is where my little finger rests on the keyboard. It’s easier to type. I declined all the tag requests and wrote her an email.
“Is it a mistake gone viral on your computer?” I asked.
“What mistake?” she wrote back immediately.
I was irritated: “You wanted to tag my photos as yours. Why?”
“Oh,” she replied again, with three emoticons, only the first of which I recognised as ‘old smiley’, “I wanted my wall to be filled with your photographs.”
I took a shower, drank some watermelon juice, played with my young niece – all known to be calming activities – and then sat down to write her an email.
I realise that I’m much older than you – at least in years – but I’m still not old enough to be a photo on a wall, if you know what I mean. While doing this might be your virtual way of putting a dried marigold garland around my photograph, I must confess that I am still not prepared to meet the same fate that met my grandparents, once lovely and loving, but now only photos in ugly frames in my parents’ puja-ghar.
All best wishes,
To this too came an immediate response. “I wanted to show off to my friends,” she wrote.
I forgave her for two reasons: It must have appealed to my ego, that being friends with me could actually be a way of showing off, and I thought she was young enough to make such mistakes. I had made worse at her age.
A few days later, she wrote me a message. A simple, harmless “What are you doing?” I didn’t reply. I don’t usually reply to messages and texts that turn the keyboard into a symbol of the carpe diem: “I am typing a reply to your message!” And so it continued for a few days, until I discovered a status update by A that quoted a poem I had published a long time ago, one that I was embarrassed to read on a printed page or computer screen anymore. I pretended that I had not seen it.
But she struck again – this time it was a photograph of an old handwritten letter I had sent my then best friend. I was in the third grade and had just discovered written Bangla. For the Bengali New Year, I drew watercolour flowers and leaves on a piece of paper. Inside it I wrote a Bangla child-rhyme that I’d copied from a card someone had given an older cousin the previous year:
Gachher paata nawrey chawrey
Tomar kawtha monay pawrey
Tumi aamar bondhu hou
Nawbobawrsher card-ti nao.
Leaves flutter, I think of you, You are my friend, So this New Year’s card is for you. The use of such sentimental apparatus was possible only in Bengali, and only by a Bengali child.
This girl, who I was yet to recognise as a stalker – or, more specifically, my stalker – had obviously discovered this trash-bin memorabilia from somewhere, and now, having scanned it, she had circled the word ‘bondhu’ with a highlighter. Then, with some scrambled-egg intelligence, she had made a connection between the ‘bondhu’, meaning ‘friend’, and the Facebook friend request. The innocent “take this card, be my friend” of my handmade card to my friend more than twenty-five years ago had been appropriated to the “Will you be my friend?” of the Facebook kind by this young girl.
My first reaction was embarrassment, and so I untagged myself immediately. I wanted to ‘report’ this photo to the FB admin team but didn’t. What reason could I give them? That I was regretful of my childhood? Instead I wrote a message to the girl: “How do you know Anamitra?” There was no reply from her for days. She kept on putting up regular updates though. It irritated me, even disturbed me, her silence. I decided to write to her again. “How do you know Anamitra?” I asked again. The next morning I discovered this message from her:
Ever since I met you, even if only virtually, I keep on thinking about you. I wanted to be your friend, a very close friend. For that I thought it was important that I discover you through people who knew you. I wrote messages and emails to people who commented on your updates and photos, friends who came across as close to you. Many of them accepted my friend requests. I asked them about you, if they knew something about your childhood, about your school years and college days, about boyfriends you might have had and boys who had liked you, in fact anything that I did not know about you.
Only a few replied. A friend of yours, now settled in Michigan, told me about your first bicycle accident. She told me how everyone was jealous that you always came first in class. She also told me about how you were the last girl in class to get your period. I thanked her several times for this information until she asked me whether I was a journalist doing an essay on writers from small towns. I never replied to that mail. How could I have lied?
There are many other interesting things that I have discovered about you, things that make you even more fascinating to me. But since you asked about Anamitra, here is the story.
Her FB message to me ended here. I was livid, I was shocked, I was even curious. And I began to see things in daylight at last: This was a love letter to the idea of me. I forwarded this message to the person I loved. My husband, in the manner of all husbands who are ultra rationalists to their wives’ uber-sentimental selves, first called the mail “spam”, and then unhappy with this four letter word, chose another, in fact two – “hoax-mail”. Still not happy, he invoked another – “love”. I hung up on him.
I waited for the rest of her message to arrive. I worked on teasing copy-edits to stop my mind from playing hopscotch with possibilities. I was behaving like a scholar desperate for sources and references. It didn’t matter to me, I reasoned to myself, not that card, not that memory, even if both had been put on FB to create a certain idea of the person I had been. It was, only in that limited sense, a tag on my timeline.
I have to confess that I did not sleep well that night. I kept on checking my FB account intermittently, expecting the next installment of A’s mail. It did not arrive. The next morning, on my way to work, I began reading about Charles Dickens’ serialisation of his novels – it being his 200th birth anniversary – and it suddenly struck me that it was possible that A had purposely ended her message there. Suspense – the staple of the serial fiction writer. I would wait for a week.
A didn’t write. I began working on scrubbing her out of my mind gradually. Well, almost. Outside of Facebook, however, I began to enquire about Anamitra from old school friends. Her father had worked for Indian Oil, and so I put in place an amateur espionage system. Old school friends, relatives of distant relatives, acquaintances of colleagues – wasn’t there anyone who knew Anamitra’s father? I knew only his surname, and that he had a pretty daughter my age. Wasn’t that enough?
When no message arrived from A, I began to make tangential enquiries about her. The general consensus among my FB friends was that they were better off without her constant probing and greed for insider information about people, especially me. And so I tried to relax, but I had become the classic stalker’s victim, someone who now felt the irresistible urge to stalk the stalker.
When nothing arrived, I decided to make a fake profile: ‘A’ was 24 years old, came from a small town in Uttar Pradesh, and had studied English at Delhi University. Yes, as you must have guessed already, I created a profile whose co-ordinates matched the original A’s. I went to the original A’s page and copied her ‘likes’ (her favourite books, movies, TV shows, quotations) into the Fake A’s ‘about me’ info. When all was done, word for word, I set about looking for a profile photo. After much deliberation, I chose a photograph of a mirror, an old shot I’d taken at a carnival in Berlin.
And then the friend requests. The first request I sent out was to someone I knew in real life. “4200,” he had declared recently in a status update. That was his locker-room secret, the number of FB friends a vain boast. He accepted fake A’s request in 20 seconds. Next, fake A sent a friend request to me: I accepted. I spent the next two weeks sending friend requests to the 612 people on original A’s friend list. Unbelievable as it might sound, by the end of the first week, fake A had 298 friends. Fake A had ‘blocked’ original A, so that the latter did not know that there was someone impersonating her. When a few friends wrote to say that they were friends with original A already, fake A replied saying that she had added too many people indiscriminately and had therefore created a second account so that she could keep in touch with only those she liked. In the world of Facebook, such an answer scored instantly and the friend request was confirmed.
While all this went on in fake A’s account, I waited for original A to write. I was not sure what kind of message I wanted her to write, for I wasn’t really interested in making a re-acquaintance with my childhood friend Anamitra (I’d found that after the initial burst of enthusiasm, long lost schoolmates become a number on the friend list, that and an occasional ‘liker’). I suppose I was interested in her story – how did she find Anamitra? But more than anything else now, I wanted to know why original A did not want to reply to my question.
In a fortnight’s time, fake A had 419 friends, all of them in common with original A. I, fake A, then unblocked original A and sent her a friend request. If original A said ‘yes’, fake A’s number of friends would be 420. I relished the thought of that private joke.
A message arrived in fake A’s box exactly after 2 hours and 37 minutes.
“Who are you? Why are you impersonating me? I’m going to report you to Facebook.”
Fake A had long been waiting for this moment. On her timeline, she posted a link of original A’s profile and requested friends to report original A to Facebook administrators. “Friends, she’s been impersonating me for a long time now … even before I got to Facebook. Please report this and help me.”
The damsel-in-distress tactic works best on Facebook. Within thirty-six hours, original A’s account had been taken off Facebook. I rejoiced at my minor victory and set about to conquer more urgent things: Fixing the dinner menu was one of them.
Two days later, I received a friend request and message from someone by the FB name ‘I-am-A’.
As you might be aware, Facebook has taken down my profile. An impersonator who claimed to be me is responsible for this. I see that she is on your friend list too. Do you actually believe that she is for real and not me? I feel terrible. I don’t know what to do. Please help me to get my original profile back. That was how I had got in touch with your friends. With Anamitra as well. I am sure she must have written to me in that account. I promise to tell you everything about how I found her.
(Her full name)
I laughed, loud enough for my husband to ask whether I was having an affair with someone. Soon after, I replied to I-am-A’s message.
I don’t know which original A you are talking about. I just know fake A. She is a dear friend.
I also don’t know which Anamitra you are talking about. I don’t know anyone by that name.
Your message seemed to imply that we had communicated before. But Facebook gives me no such record.
All good wishes,
Three minutes later she was back in my inbox.
This is A, the real A, the A who liked you so much that she befriended all your friends and relatives to know more about you. Have you forgotten me?
You say you know fake A. How? Who is fake A? Fake A is someone pretending to be me. Who?
Please tell me.
I was ready with my answer.
I still don’t get what you mean about you being the real A when I actually know fake-A very well, as well as I know myself.
But since you asked about fake A, here is the story.
With that I hit ‘enter’. And that was the last time I ever communicated with her. On Facebook, a stalker’s messages will always arrive incomplete. Because stalking is an unfinished task.
Sumana Roy is a poet and writer who lives in Siliguri. She is at www.sumanaroy.com.