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It happens in a flash!

Last updated on: October 05, 2003 18:34 IST

I had no reason to carry an unwieldy black umbrella on a hot day in Mumbai. Except for an email I received Friday evening.

At two minutes past 5 pm on October 4, I slipped in with about 60 seemingly innocuous members of the crowd outside Crossroads, a glitzy mall near Tardeo in central Mumbai, and began yapping agitatedly into my cell phone. We paced about even as onlookers dropped their jaws. We gesticulated wildly like stockbrokers and yelled 'Reliance ek hazaar becho!' and 'Khareedo, khareedo!'

Before the stupefied security guards could react we broke into an impromptu garba dance, clapping our hands and whooping. At a shouted signal, we froze dead in our tracks, holding the pose for exactly half a minute.

Somebody's Labrador whimpered and tugged uneasily at its leash.

A voice yelled, 'Move!' Each of us unfurled our umbrellas (now you see why I was lugging that thing around) and melted away into the world outside, before the bystanders had time to gasp.

It was a historic-slash-histrionic two minutes -- I was a part of Mumbai's first flash mob.

Flash mobs, a social phenomenon first reported from New York in May, are sweeping the world through email and the Internet, especially via blogs. Flash mobs are sudden and seemingly unplanned gatherings of large groups of people that converge in public places at a predetermined time. Members simultaneously converge to form the mob, perform a predetermined, usually bizarre task and disperse quickly, leaving onlookers bewildered.

It's all good fun and nobody gets hurt. But it can leave a lot of people dumbfounded.

It all started with an email from a colleague on Friday afternoon, which asked me to look up a new blog for Mumbai flash mobs with a link to their Web site. I followed the link and filled a form that swallowed my name, email and mobile phone number when I clicked submit.

Thank you, the form burped.

About 8 pm my cell phone trilled.

"Hi, this is Rohit," the caller said, and without much ado asked me to check my email.

His message, titled 'Mumbai Flash Mob #1 tomorrow' contained agonisingly detailed instructions. First, I had to synchronise my watch and cell phone clock to There were particulars of the exact time -- 'timing is everything', the email proclaimed -- and the venue, called a 'Flash Site'. I also received an SMS from Rohit asking me to get in touch with Anupama, a flash mob volunteer.

Anupama instructed me to meet her at a location -- a 'Meeting Pad', in mob lingo -- near Crossroads at 4.40 pm. Not earlier, not later. She briefed me about the 'act' to be performed -- a comedy in three parts: the stockbroker routine, the garba dance and the 30-second freeze. She reminded me to carry an umbrella.

"Is there anything else you want to ask me?" she enquired before I disconnected. "I can't tell you anything later."

And that was how I found myself loitering near Crossroads on a sweltering afternoon, trying to spot other people with umbrellas. There weren't any. But there was a young lady with a bag (perhaps it contained an umbrella?) standing in the spare shade of a tree near a petrol pump.

It had to be Anupama. But it was only 4.39. I lingered for a minute, then walked up to her and smiled. She nodded.

She looked at her watch. I did the same.

"Where's everyone else, I wonder?" she asked.

In a minute, they arrived out of nowhere. Soon there were about six of us.

"We'll move at exactly 5 pm," she said at 4:51.

At 5 pm, we moved briskly in a staggered group towards Crossroads. It was crowded outside the mall, and security was thick.

What if it misfires?

"If a security guard or cop asks you to leave, leave immediately," Anupama said gravely.


"If you feel like laughing," she said, "make it a part of the act. If you feel embarrassed, stand aside but stay with the mob."

I was deadpan. I am usually very serious about having fun.

We slipped into the crowd. At exactly 5:02 pm, the mob swung into action. My umbrella finally had its moment in the sun. In two minutes, I was away walking towards the Haji Ali sea face, quaking with inner laughter, still holding my umbrella aloft and not feeling like a fool at all.

In fact, I felt a sense of great accomplishment.

I did not see any of the other mobsters again. But when I called Rohit he was ecstatic at the flash mob's success.

"There were 68 people including me," he said, "That was a good turnout. Statistically, about 100 people is a success but the mob today was very spontaneous. Nobody showed signs of stage fright."

"Great," I said.

"But who informed the press?"

It wasn't me, I mumbled, though the little voice in my head taunted, 'You are the blooming press.' I felt glad to be an insider.

There's a history behind all this, though it is only about five months old.

The first flash mob was organised in Manhattan in May, by an underground group called the Mob Project. Since then flash mobs have spread, usually via email and the Internet. But innovation does not escape the mobsters. On September 8, a flash mob invitation appeared in the comic strip Doonesbury, through which artist Gary Trudeau organised a flash mob in Seattle. Flash mobs have also been reported from Amsterdam, Paris, Vienna and Zurich.

The Manhattan mob is attributed to a figure known only as Bill, who e-mailed about 50 friends to gather at a retail store in downtown Manhattan. The store was tipped off and the plan was foiled.

The next time round, Bill made amends. For the second mob, participants were asked to gather in advance in one of several bars. Only then were they handed a leaflet, which detailed the target -- Macy's department store -- and the act.

About 100 people appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on Macy's home furnishing floor and began discussing whether to purchase a 'love rug'. The crowd quickly melted away even as the bewildered staff looked on.

Organise, congregate, act, disperse -- that is the anatomy of a flash mob.

Rohit spearheads the process. "I was intrigued by this concept," he said, adding that he sold his 'offline' friends on the idea. He booked the domain on September 16.

"It's been 15 days since I launched the web site," he said. "We now have 300 members."

He conducted an online survey to determine the ideal locations for a mob. Members volunteered to help with Web site design. Some pitched in with suggestions for performing acts.

The mobsters' blog does the talking, though it reveals no secret details. For that, you have to join the mob. Only members are emailed instructions. It is bad manners, and really bad karma to squeal.

Rohit, who appears to have a sharp memory for names and emails, handles registration of members. He emails them individually, picks volunteers from among the registrants and assigns them to coordinate mobsters.

For the October 4 mob, each volunteer was assigned 10 mobsters. They meet at various Meeting Pads and arrive at the Flash Site at the designated time. The melee is a highly coordinated act but appears completely spontaneous.

Members do not meet each other except at Flash Sites. I have not yet set eyes on Rohit. Oddly, neither have some of the volunteers. "I registered online just four days ago," said Anupama. "I haven't met him."

Curiouser and curiouser.

No law and order problems have been reported so far, but some stuffed shirts may find flash mobs a nuisance. Also, some do-gooders have proposed that flash mobs start cleaning up the city or do some 'socially useful' work. But Rohit maintains that the purpose is to have fun.

I agree. Don't you want to be part of the next one?

Bijoy Venugopal in Mumbai