Prime Edition

Sumana Roy
Free Verse

“I spy with my little eye”: The citizen as Spiderman

William Wallace Denslow’s illustration of Little Miss Muffet

y two and a half-year-old nephew, who has just begun to talk, says "spy" for "spider". Human speech, beyond the first syllable, is useless to him.

"Will you walk into my parlour?" said the Spider to the Fly,
'Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I've many curious things to show when you are there."
"Oh no, no," said the little Fly, "to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair
can ne'er come down again."

Looking at the accompanying illustration of the spider in his book, he goes "spy-spy-spy". At first we are surprised — where could he have picked up this adult word from? For he is still too young for this 1829 Mary Howitt cautionary poem.

The game of hide and seek, common to all cultures, is perhaps the child's first institutionalised acquaintance with snooping. Through it he sharpens his detective and policeman consciousness, those that will help him to sniff a foreign perfume in a spouse's garment, catch the sleepy-sleeping colleague at work unaware, or even blackmail a neighbour into a favourable consensus.

How is the spider like a spy then? You could walk into the "parlour" for fun and play or a chat and a deal, but lo, you find yourself trapped into a point of no return.

Every human transaction survives on a code of temptation — relationships that mean the most to us hold the greatest temptation value in our estimate. Most often that temptation is a mirage, for we are never quite sure what we are looking for, but it is an important fuel in relationships. Whether it is the parent tempted to find out how his child would look after him in his old age or a spouse hoping for a sudden spark to temper the romance in her relationship, it is temptation that propels the machinery of hope. These relationships offer aaram, comfort, because we are certain that the other half of the relationship is neither a spy nor a spider. In the age of CCTV camera, where privacy is on a ventilator, it is scary to imagine what the consequence might be if our bedroom insecurities and dining table chatter were offered as evidence of our "character" in a legal framework. (I have to confess that I have cringed every time I have found some "steamy video" of a celebrity's bedroom life made public after a bad relationship. This is a betrayal of the worst kind because one would certainly not have entered into a relationship with a possible spy or wily spider.)

he Aam Aadmi Party's definition of corruption is narrow and largely limited to the financial. To ask every voter to turn into a citizen reporter by carrying a spy camera and carrying out his private sting operation, one that the administration could later use as evidence, Arvind Kejriwal has brought into motion a scary manifesto, one that could possibly see the end of human relationships as we know it. Every social space, whether it is classroom, boardroom, railway platform or office cubicle, or even an e-mail, has a surplus of informality beyond the elastic space of rule and law. An empty chair in a video of 15 minutes could be enough to incriminate a person as delinquent, a joke abstracted from its context could look foul, friendly discussions could be made to look like conspiracies.

Surely there must be a more foolproof mechanism to punish the bureaucracy? The offer and acceptance of a bribe is limited to particulars, of people and situations. How can that be used to keep an administrative machinery in check? Kejriwal must also be aware of the possibility of doctored evidence and personal prejudices that could kill careers, reputations and people?

I had been reading Emily Dickinson's spider poems with an odd mixture of relish and concern at the time Kejriwal unveiled his espionage system. A few of Dickinson's poems bring the spider and the broom (the AAP symbol) in the same space. Here is one:

The spider as an artist
Has never been employed
Though his surpassing merit
Is freely certified

By every broom and Bridget
Throughout a Christian land.
Neglected son of genius,
I take thee by the hand.

Arvind Kejriwal wants his citizen whistle blower to be both spy and spider. Animals have been popular as symbols of political parties — the elephant, the lion, the tiger, even the donkey. The spider "as an artist" hasn't been canonised yet. It is only a matter of time now. The anti-corruption wing of the Delhi administration is to help "complainants conduct sting operations". Given his recent manifesto of surveillance, it is not the janata topi that should unite the aam aadmis of the nation but a Spiderman costume. The spider-Spy turn in the history of human relationships is bound to turn most of us into Miss Muffets — how many of us would be able to trust strangers without a speck of doubt about his intentions? It would bring to our history of emotions a loss of vulnerability and enforce an unpleasant legislation of human transactions, one that could be medicine but is surely not food. No more those try-and-you-will-succeed fables of Robert the Bruce and the spider. You are a good citizen only if you have mastered the technology of spying. Be prepared to live the life of Incy Wincy Spider.

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