Anam’s pen has a flair for infusing humour into the storytelling, which jogged at a steady pace
If I were to describe Tahmima Anam’s book The Startup Wife, I would call it smart and funny though not in a laugh out loud way. The story is about Asha Ray, a computer scientist with brilliant coding skills, daughter of immigrants from Bangladesh.
Studying in Washington High, ninth-grader Asha has a crush on Cyrus Jones, two years her senior, Cyrus, a maverick, doesn’t end up finishing high school, neither is he aware that Asha is smitten by him. Flash forward to several years in the future, Asha is now working in a lab, alongside she is also doing her PhD research while nurturing the idea of creating an Empathy Module, the AI of the future, where machines possess an understanding of people.
Asha has her life mapped out. But does life ever work according to a plan? She gets a surprise invite to attend her high school English teacher’s funeral where she bumps into Cyrus, he has started conducting rituals like baptisms and cremations for people, becoming a sort of modern-day humanist spirit guide, earning his living by helping people find the meaning in life without the baggage of religion.
What follows is a whirlwind romance, culminating in their simple marriage devoid of rituals and guests. Marriage not just brings a non-conformist husband who is living in his friend Julian (Jules) Cabot’s family-owned house, a man he befriended while hiking a mountain. By now I’m sure you would have had a handle on the unconventional personality of Cyrus. The three come up with the idea of building a social networking platform based on Cyrus’s believable replacement for God. Their social media platform makes people form connections, it also provides rituals based on people’s interests and beliefs and whatever else gives their lives meaning. Thus starts WAI — We Are Infinite, a blessing for skeptics.
Asha codes an algorithm to create the platform allowing people to get a Cyrus ritual, a combination of all their favourite things, without the tinge of any religion. Their Beta launch gets them an invite for a spot in an incubator called Utopia in New York. In Utopia they rub shoulders with a host of startups, people with big dreams, eager to make the world a better place.
Becoming Utopians puts them on the road to achieving their dream. WAI becomes a hit, Cyrus ends up, albeit reluctantly as the CEO, becoming the public face of the company. This works to their advantage as Cyrus has charismatic appeal, while Jules and Asha prefer staying in the background and running the day-to-day aspect of their company.
Anam’s book gives readers a tutorial on how startups manage. Anam’s pen has a flair for infusing humour into the storytelling, which jogged at a steady pace. I was fascinated with Entrepreneur’s Speed Dating, where startups are matched with entrepreneurs who want to invest in them.
The characters are all too believable, though I felt that Cyrus was given a larger than life persona, like a modern-day spiritual guru, or I should say social-networking guru. Anam’s pen keeping the spotlight shining on Cyrus, his five-minute videos labelled as WAICast skyrocket the social media platform, giving it a cult status, while bestowing on him the halo of a messiah.
Success brings with it differences of opinions and a clash of egos. Asha and Cyrus disagree where monetisation of the platform is concerned. Things get more heated up when Cyrus wants to purchase new companies which Asha feels won’t work in their favour, bringing their marriage on the brink of a separation.
The ending surprised me, but in a pleasant way. Anam’s novel gives readers a view of Asha’s life, of how she takes a backseat in the face of patriarchy, of how she puts her ambitions on hold keeping their company in mind and later feels twinges of regret at not controlling the steering wheel. The book is racy, geeky, well-written and very contemporary. Go for it.
The Startup Wife
By Tahmima Anam
Penguin Random House, pp. 304, Rs.599