This isn’t really a column about Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace, which I read many months ago and quite enjoyed (or about the Anouk ad, which features two queer women who look and sound nothing like me). It might be about naming in the present and the future–about the half-assed but (to me) vaguely endearing thing Jupiter Ascending did by having a white, blonde space!cop called Gemma Chatterjee and a black space!cop (Nikki Amuka-Bird, who was astonishingly, unfairly beautiful throughout) called Diomika Tsing.* Or the thing Arthur C. Clarke does in Rendezvous with Rama with the information, just thrown in there, that Norton’s full name is William Tsien Norton. These names work as quick signifiers (but then they assume that you will notice what they’re doing, and I don’t know if Shukla can make that assumption) for the sort of future, or in Jupiter Ascending‘s case the sort of genocidal multicultural galactic capitalist empire, that this is.
And I’m pretty sure it’s a column about Sofia Samatar’s fantastic tweets about authenticity some weeks ago.
And possibly about who has the right to write inauthentically? I don’t know. Anyway.
I don’t know what to make of Kitab Balasubramanyam.
Kitab is the social-media-obsessed protagonist of Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace, a book that is, depending on my mood, either a smart, and often moving satire of the way we live now or daddish panicking about social media taking over our lives. But my mixed feelings about the book are pretty slight, when compared to my mixed feelings about Kitab himself.
Kitab Balasubramanyam has a brother named Aziz (Balasubramanyam?), and a father who notes that it’s nice that Kitab and his Indian cousins all speak the language of the internet so that “you don’t have to pretend you know Gujarati anymore”.
The paper in which this column is to be published is read in the main by people who will be well aware that Kitab Balasubramanyam is an unusual name. When, early in the book, the character meets, apparently, the only other Kitab Balasubramanyam in the world, the real surprise is that there are two of them. (Were I to hunt down every Aishwarya Subramanian in the world I’d probably collapse from exhaustion somewhere in the middle of Chennai.)
Implied context and assumptions about what audiences (and authors) know are central to my Kitab-confusion. As an Indian reader in the genres I read, I’m all too familiar with books by British or American authors who haven’t done their research (or who have decided that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom constitutes research); when the Indian character shows up I’m often already bracing myself to laugh or cringe. Nine times out of ten I’d assume that the improbable Mr Balasubramanyam was the result of similar ‘research’; half-knowledge of friends’ names and experiences cobbled together. That I don’t make that assumption in this case is entirely due to the fact that Shukla is of Indian origin himself. Perhaps that’s unfair and I should grant him the same right to ignorance as any British author (it is possible that I have been overthinking this).
And yet, and yet, and yet. Kitab Balasubramanyam is unlikely, but he’s not impossible.
Earlier this year an advertisement for the clothing brand Anouk, featuring two young women in a relationship, went viral. Amidst the several conversations that immediately sprang up were those who questioned the authenticity of one character’s speaking Tamil over the phone to her parents—no one spoke Tamil like that. I found myself bristling each time (some of these critics weren’t even Tamil speakers)—my own Tamil is significantly worse, but then I’m a very inauthentic Indian (and Tamil person, and probably several other things) myself. I have the sort of roving accent that comes of a lot of moving around, a lot of code-switching, and an excess of self-consciousness. Demanding authenticity from characters in literature, film, or even advertising is a dangerous path to tread because it can only ever mean deciding that certain people/identities are inauthentic, or impossible, or unreal. Less (?) seriously, it means distilling characters down to their most obvious traits, making them the most average they can possibly be. I’d say it was the equivalent of populating entire universes with people called John Smith, except that we know the John Smiths of the world are the least likely to have their identities policed. But think of every western TV series you’ve ever watched with the one Indian guy either in I.T., or a doctor, named Ravi or Raj.
If all of this seems like it’s drifted rather far from the book in question, I’m going to claim that it has not. Because of its subject, Meatspace is very strongly about identities, real and projected, and implied audiences. I don’t know if I want to claim that the naming of the main character is part of a cunning strategy; maybe Shukla just wanted to write about a character whose complex family history could lead to his having that name without the need to justify his existence to his audience; maybe he just didn’t care. Either way, I think I prefer Kitab Balasubramanyam to Ravi from I.T.
* I’m … less convinced, shall we say, about the movie’s choice to have an elephant-headed alien space cop called “Nesh”, but friends who have seen Sense8 tell me this isn’t the most hilaribad invocation of Ganesha in the Wachowskis’s oeuvre (or even in said oeuvre in 2015) so hey.