Identitti, Mithu Sanyal’s dynamic and ambitious debut novel, delivers a bold satire of our digital existence. Set in and around the campus of a modern-day university in Düsseldorf, this story tracks the thorny revelations of blogger and postgraduate student Nivedita, known by her punning pen name @Identitti. She discovers that her supervisor, Saraswati, an internationally renowned professor of post-colonial studies, is in fact a white woman pretending to be Indian. Understandably, uproar ensues. Unfortunately, Nivedita has recently praised Saraswati in a radio interview that goes viral following the public exposure of the professor’s deception. Nivedita reassesses her relationship with Saraswati, and with her own sense of self. Both face scrutiny from the student body and the online world.
Sanyal has made the metatextual move to weave tweets and critical theory into the narrative of her novel. Surreally, certain statements were written by real-life intellectual Twitterati, invited to comment by Sanyal on her fictional scenario. Blog posts also feature, crafted by Nivedita, detailing her intimate conversations with the Hindu goddess Kali, who often accompanies her, proffering droll guidance and wisecracks.
Epiphanies along the way cause Nivedita to consider questions of identity and forgiveness. As the mixed-race child of Polish and Indian parents, she longs for a feeling of belonging in a German society that has given her limited role models. Her confrontations with Saraswati delve into the complexities of having been empowered and nurtured by a mentor who has caused such harm. As Saraswati’s persona unfurls, Sanyal interrogates academic hypocrisy, constructions of race, white saviourism and the perils of idolising one’s heroes.
This novel is wittily translated by Alta L Price, who captures the many strands of Sanyal’s linguistic verve. In Identitti, Sanyal has fashioned a highly original work that encapsulates the polyphony of digitalised debate. Her fiction allows space for different realities to co-exist – and Sanyal delights in leaving any final judgements at the reader’s discretion.
Identitti by Mithu Sanyal, translated by Alta L Price, is out now (V&Q Books, £12.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.
Annie Hayter is a writer and poet