Peeping Shankar | Zuckerberg, RaGa and the 2004 elections

Did Arnab Goswami interview the Facebook CEO or was it just a dream? Our super sleuth takes part in a unique experiment that goes beyond the realm of reality 

Super sleuths are doers not dreamers. But when the call of duty demands it, we too can close our eyes and slip away into another world. Last fortnight, I was barely done with my turn of okaying routine daily alerts sent to State governments, when I was summoned by the boss to brief me on my next mission. “This one,” he said with a chuckle, “will be a welcome departure from the boring and mindless administrative work we saddled you with. Your assignment is to try out an exciting new contraption that has come our way from Japanese Intelligence as a spin off from the Bullet Train deal. It’s called Yume 25 — Yume means dream in Japanese. It is a machine that can apparently transcribe dreams into moving audio visuals. The Prime Minister’s Office wants us to test it out since it could come in handy keeping track of what Opposition leaders are dreaming about.”

I immediately saw where I fitted into all this. I would be the guinea pig and would have to submit myself to some crazy experiment or the other. So, I decided it was time to take evasive action. “I rarely have dreams and when I do, it’s all about getting locked in a room with the key safely hidden in my trouser pocket,” I said trying to wiggle out. But obviously there was no ducking this one. “Shankar, this is top priority,” the boss said raising his voice a pitch, “The PMO wants a report by the end of next week. And since it is a confidential Indo-Jap project, it wants someone of your experience to handle it,” he said and then consolingly added, “Really, it is quite simple — a dream mission if you ask me and, perhaps, something you will enjoy. In fact, it’s almost like taking part in a virtual reality game. All you have to do is enter news anchor Arnab Goswami’s dream and come back with the result. We have chosen him for the test since he is a dreamer and considers himself as the most important man in the country after the PM and Salman Khan.”

I was stumped not only by the tone and flippancy of his voice but also the absurdity of the task. No sleuth, I told myself, had ventured this far into the virtual world. I even feared that the dream mission might well end up as a nightmare. Meanwhile, not one to shirk from responsibility, I read up all I could on Arnab Goswami and watched recordings of his loud-mouthed and vitriolic shows on Republic TV late into the night. The following morning, I was fully prepared for my meeting with Fumihoko Kannari, head of the Japanese Dream Team, at a secret destination outside Delhi.

On day one, Arnab dreamt of Republic Day being celebrated on May 6 — the day his channel was launched. He is seen proudly standing next to Donald Trump, the chief guest, and, as the army of young men and women representing various print media, news channels and web portals march by, Arnab looks at them like an emperor surveying the armies he has vanquished

I was quickly briefed on my role in the experiment over breakfast. It was Japanese efficiency at its best. Operations, I was told, would begin after midnight when I would be sedated and my head wired to computers and placed inside a contraption which resembled an MRI machine. Fumihoko, as chief of mission, explained the more pertinent technical aspects: “Once the process begins, you will be linked via satellite to the target’s (in this case Mr Goswami’s) limbic systems in the mid-brain which deals with emotions and the cortex responsible for content. You will technically be inside his dream — a silent spectator — seeing and listening but not participating. What you observe will be stored in your subconscious and later transmitted digitally into sound and images.”

He made it sound rather rudimentary like the working script of Inception in which Leonardo di Caprio plays a thief who infiltrates the mind of unsuspecting victims to steal information. In fact, I was quite excited after the briefing and looked forward to the mission. But when I stepped into the Yume 25 that night, I found the mesh of wires across my skull rather intimidating and the slow whirr of the machine, like the purring of a cat, rather eerie. I soon slipped into anaesthetised slumber and found myself transported into Arnab’s dream.

On the first two days we tapped into rather short dream sequences. When a team of experts later viewed the images captured, they were impressed by the efficiency of the machine but found the content wanting. On day one, Arnab dreamt of Republic Day being celebrated on May 6 — the day his channel was launched. He is seen proudly standing next to Donald Trump, the chief guest, and, as the army of young men and women representing various print media, news channels and web portals march by, Arnab looks at them like an emperor surveying the armies he has vanquished. Behind him, the slogan “Republic TV is No.1” flashes on the screen while a thrash metal band growls through an explosion of distorted power chords in dropped ‘D’ tuning the anthem: “You are republic, we are your voice.” Later, Trump invites Arnab and his team to the US: “I say, you Hindoos will outfox the fellers at Fox News,” he says amidst applause.

Day two was funny but not meaty enough. Arnab moderates a heated discussion on whether going on morning walks was worth the exertion when the Earth is already moving at 110,000 kilometers an hour in its orbit of the sun. Day three drew a blank. The team of experts were getting tired. However, Fumihoko advised patience. “Gentlemen, it is too much to expect a sensational dream every day. You may have days when the subject simply snores through. Chasing dreams is quite like fishing. Like they say in Japan — good things come to those who bait and watch.”

... there was applause from the experts when the audio visual was first screened. I understand it was also a hit with the PMO. In fact, I received a letter of appreciation signed by the Prime Minister for a job well done

It was finally on day five that we got on to something substantial — the grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg by Arnab. Here are excerpts from the transcript submitted to the PMO along with the audio visual of the dream sequence:

Setting: Republic TV studio. Mark Zuckerberg is seated on a chair facing Arnab across an oval table. Yours truly is seated in one corner at the back of the stage — the silent guy who asks no questions and hence is told no lies. The show begins with “Exclusive! Exclusive!” flashing on the screen that serves as the backdrop,

Arnab Goswami (AG): Let me begin by getting one thing clear — on this show we do not beat around the bush. We ask tough questions. Tougher than what the Senate Committee can ever ask you. And I expect honest answers — answers that I want to hear. And what I want to hear is what the nation wants to hear. I hope that’s clear, Mr Zuckerberg. You might be the CEO of Facebook but that does not count here on this channel — the No1 channel in this country and better if not bigger than Fox News. So, let me waste no time and begin by asking you if you know Rahul Gandhi?

Mark Zuckerberg (MZ): No, not personally, although I have heard of him. He’s the President of the Congress Party, isn’t he? I have read about him in the papers. Is he on Facebook or something…?

AG: You may not know him but we know that you know him and that’s what counts. Mr Zuckerberg, you can’t possibly deny that you met Rahul Gandhi in January 2004 a month before you launched Facebook. If you can’t remember then allow me to jog your memory by telling you exactly where you met him. Well, the meeting took place at Cafe Pamplona on Bow Street, Harvard. And you discussed the social media project with Rahul. Your friends and co-founders of Facebook - Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughe - were also present at that meeting…

MZ: That’s completely untrue. There was no such meeting and I never met any Rahul Gandhi. This is baseless and bizarre.

AG: Unfortunately, Mr Zuckerberg I have the evidence to prove the meeting. This country’s external intelligence agency — which is far sharper than the CIA, MI6 and Mossad put together — has minutes (picks up a sheaf of papers) of the meeting. And it’s recorded in it that Rahul Gandhi was the unseen hand and the real financier of the Facebook project and not PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel as the world was led to believe…

MZ: (losing his cool) This is blatantly untrue. This intelligence report, if it does exist is rubbish! I deny this outright. We were just 20-year-old students back then. There was no Gandhi…

AG: There is no point getting angry, Mr Zuckerberg, when faced by the truth. Now tell me exclusively, before you tell any other channel, if you met Rahul Gandhi at the Cafe Pamplona…And what about the Double Cubano espresso coffee and rum cake that you ordered. We have the bill…

MZ: Such a meeting did not take place. How many times do I have to repeat myself?

AG: Your denials are meaningless once we have conclusive proof. Should I get you a coffee and some cookies, Mr Zuckerberg, to settle your nerves….

MZ: No thanks! Coffee shoots up the BP and cookies are all over the place on Facebook. I am allergic to them.

AG: Well, I was just trying to help. Anyway, moving on, did Facebook help the Congress Party in the 2004 general election? The one after which Sonia Gandhi almost became the Prime Minister…

MZ: I think this is going too far! How could a few kids have helped in any election? And that too in a country like India.

AG: In India, we know what kids can do! And we also know what the Internet can do. For your information Mr Zuckerberg, Internet and satellite communication existed in ancient India thousands of years before the West invented it in the 1960s and commercialised it in the 1990s. It was none other than Tripura chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb, a man of science, who confirmed recently that Internet was there in the days of the Mahabharata. And our sources tell us that social media networking was nothing new in ancient India. Mr Zuckerberg, did you know we even had a Vedic Analytica those days…?

MZ: So what?

AG: Now, don’t so what me, Mr Zuckerberg! Out here, we ask the questions and you simply answer them. Did you or did you not help the Congress in 2004? Did you meet Sonia Gandhi and did you offer her shares in Facebook?

MZ: Well, I think that does it! I’ve just about had enough. Let’s call off this interview (exits frame as the dream ends).

(Arnab wakes up with a start to find Zuckerberg and the studio vanish before his eyes. He sips from a glass of water kept on the bedside table and goes back to sleep hoping that the super exclusive dream comes back.)

Needless to say, there was applause from the experts when the audio visual was first screened. I understand it was also a hit with the PMO. In fact, I received a letter of appreciation signed by the Prime Minister for a job well done. I got back to office pleased with myself and soon forgot all about the assignment.

A few days later I received a call from Fumihoko. He wanted to meet me that evening at 7 in his room at the ITC Maurya. “Shankar-san, I have important things to discuss with you and later we can perhaps go out for a drink and dinner,” he said. I agreed, curious to know what he wished to talk to me about.

Fumihoka had a job offer. He wondered whether I would like to join the new company he was starting which planned to profile politicians by analysing their dreams. “Shankar-san, your mind has the rare ability to enter into dreams, observe, grasp and retain in your subconscious what you have seen. That’s a very unique talent that can make us both a lot of money,” he said. Then he dropped the bombshell: Would I like to join his company, Tokyo Analytica on a consolidated salary of five million dollars a year!

I was speechless. The offer sure was lucrative. But does money come first or the country? In all cliched stories patriotism prevails…

(As imagined by Ajith Pillai)

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