“All in all, there was no cosmically correct way to be on this earth,” the unnamed narrator of Tanuj Solanki’s short story “Reasonable Limits” tells himself, “all you could do was to be aware of what you were really doing, acknowledge its painful by-products, and keep at it.”

Written as a single breathless sentence snaking over multiple pages, “Reasonable Limits” is part of Solanki’s quietly magnetic second book, Diwali in Muzaffarnagar, a collection of short stories published in 2018. In its claustrophobic form is the account of a young man working in a life insurance company, who is “okay financially”, his job “stable”, yet struggling to reconcile with the bleakness of his life and work, with being trapped inextricably in an unjust system in which he plays his own damning part. “As much as possible we need to follow the injunction of waking up tomorrow in our own bed, in our cocoons of peace and laziness; we can and should continue our hiding, if it is that,” he concludes in defeat.

With his new book, The Machine Is Learning, Solanki seeks to expand his short story and to interrogate its central idea with greater rigour – is hiding in our cocoons really the best we can do?

The rarity of a corporate setting

The novel’s 29-year-old narrator, Saransh, is a rising star at Bansal Life Insurance Company (BLIC), hand-picked to be a part of the organisation’s Special Projects Group (SPG). The small team sits cloistered in a conference room in BLIC’s Mumbai headquarters, operating in strict confidence, while enjoying a nearly free reign in the company. Steered by a razor-sharp and discreetly manipulative group head, it directs all its energies on a singular mission: how best to harness the unexplored and seemingly limitless power of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. “We have indeed become a sort of secret society pursuing a holy grail,” Saransh thinks about their work.

The Machine might appear to have all the ingredients for a dystopian exploration of AI gone horribly wrong – a Frankenstinian horror story – but Solanki is not as concerned with uncontrollable superintelligent machines as he is with something more banal, and consequently, more insidious.

In a 2017 essay, science fiction author Ted Chiang wrote about the apprehension among some tech titans about artificial intelligence: “The idea of superintelligence is such a poorly defined notion that one could envision it taking almost any form with equal justification . . . but when Silicon Valley tries to imagine superintelligence, what it comes up with is no-holds-barred capitalism.”

The holy grail being chased by Saransh’s team is increased shareholder value – selling astronomical amounts of insurance at near-zero cost. Couched in the familiar corporate jargon of “technology as differentiator” and “competitive advantage” is a single-minded focus on innovation as a means of cost reduction, regardless of the means to get there.

The SPG’s latest project aims to automate the role performed by the company’s 552 local operations executives (or LOEs) across its 224 branches, rendering all of them jobless upon its completion. In a particularly cruel twist, teaching AI to execute a job that is replete with process exceptions requires detailed inputs from the LOEs themselves. “In our project, locally-brewed intelligence is called an anomaly,” Saransh explains. The team has to jet set across the country, meeting the very people they are going to lay off, and learn about all the divergences from laid-down processes practised by them. The LOEs, clueless about their fate, are happy to oblige the big guys from HQ.

Firmly located in the realm of the modern-day corporate workplace, The Machine sets itself apart from most Indian literary novels, which continue to shy away from such a milieu. It’s an omission felt in many other parts of the world as well. The American writer Joshua Ferris tried to explain why this might be so in an interview. “It requires a good deal of actual knowledge and very often experience, and writers are often tending to their craft, the craft of writing,” he said. “They are unlikely bedfellows.”

Solanki, who has worked in life insurance companies for years, all the while nurturing a writing career, suffers from no such constraints. Bursting with both experience and knowledge, The Machine is at its most compelling when it sharply observes the intricacies of the corporate workplace. Solanki does not hold back from diving into the minutiae of insurance operations – how a new application form is scrutinised, how policies are surrendered, how sales teams register customer details, the many data requirements for an AI program to handle the task.

It’s an audacious decision that could easily have given the novel its driest parts (a reminder here that we’re talking about the operations of an insurance company) but it works instead as a fascinating act of world building. And within its contours, Solanki is able to display a deep insight into what he excelled at in Diwali in Muzaffarnagar – the intricate web of conservatism, ambition, and insecurities within which most of India’s upper middle class operates.

A probing light

Work, after all, isn’t just what we spend most of our time doing. It’s often the clearest peephole into the shifting morality of its practitioners – another central concern of Solanki’s fiction. Saransh, unlike his colleagues (most particularly his closest collaborator, Mitesh), suffers occasional pin pricks of conscience, realising the immensity of what he is about to unleash on unsuspecting workers who make less than a tenth of his salary.

He’s able to rationalise it away, however, as a necessary evil, as the eggs that must break to make an omelette. But all of that changes when he starts dating Jyoti, an ex-journalist who he matches with on Tinder, and the novel is transformed, tracing its protagonist’s recognition of his complicity in a stacked system.

Fiery, unapologetic, and quick to cut to the ethical heart of all matters, Jyoti assumes the predictable role of Saransh’s conscience, reprimanding him for his actions from a vantage point of unquestionable goodness. She’s also the novel’s most tedious character – a two-dimensional stereotype whom Solanki attempts to imbue with a dash of complexity towards the end. The relationship between the two characters follows familiar terrain as well, their divergent personalities set up to clash in ways that give the novel some of its clunkiest dialogue.

Mitesh, too, is an archetype, but where Jyoti feels like an exaggerated plot point, Solanki depicts Saransh’s colleague with blistering precision. Loyal both to his employer and the deep-embedded bigotry of the upper-caste, upper-class Indian man, his excitement for relieving people of their jobs is finally recognised by Saransh as a form of grotesque vulgarity.

He feels intimately familiar because many of us have known several Miteshs in our lives. Fresh out of business school, my first job was at a life insurance company in Mumbai. Part of a team tasked with conducting audits of the company’s operations department, our mandate quickly became to identify weaknesses – in processes, checks and balances, and in people.

I watched as my boss, a tall mean man, huddled together with the department head, a short mean man, day after day, discussing the latest way they had devised to hold employees guilty of negligence and inefficiency, or to make certain roles redundant. Their gleeful whispers, as the cogs of corporate life turned around them, did feel vulgar. In my second year there, as I was leaving HQ to visit a local branch, my boss pointed at my shoes. “Make sure you make them super shiny,” he said with a wink. “That usually gives them a scare.”

In The Machine, finally recoiling from his colleague’s zeal for seeing heads roll, Saransh thinks, “Guilt, it hits me then, is the absence of vulgarity. Or maybe vulgarity is the absence of guilt.”

Guilt and after

Beyond driving home the reality that tech “disruptions” like AI are most effective at enhancing and cementing existing power differentials, Solanki’s central obsession with the novel is to interrogate what to do with the knowledge of complicity. In the early days of their intimacy, the novel’s lovers talk frequently about Hannah Arendt’s famous treatise on the banality of evil, based on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organisers of the Holocaust.

Even the earnest and damning Jyoti is unable to continue drawing equivalences between the actions of the Third Reich and Saransh’s cost-cutting team, yet the insinuation lingers. “Since you cannot escape inflicting this suffering upon them, perhaps you should suffer a bit yourself by feeling guilty,” she writes to him.

Later in the novel, its protagonist wonders, “Should everyone on the right side of the system feel guilty about being there? And then do what?” Do we stay hidden in our cocoons or do we step out?

To talk about the choices that Saransh makes would give away too much of the plot, but there is an unshakeable inevitability to the novel’s conclusion. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, as it is said. The questions the novel poses have no easy answers, nor does it claim to provide them.

Despite its contemporariness, The Machine is finally then an old-fashioned novel – a man’s reckoning of his place in the world and the limits of his own morality – part of a long literary tradition. I came away from it unmoved.

Solanki is a distinctive author, exciting for a reader in both the acuity of his observations and the nuance in his fictional concerns, but The Machine is weighed down by the seriousness of its unanswerable questions. Keen to tackle the novel’s philosophical concerns, Solanki spells too much out for the reader, unable to fully achieve that subtle alchemy of motivation, circumstance, action, and consequence that makes fiction shine.

His narrator, possessed of an intellect he reminds us of frequently, veers often into navel gazing territory. Instead of these lengthy expositions, which are swampy instead of revelatory, I wished Solanki had shown us more of what he handles deftly in so many of his stories – the many complicated disparate threads that drive not only who we are, but why we make the decisions that we do.

“Who am I in all of this? Where do I stand on the power spectrum?” Saransh wonders towards the end of the novel before reaching a quiet understanding, his guilt still unplaceable. It is a worthy journey, but I must admit I wearied of it.

The Machine Is Learning, Tanuj Solanki, Pan Macmillan.