What happens when words begin to constitute worlds that are far more desirable than the ones that we find ourselves in everyday? When the overwhelming presence of social media and digital platforms virtually threatens to create an alternative reality that seems both promising as well as indisputable? These are some of the most pressing issues of post-millennial India, that plague the teenage character of Nasira Sharma’s latest novel, Shabd Pakheru (Winged Words). The narrative explores the theme of cyber crime that the relatively younger, inexperienced, and therefore gullible members of a family may become a victim of. It describes the daily hardships of Suryakant, a middle-class government employee, his ailing wife Sadhna, and their two daughters, Manisha and Shailja. The focal point of action is Delhi the capital city even though one of the most palpable narrative crises is precipitated by the fact that the paterfamilias is transferred to Jaipur.
The author rightly describes these four characters as people struggling to climb out of the dark well that their home is symptomatic of. Suryakant is filled with despair for the major part of the novel since in his persistent efforts to take care of his wife and be dutiful toward her, he literally stops loving her. Consequently, Sadhna’s will to live deserts her every now and then; a predicament that is made worse by the fact she cannot speak anymore. The sense of silence that characterizes the everyday conversations of the family is quite deafening and pervasive. The elder daughter Manisha is an IAS aspirant while the younger one is a born rebel. She simply does not relate intimately with any of her family members even though she calls her father her ‘best friend’. For an ‘Internet Baby’ like her, ‘Google’ becomes ‘Grandpa’ while the virtual world appears much more convincing and preferable when compared with the isolated lives that people around her are immersed in.
Things however take a dramatic turn, when Shailja starts flirting with an older man Frank John on Facebook. After his melodramatic enunciations of his feelings toward her (something that Shailja almost finds nauseatingly Keatsian), Frank wants Shailja to rescue him from the Mumbai airport since he has been unfortunately detained and his two suitcases that are full of dollars and pounds have also been taken into custody. Seeing the situation spiral out of control, Shailja goes silent and withdraws into herself. However, her fascination with Facebook friends is so pronounced and excessive that she soon starts envisioning a bright future for herself as the future wife of Chris Allen, a so-called American soldier who first reveals that he is serving in Afghanistan but is now to be transferred to Pakistan. And yet, when push comes to shove, he invites her to the Kuala Lumpur airport in order to give her the various gifts that he had promised her. It is only when her friend’s uncle Naim chacha decisively intervenes that Shailja gets a reality check, and the situation is successfully diffused.
Behind the veneer of cyber crime that constitutes the organizing principle of the novel, Nasira Sharma deftly explores the profound sense of boredom, listlessness, alienation, and urban anxiety that characterizes the quotidian rhythms of contemporary life. The pronounced disengagement with the real world is almost immediately accompanied by an obsessive fondness for its virtual counterpart. Because Shailja was repeatedly beaten by her aunt when she was a child, she constantly craves love and attention. It also explains why she has a modern, liberal, and an independent outlook toward life and individual choices. Her deep inclination toward the cyber world is thus a desperate attempt to confer meaning, order, purpose, and direction to her life; an elemental desire to connect and communicate that one often experiences these days in metro trains where the person sitting next to you is compulsively fixated on his/her smartphone and real conversation is conspicuous by its very absence.
In addition to the quirky title, the author also manages to dexterously communicate the themes of nuclear families and generation gaps that have increasingly come to characterize the urban experience in the metropolitan cities. Even though the father figure tries his level best to comprehend the interests, aspirations and priorities of his daughters by occasionally treating them with cold drinks and noodles, the gaps and silences remain far too obvious for the reader. While Suryakant is completely opposed to the idea of change because of the deep sense of insecurity that surrounds him, Shailja is always on the lookout for something that is new, trendy, and exciting. It is this unbridgeable generation gap that ultimately results in Shailja spending the entire monthly allowances and family savings for replacing the furniture of the house. The ailing mother and her regular prescriptions too make life suffocating for Shailja’s modern tastes and preferences.
The novel’s topicality is impressively complemented by the raciness of the plot and the density of expression. There is no excessive interiority about the characters and the seamless progression of events and incidents neatly conveys the fast-paced world of the urban landscape. The haunting sense of estrangement that Suryakant experiences when he pays a visit to his ancestral village also demonstrates how modernity itself gradually penetrates the countryside and irreversibly changes its complexion for the irregular visitors. The palpable presence of online predators in the novel invariably reminds one of Allison Brennan’s chef-d’œuvre Love Me to Death (2005), Angela Ford’s Cyber Crime Series (2016), or even David Schwimmer’s crime thriller Trust (2010). In an Indian context, the overarching theme of fraud and misrepresentation does bear a remote similarity to Amrita Chowdhury’s novel Faking It (2009). The novel is thus a welcome addition to the modernizing of themes and language (Shabd Pakheru does have its own share of conversational Hinglish) that one also finds in other contemporary Hindi writers such as Divya Prakash Dubey and Nikhil Sachan. Urban rhythms, lifestyles, and sensibilities clearly lend a certain contemporariness that one immediately recognizes and identifies with, even as the language and the themes effectively communicate the various changes that conversational Hindi has undergone in the post-liberalization and globalization era.
Shailendra Kumar Singh is in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Shailendra.firstname.lastname@example.org