A cryptic message on a currency note captured India’s attention enough to catapult a fictional person to star status.
It all started in August, when a message scrawled on an old Rs10 note alleged that a woman named Sonam Gupta was unfaithful. In Devanagari script, the note read, “Sonam Gupta bewafa hai”—”Sonam Gupta is disloyal.” Three months later, the phrase resurfaced on a new Rs2,000 note, which came into circulation after demonetisation.
Soon after, someone shared the image of the bill on the internet, and “Gupta” quickly took social media by storm. The note inspired memes and parodies, and media company The Visual Radio created a series of snapchats from Gupta’s fictional father. The phrase even appeared on an Indian Institute of Technology exam.
Gupta’s popularity was enough to make her the third-most searched person in India this year, according to Google India’s trending metrics. She follows US president-elect Donald Trump and PV Sindhu, a Badminton player who was the only woman (and person) to win India a silver at the Olympic games in Rio. Gupta is more searched-for than two other Indian Olympians: gymnast Dipa Karmakar and female wrestler and bronze medalist Sakshi Malik. For Gupta to stand out in the year of Pokemon Go, Brexit, Rio, and Trump is a feat. To do so without actually existing in the public eye—or at all—is another wonder altogether.
Much of the passion surrounding Gupta isn’t related to the bank note itself, but concerns India’s troubling misogyny. The country has dealt with numerous high-profile rape cases, and women are often victims of acid attacks if they turn down a man’s marriage proposal or sexual advances. Bollywood also normalises stalking. Last month, 60 young activists met at a Delhi café to discuss the Gupta note, and how easy it is to slander anyone online. “Of course I stand with Sonam Gupta, whoever and wherever she is,” lawyer Aastha Kapoor told Scroll. “I am against the victimisation of any woman.”
Indian merchants are also capitalizing on the frenzy. Cashback app CrownIt gave out gift vouchers to the best #IStandWithSonam tweets, and some restaurants and bars are offering discounts to anyone named Sonam Gupta. Delhi-based pub Chatter House even invented a #SonamGuptaCocktail.
The internet trolls are also out in force. Several Facebook pages have emerged criticizing Gupta, and a “million-man march” to the Parliament House in Delhi on Jan. 26 will call for an “anti-bewafai” (anti-unfaithfulness) bill. More than 1,000 people have RSVPd yes.