Culture

Kalki Koechlin’s New Poem Reminds Us of the Sensory Overload We’ve Invited Upon Ourselves

Noise, for the actor-slam poet, is also the morning aazaan that Sonu Nigam the singer tweeted about, but in her telling it is about much, much more.

A screenshot from Noise. Credit: Youtube

“I think it’s easy to confuse something that’s badly written as somehow deep”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously told Zadie Smith. Adichie’s words are a sort of rule-of-thumb for how to gauge poetry, all writing really. But the inverse of this principle also holds true – it’s easy to dismiss something as ‘ordinary’ just because it seems simple. Kalki Koechlin’s new poem, ‘Noise’, doesn’t achieve something extraordinarily new but still manages to produce a visceral reaction through its narrative style, visualisation and range of ideas.

Each discrete element of the poem may seem like it’s already been said before, but what makes the poem so powerful is its relentless assault on one’s emotional landscape. Noise, for the actor-slam poet, is also the morning aazaan that Sonu Nigam the singer tweeted about, but in her telling it is about much, much more. It is not even always about the aural. Koechlin’s verse moves from one uncomfortable feeling to the next without giving any relief, and the video which accompanies ‘Noise’ demands total immersion. It’s the cumulative effect that makes it worthwhile.

The seven-minute-long poem is packed with metaphors and themes that go all over the place, jagged in their jumps, melodious within themselves. In the video, a gushing fan asks Koechlin if it’s “really her” and suddenly we cut from dramatically dressed up ‘star’ Koechlin to a hunk of meat hanging in a butcher’s shop, then a pot of biryani to the faces of several Muslim men, all part of India’s “major minority.” If it feels like we’re being indicted for our treatment of women and minorities, it’s because we are. Koechlin’s voice urgently ushers you to keep up with the rapidly changing visuals. Too much happens all at once, refusing to be grasped or narrativised. Just like it happens in our heads before we make the effort to prune the strange associations our brains produce and present a more cohesive picture when we voice ourselves.

One of the many things that ‘Noise’ leaves us thinking about is the ways in which we use social media – to create noise of our own, to drown out our insecurities, to create our own neat narratives. We’ve become too used to curating cohesiveness. Our Instagram account needs to look a certain way, our Twitter persona has to be witty and ever-ready with a hot take, our Facebook ‘brand’ cannot be marred by some horrible photo that we got tagged in. So in the interest of remaining ‘on-brand’; we edit out the frisson of thoughts that populates our minds. We focus on just one issue or emotion so that we can better grasp the flickering attention of our ‘Followers’ and ‘Friends’.

Of course this flattens out a person’s personality to a certain extent, taking with it a solid chunk of interpersonal intimacy. When we are scrolling through our Instagram feeds, caught in the cycle of “refresh, repeat, double tap,” there’s no difference between how we look at a childhood friend’s picture and Koechlin’s latest ‘gram. One we’ve known all our lives, the second we have never even seen in person. Yet Instagram presents both pieces of information side by side. Does that mean we now know as much about a celebrity as we do a friend? Or does it mean we know next to nothing about either? Either way, both have to vie for our attention. And who has to compete with them both? The 24-hour news cycle.

Micro-dosing on the validation of others

It used to be that TV news, running at all hours of the day, was practically the only instrument that could instantly transport you to a different place and time zone with information from all over the world. But Facebook, Twitter etc. do that a lot more effectively now. Just like our Instagram feed equalises celebrities and friends, Twitter equalises not only celebrities and friends but also news and trolls. So now news organisations have to make sure their material is entertaining, otherwise our fickle attention will slip away. Difficult truths like the effect of demonetisation get drowned out by the noise generated by “news” about cleavage, “lipstick, travel, and choice of ice cream”.

You see, bad news violates the undeclared promise of social media apps – they’re supposed to make you feel better about yourself, your life, the world, everything. Apps are designed to prey on our need for attention and affirmation. The bright icons, the ‘like’ functions all exist so that we keep micro-dosing on others’ validation by staying on these apps and using emoticons and gifs as ready-made forms of expression rather than constructing original ways to express our individual thoughts. News, on the other hand, doesn’t let you walk away feeling good about yourself. But there’s no choice anymore, “we, the masses” have helped perpetuate a cycle where everything must be entertaining and ‘pleasant’ in order to survive. So instead of carrying our amorphous worries about say, the migrant crisis, we do our share in ensuring that pictures of little refugee children go viral, and then log off (just for a bit) feeling like we did something. We’re all so “#alienated” that we can’t really afford to have something like news upset the precarious emotional balance we’re constantly negotiating for ourselves. There’s enough to worry about when you feel like there’s something inherently wrong with you because everyone you know (on social media) seems significantly happier, wealthier, sexier than you are. And there’s always a troll lurking somewhere, ready to tell you things like, “Your teeths are so big. Get lost ugly.” We may switch off for a bit, pause the game, but the hurt sticks to us. Sitting in a silent car talking to an adoring fan Koechlin still thinks about the size of her teeth, turns to the camera and says, “I am ugly.”

One wonders whether the people who tweet, “I WANT TO RAPE YOU” would say that or even think it as a fully-formed thought if they met Koechlin in real life. But this very aspect of the web (impunity for the anonymous) also provides solace for so many. If it opens you up to meanness from strangers, it also gives you appreciation from unknown people who feel the warm excitement of representation when they see something you shared. It still comes down to feeling good about yourself one way or another – by abusing someone or supporting them.

Some of us perform vulnerability by posting about our insecurities on the very mediums on which people only collect the highs of their lives, as if we can change the nature of a particular platform with our interjections. But even the not-so-feel-good posts angle towards getting affirmation from others. As Koechlin says, our self-worth relies on others’ opinions. It’s most evident in the kinds of insecurities and vulnerabilities we feel we are ‘allowed’ to share on social media. We’ll talk about our unhappiness with our bodies and people will respond with encouragement and advice on how to practice self-love and acceptance. But we don’t talk about our jealousies or how we hate our exes. And if, in an emotional outburst, we happen to post something that betrays an ugly insecurity rather than a ‘beautiful’ one, we either take it down in shame or let ourselves be subjected to the world’s judgment as we bleed followers.

‘Words we didn’t make time to say’

Koechlin shares a complicated relationship with noise, as do we all. We laud the acoustic chaos of our cities – where mosques, mandirs and churches all contribute to a “divine cacophony” and the people we try not to see, like transwomen at traffic signals and skinny street urchins, demand recognition by producing noise of their own. We rely on the noise generated by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, even WhatsApp – each ping tells us that somebody needs us, somebody loves us. It’s exhausting and we know this but the alternative – silence – always seems worse. So we soldier on, resentful and also grateful for our noisy lives.

Even though ‘Noise’ makes it explicitly clear that it’s about all of us, it doesn’t generate a positive feeling of connection. It’s less ‘celebrities are just like us!’ and more “I’m a mess of social media mashups and celebrity hangups”. The emotion behind the poem is more of a disenchanted acknowledgment that we’re all at fault – individually and collectively – for the things that we think are wrong with the world. It is us who are the “capitalistic, communal fascists” because we either actively subscribe to these ideas or are complicit by being passive. We’re the ones who finance trashy news, use sites that encourage us to commodify our feelings, we’re the ones who choose to stare at our phones when someone comes knocking at our window.

Koechlin isn’t giving any answers in ‘Noise’, it’s just an emotional outburst of the “words we didn’t make time to say” that pour out in one go, bashing against your ideas of coherence and feel-good representation. Is it heavy-handed? Sure. And perhaps the poem itself would not be as moving without the accompanying video which exponentially enhances the poem’s capacity to compel.

In ‘Noise’, time moves as urgently and jerkily as it does when one is on Twitter, seemingly disconnected thoughts fire at us from different directions, competing to see which one will stick in our mind for long enough to earn a like or a retweet.

The poem is a fervent, relentless indictment that comes at us from every possible angle: as individuals, as online personas, as the faceless mass of consumers that have fortified the institutions that produce vapid news, mean trolls and the commodification of self-worth.