You expect Nisha Susan’s collection of short stories to dazzle you and even throw you a little off balance right from the opening story, not only because of her past record and continued presence as a sensitive journalist and activist, and incisive social commentator, but also because the cover of her debut collection of short stories, The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories, offers a tantalising glimpse of the swank and swagger of the women inside.
On the day of the book launch, the author posted an animated image of the illustrated book cover featuring a woman winking and whistling, before settling for a self-satisfying hmm, even as the Hindu trinity and a whole heap of temples trembled on a giant headdress set smugly on her head, zero discomfort betraying her wide-eyed expression.
On opening the book, you discover that the collection thrums with the same raw energy and calm confidence that you see on the cover. In these stories, set largely in urban Bangalore and small towns in Kerala, urban youth navigate real-life and virtual worlds of relationships, work, fun, commitment, and social responsibility with the kind of millennial confidence that is often a cause of irritation, disbelief, and even bitter rejection from older generations.
Future-facing and acutely aware of their present circumstances, the characters are sometimes mindful of the disruption they cause around them and at other times too consumed by their own needs. Nevertheless, they ooze a sense of command over their life journeys, no matter where they land, and they don’t always land in a desirable or intended place.
Verve on view
In the opening eponymous story, the author sets the tone for the entire collection through a story about two women friends who frequent a pub called Vicky’s. Sex and sexiness dominate the intertwined lives of young people from the city and visiting adventurers from lands as far away as Iran, France, and Australia. Humour and irony go hand in hand, as the author follows these restless women whose hours are filled with ennui, gossip, and half-hearted explorations of the world around them.
This opening story, immersive and full of verve, builds itself on short, repetitive sentences where language becomes a small, sharp weapon that cuts right through to the essence of the story and neither gimmickry nor embellishment comes in the way of experiencing these women’s lives.
The story that follows, “Trinity”, pulls you deeper into the rest of the collection with its exuberant portrayal of three women friends. “We were goddesses,” the protagonist declares. These young women, passionate dancers and heroines of the youth festival circuit, carry their unflinching confidence to other cities and towns, showcasing their dance moves and romancing young men who seem star-struck by their audacious attitude.
The strength of the story lies in its witty observations and comparisons about various local cultures and beliefs, aided by self-deprecating humour and small, daring acts of personal defiance. In other stories, we walk into a male-dominated newsroom, feel the sting of Mumbai’s heat as a woman obsessed with her partner’s ex-lover digs up the past, travel deep into Kerala’s towns, meet an unassuming murdered, follow a lost writer to a buzzing literary festival, and suffer heartburn on realising that the young and the brave now consider the millennials uncool. These characters enter varied story-landscapes with soaring dreams and often exit, half-beaten by their own undoing, into difficult realities.
Before hook-ups and ghosting
The author pits multiple opposing forces and mismatched identities against each other in several stories. The subaltern and posh, local and international, small-town and cosmopolitan, single and married, progressive and traditional clash and mingle, pull and push each other and cause a heady, unresolved tension in several stories. The result, amplified by a sense of immediacy and hyper-localism in language, adds up to a sustained sense of thrill, adventure, and constant discovery about Indian millennials and their aspirations.
There’s no doubt that women protagonists and female friendships steal the show in this collection. In her choice of settings, characters, and language, Nisha refuses to self-exoticise the South Indian experience and presents the local culture with refreshing authenticity. Malayalam and Kannada words appear with charming regularity in the stories. Pavada, pavum, konjum, saar, vishesham sit as equals beside hatta-katta, half-mast, body banao, tamasik, and aukat. English expands, heaves, sways and becomes a thing of local beauty in Susan’s deft hands.
Some of the stories may seem dated to late millennials and early Gen Zers, who have already exited Facebook and now flit restlessly between ephemeral Stories and hardly-there content of Reels on Instagram. For these youth, the mention of Orkut and chat rooms may seem baffling, as would the idea that independent, capable women feel obliged to fall into loveless, mundane marriages.
Another confining scope of the collection is its centring of mainstream heterosexual urban experiences. Nevertheless, this collection presents a kaleidoscopic view of a time when urban India transitioned to being connected through the Internet, when sex had to be had in other towns far away from one’s home-town, and hook-up and ghosting had not yet become common parlance.
As for the woman on the book cover, she stays with you even after you turn the last page. After this persistent image, we hope to see more book cover art from Rohit Bhasi.
Rashmi Patel is a writer based in Melbourne. She is a current Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow and is working on her second novel manuscript.
The Women Who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories, Nisha Susan, Context.
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