Geek, genius, woman, wife: Shuma Raha reviews Tahmima Anam’s ‘The Startup Wife’

This largely fun novel is an insider’s look at the Western startup ecosystem with its nerds and gods, turmeric lattes and rampant sexism

October 30, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Shot of a young businesswoman using a digital tablet during a late night in a modern office

Shot of a young businesswoman using a digital tablet during a late night in a modern office

If you have read Tahmima Anam’s books, her latest, The Startup Wife, will come as a surprise, as its mood, temper and subject are completely different from her Bangladesh-centric earlier works. Yet, the novel does not disappoint. Written in peppy prose — there’s none of that dreamy lyricism that one has come to associate with the British-Asian author — The Startup Wife is a clever satire on the mores of the American tech industry, and turns a perceptive eye on its attitude to gender and race.

Asha Ray, a brilliant Bangladeshi-American Ph.D student who is researching the possibility of making artificial intelligence more empathetic than humans, marries Cyrus Jones — a golden-haired, prodigiously well-read, part-hippie, part-philosopher übermensch with a panoptic view of multiple cultures and creeds. Cyrus’s thoughts about the relevance of rituals in the lives of those who disdain religion makes Asha, who is madly in love with her husband, hit upon the idea of a novel social media platform that will suggest rituals to users based on the things that are most meaningful to them. It’s a place where, explains Asha, users will come together not on the basis of what they like (take that, Facebook), but what gives meaning to their lives.

Fired up

All fired up with her idea, Asha quits her Ph.D programme, and with Cyrus and their inseparable friend Julian, moves to New York to set up camp at an ultra cool incubator called Utopia. Initially reluctant to be part of the project because he thinks tech is essentially evil, Cyrus soon becomes the platform’s face as well as its CEO. He comes up with a suitably new-agey name for it too — We Are Infinite, or WAI, which, you cannot fail to notice, also echoes the existential question, Why .

What makes The Startup Wife largely a fun read is its insider’s look at the Western startup ecosystem filled with we’ll-change-the-world tech nerds, number-crunching venture capitalists with their bags of gold, crazies, wizards, and doomsday-planners, all busy incubating or disrupting while keeping themselves nourished on turmeric lattes and vegan food. Incidentally, Anam is something of a ‘startup wife’ herself, as she is married to the founder of a tech company. So she knows what she is talking about.

Darker theme

However, the laughs about the ways of startup culture underlie a darker theme. WAI becomes a gigantic hit the moment it is launched. Yet Asha, the super geek who writes the codes to build the platform, finds herself increasingly invisibilised by a boys’ club led by none other than her beloved Cyrus. Although she is the brains behind WAI, as a woman, and a woman of colour at that, she comes under pressure to cede ground, fall back, and let others take her place at the table.

This, while the charismatic Cyrus keeps growing in stature — WAI’s users now regard him as a cross between a shaman and a demigod. All that halo notwithstanding, he coolly claims his wife’s achievements as his own.

Asha’s experience is, of course, indicative of the sexism and inequality that run through the technology industry despite its

much-vaunted values of liberalism and meritocracy. And Cyrus, who gradually pours himself into the template of the entitled male who swans around while his wife does all the hard work, epitomises a lot that has gone wrong with big tech: good intent slowly evaporating before corporate greed, growth prioritised over public good, and so on. In a sense, he also represents the moral exceptionalism that informs many founders of life-changing tech applications. Convinced that they have made the world a better place, they refuse to see the iniquities and dangers they have unleashed.

The Startup Wife is a quick and engaging read. However, Anam misses the mark when it comes to portraying her protagonist as the near genius that she is meant to be. Asha, who is also the first-person narrator, comes across as a bright young woman, but at no point does she seem particularly extraordinary. It doesn’t help that for much of the book she seems rather slavish in her love for Cyrus. The title of the novel also casts her in a less than heroic light, suggesting as it does that Asha’s identity as a gifted techie and startup founder is yoked to her identity as a “wife”.

Perhaps Anam wanted to pose the question — can one be a startup founder and a wife? The answer to that really depends on what kind of “wife” women who value their self-worth are prepared to be.

The Startup Wife; Tahmima Anam, Penguin Hamish Hamilton, ₹599

The reviewer is a journalist and author.

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