Reading The Alice Project by Satwik Gade
A novel that examines its eponymous protagonist’s quest for meaning and his attempts to create a solid foundation for himself even as he battles a perpetual sense of emptiness
The cover of The Alice Project presents Delhi’s bylanes in the winter sunshine: a man is smoking a cigarette, a woman on the first floor is dropping a bag attached to a rope for the vegetable vendor to fill, an auto manoeuvres through the street, a cat walks towards a pair of pigeons, and people swaddled in winter clothes go about their daily business in what looks like a typically congested locality in the city. It is here that the reader meets Alice.
The eponymous protagonist of Satwik Gade’s book is a “Single guy in the city grappling with adulthood alongside friends who foster him and work as support mechanisms.” A 22-year-old design graduate, Alice works half-heartedly for a start-up and occasionally freelances for his rich acquaintance, Javed, with whom he shares never-ending philosophical and religious ramblings.
The novel traces Alice’s journey with his friends in two sections: Winter and Summer, which are separated by a gap of seven years. The first section presents Alice’s friends – Bakchod, Nitin, Padma, and Javed. Snigdha enters this well-knit group and remains the most important connecting thread between the two sections. Bakchod is Alice’s flat mate and closest friend. Their relationship is balanced by the latter’s contemplative nature and the former’s gregarious and whimsical personality. Their lives, typical of numerous other Indian college students, is spent negotiating rent with the landlord, avoiding getting caught as they drink and party, and encountering love and friendships. Marked by a lack of ambition and motivation, Alice is bothered by the “perfect equilibrium” of his life. His journey starts to take a turn as he begins grappling with a few “coming-of-age dilemmas”. His search for meaning becomes more pronounced as his friends gradually leave for jobs in other places, lovers separate, and his cohort becomes more career-driven.
Seven years later, Alice seems the same. The reader does not see an “Alice 2.0”, who is married like his friend Bakchod, or is responsibly “adulting” like Nitin, or completing a PhD in the US like Snigdha. Still a self-employed freelancer, he now also writes book reviews. As before, his desire to write a book with Javed on the Ajivika religion seems like a pipe-dream. He attempts to follow Nietzsche’s aphorisms and create a religious and philosophical book from Javed’s research. Caught between deadlines, he dreams of starting a cult.
The Alice Project examines its protagonist’s quest for meaning and his attempts to create a solid foundation for himself even as he battles a perpetual sense of emptiness and attempts to fill it. Alice compares his life to others who have stability and prospects for the future. He occasionally finds that stability and vision of the future with Snigdha and Anu, but neither pulls him towards commitment. For a while, he stays in the “bubble” created with Snigdha, where no questions about the future are asked. It is this short period that makes him think about his purpose. Snigdha understands his anxiety, and his surrender to a balanced life. When she has to leave once more, he takes her to the beach to show her bioluminescent plankton glimmering in the water at their feet. This is symbolic of their relationship, which glimmers in the darkness of that time in their lives. They talk about identity and instability. “You ride the cusp through your twenties and then you realize that the feeling is your carrot and stick. The feeling is all there is, and you need to make it last a lifetime. There’s no revelation on the other side,” Snigdha says. Perhaps this is what Alice finds hard to accept: that there is no great revelation, just the desire to seek that revelation.
Satwik Gade takes the reader through the crises of early adulthood, many of which are self inflicted but no less disturbing for that. As is the case with Alice, most have to learn to swim through their insecurities and attempt to emerge unscathed. The Alice Project, leavened by occasional bursts of humour and an understanding of the nature of friendships, takes this universal experience as its subject. Set in the era of Orkut and of mobile phones with no front cameras for selfies, this book will make Millennial readers, especially, nostalgic for their college days with its easy friendships nurtured at designated sutta points and over winter bonfires. It perfectly presents the humour, guilt, confidence, embarrassment, innocence and foolishness that are so much a part of nascent adulthood.
Saleem Rashid Shah is an independent book critic. He lives in New Delhi
The views expressed are personal