Review: The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook and Other Stories by Nisha Susan
If Nisha Susan’s debut collection of stories were to be summed up in just a word, I would pick ‘badass’; perhaps a word better suited to the individuals that people her canvas. The 12 eclectic stories in The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories are tales of dauntless urban women in motion, navigating their precious selves through real and virtual spaces. Theirs are stories of love and love’s labours lost, conquests and clandestine trysts, the civilised savagery of humans toward each other, friendship and its unravelling. There is introspection and self-discovery amidst the usual complexities of existence. These women are writers, singers, dancers, artists, copywriters, journalists, largely in professions or passions involving the arts. They are girlfriends, wives and lovers. And sometimes, lonesome souls exposing their raw, jagged edges. A lot of the stories are first person accounts. There needs to be special mention of the saucily pretty pink and black cover with speech blurbs announcing the title, created and designed by Rohit Bhasi and Bhavi Mehta.
The curiously titled The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook which is the first one in the book, is a story of young people and casual hook-ups with the opposite or same sex. It is a veritable registry of the meetings and matings of youngsters doing their thing at a hangout named Vicky’s, recounted in the voice of the just-out-of-her-teens nameless raconteuse, and her companion, living out capricious lives, an easy function of that age. They come up with the idea of mapping sexual partnerships in their network on a website to facilitate future dalliances, a Tinder-in-the-making of sorts.
For the most part, Susan’s women are on top. Her girls drink unapologetically in cheap bars, befriend strangers online and share their deepest secrets with them. In The Singer and the Prince an almost-love story that misses its mark, two young people meet online and bond over music, in an era of chatrooms and Orkut. “The singer was a small-town girl who had ambled citywards with her mother and stayed in Bangalore till no one knew that her past contained ten-kilometre walks to school”. The writing is made of many lines like these: “Small-town women who run to the city are like the Powerpuff Girls, with cute, overly feminine clothes and superpowers.” In another story, How Andrew Wylie broke my heart, she highlights the perils of online dating, where a copywriter signs up with a “dating site for intelligent people” and makes a host of online friends who become a cooler replacement to her offline ones. What follows is a tale with a twisted, almost cruel denouement. In Teresa, the second wife of a young Mumbai-based editor discovers the alter ego of her husband’s first wife through the dead woman’s secret blogs, the latter an Amazonian woman whose dazzling persona towers over their supercilious social circle.
The girls in most of the stories are bold but they also cleverly maintain boundaries, like in The Trinity. Meena, Annie and Nayantara are goddesses, the dancing queens at all the college festivals. They get their blouses stitched by Blouse Mohan, the best tailor in all of Cochin, who needs one look at a chest to get his measurements right. They get wooed by the IIT boys from Chennai, and successfully balance lovers with discretion. But in the end, goddesses must have feet of clay; it is a coming of age story, the unravelling of tight friendships and of toeing the line.
The men, in contrast, are two-dimensional, at times shadowy: either emasculated or overtly pretentious. Sanjeev in Workout of the day is aghast about the frequent rapes in the capital city on Twitter, and wants to do an op-ed on the rapes, but is nonchalant about seeing off an ex-girlfriend to a rickshaw in the middle of the night because he is too bored to escort her home. He also tails a female colleague’s car for cheap thrills in a twisted predatory manner because he feels disdain for her “type”. In a gossipy locker-room style conversation that reeks of toxic masculinity, he holds forth: “See, in Malayalam and in Hindi, the phrase for a female servant is “woman with a job”. Kaam-wali. Vela-karatti. That’s what it is. That’s the correct usage. A woman with a job is a servant.”
In Missed Call, a slum-dwelling mother working as a cook at a school cafeteria, struggles to make a life for herself and her three children. Stymied temporarily by an accident and stonewalled by her recalcitrant daughter whose missed calls and undecipherable cell phone chats spell trouble, the mother, nonetheless soldiers on. A poignant portraiture it evokes empathy for the central character, even as she singularly confesses to herself, “my stomach clenched and unclenched at the thought that I’d begun to dislike my daughter.”
Susan also touches upon themes of infidelity, adultery and kinky fantasy. There is the edgy narrative of the ‘Triangle’ where a nameless woman unspools frames of her romantic fantasy that involve her with two competing men. With imagery of checkerboard floors, mirrors and flowers in sunlit gardens that enlarge in size, visually it plays out like Alice in Wonderland meets Inception meets Erica Jong.
The stories are set in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, but Kerala cities and smaller towns are what the writer handles best. “Thiruvananthapuram was a city so famous for its rudeness that, in my mother’s generation, Cochin families would never marry into Thiruvananthapuram families.” And of Mumbai, “There was a certain glamour in being in Mumbai as a writer and not a reader. On a day filled with breeze, sunshine and Gothic architecture, could you be unhappy?” lines that tug at the heart, if one has known the city.
The language crackles to keep tempo with her characters’ whimsies, quips abound and idiosyncrasies get their due idiom. Susan is almost wicked in her humour, it is zingy in many places. “She didn’t smoke or eat meat but had the air of the greatest tamasik in south Delhi, so louche were her eyes, so knowing were her thick lips.” Her idiom is earthy. Sabba, the reluctant writer of The Gentle Reader, heavily trolled on Twitter laughs at the namoonas at the Lit Fest. And the singer when she realises the truth: “She was convinced she’d always be his ‘bold’ and ‘unusual’ friend, not an object of romance. Her terracotta heart now had a hairline crack.” The sentences leap with people and happenings, and there is a steady stream of uneven consciousness. Somewhere down the page or paragraphs later, the dots get connected.
One would expect nothing less, from Nisha Susan, an ex-Tehelka reporter who trailblazed over a decade ago with the Pink Chaddi campaign, a non-violent protest against the right wing Sri Ram Sene that had violently attacked youth in a pub in Mangalore for “sullying Indian culture”. The chutzpah of The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and other stories’ recalls the cheek and the effective humour of that campaign.
Sonali Mujumdar is an independent writer. She lives in Mumbai.