Tahmima Anam’s fiction takes satirical digs at the tech industry culture
n some fiction subgenres, the story is set in an imagined future, in terms of technology or cultural advance. Then there is contemporary fiction where the narrative depicts the times when it was written. Tahmima Anam’s The Startup Wife is deliciously sandwiched between these two categories.
It’s a quick read that takes satirical digs at the tech industry culture (a boardroom is reachable only via trampoline, and cat baptisms are a thing) as the plot explores the intricacies of a modern-day couple that has all the new age opportunities and traditional fault lines to navigate.
While the novel is set in a distant future some aspects of the story are quite relatable given the digitally infused lives we live. Many of the technological and lifestyle references do not sound alien and are quite easy to picture. We have seen the pace at which the industry turns over, dazing regulators with a growth level that they are unable to keep up with and reducing ethics to a ping pong ball. Add to this the fact that the world has experienced firsthand an almost apocalyptic situation in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The protagonist, Asha Ray is an MIT tech whiz engaged in reverse-engineering the brain. She is a second-generation Bangladeshi American whose parents work as small-time pharmacists in their adopted country. Keeping in line with the cultural expectation to succeed she is seen pursuing a PhD programme. During this period, she crosses paths with her high school crush, Cyrus Jones on a chance visit and their love story gets coded on high speed.
They meet at a teacher’s funeral that is led by Cyrus. The aloof, easy-on-the-eye teenager who throughout their time at school didn’t even notice Asha’s existence, has turned into a wandering soothsayer cum spiritual guide of sorts known for crafting personalised rituals that allow especially the non-religious people to meaningfully mark their life’s milestones. He is quite charming and extremely well-read. This fuels his resource pool when he is designing customised rituals on a consultative basis.
A brief re-acquaintance quickly turns into a full-blown romance which brings to reality all that the tech nerd never thought possible. Within a couple of months, the two get hitched axing the fanfare of a traditional wedding and eloping with a simple courthouse wedding. Their wedding party comprises Julian, a damaged wasp with wealthy family background. He is the best friend and housemate of the groom who soon becomes the bride’s close confidant and ends up being a co-lead as their journey progresses.
Soon after, Asha hits the idea to develop a code based on how Cyrus goes about conducting his rituals encompassing religious and cultural aspects. The idea is to automate the customised rituals and build communities that share the same key interests and values.
This startup hustle brings to light the age-old battle women have had to deal with. Despite much progress, it lingers on. They still have to justify their seat at the table – in all their roles.
The platform is christened WAI short for “We Are Infinite”, with the innocent oaths of being different from the big digital communities. (Sounds familiar? No?) In fact, this is not the only familiarity that you will find. As WAI grows and evolves, an additional feature resembles something that Microsoft has already patented. Tech giants will be wise to take a cautionary note from The Startup Wife.
Asha ends up quitting her PhD programme, and the trio moves to NYC where they have the opportunity to join a top incubator centre with an apocalyptic mindset, Utopia. While Cyrus initially resists the joint efforts of Asha and Julian to convince him that monetisation is the right thing to do, he soon gets comfortable in the startup ecosystem as the CEO of the company surprising everyone.
The combination of sharing a married and professional life proves challenging to say the least. A regimen of all-nighters, grinding for multimillion-dollar investments and exploding cult-like adoration for Cyrus pile up on their plate.
This startup hustle brings to light the age-old battle women have had to deal with. Despite much progress, it lingers on. They still have to justify their seat at the table – in all their roles. In a subtle way, the author highlights the role the system plays in reinforcing the gender roles and expectations which can turn a seemingly progressive individual to internalise the typically assigned power dynamics. A telling quote by Asha from the novel gives an insight into the minds of many a working woman.
“Mrs Jones kept me up at night. She was my shadow self, a laundry-doing, husband-pleasing ordinary person who wanted nothing more than to be an excellent wife.”
What started off as a futuristic love story takes a very different mood closer to the end where our protagonist has a difficult decision to make about how to respond to being completely sidelined from her brainchild by none other than the person she has anchored herself to. “I gave him power over me,” she fumes. “I gave him all the privilege in the world so that he could turn around and mess me up.”
The readers are not disappointed by her final decision.
In addition to creating a page-turner in The Startup Wife, what Anam has done brilliantly is portray a brown character whose story doesn’t revolve around the typical lines of coming to terms with being an immigrant, and in conflict with the two identities. Refreshingly, we see a complex and layered individual who reckons the privilege and security that came with growing up with her parents and the environment of a South Asian culture. The combination of her several individual and cultural identities only strengthens her character and empowers her not only to navigate the twists and turns of life but also be brave enough to dust up and restart when needed.
The Startup Wife
Author: Tahmima Anam
Publisher: Canongate UK, 2022
Price: Rs 1,495
The reviewer is a digital communications and marketing professional. She tweets at @FatimaArif