As a writer, one is always trying to raise the stakes: Tahmima Anam, author of ‘The Startup Wife’

Anam has been on the board of Roli, a music technology company created by her husband Roland O Lamb, for the past ten years.

By Nawaid Anjum

As a party pooper feminist and card carrier, Tahmima Anam delights in writing about passionate, headstrong and inspiring female characters. The Bangladeshi-born author’s three previous novels, stemming from her own family history, are portraits of women from three generations of a single family, each an ode to its protagonist’s endurance, strength, and determination. Part of the Bengal trilogy woven around the themes of passion, revolution, family, faith, identity and belonging, these novels span four decades, in the context of the War of Liberation of Bangladesh from 1971, as well as in the years that led to it. , and in its aftermath. With their worlds turned upside down by historical convulsions and their lives held captive by the past, these women battle the long and ominous shadows of war and navigate the twists of fate and social compulsions to come to terms with their new realities and forge their place. in the reconstituted and reconfigured world.

In his fourth and final novel, The startup wifeA wildly funny and vibrant satire on power structures in tech startups that revolves around men, Anam creates 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. Yet Asha herself is sidelined in the boardroom by her high school crush turned husband, Cyrus Jones, who gets all the attention as the CEO of her company, WAI (We Are Infinite).

The goal of the novel, set in New York, is to show how women, despite the best intentions of the men around them, face a barrier in marriage, in relationships and in the workplace, he says. Anam, 45, in a video interview from London, where she lives. The idea of ​​an empowered woman fascinates Anam and she likes to insist on this in her writings. “I am trying to promote the feminist message through various contexts and this is only the most recent context. I do not think I will ever write a single novel that does not have a feminist message because one of my convictions on this planet is to somehow promote the cause of women in one way or another. I feel like that is my dharma. I feel like that’s why I’m here, ”says Anam.

The startup wife, which Anam has described as “anti-romcom” and a “rage” story, is narrated by Asha. Anam says she channeled the humorous side of life to find Asha’s voice.

“Since there was no humor in my other jobs, 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 the conversational twists, ”says Anam, who harvests another facet of her personality to make her latest novel less concerned with political and historical issues. that surround her. it worried her in the past. She says this time she’s more concerned with bringing “joyous freshness” to a serious political message, which she has delivered in a totally different tone.

Although The startup wife different in tone and terrain, Anam says she shares some concerns from her earlier novels, most notably 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, smart, confident and intelligent. “She is the last person in the world that you would expect to become limited or restricted in any way,” says Anam.

Asha’s genius is evident in the Empathy Module algorithm, which arises from her attempts to find a way to live without fear of machines and to think of them as “better versions of us” with their “intrinsic, automatic, unshakable, impossible”. t-be-disconnected understanding of other people ”. It forms the foundation of WAI, the platform that enables people, even those with no religion, to practice a form of faith. Asha’s idea fits in with venture capitalists and WAI turns its base to Utopia, an incubator considered the holy grail of startups.

As WAI becomes wildly popular, a cult is built around Cyrus, who transforms from a humanistic spirit guide helping people build scaffolding around their lives, often without the baggage of religion, into a savior. 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 marginalized. Some big decisions, like the redesign of the platform, are made by Cyrus, keeping Asha in the dark. “The point is to show how deep these power structures can be, this overwhelming power of patriarchy, in a culture where a white male figure is seen as the natural leader of an organization, even though the woman is the one behind it. her creation, ”says Anam, who expresses the story of the power of women in a beautiful and heartbreaking love story. Asha and Cyrus are deeply in love with each other, but their marriage is put to the test when she feels diminished in her own workplace.

“I have expanded the reach of Cyrus to encompass the whole world, and people everywhere are now getting a little piece of him, and he is expanding, like a cloud, covering the whole world. Meanwhile, he is also my husband. And he’s also my boss. How did I manage to make it all so complicated and how did I manage to put myself out of this story? Asha asks, still reminding herself of the great distance between ‘the me that could have been and the me that I have become’.

Since Asha views the tech world as an immigrant, who is less likely to be on top of the world, she can criticize its shortcomings. Through their eyes, we can see the various ways startup culture is exquisite and we also have an idea why it is unable to see its limitations and problems, such as sexism, gender inequality, and lack of diversity. . Anam says that she wanted Cyrus to become not only a CEO, but also a symbol of a spiritual leader. “As a writer, you are 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 allows Cyrus to metamorphose into a messiah.

Anam has been on the board of Roli, a music technology company created by her husband Roland O Lamb, for the past ten years. As its CEO, she advises on strategic matters. This experience allowed her to have a window into the world of startups that would have otherwise been alien to her, says Anam, an anthropologist who studies rituals and their importance in giving meaning to people’s lives. Working on this novel was like “being an anthropologist in another tribe, trying to learn about their rituals and culture.”

Anam finds the startup world’s addiction to hyperbole absolutely fascinating. Whoever creates a business believes that he is going to “revolutionize the way people see the world.” Anam says she found this propensity on the part of startup founders to talk about themselves and their idea in the most exaggerated terms suitable for satire. It is this susceptibility to flourishing that becomes Cyrus’s weakness. Although the experience of writing this book was much more enjoyable than the other three novels, Anam had fun making jokes and modeling Asha on a mix of all the women she has ever met, she wishes she had been and would love to meet, she also felt a little nervous about going the new direction, wondering if people would take her seriously.

He even considered using a pseudonym for the book. “Since it’s so different, I felt like it’s not the kind of novel that people expect me to write,” he says. However, those apprehensions have proven unfounded as the book has been well received; For Anam, it has reinforced the importance of “supporting her work.”

The startup wife it is also a comment on what technology means to us. “It is the greatest force in our lives today; it has more power, finances and more control over our lives than governments, ”says Anam. For her, what is dangerous, however, is the narrative that technology is only for our good, as it improves our lives. “I think that’s the catch. It’s a situation that will become more pronounced as technological innovations take over more aspects of our lives, ”says Anam, who, at the same time, also cautions against being too cynical about technology. “Technology is what made the vaccine possible; it is what has caused fundamental changes in our lives and in the way people can access information. We cannot simply say that it is a colonialist power. We have to have the power to balance it, ”he says.

The daughter of a revolutionary journalist and activist, Anam was raised as a feminist; Bangladesh has seen the rise of a strong feminist movement. Living in the West, Anam says, it’s easy to forget “how far we have to go.” As a feminist, if there is a determination that drives her, it is this: she will never stop writing about women.

Nawaid Anjum is a Delhi-based freelance cultural journalist.

The startup wife
By Tahmima Anam
Penguin Random House
Pp 296, Rs 599

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