Previously published in Dawn Books & Authors.
KITAB Balasubramanyam is more concerned about his cyber-life than his real one. He starts and ends each day by checking his social network feeds, spending most of his time trying to come up with sly one-liners and non sequiturs to tweet to the world, thinking of everything that happens to him as raw material for something to say online.
The greater the number of hits, interactions and ‘likes’, the more validated he feels. In real life (or IRL, as the cyber narrative would have it), he’s lonely, sad and fairly lost. His recently-published first book didn’t change the literary scene, his girlfriend has left him and his father keeps commenting ‘LOL’ on all his Facebook statuses. Kitab is like many people you know, in many ways. He’s also about to meet his doppelgänger in ‘meatspace’ — the real world, made with flesh not pixelated fantasy.
Meatspace is Nikesh Shukla’s second novel, a follow up to his Costa Award shortlisted Coconut Unlimited. I spoke to Shukla earlier this year when he visited Karachi for the Karachi Literature Festival, and again more recently about where Meatspace came from. “The book started in three places,” he said. “The first was being asked to write a short story about social media for BBC Radio 4. I wrote something about deleting my mum’s Facebook account when she died and how that digital footprint seemed more indelible than her soul, which saddened me. … The second was, when joking with my mate Rob about getting a tattoo to make him look smarter (he has full-sleeve tattoos), we Googled bow-tie tattoos. The first person in Google image search was a scary doppelgänger for Rob. Really, really scarily Rob alike. Within seconds, we’d found his website, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn … and was surprised by how easy all that was to find. The third inciting incident … was in 2010, when the second Nikesh Shukla in the world signed up for a Facebook account … I sent him a questionnaire to see how alike we were. He never replied.”
In Meatspace Kitab’s Indian doppelgänger is desperate to make contact with his namesake, so desperate that he goes from sending Facebook requests to showing up at Kitab’s reading at a local London pub. Kitab isn’t too pleased with this, to say the least, but despite his best efforts, his namesake from Bangalore ends up staying in his flat, assuming that the two are now the closest of friends. Kitab 2 is generally a much more cheerful person than the original Kitab, who, Shukla explains, is his “dark place.”
“[Kitab is] definitely where I could have ended up had I embraced the darkness around me and around that particular corner of the internet where you can say and do anything without any real consequence,” Shukla admits. “When my mum passed away in 2010 and I was promoting Coconut Unlimited, I spent a lot of time walking around the city listening to Ghostpoet on my way home from readings, just embracing the quiet weirdness of a city in the witching hour. At the time, Twitter was the only thing awake. I had to restrain myself from using it as therapy. I could have very easily become one of those people who said and thought everything in a public sphere, and I thought, for me that would have been dark. So yeah, Meatspace is where that darkness was channelled. Now, I think the most important part of using social media for me is maintaining the separation between who I am in person and who I am online.”
Neither Kitab nor his brother Aziz nor Kitab 2 are able to maintain that separation in Meatspace, and to watch each of them struggle with figuring out how much of themselves (or, at times, how little) to put out there isn’t easy. It’s especially uncomfortable because it is such a clear and easily recognisable reflection of modern society. Kitab is often unable to function in the real world because he’s just so used to presenting a version of himself online, so much so that when with a woman he is falling for, he isn’t able to communicate: “We’re in silence because I can only think of things I want to tweet her. I have nothing to say.”
Meatspace is sad and funny simultaneously, the way modern life is very often. I asked Shukla if he thought it was important for writers of fiction to provide social commentary as well as tell a good story.
“The best contemporary fiction books tend to find a writer asking a big question in an accessible way,” Shukla replied. “Whether it’s a question that comments on how we live today or whether it’s a question looking within, that question works best when broad and universal. The question I wanted to ask myself was, in the social media age, when we spend more time saying who we are than we do living our lives, who are we? Am I the person I say I am online, the person who presents the best possible version of themselves online or the person who has to readjust their offline persona to reflect the best possible version of themselves. It’s scary.”
Shukla wrote a hilarious piece on his blog called ‘Eight Things Brown Authors Have to Deal With,’ in which he wrote about being fetishised as “frangipani literature.” Being shelved as a “British Asian” writer is something Shukla has dealt with, admitting that he longs for the day where he’s not “defined by my race before anyone mentions my name. I’m Nikesh Shukla, writer. Not British Asian author Nikesh Shukla. That’s terrible. I really hate that.”
Shukla covers a great many aspects of being a British Asian via Kitab, but he is always self-aware, even sliding in commentary on how he won’t resort to the usual tropes when writing about South Asians. “I eat meat,” he writes in Kitab’s voice, “I won’t say ‘non-veg’. I won’t make fun of his [Kitab 2’s] vernacular for the LOLs. It’s a lazy way to get laughs — the Mind Your Language approach.”
Meatspace throws everything you’ve ever done in the public eye of cybersphere back in your face, dirty and embarrassing and gauche. It may be smart and funny, but it is also able to make you fairly disgusted by yourself, by those around you, by everyone who spends any time at all making themselves presentable for internet consumption. It’s a disconcerting story, but a clever, astute one.
“The first and last thing I do every day is see what strangers are saying about me.