Book review: The Women who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories by Nisha Susan
In her debut collection of short stories, Nisha Susan oscillates between the savage and the gentle, but never lets go of her trademark sarcasm
It`s that expectations thing. It can`t be easy to be Nisha Susan debuting her book of short stories. That’s because Susan, co-founder of The Ladies Finger and Grist Media, who has worked variously with NGOs, Greenpeace and Tehelka magazine, is a top-notch chronicler of our life and times, with a perspective that walks the fine line between savage and gentle. Also because Susan shot into the national gaze as one of the people who formed the wonderfully named `Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women,` and activated the Pink Chaddi campaign to protest the reprehensible actions of a certain Mr Muthalik; her clarion call was immediately picked up by women across the country and things were never the same again, for either Mr M or the rest of us.
However, here is Susan with her first book, and she`s pulled off a good job. This collection of a dozen shorts has her maintaining her trademark voice and tart tone, loud and clear. She deftly draws the reader into her world, a world occupied by people very like us, people quite unlike us, people we`d love to be, people we`d be horrified to turn into.
We meet girl gangs anchored by strong but vulnerable women, and learn that sometimes these ties are not eternal after all. We meet Blouse Mohan and immediately wish we had a tailor-master like him to stitch our blouses. We learn what can happens to girls who let their inner puppies get out of control; what kind of toll it takes on women whose job requires them to look at naked women all day; what sort of situation arises when a man runs into his former girlfriend, now (maybe/maybe not) happily wed to someone else. We meet women who plan to draw up a sex map and put it online but get diverted from this stunning idea by everyday occurrences. We catch a glimpse of a mysterious `reading boy` in a café and promptly long to hear more about him and his reading tastes. We meet a writer labouring under the Imposter Syndrome, who considers her prose Dolly Partonesque—big-haired and over the top; we go into chat rooms with a girl and find men specifically want her photo with Indian culture or without Indian culture. We watch people who stay with their partners in a ridiculously expensive Delhi rental which didn’t even have the ‘fa’ of facilities. We meet Syed who has a face like the kind of pavum foreigner who comes for a two-week holiday to Bombay and has diarrhoea throughout. We watch a woman sitting at a table with a fixed, benign expression, like a woman in a Mahesh Elkunchwar play. And then there`s that story from under the quilt which will have woman readers going yes, yes, yes.
These are people who are connected to and via the world wide web. The other factor common to them all is that they are, to one woman, feisty. That feistiness is in one`s face at times, quite muted at other times. Life throws curveballs at these characters and they field them, not always deftly or gracefully; but they handle what comes their way and in the end, that’s what counts.
The book delves, though not too deeply, into the Malayali psyche and tells the reader what a woman wearing sleeveless clothing signifies; what it actually means to be a `frank girl’; it deconstructs the kanji personality; opines blithely that no Malayali can dance; shines a quick spotlight on the comment-adi gang, and makes other such essentially Malayali reveals.
The stories are all somehow intensely personal ones in the telling and there is immediate affinity forged between the reader (all the more so if she`s female) and the protagonists. The style is fuss-free and direct; there is very little dialogue all through, but Susan sets it up so you don’t feel the need to overhear the characters engage in heated or languid debate. The humour is distinctly mocking but very effective at demolishing moth-eaten but still going strong tropes.
So. Is this chick-lit? While I think women are going to relish every word in the book, men are definitely going to read it too, if only to find out what Nisha Susan thinks about their species.
The Women who Forgot to Invent Facebook and Other Stories by Nisha Susan, Westland Books. Rs 499.
Writing the ‘anti-romantic’ story
Nisha Susan recently engaged in a free-wheeling and lively online chat with the writer Krupa Ge, and said that her book had initially trained focus more on the Internet and its good, bad and terrible activities, rather than on women who used the Net.
Then one of the stories in the book was carried by a newspaper and saw an outpour of women who wrote in, totally identifying with, empathising with and cheering on the female characters in the story. She then started to see the merits of focussing on women and their Net practices, and thus the decision was made.
Susan flies the banner for the south of the country quite unapologetically, even proudly, and says her use of colloquialisms without a glossary or reference note is deliberate. “I work the explanation into the story so the reader gets it,“ she stated. While on that subject, she rued the fact that so much was happening in the India of many tongues and trying to express that richness in flat English was, to her, like navigating a swamp.
Clarifying that her politics don`t need to necessarily match that of her characters,` Susan said she was both flummoxed and entertained when readers credited both the style of language and the politics of any given character in her work with her own, thinking they must automatically elide.
Is this book really a fun read, she was asked. As Ge put it, it is about people doing seriously messed-up stuff. Susan fielded that, saying they were admittedly anti-romantic stories written up pretty much how she would tell it to you if she was sitting next to you somewhere, someplace.
Replying to the what`s next- on- the- anvil question, Susan quipped that she had missed quite a few deadlines already, and so was in `a black hole of shame, guilt and regret` regarding that next project.
She backed it up with a story of how Sophia Loren was told she could get out of a sticky situation citing her pregnancy. The Pregnancy Factor parallel here was that Susan had pushed the first deadline of her book as far as it could be pushed because she was pregnant at the time. And then, along came the second deadline, and she was pregnant again. “I`ve come to the end of that road, I think,“ she laughed.
The piece de resistance of this online conversation was Susan`s account of how a movie producer called her to say he wanted to make a film on the Pink Chaddi movement. Only, he said, it would have to be led by a man, because it wouldn’t be realistic to show a woman leading the movement.
Giving listeners enough time to pick up their dropped jaws, Susan then signed off.
These twin pieces ran in DECCAN HERALD of 29 Sept 2020.