"Be the change you wish to see in [the] world"- Gandhi
"Only change is constant"- Heraclitus
"Bhaiya change nahi hai, ye lo Pulse"- Shopkeeper
Rajesh Kumar comes back home at 8 every night. For this 27-year-old, his job, which involves managing events at a Delhi-based media house, can often be exacting. He attends humdrum meetings, stares out of the window pensively, and every few hours, makes a couple of frantic phone calls to ensure that all projects are running fluidly. At other times, he tries to escape the gaze of his bosses by scampering to the restroom instead of sauntering towards it.
But among the countless prosaic things that he does every day, Kumar has a special talent: he can tell a good joke. For sporadic phases during the day, Kumar logs on to Twitter and facetiously talks about, among other stuff, idiotic dukaan wallahs, Pulse candy, Karan Johar and Virat Kohli.
Under the garb of 140 characters, Kumar is "LOLendra Singh", a maverick satirist who enjoys the company of more than 34,000 followers and keeps them entranced with comical takes on simple observations. Laden with droll, his tweets are often rhapsodic. The retweets on his posts, much like his office phone calls, are brisk. Followers often write in to ask him what makes him so good. His interests, he says, include cricket, films and politics.
Kumar's persona, though, is quite the antithesis of his rock star image on Twitter: he is an unassuming young man who talks softly. "My English isn't the most fluent," he admits timidly. He is a keen listener and answers prudently, ensuring that he doesn't end up hurting anyone's sentiments.
"When I started off on Twitter - about five years ago - I became disillusioned with it very quickly. I didn't like what it was trying to do," says Kumar. "I just went back to Facebook. I liked that more."
His elder brother, however, seemed convinced about Kumar's funny streak. He kept posting Kumar's stuff on Facebook and was thrilled with the response. Within months of quitting the platform, Kumar's brother managed to convince him to give it a second try, and LOLendra Singh was born.
Kumar is a part of a select Twitter club that sparks off intense - mostly farcical - debates, controls trending topics, and invariably ends up influencing public opinion. These are individuals who vehemently question Ranbir Kapoor's "vastly different" choice of scripts for his films, desperately try to find the right brand of cough syrup for Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and often attempt to solve the mystery behind Stuart Binny's selection in the Indian cricket team - all examples of frivolous drivel in real life but topics of raging discussions on social media.
Far away from the grandiosity of hallowed movie stars, cricketers and politicians, these little-known individuals are the new celebrities of Twitter. And, users adore them.
Raghav Sachdev has just been woken up from his sweet slumber. It is 9 am and news channels are bombarding viewers with a story of Kejriwal sacking an Aam Aadmi Party MLA for his appearance in an alleged sex tape. "These are the kind of things you have to be tweeting about. The response is always great," 28-year-old Sachdev tells me. He refuses to disclose the name of the parody Narendra Modi handle he tweets from, saying that he doesn't want to let his followers know about "the way he goes about his business".
Over the phone early morning, Sachdev sounds listless and terribly sleep-derived. "Yesterday, I was tweeting late into the night. It was this argument I got into with a 'bhakt'," he says.
Sachdev, who runs a music school in Pune, wakes up early to go through the morning papers and then frenziedly searches for his laptop and starts tweeting. During the day, when he's not taking lessons, he goes through his news feed again and makes sure he puts something out for his followers. "I'm still new to this. So, I'm looking for followers all the time," says Sachdev. "I'm up to 20,000 now. My target is 100,000 by the end of the year." Sachdev confesses that he sometimes feels that tweeting is like a full-time job, but one that he loves.
Sachdev, like many others, tickles people's funny bone through trending topics on Twitter. Abhishek Asthana, the man behind the wildly popular @GabbbarSingh account, says that humour is only relevant if it's topical. "It's all about tweeting on what's happening around you. And, you have to like a debate. You cannot get a mass following by shying away from sharing your opinion."
Asthana, for instance, places special focus on content. When he started out, all his tweets bore resemblance to Gabbar Singh's character in Sholay: whimsical and mildly devilish. But he couldn't stay true to the iconic character's quirks for long. The ideas for jokes centred on Gabbar's villainous ways soon hit a dead end.
"I couldn't have gone on with Gabbar forever. After a point, I didn't have much to say," says Asthana. Now, the 30-year-old who works as a marketer with a British multinational in Gurgaon, tweets about myriad things, ranging from activities in his office boardroom to the crippling Delhi monsoon rains. Even as Twitter does not have the exact numbers, @Gabbbar Singh, with 365,000 followers, is easily one of the most ubiquitous handles around. Asthana is regularly flooded with offers from companies such as Coca Cola and Nestle to help them promote their products on Twitter. "Yes, I get plenty of offers. I pick and choose," he declares.
Tushar Sharma, who handled the @KhapPanchayat account, in fact, chose to shut it down - despite having over 16,000 followers - because he felt his humour was becoming too repetitive. "Eventually, producing new content for an account that didn't allow you much space in term of topics you can write satire on became too exhausting," he says. "When I realised I couldn't keep producing new quality content for an audience this huge, I decided to shut down [the account] instead of slugging along."
Karan Talwar likes upsetting the status quo. For him, Bollywood was an irrelevant, distant commodity when he was studying business administration in Houston in the United States almost a decade ago. Even Hollywood did not appeal to him much. "It was amazing how far away I was from these things. I couldn't tell the difference between Priyanka Chopra and Deepika Padukone. It was that ridiculous," laughs Talwar, who is the founder of Mumbai-based SnG Comedy, a group of stand-up comedians.
When he returned to India in 2008, he was flabbergasted at the "pretentiousness" of Bollywood celebrities. The content, according to him, was embarrassingly poor. "I was just shocked looking at these people and the kind of stuff that was being made in the industry," says the 35-year-old.
Instead of simply poking fun at random happenings, Talwar set up @Bollywood_G***u and made it a steadfast mission to slam Bollywood. His criticism found an instant resonance with users, as he steadily built up a following of 600,000. Even now, Talwar frequently gets into spats with personalities from Bollywood, having managed to miff Abhishek Bachchan and Karan Johar in the past. In return, he often gets picked on for his bald head, and gets lambasted for his pro-feminist views.
Ask him why he chose to no longer stay anonymous after a point and Talwar says it's all a part of growing up. "You evolve. I didn't really see the point in staying anonymous. I just grew fed up of it."
Others concede that being anonymous comes with its own share of thrill. Kumar says that friends would often share his jokes on WhatsApp and he would privately feel immensely proud. "Sometimes, I just wanted to tell them that I came up with that. But then I stopped myself," he says.
Thirty-year-old Rahul Raj, who tweets through @Bhak_S**a, another hugely followed handle, adds that the mystery involved is always intriguing. The person is tweeting something funny all the time and the user is wondering, "Who could this guy be?" he says. "It has its unique charm."
Raj stayed true to his Twitter celebrity status earlier this week after he trended for an entire day. This time, instead of a post that broke the internet, the Hyderabad native found himself on a collision course with journalist Swati Chaturvedi. Several people came out in Raj's support after an argument over Chaturvedi's writing snowballed into a rancorous jibe contest.
However, some like Apoorv Sood, who smartly came up with the portmanteau-inspired @Trendulkar, opine that anonymity spawns creativity. He reckons that you should always be able to give something uncommon to the user. "For long, I stayed anonymous since I thought that was the best innovative way to engage the user," says Sood. "It was quirky and gave people something to think about."
A cricket devotee, Sood started tweeting from @Trendulkar during the 2011 cricket World Cup. Among several hilarious posts was his acerbic response earlier this week to British presenter Piers Morgan, who had labelled India's performance at the Olympics as "embarrassing". Sood shot back with: "Not as embarrassing as your National Anthem asking Sachin [God] to save the Queen". The tweet had Twitterati in splits. Sood has even been nominated by Outlook for its "Humor King of the Year Award". Unlike other popular accounts, 27-year-old Sood is not a prolific tweeter, limiting his dose to only two to three tweets a day.
The year 2014 brought with it vastly significant events for India. A new government, led by an aspirational prime minister, was sworn in with a thumping majority, and there was a renewed wave of optimism everywhere. Around the same time, social media, too - particularly Twitter - was undergoing a noxious metamorphosis. Much like the Indian electorate, Twitter was split into black and white, leaving little wiggling room for grey.
"This was the time when 'common' people started setting up Twitter accounts and started pushing ideology in the disguise of humour," says Arvind Jain, a Bengaluru-based professional who specialises in social media. However, he confesses that such accounts aren't able to sustain big fan bases. "You like @GabbbarSingh or @Trendulkar because you appreciate humour. Propagandist accounts make you cringe after a point," he adds.
Sharma says that post-2014, the Indian twitterspace has turned into a slugfest of abuses and vitriol. "Supposed 'parody' or 'humour' accounts dish out ideology in the form of jokes and it can sound very influential and convincing," says the 24-year-old.
Influencing opinion, though, is a territory that most unknown celebrity Twitter accounts inadvertently end up wading into. "When you have numbers on your side, the transfer of opinion can happen quickly," says Jain.
"I don't think people are that naïve. A couple of tweets can't change the way you think," argues Talwar. Sood, on the other hand, says that if you're a trusted authority on a subject - in his case, cricket - then followers will take you seriously. Both, however, agree that Twitter is no longer a platform conducive for proper dialogue.
Meanwhile, Kumar informs me that a tasty Bollywood controversy has broken out. The dangerously idiosyncratic Kamal Rashid Khan has accused actor Ajay Devgn of paying him money for trashing Karan Johar's upcoming release, Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, on Twitter - in response to an earlier claim that the director had, in fact, paid money to Khan for bashing Devgn's Shivaay.
The humour playfield for Twitter's unknown warriors is open once again. Let the game begin.