A virtual toast to badass women

Shriya Mohan | Updated on September 04, 2020 Published on September 03, 2020

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Nisha Susan’s debut collection of short stories looks at how the internet has curated modern human relationships

* The women who forgot to invent Facebook and other stories by Nisha Susan, portrays a range of human experiences driven by women protagonists who come out all guns blazing to push the boundaries in an unequal world — both real and virtual

It took Sabbah barely a minute to delete her two angry tweets. But it was already too late. By then she had been retweeted thrice, and a post had referred to her as pseudo-sickular. “Well, well... who is the liberal now?” the netizen asked. Without thinking too much, she blocked the Twitter user. “Dammit, dammit! The moral highground had been well and truly lost... It stared at her freedom-of-speech-loving face,” author Nisha Susan writes in one among the dozen pieces of short fiction in The women who forgot to invent Facebook and other stories.

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Public internet arrived in India on August 5, 1995. In the rose-tinted post-liberalisation era, the advent of the internet was like a sci-fi novel becoming reality for everybody — from those in their formative teens or adulting fresh out of college to the ones facing a midlife crisis. Information, at the click of a mouse, was a newly acquired superpower; it gave instant answers to homework, doled out poster printouts of the Backstreet Boys as well as recipes for world cuisines, granted an email inbox that was the very definition of privacy, and held the key to chat rooms around the world that either granted a memorable encounter or left one hot and bothered. Importantly, it allowed the sweet freedom of anonymity; one could don any online avatar while humouring those after your ASL (remember age/sex/location?).

Twenty-five years later, Susan’s short stories serve as a timeline to those moments, a measure of how the internet has changed the fabric of human relationships, moulding our behaviour, priorities, obsessions, dreams and insecurities. Susan, a writer and a columnist, has for long studied the strangeness and intimacy brought on by the internet, and her debut collection portrays what happens when your online life governs your offline one, especially if you’re a woman.

“As a writer, Sabbah thought, she was committed to the notion that evil exists in the world. But even she was not ready for the evil she was discovering on the net,” Susan writes in The gentle reader, a story about a budding writer whose latest book draws the ire of Hindu fundamentalists on social media.

The stories portray a range of human experiences driven by women protagonists who come out all guns blazing to push the boundaries in an unequal world — both real and virtual. These women were ‘woke’ even in the early 2000s, way before the word entered our lexicon.

In The Singer and the Prince, a classical musician comes across a prince in a chat room. Susan writes, “This was 2003 and most chat rooms were filled with men whose favourite singer was AR Rahman. Rather swiftly she fled, looking for classical music chat rooms, where she was puzzled to discover that everyone was worried about Indian culture; and the men specifically wanted her photo with Indian culture or wanted her photo without Indian culture”.

In The Trinity, three dancers in Kochi mastermind their sex lives over email, and The women who forgot to invent Facebook offers a brilliant blueprint, “What we need is a website... for the sex map. Imagine how useful this would be if it was online? When you met someone new, you could go look them up and find out if they were lying about being single. You could find previous girlfriends and see whether he had good taste or bad taste”.

An Instagram hashtag becomes the reason for lust and crime in No Filter. Lijji’s Bali holiday with her spouse does not bother her lover as much as the fact that the husband would be clicking photos of her flying high on #baliswing and uploading them on Insta. Nothing pacifies him, not even when Lijji sweetly tells him that she and her husband take selfies instead of having sex.

In Mindful, young Rhea is obsessed with a mindfulness app, particularly the golden voice of her personalised instructor, Kabir. But everytime she tries to uninstall it, the app eerily senses her motive. Running out of empathy, Rhea? Kabir asks.

Susan’s stories are anything but romantic. The internet has only brought the immoral world out there into granular focus and Susan portrays them all with effective punchlines and great prose. That’s not all. Her stories raise a toast to badass women and their raw, unfiltered, newly acquired agency.

The brilliant book cover illustration by Bengaluru-based artist Rohit Bhasi, drawn in the style of Odisha’s ancient Hindu temples, shows a rather woke, gorgeous woman watching the world go by with mild interest. “She’s larger than life, secure, accomplished and immune to all kinds of criticism or what the world thinks of her,” Bhasi says over the phone. The black-and-white sketch captures the very heart of Susan’s characters. They nudge you to toss aside guilt and claim your moment, long after the book is shut.

Shriya Mohan

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Published on September 03, 2020
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