Editor and columnist Nisha Susan—the founder of the feminist website The Ladies Finger and co-originator of the Pink Chaddi Campaign, a crowd-sourced protest which mailed undergarments to a politician’s office in 2009 in response to moral policing—makes her debut as an author with the short story collection The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories (Context, 2020).
Set mostly in the tightly-webbed social nexuses of Bengaluru pubs and small-town Kerala, with detours to other parts of India, but most of all in the overlaps between the internet and “IRL”, these stories are by turns hilarious and insightful. Their offline and online worlds are ones that women navigate, sometimes occupy, but mostly do not own. In effervescent prose that takes sudden turns of poignance, Nisha Susan deftly presents a series of characters who ring true to life —even when their choices would be easy to judge, these stories somehow manage to draw out our empathy for and recognition of them in ways that tease and provoke.
In an interview, Nisha spoke about how she put together this collection of stories, why she takes “sexy detours” and what she would carry out of a burning building.
I remember The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories first being announced almost a decade ago. How did your manuscript change over the years, to arrive at this final form? Do you feel the initial buzz helped you write, or otherwise? Tell us a bit about the journey, creatively and personally, from start to finish.
One set of my grandparents had janamkundlis made for all their grandchildren. I only saw mine when I was 15, briefly before it was lost. But my cousin who read parts of it out to me said that one of the predictions was that I would be wealthy in livestock and the other was that I would be a writer. I was more intrigued by the implications of the livestock prediction. Was it a metaphor? Was it sheep or goats or cows? The writer part, that was already part of my life and in that unthinking way of teenagers I was ‘yes, yes, what else’ about it. Like everyone else, I tried to figure what entrance exam would get me to a place where I could earn a living. But I had started writing bad stories and bad poetry as soon as I was taught to write. All this is a very long-winded way to say that it was going to be this book or some other book. I have a friend who writes great essays and even greater essay titles. She swears she is going to do a book of just essay titles soon. My hobby is writing one-para versions of all the good books I could write in all the known universes. My other hobby is writing one-para versions of the good books I want everyone I meet to write.
The book explores the interstices between technology and human intimacies. Given that the stories were written over several years, were there developments in tech or on the social/sociopolitical front that affected your narrative choices?
I enjoyed putting together this set of stories around the internet and tech (and leaving out others I have written over the years). If you read the short stories in the order of appearance, we begin in 2001 with the title story’s characters for whom the internet is barely a presence. Then there are the girls who get dial-up connections to organise their romances and so on till we end in 2018 with the women working in a super-strange department of a super-familiar internet giant. In an obvious way, the internet and tech gets progressively less jolly. But that is, of course, only one way of looking at what we and the internet have been doing with each other since it arrived. Which is why I liked including sexy detours from the declension narrative in shorter stories like ‘Mindful’ and ‘The Triangle’. Both are about the intimate, addictive relationships we develop with apps we love. They are in the palm of your hand but actually *cough* you are in the palm of their hands.
“When it’s good, dosti with women can make you feel like you are a kite on the beach, just such a good, good time. It is what I would carry out of a burning building.”
Female friendships are a theme throughout, in all their complexity, bondings and betrayals. The men these women have sex with and/or marry are quite secondary—“the complication”, as one story memorably describes a lover. These “sexy detours” are breezy but also deeply political, feminism-wise. Tell us more?
Breezy but deeply political is the religion I aspire to. In that on many days I fail to be either. And on some days there is the faint light of epiphany. :)
Female friendships! I hadn’t realised that it was a theme! But it makes sense that it is because my friendships with women are what keeps me awake at night and let me sleep soundly. My women friends have made me and unmade me emotionally, screwed with my brain and been intellectual spa treatments also. They taught me about me, themselves and also what I wanted in friendships. Which is something I have had to learn very slowly.
You know how siblings take on opposing roles in families? “She is the neat one”. “She is the party animal”. Often in close female friendships, you take on roles like that. When it works, when it’s loving and intuitively wise, everyone gets to try on different roles and everyone gets critical notes and flowers. But sometimes you can get stuck in one role or feel not good enough for other parts and then friendship can be a scary place. When it’s good, dosti with women can make you feel like you are a kite on the beach, just such a good, good time. It is what I would carry out of a burning building.
There are quite a few “unlikable characters” peppered through these pages—murderers, anti-reservationists, misogynists and more—and I found myself examining my own biases when it came to whom among them I felt some sympathy for, and when I cheered their unhappy endings instead. What were some of the challenges and excitements for you in creating these narrators?
When I was in middle and high school I used to beg to be cast in the villain roles. Obviously they had the better lines and more teeth gnashing and sweeping-out-of-rooms in capacious garment possibilities. The only thing I remember from mugging lines back then is Lady Bracknell’s “Chins are worn very high this season”. It’s a surprisingly handy and multipurpose line.
I have enjoyed creating likeable unlikeable characters in these stories. Consistently badly behaved people often are able to do so and get away with it because of a kind of charm, an ability to persuade other people to go along. It is like (as film theorists have noted) when the villain is making Basanti dance, you have the opportunity to watch Basanti dance too, though you may have never known this desire before. This variety of bad people are able to get you to go along because they look into your eyes and sometimes see what you want and make an unspoken promise that they will give it to you (they won’t.) By breaking the rules and getting away with it, they start you wondering why you follow rules at all. And of course we are living in the great age of leaders whose charm lies in speaking the unspeakable. And like the sheep in the The New Yorker cartoon gazing at the hoarding of the wolf saying, “I will eat you”, the response is to often say “At least he says what he is thinking’” instead of “Please keep quiet. No one nears to hear those strange wolf noises”.
Of course, some kinds of badly behaved people get away with things because they do evil at such a scale it becomes hard for regular minds to take it all in. You start wondering, no one can be that horrible, can they? Translating that variety into fictional villains is also an interesting exercise.
Criticisms of the body, one’s own and that of others, occur throughout the book. A couple of years ago, you wrote an essay in which you discussed “a cross-national fat girl reflex — one of making the fat joke before someone else can make it”. There seem to be many of these here, and I wondered: how come none of the non-thin women in this book really relish being in their bodies, and have, to quote your essay again, a “relationship with my fat body. One of power.”?
This was a theme I was very interested in exploring in many stories. The essay you remember offers one kind of shift of thinking about our desi version of fatphobia. The rhetoric of the essay asked, what if we thought of fat women’s bodies in terms of strength and power and taking up more space instead of the good looks paradigm. I think it ends with that meme, “Eat cake. If anyone criticises you, eat them too”.
In these short stories, through multiple characters, I explore all our tendencies to evaluate other people’s and our own value in the world through good looks. It’s not that we are not aware that good looks in our contemporary life is a thing achieved through genetics, complex and expensive upkeep, complex management of our social media.
But inside the beast as we are, despite our awareness of how things work, our grasp on our feelings remains slippery. One has to constantly remind oneself that our bodies are not only to be decorative and that all kinds of bodies can be decorative, all kinds of bodies can give, receive and deserve pleasure. The back and forthness and that constant preoccupation is something I wanted to play out. That familiar sense of feeling comfortable in one’s skin and suddenly asking oneself, am I delusional to feel comfortable and happy? Should I not be wreathed in shame for not being perfect? And then should I be wreathed in shame for not being proud? And on and on. Hence a couple of characters’ fervent interest in desire and fantasy that leaves the body behind. And so also many of the villains’ desire to reassert a reality in which only people with (what they think of as having) good bodies, good hair, good skin have any right to live. Everyone else better keep quiet.
Jia Tolentino wrote in Trick Mirror, her essay collection on internet and media cultures, “Even if you avoid the internet completely… you still live in the world that this internet has created”. In TWWFTIF, people get catfished, trolled, become obsessed with others’ online selves, experience news fatigue and flashbacks of non-consensual explicit images. But everything that feels most real to them seems, ultimately, to happen offline. In one story, the singer we know only as thumri_girl prefers the BPO to the pretenses of cultural spaces; in another, the author Sabbah attends a litfest and feels like she never again wants to be in a room with more than two writers. To go back to what you said about “what we and the internet have been doing with each other since it arrived”, how would you say human hostilities play out, similarly or differently, online and offline?
That’s a very interesting observation. What Thumri Girl and Sabbah have in common is that they are kind of appalled by cultural spaces and more importantly, themselves in cultural spaces. They don’t know how to be comfortable, they have status anxiety, they can’t deal with other people’s status anxiety so they are both like Thomaskutty odikyo/bhaag ja Pooja beti. Obviously what they are running from is their uncertain place in the world towards what they hope is steadier footing. The internet in its current avatar with its emphasis on metrics is all about status anxiety. Tolentino, who you mentioned in our conversation, has been criticised for conflating social media with the internet. It’s a conflation that many of us make. But if you think outside of social media, large chunks of the internet have also been transformed into those models. And swiftly a kind of homogeneity and status anxiety comes into every silly, timepass weird online activity. Last year when there was the attempted exodus from Twitter to Mastodon, I joked that it was like Delhi people building houses in the hills to get away from it all. Except you get up in the hills in the morning and realise your Delhi neighbour has built a house right next to you. The internet can definitely feel hellish. It can make you feel like crap. But so can going to a classical music concert. Hell is other people and our need for other people’s approval. The difference is the intense hypnotic effect that the dramas online have which is 100x what it is like offline. It is much easier to remind yourself that woh sab maya hai when you don’t have network for three days.
Can we get away from the world that the internet has made? No. But what are we trying to get away from?
The hole that we feel inside that we are not good enough, the having/not having/deleting of accounts cannot help with that. To paraphrase Vivian Gornick, only one’s own working mind breaks the solitude of the self.
“I have never met a happy right-wing person, so my guess is that regardless of current political standing they don’t feel like they are winning either.”
At one point, Sabbah—facing a barrage of online trolls—thinks “tomorrow the trishuls may arrive”. I often feel (you may not agree, of course) like liberal discourse on social media fixates on posturing and snappy takedowns while the reality of rightwing presence in the world continues to loom, unthreatened and unchanged. What do you think? Do you think literature or the arts can do anything about this?
The smugness of liberal political expression vs the permanently wounded gussa of right-wing political expression. Not great choices. I think the greater difficulty is to get away from thinking that these are our only choices. That our ethical journey can only be guided by only these two mapfinders.
I believe everyone should look for love and try to do their own work well. Elected officials and artists and everyone else. Many of us are preoccupied (and who can blame us for being preoccupied) by the meaning of our work and selves in a polarised political landscape. This being maya, it lures us further and further into the forest. Then we emerge from the trees with terrible political visions and awful artistic visions.
I have never met a happy right-wing person, Sharanya, so my guess is that regardless of current political standing they don’t feel like they are winning either.