I remember my English teacher, Mrs Verghese, sternly impressing upon us the beauty of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”. She paced through the classroom, parting the humid coastal Andhra air with her tall frame. I rocked my chair softly to the rhythm of the ceiling fan.
Through careful analogies and eye contact, Mrs Verghese explained the loveliness of a field of daffodils to a class of 40 kids who had never seen a single daffodil. Unable to identify with the writings of an 18th-century mansion-raised European, but knowing too little to object, we nodded and scribbled vigorously nonetheless.
School wasn’t the only place we unthinkingly accepted characters and stories that weren’t for us.
A couple of years later, Mrs Verghese would again deploy her gift of oratory to make us appreciate the visuals in “The Highwayman”.
“When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,” her voice quivered.
This time we nodded even more vigorously, our neck muscles now conditioned by years of bobbing in the classroom. We did not pause to wonder what gypsies were. Or what they did with ribbons. Or what a “moor” was and why it was purple.
School wasn’t the only place we unthinkingly accepted characters and stories that weren’t for us, about us, or relatable to us.
Every Cartoon Network memory I have is American. So desperate was our appetite that we never paused to wonder how strange these TV shows were. Could an Indian kid grow up to be a Centurion? What the hell was a jawbreaker and why did Ed, Edd, and Eddy love them so much? What kind of Indian was Hadji supposed to be? I had never seen anyone like him.
Art that held a mirror to the world, sure, but not to ours.
Then in college, girls from my class scurried to reach their hostels before their evening curfew to binge on Friends, Gilmore Girls, and How I Met Your Mother. Shuttered and bolted in, they watched the mishaps and drama of women who lived in less oppressive societies, ones that did not need wardens to herd women into their pens before dark.
The boys were lasciviously watching Rhona Mitra and James Spader in Boston Legal, and in the process learning about the American judicial system. (Our understanding of Indian law remained limited to folding our hands in front of traffic cops and whimpering, “Sir, I am student, please leave me.”)
For decades, middle-class, English-medium, urban India has consumed content that didn’t nearly reflect it. Art that held a mirror to the world, sure, but not to ours.
Despite this tenuous connection, we’ve loved it. We’ve revelled in it. We’ve done everything short of getting “BAZINGA!” tramp stamps. In the shocking dearth of relatable, contemporary, quality homegrown content, we’ve been happy to let America take over our TVs.
But sometime in the last 15 years, our voracious appetite for content found itself faced with the unlimited Gujarati thali that is the internet. Most adults knew nothing about it and we, early Indian millennials, were left unattended in dingy cybercafes to figure it out.
Our voracious appetite for content found itself faced with the unlimited Gujarati thali that is the internet.
It was amazing. But we kept up the habit of accepting content that wasn’t by us, for us, or about us.
I laughed at “Peanut Butter Jelly Time”, having never tasted a PB&J sandwich. I made Chuck Norris jokes, without being entirely sure who Chuck Norris was or why he deserved my creative hyperbole. I made “all your base are belong to us” references, having never played Zero Wing or, for that matter, never even having set eyes on a Sega Genesis.
And so, the generation that grew up reading poems about flowers we hadn’t seen and watching shows about problems we didn’t have graduated to referencing a childhood that we did not live.
Even when viral content came in an Indian flavour, it was superficial. I chuckled at Buffalax’s Benny Lava and Girly Man, but never thought they were about us.
As a Civ player, I too threw around the “Ghandi will nuke you” jokes, but felt ashamed that a man with such star meme potential was part of such a piss-poor catchphrase.
Memes are crowdsourced insights on shared experiences. But most memes back then weren’t about our experiences. By participating in them almost exclusively, I felt like I was cheating on my childhood, disrespecting the great, but different, things I had the privilege of experiencing.
I felt like I was cheating on my childhood.
There was no exploration of the urban Indian – our attitudes, our struggles, our aspirations, and most of all, our differences – in any kind of media. Our choices were either The Bold and the Beautiful or Premchand or K3G, with little in between.
The internet was the perfect place to bridge this gap. Yet nobody was building the bridge.
I also felt jealous. The West had begun to make amazing content online – stuff as accessible as Keyboard Cat, and as weird as Potion Seller – while we, the writers of the Kama Sutra and the Tirukkural, lolled on our cane sofas.
But I realise in retrospect – and memes do have a way of teaching this – that I wasn’t alone. The itch for our own internet, run by our own references and memories, was grabbing other Indians too.
The air first smelled of gunpowder in 2010, when urban Indian bloggers and Facebook users knew the American memes well enough to start borrowing formats and deploying them in Indian contexts.
Rage comics had gone through 4chan and Reddit and finally arrived on Indian Tumblrs. Tambrahm rage grumbled about temple vacations, North Indian rage protested South Indian food, and kids everywhere, predictably, complained about their mums.
The video of Hitler losing it, from the movie Downfall, was also adopted widely, with meme creators adding funny desi subtitles over the video.
A little bit of digging brought me to prolific meme creator Krish Ashok’s short treatise on Indianising memes, Epic FFFFUUUUUUUUn, where he tried to recreate various icanhascheezburger memes in an Indian context.
Later, a bunch of IIMK students created the Empowered Indian Woman meme, an Indianised version of the Successful Black Man image macro. The meme featured a classic bait-and-switch mechanic, with lines like “I got married when I was 16… dollars away from a 6-figure salary”. The punchlines pivoted on expectations and subversions of womanhood in India.
But up until 2014, Indian web culture remained scattered. Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, independent blogs – where these memes were conceived – each homed handfuls of Indians (and still don’t draw more than a niche sliver of India’s online population).
The fuse on the meme bomb was truly lit, fam, when consumers and creators gathered en masse on Facebook. The platform’s turbocharged growth in India came to a head in 2014, when 100 million Indians officially used the platform each month. It became the uncontested centre of the internet, uniting various scattered hubs of creation and lulz under a single, familiar user interface.
Simultaneously, content creation became a viable business model in India. Web-first content companies like TVF, AIB, and more began to build communities and create original content. Their content leaned into some existing memes and trends, and launched others. Meanwhile, homegrown content aggregators – the ScoopWhoops and StoryPicks – turned into their amplifiers.
There’s no better example than the journey of “Stupid Alia”. A gaffe on a primetime Bollywood-centred TV show became a WhatsApp joke format (“Alia is so dumb that…”), which got subverted by AIB as a YouTube comedy video. That video, in turn, found a home and megaphone on every aggregation site in the country. It travelled back onto WhatsApp as image macros, and back onto TV as news about Alia Bhatt.
Now my Facebook timeline is a gift that keeps giving.
For perhaps the first time ever, one joke spanned every rung of culture – from forwards to Bollywood A-listers' Twitter feeds. Versions of this journey have repeated themselves ad infinitum since.
Now my Facebook timeline is a gift that keeps giving. From insightful commentary to popular formats like “Admit it”, Indian netizens are deconstructing age-old social constructs under the guise of humour.
A generation that had been watching and listening intently, enraptured by the insight, enamoured by the format, has unshackled its imagination and turned shitposting into an art form.
The Indian meme scene has, it is safe now to say, exploded.
Day after day, the Indian meme machine churns out content that is relatable, genuine, and honest. A friend sent me a link to this meme and said, “Every group of friends has an idiot who makes jokes like these; you were ours”:
While I’m still not sure if it was an insult or a compliment, I totally get what he was saying. As a kid, I remember watching a chaiwallah breeze through my train compartment chanting “bolo choudhary ki chai”. My friends and I shared one mischievous look, giggled, and shouted “choudhary ki chai” in unison.
I can’t recall a single time How I Met Your Mother connected with me this intimately.
Since they’re so easy to make, quick to consume, and, most importantly, convenient to share, memes have become India’s largest vehicle for cultural documentation. Technologically, they owe allegiance to no platform, easily jumping from Twitter to Facebook to WhatsApp and back. Behaviourally, they are an easy way of keeping in touch with people from your past and present, bringing back shared memories without having to type a word.
Within the incredible Indian memeverse, few corners broach as much as the Tamil movie meme internet does. I’ll explain.
They owe allegiance to no platform, easily jumping from Facebook to WhatsApp and back.
On a recent trip to Chennai, I caught up with an old friend, Gun.
Gun feels a sense of belonging to an urban agglomeration in a way that only Chennaites can. He, and every other Tamilian I know, swears by Tamil movie memes. Tamil movie memes are made for every possible subject on Earth, he told me, from economic theories to jallikattu to board exams to quantum physics.
“There was this meme that explained spacetime using a movie called Thanga Pathakkam,” he said, visibly proud that his people are creating a relatable connect between shared memories and complex scientific concepts. “It blew my mind.”
Indian memes, to me, are the beginning of a journey that builds a strong online identity for a certain India – and hopefully one day, as internet penetration reaches its tentacles into larger swaths of the Indian populace, for every India.
Before cooking shows became a big thing, the diverse culinary archipelago that is Indian food was casually shoved under a “curry” umbrella. But as MasterChef, Top Chef, and others caught on, we exposed the world to a relentless barrage of words like saag, kokum, and even upma. Now, I find online conversations about Indian food to be far more nuanced than they were. Memes could prevent the online curryfication of every other aspect of our culture.
The online identity we’re building is truly patriotic because it is crowdsourced. On the internet, we don’t elect people to represent us. We represent ourselves. This gives access to every voice and every nuance that wishes to be a part of online India, its identities, and its discourse.
This identity is being built by great, relatable, contemporary content, the one thing we were deprived of as kids. We’re scoring two birds with one patriotic stone.
One day, we will have nothing to bequeath. We’re leaving the air too putrid, the soil too toxic. For however long we’ve got until we run this planet to implosion, we’ll have the internet. (Unless Elon Musk whisks us all away to new colonies in space, in which case we’ll take it with us.)
Memes could prevent the online curryfication of every other aspect of our culture.
What we today call “the internet” might be humanity’s greatest heirloom. Memes are the building blocks of our cultural legacy.
The internet will let future generations know that we felt strongly about waiting for the guests to leave so we could eat all the samosas. And that while the boys were encouraged to stuff their faces, the girls were asked to hold back.
It’ll remember that in around 2017, subversion wasn’t smoking cigarettes but abstaining from them. That, by unanimous consensus, we hated being forced to talk to our relatives on the phone. That children were ubiquitously shown stupid charts that described the ideal boy, and none of them grew up to feel ideal at all.
Even if we graduate to clothes-dryers, the internet will remember how staunchly we once believed in line drying. That our mothers were particular about keeping bottles of water filled to the top, and treasured Tupperware. And that the most effective way to wake us up was to lie about the time or turn the fan off.
So go forth and shitpost. Each one of us is a tiny historian. And together, we will tell our tale.