I’ve always wondered what *really* happens in those Bangalore IT companies housing serried ranks of coder bees, and so, when Bend your Knees… crossed my radar, I was intrigued. The author’s pitch email went, “Set in the world of the (in)famous Indian IT industry, Bend your Knees is a humorous, anger-filled, slice-of-life drama about the Indian quest for ever-elusive happiness. It uses the tale of Hiranyakashyap to explore how many of us componentize that state-of-being in order to make it achievable, and how that very fact gets in the way of us achieving it.”
Debut author, brown sister, mysterious mononymous pen name, fun cover art, intriguing mythology/philosophy reference, single working woman protagonist…woo-hoo, I was in! The book seemed to offer a self-aware take on the surreality of the Indian IT industry. Did it fulfill its promise?
Bend your Knees… is set in an IT firm in Bangalore, India, where the protagonist, 40-year-old Kalyani, works as a Senior Data Architect, having risen steadily through the ranks over the years. But now it’s retrenchment season, and the unfortunate Kalyani must fire several subordinates while quaking for her own job security. The signal for imminent unemployment is a backup email–a “mail that informed the receiver that backup software was going to be installed on the receiver’s laptop to enable the automatic backup of critical data.” Even as she’s checking her email every minute, Kalyani hits her mid-life crisis head-on–worrying her stomach cramps are cancer symptoms, figuring out her relationship with God, getting a toe-hold onto the impossible Bangalore property ladder, and managing her aging parents. Kalyani’s confidante in all her adventures is Hiranyakashyap, the Asura who wrangled a boon from God for immortality, by wording the implausible conditions of his death in the most watertight legalese possible. (Of course, God found a way to kill him anyway.) Kalyani finds God capricious, and all-to-eager to extract a price for favors granted, and has hence learned to hedge all her requests for success or money, depending instead on Hiranya for advice.
Then Kalyani’s manager asks her to write a thought paper on social media analytics–a maddeningly vague topic about which no-one knows anything, but for which everyone’s eager to take credit at the end. The paper rapidly becomes a hot potato for poor Kalyani, whose dealings with the corporate honchos become increasingly surreal, ultimately culminating in a wild trip to Japan.
Will that thought-paper ever get written? Will Kalyani learn to take control of her life, or will she fail in her quest for happiness and commit suicide by rat-poison bonda?
The author Kalyani (whose identity is a secret, at least to me) is obviously well-informed about the industry, acutely observant, and possesses a nicely-developed sense of the absurd. The highlights of the book for me were the fascinating tidbits about Indian corporate culture, like the women who wear a “compliance bindi”– a dot small enough pass unnoticed, yet visible enough to appease traditionalists. There’s the flagrantly self-sacrificing woman employee who declares she’ll quit her job so the main bread-winners, aka husbands, can keep theirs. (Proudly single Kalyani gives her the eyeball of death.) There’s the shift-the-shame rose, wherein those who’ve been laid-off give their senior managers roses; the act of giving and taking the rose is supposed to symbolize the transfer of shame between the fired and firer. Ooogh. The author perfectly captures the marriage of capitalism’s excesses with the Indian predilection for sentimentality, and I chuckled aloud several times at the absurdity of it all.
Kalyani-the-author also has a great ear for dialogue.
“Kalyani, Jahnavi is making me to go to Dhaka!” he wailed. […]
“You mean she is asking you to go to Hyderabad.”
“No! No! That position has already been filled. Now there is another opening in Dhaka and she is making me to-“
“Asking you to go there,” I rushed in hastily.
“Not asking. Making,” he almost sobbed. “What will I eat there? I am a vegetarian!”
And now, for the negative part of my review. Surely the publishing house could have hired an experienced hand to work with an author who’s obviously great at plot, observation, and dialogue, while tightening the prose? Kalyani-the-author inclines towards detailed, adverb-laden internal monologues, and has the typical debut writer’s tendency to over-narrate. The latter is very detrimental to pacing, as any editor should know. Here’s a sample page:
I don’t blame the author one byte (she’s a debut writer), but the editor? Well, send him that backup mail already. Kalyani’s written a book that’s heartfelt, insightful, and adds substantially to the conversation about the topic, but oh, if there’s to be a reprint, this 535-page shaggy beast needs to get on a diet. Watch it then zoom up the best-seller lists.