Popular tweeters Lavanya Mohan and Malvika Iyer about living life in 140 characters
I am waiting for Malvika Iyer to get ready. She zips out of her bedroom, picks up one prosthetic arm, looks up at me, smiles and says, “I have to find my other hand now.” Before I can laugh at her joke, she runs into her bedroom to look for something else.
To spend time with Malvika is to be inspired and entertained. A gifted speaker with a sense of social commitment, she cares too little for the sympathies of strangers who see her as only ‘disabled’. “They cannot fathom that I don’t sit around and mope about my life,” she explains.
Malvika Iyer is a bilateral amputee from a freak bomb blast accident in 2002. She has 1,500-plus followers on Twitter and tweets from the handle @MalvikaIyer. But she wasn’t always ready to embrace her disability in public. “I used to tweet as @violetcrab (violet is her favourite colour and she is a Cancerian) and I was happy in my denial. I didn’t let anyone online know that I was a blast survivor. But I once shared a video of a talk I gave and people started writing to me. A lot of people tell me that I inspire them and that they have found the courage to live well after seeing the way I live,” says Malvika.
Lavanya Mohan, a chartered accountant, who tweets from the handle @lavsmohan has more than 16,500 followers. She is easily among the most popular tweeters in the city and definitely among its most early tweeters as well. She has also been writing a popular blog called Coconut Chutney. “People take a lot of liberties with you online,” says Lavanya as I meet her with Malvika for a conversation on their online lives at Amethyst. Someone she didn’t even know wanted to see her wedding photographs and someone else asked her why she was tweeting ahead of her CA exams. “But I have made new friends too. There is no prejudice, and people I have met online know more about me than many people I have studied with since kindergarten,” she says. Lavanya joined Twitter in 2008.
“When you tweet under your own name with your own photos and not anonymously, you are putting a good part of yourself out there. It has its own advantages and disadvantages,” says Lavanya, and Malvika agrees. For Lavanya, it has opened up new avenues for writing, from magazines to newspapers. She also says it has also taken a toll on her ability to write longer pieces. “I was approached only via Twitter to write columns, etc. But after Twitter I am writing less than before. I now think how best I can compose a thought in 140 characters. Unlike blogging where you write, edit, re-write and publish thrice a week, here you press tweet and boom it has reached many people and they react to it instantly too,” she says. Lavanya was also featured prominently as a voice against people involved in the making of Aadhaar card, who insisted that she wear a dupatta for the photograph for the card. When an outraged Lavanya tweeted about it, it created ripples online and made it to the newspapers the next day as well.
For Malvika, Twitter has brought in a lot of friends. “I was trying to write a list of invitees for my wedding and the top 100 were people I met on Twitter!” she says. Malvika says that her social life changed completely post Twitter. “So much so that now my mother (also on Twitter) threatens to take my phone away because I am too involved in it, all the time!” she laughs. Malvika also sets an inspiring example for many. “I am working on a Ph.D. on the experience and extent of inclusiveness felt by people with disabilities,” she says. Malvika is pursuing her doctorate at the Madras School of Social Work. “But when people ask me what I am doing, I first tell them I am a motivational speaker. I speak at several gatherings about disability and living with it. And when people see me do it, they believe they too can do it,” she adds.
Malvika would also like it if phones were more sensitive to the needs of the disabled. “I cannot type and the touch phone doesn’t recognise my prosthetic arm. Voice recognition software hardly works for the Indian accent,” says the tech-savvy Malvika.
While there is also a sizeable number of men who have immense following on the social media site, Lavanya explains that for women the experience is definitely different. “Women do have to self-censor at times otherwise we have to deal with all kinds of questions,” she says. Another popular woman tweeter was told, “I thought you were a good girl” when she spoke online about enjoying a glass of wine. This patronising tweet is the least harmless of things that the fairer sex encounters online. “There are also some men who start sending you Direct Messages just because you follow them. Of course there are also those who think just because a girl talks to them they have a chance at her!” Lavanya says and Malvika chips in, “I write poetry. They are not a reflection of my relationship status or anything… Whenever I tweet a sad line I get tweets like, ‘Consider me if it doesn’t work out between you and your fiancé!”
From asking Lavanya why she didn’t wear a dupatta while going to get her Aadhar card to writing to Malvika to say she is lucky to have found a ‘non-disabled’ life partner, tweeters also show their insensitivity more often than we would like to believe.
Has either ever considered quitting social media? Lavanya says, “Oh yeah, but it’s like school you know. You hate going there but do it because you have great friends there!”
Malvika laughs and adds, “I agree. All my friends are there!”