The billion-eyed beast turned up when Kantaprasad needed it the most. It all began when Gaurav Vasan, a moderately successful food vlogger, saw the 80-year-old Kantaprasad and his wife Badami Devi waiting forlornly for customers at their dingy little Malviya Nagar eatery during the spate of Covid-19 lockdowns in Delhi. They reminded Gaurav of his parents. They also ran a failing Dhaba during his childhood years. He saw in this old couple the looming doom that haunted his working-class parents for whom four thousand rupees a month was a princely sum.
You see, Gaurav is what you call an "influencer". Influencers are priests who know the invocations to talk to the billion-eyed beast. He's a handsome, well-spoken and well-meaning young man who commanded a few thousand eyes of the beast. He had taken it upon himself to train those eyes on street-side food vendors to promote them and the delicious food they sell for next to nothing. Before this story ends, he'd be in charge of more than a million of those eyes.
There are many different types of influencers. They all have their chants, songs and dances they offer to the billion-eyed beast. The beast then blesses them with more eyes based on their performances. Vasan is one of those priests that like to share those blessings. When he saw "Baba" at "Baba ka Dhaba", he recognised the look of a small business owner impotently watching his business die in front of his eyes because he had seen it before in his parents' faces.
He talked to Kantaprasad and decided to do a ceremony to invoke the beast, also known as "marketing". In the early October of 2020, he made a video interviewing Kantaprasad and Badami Devi about their eatery and showing off their food. The visuals of their helplessness in their dotage combined with Vasan's good-natured commentary was uploaded on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube with an appeal for financial help.
Billions of invocations for the attention of the beast are made every day, around the world. Not many are heeded. The gestures get more and more demented and the chants more and more shrill to the point of surrealism. But something authentic about this coupling of the tearful seeker and the compassionate priest opened the floodgates of mercy. The beast can be kind at times.
In modern parlance, they had "gone viral". Attention poured out, and with it came money. The lachrymose leviathan cried lakes of liquidity. Customers came in droves finishing off all the food in half an hour. Bollywood celebrities saw the crying old man and appealed to the country to eat at Baba ka Dhaba and send money. News channels covered the plight of this couple and urged their viewers to help in any way they can. More money than Kantaprasad had earned in his 30 years of running the Dhaba issued forth in 10 days. His life had changed.
Within nine months of this fateful encounter, Kantaprasad was admitted to Safdarjung hospital having attempted suicide by ingesting sleeping pills with alcohol.
We ignore what we have broken. As a child, when I broke a vase at home I'd pretend to know nothing of it and look everywhere but at the broken vase. That's what the whole country did. The news coverage was light, the reactions sporadic and the silence conspicuous. The beast had moved on to newer delights.
What went wrong? Well, a billion things. The first time we meet Baba and his wife, they both don't have a phone. Not even an old school dumbphone. In subsequent videos taken by the thousands of customers that turned up, in the same month of October 2020, he can be seen brandishing a smartphone. Before we get into the subsequent events, just imagine this. An eighty-year-old man who has never used a mobile phone, let alone social media, falls headlong into the cacophonous content cavern known as the internet. "Sure", you might think, "but so many old men and women use the internet without going mad or committing suicide". And you'd be right. But this man was the protagonist of the drama that was about to unfold in front of his eyes. This five-inch rectangle of light revealed to him that the beast also has a billion tongues and they were all singing soothing songs to him. It felt good.
The faster we fall into collective love, the harder we fall out. When the beast sympathised with Baba's misfortune, the mercy came with some conditions. The beast wanted to see humility because that's what attracted it in the first place. The first time Baba appeared with a little bit of swagger, it was cute. But then he did something it could not let stand.
Due to the sudden influx of huge amounts of money, Baba's bank froze his account. This had never happened to him. He'd never had enough money for his transactions to be suspicious. Since he could not access the money, he filed a police case against Vasan. In the movie in our heads, in which we cast him as a meek mercy magnet and us as Baba's benevolent benefactors, there was no place for this character digression. On top of that, this insult was against a beloved priest of the beast. This unwarranted insolence, no matter how befuddled the old man was, could not be excused.
So the beast wagged a billion tongues. Other influencers covered the treachery of this ungrateful beneficiary of the public largesse. News channels ran stories concluding his criminality. Neighbours gleefully squealed and strangers righteously raged. Some even saw fit to send him death threats.
Gaurav Vasan wasn't having an easy time of it either. He went around carrying his bank statements. He cried during interviews. His family received taunts, threats and torment people do when they go viral for the wrong reasons. When a priest falls out of the beast's favour, they get "cancelled". Many have died of getting cancelled. While his anguish was real, Vasan fought his cancellation with the media fluency of a man who understands the language of the beast.
Meanwhile, the 80-year-old man, who had just recently got a smartphone, was expected to defend himself with the facility of a veteran social media celebrity. Of course, he failed. His new, fancier restaurant echoed with emptiness. In a desperate attempt to save his new venture, he gave a press conference. Tearfully, he apologized for maligning the priest. Vasan was unanimously uncancelled. It still didn't save Baba's restaurant. The beast had soured on him.
Vasan moved on to newer successes. His channel grew. But Baba's five-inch beast portal kept buzzing with a billion wagging tongues. He never got the closure he needed. He went back to his old shop. He put some of the money into building a new house for his family which didn't sit well with his neighbours either.
Now, only one man could propitiate the angry beast and silence the rectangle. Another ceremony was needed. For that, Baba needed Vasan to publicly and visibly listen to him and reconcile with him, rendering him pure again. Baba had learned to fear the beast.
In June 2021, Gaurav Vasan turned up at the old shop again. Baba falls to Gaurav's feet and apologizes for all the trouble he had inadvertently caused. The key here is "inadvertently" since Baba tries to speak through his tears and explain that his actions were not malicious but Vasan cuts him off saying he needs no explanation and Baba is like a father to him. In the photos, you can see his hollow, empty eyes. He is terrified.
Vasan titles the reconciliation video "all's well that ends well". It did end for Vasan. He gets accolades for his magnanimity. Baba gets nothing but humble pie without a chance to explain himself. No PR agency for him. For him, the second ceremony had failed.
Vasan, back in favour, goes on to help many other small businesses while expanding his brand. But Baba, deprived of his last opportunity to have a say continues listlessly going to and coming back from his much dramatised, much-maligned shop - every day checking venomous Whatsapp messages, watching Youtube videos micro analysing his every statement and listening to strangers taunting him on the street. Any new business he starts is now doomed to fail. The money is running out again. He starts drinking heavily.
In the later part of the month, Baba overdoses on alcohol and sleeping pills at his shop. His son says Baba had been battling depression for years. During the recent months, his depression worsened due to the constant threats Baba received from influencers and non-influencers alike. He spends more than a week on a respirator and then in the ICU. He just about makes it out alive.
It's now the second lockdown. Between the failed new restaurant, the new house and the hospitalisation, the money is pretty much over. He's back at the shop. There are no customers again. Baba is now 81 and back where he started. But the hissing of the billion tongues is receding in the distance. The billion eyes have found a new target to melt with the heat of their attention. Maybe now, he'll know some peace.