“Relevant” has always seemed to me a perplexing choice of praise for works of fiction. What light can a measure of relevance throw upon art? And what constitutes relevance anyway? Any good story will capture something both specific and universal, so any attributes of relevance are as much a reflection on the reader as they are qualitative assessments of the work.
But lately – and unfortunately – “relevant” seems to be a placeholder for “topical.” And if there were a bingo card for what makes a novel topical, Identitti, Mithu Sanyal’s debut work of fiction, translated from the German by Alta L Price, would decimate the game. Privilege olympics, Twitter shitstorms, campus politics – it’s all there, delivered at the pace of one witticism per paragraph.
At the University of Düsseldorf, twenty-something Nivedita is a doctoral student. She also runs the blog “Identitti”, operates in the currency of coolness, uses words such as “herstory”, and, born to a German mother and an Indian father, thinks of her interest in postcolonial studies as more of a calling. The sun of her orbit is her advisor Saraswati, a celestial being that Nivedita defines everything in relation to, her gravity strong enough to hold in motion for Nivedita the past and present, real and imagined.
Their relationship is charged with tension both epistemic and emotional, and while it starts off somewhat parasocial, its asymmetry is altered by news that pulls the ground from under an unsuspecting Nivedita’s feet: Saraswati is actually white. But it also makes possible the coming true of Nivedita’s dream – their relationship transcends the classroom as she lands in Saraswati’s guestroom, eating the overnight oats Saraswati makes her, using Saraswati’s vibrator, and trying to peel the layers off the untouchable deity that she has come to know her professor as.
There is also Priti, Nivedita’s cousin who she loves in the complicated way that you can only love your sister, and who unthinkingly sets the fiasco off. When the novel starts, Nivedita’s on-and-off boyfriend Simon has pulled another disappearing act on her, and as she awaits nervously the fate of their relationship, drama explodes.
Race and recognisability
In Identitti, race is the axis upon which all experience of daily life turns. Not white enough to never be asked where she is from, Nivedita is also not black or brown enough to wear the Victim of Racial Discrimination tag without feeling some unease. Who, really, is she, and who is she trying to be? The questions haunt her at every turn, but that they are only her ghosts to confront drives her up the wall.
In the dialogue and, often, at the beginning of the chapters, there is a smattering of quotes generous enough to make the average liberal arts student smile in self-satisfaction. Of course, honey, this was all on the syllabus. Especially for those who recognise the refuge that a student committed simultaneously to a particular blend of emancipatory politics and mission of self-discovery finds in the classroom, reading Identitti will feel like a faithful representation. Some paragraphs, though, will make this same reader wonder (perhaps from their own experience of writing to impress) if the writing is quirky, or just littered with quirks.
India is to Nivedita an idea that bears the promise of salvation, but all her associations with India are so NRI clichè-riddled (yoga, turmeric, Amrita Sher-gil paintings…you get the drift ) that it is somewhat hard to take her pursuits seriously, scholarly or personal. An interesting presence is Kali, who is both Nivedita’s interlocutor and alter-ego, hovering in rooms and over her conscience. Nivedita asks her questions, looks at her for clues, shares with her observations that can become tweets. A diligent participant, Kali responds too, but for a character initially written with as much promise, she seems underused – often no more than a prop for Nivedita’s inner monologue.
The online life
The site of Sararwati’s undoing also stretches beyond Nivedita’s psyche to the landmine that is the internet. Hashtags trend, battle-lines are picked, ugly distortions of identity politics abound. But at the risk of sounding very 22, there is something about an internet scandal that can only be captured by the chaos of being on the internet.
It is certainly an interesting time for the internet novel; enough of them have come out in recent years to claim a genre of their own, and yet what it means to write the internet remains unsatisfactorily explored. Part of the problem is its overwhelming scale – how do you begin to present a slice of all the life that happens online? Capturing the experience of being on the internet, however, requires, most of all, striking a balance between two apparent contradictions of condition: fragmentation and fluidity.
On one level, as anyone from our protagonist’s demographic will attest, the internet is a kind of shared consciousness, a breathing thing we are awake to even when we are not hunched over our phones. Instead, in Identitti, the story moves between tweets and narrative as if they were two different rooms, stepping into one requiring leaving the other. At the same time, our experiences of the internet are so deeply individual, almost solitary (thanks, algorithms) that the stakes of a novel like Identitti will be lost on a reader who does not share a very particular understanding of internet culture.
A popular expression on the internet goes “everything I know about [topic X] I know against my will.” The wondrousness – and tragedy – of the internet is that topic X is a set that stretches infinitely into the strangest of horizons, in a way that real life does not. Identitti is an attempt at exploring if this could be a gift in disguise, and what it can tell us about our place in a world where no mores of making meaning are sacred. And what of material, worthwhile resolutions, you ask? Don’t be silly, you don’t come to the internet for that.
Identitti, Mithu Sanyal, translated by Alta L Price, Astra House.