The Startup Wife
By Tahmima Anam
Canongate, UK
ISBN: 978-1838852528
304pp.

“I am fully ambitious.”

The daughter of migrant Bangladeshi parents, postgraduate student Aasha Ray has no qualms admitting that ambition is her “major”. It’s not very surprising, though; for most second-generation émigrés to the United States such as her, target aspiration is a deeply entrenched life goal.

Having developed a “life-changing” app, Aasha is possessed by a singular get-up-and-go passion to make it public, and that too in a world driven by white supremacy. However, it is only on a rare occasion or two that the shadow of colour crosses over British Bangladeshi writer Tahmima Anam’s latest novel, The Startup Wife. For example, when Aasha ponders the cultural difference inherent in her white husband not understanding why gnawing the bone of a chicken drumstick adds to the taste of a meal!

But this dilemma is not racial. It is a subtle, gender-related connective, where the catch-question is how much space an ambitious wife can — or should — give her bigger-brained husband without compromising on her own equal, if not better, intellect. This is an especially important question if the relationship started as one-sided hero worship in high school.

The story begins with 20-something Aasha trying to reverse-map the human brain. Four years into her PhD research, she is still struggling to get her adviser to accept the possibility of creating an “Empathy Module”, something that requires going beyond the algorithmic layers of intelligence, to ensure that the Artificial Intelligence (AI) of the future has the ability to imagine what it is like to be someone else. In essence, Aasha argues, this is an ambition to “save the world!”

Tahmima Anam’s latest, futuristic novel is about technology, ambition, creativity, business and tornado-like undercurrents of human emotions

Enter Cyrus Jones, Aasha’s secret crush from back in high school. Cyrus lives with one hell of a moral compass about life’s commitments. He grew up with a void in his heart because of the traumatic death of his single mother whom he still loves to distraction. Unfortunately for Cyrus, this maternal adoration ultimately becomes his Achilles’s heel.

Cyrus dropped out of high school because the teachers could not handle his inexplicable creative thinking — again, an inherited trait encouraged by his late mother. His disgraceful exit from academia, despite his encyclopaedic brilliance, jumpstarts him on a read-and-read mission to amass an inexplicable amount of knowledge. This opens the way for him to build connections between things as diverse as texts of religion, history, fiction, music and pop memes. In short, he appears to know everything about everything.

A brainiac of that calibre would win over any desi parent, but Aasha’s folks, whom Cyrus meets a couple of months into his unconventional, unannounced marriage to their daughter, are somewhat taken aback.

They have trouble accepting a son-in-law who, although he has no professional degree, is a professionally successful humanist spiritual guide, counselling people on their social and religious problems. He is the penultimate guru for new generation dilemmas, providing succour for persons confused about how to pray without involving God, just so that they do not cheat on their atheism.

Brilliant in her own right, Aasha’s ambitions are poised for fruition as she resigns from a much-coveted internship to plunge headlong into designing a different sort of application for her algorithm at Utopia, a tech organisation that has somewhat farfetched ambitions to change the world. This, again, is a gamble involving her own ambition and her husband’s moral and sociological compasses.

Cyrus, after much persuasion and cajoling by Aasha and Jules — whom Aasha calls “the other wife” in the partnership — joins the Utopia team, which is already populated by an intellectually crazed crowd.

Each has their own pursuits: Li Ann has created Spoken, an app that filters triggering language out of electronic communication. Destiny’s app Consentify makes “every sexual encounter safe, traceable, and consensual.” Marco’s app Obit.ly “manages all the social and public aspects of death” and Rory grows vegetables with the aim of providing food after the Apocalypse.

Aasha’s attempt to codify Cyrus’s life philosophy in a modern package — sans the sexism, homophobia and burning-in-hell aspects of religion — has its ups and downs. The acceptance of the platform and its amazing, overwhelming success boost her self-estimation.

This is where the chinks start to surface. Aasha has willingly stepped aside on numerous occasions — an inherent emigrant fault line — to let Cyrus take centre stage, but she is now becoming increasingly rattled by his “lovable selfishness.”

While The Start-up Wife is an amazingly futuristic text combining technology, ambition, creativity and business dealings so essential to survival in the underbelly of artificially generated intelligence, it takes the prize for a tornado-like undercurrent of the human emotions that can never be killed by technological advancement.

It is, by turns, Aasha’s tender love for Cyrus, her resurgent evaluation of her own genius, her awe and respect for Cyrus’s multi-faceted intelligence and the nagging demons of maintaining comparative space in a marital relationship that give this book far greater readability.

Even as she develops into an authority on the tech scene, Aasha is increasingly hounded by demonic misgivings: after all, she is the one who built the platform, while Cyrus is just being Cyrus, having the best time of all. She tries to enjoy her husband’s near platonic happiness — a good part of which is her doing. She has been able to give him that which he had been looking for without even knowing it.

Yet she is human, too. She wants to go back to the time when she and Cyrus would just talk about the mundane things in life, when there was no need for argument around redesigning the platform, or fundraising, or balancing Cyrus’s moral compass with business sense.

Aasha’s vacillation between basic human emotion — read also as spousal desire — and intellectual responsiveness is what makes Anam’s book a beautiful human story. How she finally resolves the dilemma will be a heartbreak for some and, for others, a victory for Aasha’s own moral compass!

On a parting note, readers are advised to consider how many times a repugnant four-letter word can be tolerated in a book even as entertaining as The Startup Wife. Perhaps Anam uses this word so lavishly because she wants to authenticate her characters as tech-savvy Americans. But it chips away at the book’s appeal, so maybe she could reconsider the vocabulary in future endeavours.

The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content/ report writer who has taught in the Lums Lifetime programme. She tweets @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 12th, 2023

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