404: Are We a Palindrome People?


Photograph by Nick Krug

by Sumana Roy

Soon after I was born – one year, eleven months and twenty-three days to be precise – I became a palindrome. A brother was born to me, and so I became an elder sister. The Bengali word for that is ‘didi’. Phonetically and in the written script, ‘didi’ is a palindrome (like its companion word ‘dada’, brother, a fact which begs the question whether the relation between Bengali siblings need always be palindromic).

My conscious awareness of having a palindrome fetish however came only in 1991, the year I took my school leaving examination. It was the first palindrome year I would encounter, the other being 2002. 2112 is quite obviously beyond my reach. (We are fortunate to have lived in two palindrome years because only one comes every century – 1771, 1881, and so on.) In between these two palindrome years, 1991 and 2002, I noticed an extraordinary change take place in the world of communication: the internet and cellular phone technology and the shorthand, abbreviated and paraphrased world they gradually forced upon us, shrinking our attention spans and coding our sighs and laughter into acronyms, was turning us into a palindrome people.

Dubravka Ugrešić, in her extraordinary essay, “The Palindrome Conspiracy”, chose the palindrome as the most appropriate metaphor for the psycho-spiritual homelessness of migrants and exiles in the dislocated lives most of us are compelled to sink into, whether it is between cities or countries. Leaving, return, leaving, all this between bouts of homelovingness and homesickness: that is the palindromic character of the lives we have chosen to inhabit. ‘Palindrome madness’ is also how truth and lies play themselves out, Ugrešić reminds us, as in the ‘devil’s verse’, ‘the one that is read the same backwards and forwards’, how ‘news’ comes to us from the back and forth between studio and site.

Is the near-sudden explosion of the same ‘palindrome madness’ into our lives a necessary spilling over of this uneasy traveller life that Ugrešić writes about? Increasingly, as the internet reaches into the genitalia of subsistence, our computers and cell phones become the real homes we are most comfortable in. Is that why our palindromic truth-lie urges have found their most vociferous expressions there?

Here is a random sample of palindromic short message and chat room acronyms that fill our ears every day: 121 (One to One), 404, 747 (Let’s Fly), 88 (Hugs and Kisses), 99 (Parent isn’t watching), BBB (Bye Bye Babe; Boring Beyond Belief), CTC (Care to Chat?), d00d (Dude), DBD (Don’t be Dumb), DND (Do Not Disturb), F2F (Face to Face), G2G (Got to Go), GLG (Good Looking Girl), HHH (Hip Hip Hurray), HIH (Hope it Helps), II (Intercourse and Inebriation), KKK (It’s over), LOL (Laughing out Loud), LOOL (Laughing out outrageously Loud), M4M (Men for Men), NN (Not Now), OBO (Our Best Offer), OLO (Only Laughed Once), OO (Over and Out), OOO (Out of Office), PP (Personal Problem), PTP (Pardon the Pun), QQ (Quick Question), R&R (Rest and Relaxation), SMS (Short Messaging Service), SOS (Same Old Shit), STS (So to Speak), SYS (See you soon), TOT (Tons of Time), TTTT (To tell the truth), YBY (Yeah baby yeah).

In the 11 (another palindrome) years between 1991 and 2002, two books of fiction with the title ‘Palindrome’ were written. One is a thriller written by Stuart Woods (1991), and it is amusing to read a reviewer say that Woods ‘goes back’ to the same plot time and again, an expression that did not fail to tickle me about the figure of the palindrome hidden in it. The other is 2002: A Palindrome Story by Nick Montfort and William Gillespie, a ‘collaboratively-authored narrative palindrome, exactly 2002 words in length … first published in a limited edition of 202 copies on … 2002’.

Once, I too wanted to write a story about palindromes and the political tropes coded in them. In that aborted attempt I set my story in Uganda in the 1970s. It was about a relationship between an Indian seamstress and Idi Amin Dada. The dictator’s name had two palindromes in it: ‘Idi’ and ‘Dada’. I never got around to finishing the story – perhaps that is also in the nature of our palindrome lives?

I see this neo-religious belief in the world of ‘un’, that things can be undone with the touch or click of a button, that a going back to the ‘original’, the what-once-was is easily recoverable, that a return is always within reach. My mother, who is computer-illiterate, is uncomfortable with this way of this new world. Having grown up in a moral universe of as-you-sow-so-you-reap, she is often disgusted with our manners and actions, one where there is an easy reversibility of action and almost no consequence of the good-bad algorithm of our actions.

Is it the keyboard then that is responsible for our everything-is-reversible morality? That violence, physical, emotional and verbal, can be undone; that war fields could become fields of corn again; that abuse and adultery need not leave scars; that for everything, ethical and aesthetic, there can be cosmetic surgery. The Facebook world of unfriend, unlike, unfollow is the easy world of the palindrome, where walking backwards will seemingly take us back to where we started from.

Palindrome People – people like us – occlude the possibility of being changed by journeys. The social thinkers Jacques Rousseau and Mahatma Gandhi, though separated by centuries, advocated a palindrome structure for the greater common good of human civilisation: back to nature and back to village life respectively are advocacies of palindromic ‘innocence’. The palindrome life that communication technology has welded into our lives is the new social contract, one available literally at our fingertips, one much easier than Rousseau’s and Gandhi’s to carry out in practice.

Not having had any experience in dying before, I do not know whether we return to the same place after death. Is life palindromic then? Do we say BRB (Be Right Back) when we leave that place for the earthly life?

404: I haven’t a clue.

About the Author:

Sumana Roy’s first novel was long listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. Her poems, fiction and essays have appeared in Guernica, Caravan, Cha, Seminar, Open, Himal Southasian among other places.

  • Roomy Naqvy

    Absolutely fascinating essay. Congrats, Sumana. 🙂

  • Anukriti

    A wonderful article.