நட்சத்திரவாசிகள் (Starlings) – a review

‘நட்சத்திரவாசிகள்’ literally translates as those ‘who live in the stars’. This has nothing to do with alien beings but the multitude of software services workers, gloriously called ‘IT-Engineers’, and the ancillary beings that serve them.

The Tamil novel by Karthik Balasubramanian has won the ‘Sahitya Academy Yuva Puraskar’ award – a national award that recognises young fiction talent. I chanced upon this novel at the Adyar Regional Library, Chennai and grabbed it for a week-end sojourn into the world of fiction.

The author has an IT services industry background and that shows in various ways in the novel. None other than an insider could’ve written so lucidly about the inner workings of the industry.

IT sector in India is distinctly different from the IT product companies that operate in the USA. The Indian scenario is replete with companies that provide offshoring services to the many US banks and other companies that seek to take advantage of the ‘follow the sun’ model to provide continuous services to their clients. So, while proceeding with the novel, one should keep in mind the difference between the US based IT product companies and the IT services companies that operate from within the Indian shores.

The characters that enter the novel represent the microcosm of the current IT services industry. ensuring representation from different strata of society, the characters lend themselves to the actual manipulation that the author subjects them to, and in most cases appropriately.

The power struggles and the not-so-acknowledged-yet-visible competition in the hierarchy chain are depicted in the most reliable manner. Author’s sharp sense of observation is eminently displayed in the characterisation and dramatisation of the events. The loneliness a character, Vivek, faces while on an on-site assignment and his oscillation between his loneliness at home in India, due to a failed love affair, and the loneliness awaiting him abroad is well elucidated. The ordinariness of the daily routine abroad and the characterisation of an elderly phantom in a coffee shop show the author’s brilliance in his depiction of Vivek’s state of mind.

Venu’s exit looks rushed. He is depicted as a one-down to Sathya, the leader. However, Venu is terminated in the most inglorious manner by a not so senior HR staff. The dramatics involved appear forced.

The novel speaks, in a whispered tone, about casteism in the industry. Nithilan, one of the main characters, wonders how Bharadwaj and Aarthi get an on-site assignment or a promotion while he himself doesn’t. The names give away the mind of Nithilan. This is confirmed when Venu, who is shown as panchakachcham wearing and bare-bodied in a house warming ceremony, is shown wondering that apart from himself, only Aarthi and Bharadwaj were vegetarian during a team lunch occasion. A not so subtle writer wouldn’t have taken so much pains to bring forth the point. He would’ve probably devised an interaction between Venu and Bharadwaj on the lines of the sacred thread worn by Iyers and Iyengars where Arthi would’ve pitched in with the differences between the Iyer and Iyengar ways of tying the traditional madisar saree. In this novel, the references to brahmin preference is pointed out in a subtle manner. Author deserves an appreciation for the technique and a criticism for the imagination.

நட்சத்திரவாசிகள்

The novel doesn’t talk about the much-talked-about discotheque and pub culture of the IT sector workers. And in this he paints an often unknown reality of hard working engineers overcoming poverty due to IT jobs. Kudos to the author on this front.

Author has begun the novel with Ramasubbu, an elderly security staff and ends the story with him, thus bringing to close the rather interesting stories of the different characters.

Unique story telling is evident in the way the diary jottings of a character and a conversation of another with Alexa are weaved into the overall scheme of things. This is a brilliant technique.

Many an occasion, the author comes on board to speak his mind and pontificate. This could have been avoided as only the characters have to speak in a novel.

A novel that has no precedent in Tamil excepting for ‘Marupadiyum’, a novel on retrenchment in the IT sector. And for heaven’s sake don’t bring in Vinayaka Murugan’s ‘Kizakku Kadarkkarai Saalai’ here. And heaven forbid you to even think of Chetan Bhagat’s half-baked works on the IT sector.

I, with 25 years of IT sector experience, consider Sahitya Academy’s Yuva Puraskar winning ‘ நட்சத்திரவாசிகள்’ (Starlings) refreshingly unique that portrays the realistic working of the Indian offshore IT industry, albeit with a Tamil slant, in all its splendour and some discolouration.

I have written this review in English as the book needs to reach a wider audience and thus enable an English translation of this important piece of work. I don’t think anything of this sort has been written in the Indian English fiction scene, yet. Hindi, I am not sure.

Novel : நட்சத்திரவாசிகள் Publisher : Kaalachuvadu Publications. Price : Rs 275.

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