Midway through Tanuj Solanki’s latest novel, The Machine is Learning, Jyoti, a headstrong young woman writes a passionate email to Saransh, the novel’s protagonist and a potential flame. ‘If it is only the modality of violence that changes, if dystopia is the only possible culmination of our techno-capitalist progress and no power is powerful enough to avert it, then isn’t the only rational choice the one in which you just choose to about things with silence?’. Later in the same email, Jyoti tells Saransh that this is exactly what he is doing. The Machine is Learning is a contemplative study of daily life and how it is unknowingly delimited by similar parameters. To a developing country like India that can’t really ‘develop’ without alienating a proportion of its humanity, the vagaries of capitalism and ordinary life are seldom explored. Solanki, with his third book, and after having won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, presents a rare macro picture of what advancement shifts or scrapes on the sides when it takes a step forward.
Solanki’s novel is narrated by Saransh, a ‘mildly heartbroken’ MBA graduate, who works in an insurance company currently interviewing branch-level employees, referred to as LOEs, as part of a process to replace them with Artificial Intelligence (AI). Thrown in the mix is ex-journalist Jyoti, whom Saransh actively courts but ideologically competes with. Saransh is assisted in developing his version of corporate purgatory by Mitesh, a cut-throat performer, who cracks his knuckles in disappointment when ‘not enough’ people can be fired. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, where Saransh is a bit of a puppy, in that, he is somewhat aware of what injustice might look like, but can’t care enough to trace it. “Irrespective of where they are on the moral uprightness spectrum, the characters in 'Machine...' hold a grain of pragmatism in them. Some are ruthlessly pragmatic, others tentatively so,” Solanki tells me. Saransh describes himself in the book as ‘too intelligent to remain in the small town, too mediocre to really change the big world’.
Saransh is the idea behind Ismart, an app that will soon render some 550 employees of his company jobless. But to efficiently officiate the roll-out of its benefits, Saransh, Mitesh and co must interview employees they will soon turn obsolete. Where Solanki’s book is surprisingly breezy is where it handles the robustness of financial jargon, adeptly coupling it with key personal and structural insights. Be it the way insurance dupes people into buying more or why offices must aesthetically look sophisticated, Solanki grabs attention with ease. “The lingo/process/intricacies are supportable when there is a larger concern. It's true that in a novel like 'Machine... ', these things are more than world-building tools. They are also what the chief ethical concern of the novel is wrapped up in,” Solanki says.
Clearly, he knows the world well and therefore offers what is rare in Indian literature – a book about corporate India which is not at the same time a complaint about its depraved ‘work culture’. Instead, The Machine is Learning is balanced, if not compassionate. Saransh’s team, for example, have prepared a LIFE guide, which he himself describes as ‘a heist in four distinct acts, a masterpiece of manipulation’. Solanki manages to convincingly orate what is essentially a psychological act of thievery. While Saransh excels at work, his personal life is stop-and-start at best. In Jyoti, he has found a free-spirited woman whose verbose ethical concerns gradually gnaw at his own psyche. Saransh’s colleague, in comparison, continues to alleviate that first-world jugglery of philosophy with third-world realism. Subsequently, predictably, both collide.
Contrary to my own presumptions at first, the financial jargon, the inter-office politicking, its inessential details make the novel what it is. “I think one of the premises of the novel is that the lives of a lot of people who are not privy to the mannerisms and conversations and politics of a corporate office are in fact decided in the corporate office. When readers arrive at a passage set deep inside a conference room - and seeped in a fair bit of technical detail — I want them to have a feeling of urgency, of wanting to understand it all,” Solanki says. In more ways than one, Solanki manages to restrict himself from turning corporate culture into a self-mocking entity of inconsequence. Here, in fact, it feels real, relevant, even smart and most promisingly, human.
All that said, Solanki’s juggling act between Saransh’s personal and political life leaves something wanting. The transitions aren’t smooth, nor do they interlock seamlessly. Often you forget what Jyoti exists for, so patently well-conceived is Solanki’s world of insurance and social fraud. In fact, it is this world I wanted to learn more of. Also, the choice of a slightly well-read, intellectually aware, urbanised protagonist, to some extent diminishes the potentially native implications that can be drawn from a book of this nature ie the glass half full side of the story. A recurring Alan Kurdi (the drowned kid from Syria) reference for example, simply isn’t convincing. The self-serious nature of the arguments is also, can to an extent, feel alienating. On the other hand, Solanki has evidently become better with time. His prose can neither be questioned nor nit-picked for fault. I struggle to even read banking notifications and here I never wanted to step out of the socially fraudulent world of insurance.
Updated Date: Apr 09, 2020 09:44:20 IST