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Revenge of the Nerd

July 2004
Revenge of the Nerd

By Poornima Apte

It takes a special kind of storytelling talent to mix together one desi software nerd, a Bollywood heroine, and a corporate magnate and somehow create a hilarious and at times, sharply ironic story about the effects of globalization. As luck would have it, Hari Kunzru is loaded with just that kind of talent.

Khabar recently had a chance to talk with the young British author labeled by Granta magazine as one of "The 20 Best Fiction Writers Under 40."

Readers who missed the tremendous hype around his debut, The Impressionist, might not know that Kunzru, a young British author, created headlines by grabbing one of the biggest advances in recent publishing history. The Impressionist gave a first glimpse into Kunzru's creativity and his unerring eye for detail. His second novel, Transmission, amply proves that Kunzru is more than worthy of Granta's label.

Transmission is mostly set around 23-year old Arjun Mehta, a na�ve computer programmer who immigrates to the New World to realize his dream of forging a spectacular career in the field of computers. So complete is Arjun's obsession with the discipline that an acquaintance in Delhi is forced to ask of him: "What would you rather run your fingers over, computer keyboard or Cameron Diaz?"

Once in America, Arjun sadly realizes he has been assigned to a "body shop" interminably awaiting his turn on the "bench" all the while digesting certain unavoidable facts about the class system in America: "Anyone on foot in suburban California," Kunzru observes astutely, "is one of four things: poor, foreign, mentally ill, or jogging." Kunzru himself lives in Hackney, in East London. One wonders how it is then, that he so successfully manages to live in Arjun's skin. "Like any writer, I use all sorts of personal experiences and observations to make characters," Kunzru told Khabar, "though I have never been an immigrant to the US, I have, for example experienced life in suburban California without a car, traveled long distances on Greyhound buses?I also have a great admiration for the bravery of anyone who leaves their home to start another life on the other side of the world."

In the novel, Arjun finally does get posted at Virugenix, a "global computer security specialist" software company in Seattle and tentatively manages to find a routine with his daily visits to Starbucks and his secret fantasies of Leela Zahir, Bollywood's numero uno heroine. He even falls in love with a co-worker, Chris, who takes "the dorky Indian guy under her wing" because apart from a few other things, "he acted like he had something important going on, that on some frequency of his life beyond the visible spectrum there was great excitement." Kunzru pens out one perfect seduction scene here with Arjun fumbling around clueless and Chris high on drugs.

Unfortunately, Arjun's term at the company doesn't last long. Then, in a desperate bid to hold on to his job, he unleashes a virus in the form of a dancing Leela Zahir, hoping that by pointing to a solution, he would still be able to hold on to his job. This one act proves disastrous not just for Arjun, but also, in an act of transmission, for millions of other people. It is through this connection that Kunzru links two other parallel stories in the book. One revolves around a corporate executive, Guy Swift, who is on the verge of losing his career and his girl.

The other focuses on Leela Zahir and hilarious Bollywood machinations including a hero called Rajiv Rana, who sounds suspiciously like Salman Khan. Kunzru denies that Rana is modeled on any real-life Bollywood hero. "I've read my share of movie gossip," he says, "but Rana isn't based on anyone real. Rather he's a composite of any number of macho Bollywood men. People keep asking me if Leela is Kajol. I hope for Kajol's sake her home life isn't anything like Leela's [she leads a lonely life overpowered by a domineering mother]." Kunzru admits that the British are very enamored of Bollywood but often see it (as Chris, in the novel, does) as "kitsch or amusing." "On the whole they miss the genuine emotional range of the best work," Kunzru says.

As for Transmission, it proves that Hari Kunzru is here to stay. A hip, urbane comedy, it also creates a beautiful carriage for his sharp social commentary.

"All I wanted was my job back. All I wanted was to be work and be happy and live a life in magic America," thinks Arjun sadly after he realizes the extent of the damage that his virus has wreaked. The magic of Transmission is that there is not one of us who cannot empathize with Arjun Mehta's wide-eyed embrace of the new world even as it eventually brings him down.

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