Tahmima Anam brings together the world of tech startups and feminism in a novel
By Nawaid Anjum
As a card-carrying, killjoy feminist, Tahmima Anam revels in writing about fiery, headstrong and inspiring women characters. The Bangladesh-born author’s previous three novels, which sprang from her own family history, are portraits of women from three generations of a single family—each one an ode to their protagonist’s resilience, strength and determination. Part of the Bengal trilogy woven around the themes of passion, revolution, family, faith, identity and belonging, these novels are stretched across four decades—set against the backdrop of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War as well as in the years that led to it, and in its aftermath. With their worlds upended by historical upheavals and their lives held captive to the past, these women wrestle with the long, ominous shadows of the war, and navigate the twists of fate and social compulsions to come to terms with their new realities and carve out their place in the newly-reconstituted, reconfigured world.
In her fourth and latest novel, The Startup Wife, a riotously funny and rattling satire on the power structures at tech startups pivoted around men, Anam creates yet another strong female character. Asha Ray, a second-generation immigrant from Bangladesh and a coding wizard, creates the algorithm for a sensational social media platform that takes the world by storm. However, Asha herself gets sidelined in the boardroom by her high school crush-turned-husband, Cyrus Jones, who hogs all the limelight as the CEO of their venture, WAI (We Are Infinite).
The point of the novel, set in New York, is to show how women, despite best intentions of men around them, are faced with a barrier in marriage, within relationships and at the workplace, says Anam, 45, in a video interview from London, where she lives. The idea of an empowered woman fascinates Anam and she likes to dwell on this in her writing. “I am trying to promote the feminist message through various contexts and this is just the latest context. I don’t think I am ever going to write a single novel that doesn’t have a feminist message because one of my convictions on this planet is to somehow advance the cause of women in one form or the other. I feel that is my dharma. I feel that’s the reason why I am here,” says Anam.
The Startup Wife, which Anam has described as “anti-romcom” and a “coming-of-rage” story, is narrated by Asha. Anam says she channelled the humorous side of life to find Asha’s voice.
“Since there was no humour in my other works, you might think that I am a very serious person. Yes, I am a serious person, but I can also be more fun, and exhibit a lighter side of conversational turns,” says Anam, who harvests another facet of her personality to make her latest novel less concerned with the political and historical themes that preoccupied her in the past. She says this time round she is more concerned in bringing “joyful freshness” to a serious political message, which she has delivered in a totally different tone.
Even though The Startup Wife is different in tone and terrain, Anam says it does share some preoccupations of her previous novels, mainly the fact that it is also about a woman who is on a journey towards finding her voice. Asha is an unlikely person to have lost her voice because she is educated, clever, confident and smart. “She is the last person in the world that you’d expect to become limited or restrained in any way,” says Anam.
Asha’s genius is evident in the Empathy Module algorithm, which grows out of her attempts to figure out a way to live without fear of machines and to think of them as “better versions of us” with their “intrinsic, automatic, unflinching, couldn’t-be-switched-off understanding of other people”. It forms the basis of WAI, the platform that allows people, even those without religion, to practise a form of faith. Asha’s idea clicks with venture capitalists and WAI shifts base to Utopia, an incubator considered to be the holy grail of startups.
As WAI gets wildly popular, a cult is built around Cyrus, who transforms from a humanist spirit guide helping people to build scaffoldings around their lives, often without the baggage of religion, into a saviour of humanity, all set to change the world through technology. Ironically, Asha, who created WAI, instead of getting a seat at the table, feels left out and marginalised. Some major decisions, like the redesigning of the platform, are taken by Cyrus, keeping Asha in the dark. “The point is to show how deep these power structures, this overwhelming power of patriarchy, can be in a culture in which a white male figure is considered to be the natural leader of an organisation even though the woman is the one behind its creation,” says Anam, who couches the story of woman power in a beautiful and heartbreaking love story. Asha and Cyrus are deeply in love with each other, but their marriage is put to test when she feels diminished at her own workplace.
“I have expanded Cyrus’ reach to encompass everyone, and people everywhere are now getting a little piece of him, and he is expanding, like a cloud, covering the whole world. In the meantime, he is also my husband. And he is also my boss. How have I managed to make it all so complicated, and how have I managed to put myself on the margins of this story?” wonders Asha, who keeps reminding herself of the vast distance between “the me I might have been and the me I have become”.
Since Asha looks at the tech world as an immigrant, who is less likely to be at the top of the world, she can critique its shortcomings. Through her eyes, we get to see the various ways in which the startup culture is exquisite and also get a sense of why it is unable to look at its limitations and problems, like sexism, gender inequality and lack of diversity. Anam says she wanted Cyrus to become not just a CEO, but also a symbol of a spiritual leader. “As a writer, one is always trying to raise the stakes,” says Anam. By building the algorithm that makes millions of people around the world worship her husband, it is Asha who enables Cyrus’ metamorphosis into a messiah.
Anam has been on the board of Roli, a music tech company set up by her husband Roland O Lamb, for the last ten years. As its executive director, she advises on strategic matters. This experience allowed her to have a window into the world of startups that would have otherwise been foreign to her, says Anam, an anthropologist, who studies rituals and their importance in giving people meaning in their life. Working on this novel was like “being an anthropologist in another tribe, trying to learn about its rituals and culture”.
Anam finds the startup world’s addiction to hyperbole utterly fascinating. Whosoever starts a business believes that it is going to “revolutionise the way people look at the world”. Anam says she found this proclivity on the part of startup founders to talk about themselves and their idea in the most exaggerated terms right for satire. It is this susceptibility to flourish that becomes Cyrus’s weakness. Though the experience of writing this book was much more joyful than the other three novels—Anam had a good time making jokes and modelling Asha on a mix of all the women she has known, wished she had been, and would love to meet—she also felt a bit nervous about taking the new direction, wondering whether people will take her seriously.
She even considered using a pseudonym for the book. “Since it’s so different, I felt that it’s not the kind of novel people expect me to write,” she says. However, those apprehensions have proved to be unfounded as the book has been received well; to Anam, it has reinforced the importance of “standing by your work”.
The Startup Wife is also a commentary on what technology means to us. “It’s the biggest force in our lives today; it has more power, finances, and more control over our lives than governments do,” says Anam. To her, what is dangerous, however, is the narrative that technology is only for our good since it makes our life better. “I think that’s the trap. It’s a situation that is going to become more pronounced as technological innovations take over more aspects of our lives,” says Anam, who, at the same time, also warns against being too cynical about technology. “Technology is what made the vaccine possible; it is what has caused fundamental shifts in our lives and in the way that people are able to access information. We can’t just say it’s a colonialist power. We have to have the power to balance it,” she says.
Daughter of a revolutionary-journalist and an activist, Anam was raised as a feminist; Bangladesh has seen the rise of strong feminist movement. Living in the West, Anam says, it is easy to forget “how far we still have to come”. As a feminist, if there is one resolve that fuels her, it’s this: she is never going to stop writing about women.
Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based independent culture journalist
The Startup Wife
By Tahmima Anam
Penguin Random House
Pp 296, Rs 599