With its crackling style, an eye-popping cover and a gallery of twisted characters, Nisha Susan’s debut collection of stories is somewhat like the women of ‘Trinity’ — the prose equivalent of watching women romp on stage to AR Rahman’s music after years of earnest and well-meaning “open-the-sindoor-box” recitals. That spunk comes from the book’s contemporary landscape and characters, a wicked authorial eye that observes mercilessly and the language that is confidently rooted in the way many urban Indians speak. Calling the stories “millennial”, though, is not saying much. What they do best is exhibit a generous and refreshing curiosity about the deceits and desires of life in the cities of post-liberalisation India.
Naturally, the internet (about 25 years old in India) is what threads the book together; attraction and betrayal play out over email and Orkut chatrooms, Twitter timelines, dating sites and meditation apps. But the stories are concerned more about people, says Susan, 41, than “with tech in the way of speculative fiction”. One of the first stories she wrote in this vein was about a “highly online life of a nerdy bibliophile” around 2007, which Susan did not include in the book. “I too lived online a great deal and continue to do so, and so to write about it became a fun thing to do,” she says. The early days of the internet are a vivid memory for the Bengaluru-based journalist-writer. “I was 19 years old and, like the characters in ‘Trinity’, I had gone to a festival. I found there was the option of keeping in touch with others over email. So I walked five minutes from my house to a cyber cafe and made a Hotmail id,” she recalls. Two decades ago, in Indiranagar, Bengaluru, where Susan lived, “every second or third building was a cybercafe… which were oddly public and private spaces”. “Even the small shops that sold bananas and newspapers had two computers. It was super accessible and quite amazing. I remember the first search engine, the option of using multiple tabs…whoa! You could suddenly do two things at the time,” she says over a video call.
Like a true digital native, The Women Who Forgot… captures the sense of discovery and deception of the internet. There is a multiplicity of registers in the stories, packing in pop-culture references from Hindi and Malayalam cinema and Indian internet without painstaking explications. Characters burst in and out of bars, chatrooms, offices and literary festivals; parents, with the exception of the mother-daughter in ‘Missed Call’ are shadowy presences, mostly redundant in a world of the young.
The language of the book is playful and unserious, pushing Indian English to embrace the many accents and voices one hears in its cities. The conversational element of the stories comes from Susan’s being “a compulsive teller of anecdotes.” “It is not something special about me. Most Indians are storytellers, they will chew your ears off if you give them a chance. A lot of my effort in writing is to retain all our natural gift for storytelling, and capture our specific experiences,” says Susan.
Susan is also the founder of the feminist magazine The Ladies Finger, but the book is not weighed down by any ideology. “I have never seen the point of writing politically correct stories. But that thing of being able to enter the feelings of a character who you might dismiss otherwise is important for me as a writer. It is an ethical exercise one could undertake without have to force ethical exercises on one’s readers,” she says.
The women of the book are its highlight, and Susan shines in exploring the conflicts, not just the sorority. “Women have been crucial in shaping my life. But it is not a Pollyanna-ish relationship. It has been very complicated, with lots of tension and big fights. This could be a very straight person’s perspective: but I feel men don’t matter much, except in a certain sexual or romantic context. Women have dominated my life in ways that boyfriends never did. They didn’t take my life and tear it apart from the way women did or put it back together as women did,” she says.