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Book Reviews

Updated on: Sunday, December 19, 2021, 01:30 PM IST

Alphabetica review: A reflection of reality through the history of alphabets

If you like intelligent, engaging literature that makes you a partner in a journey, pick up this book
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Alphabetica is a self-proclaimed satire on majoritarianism, which first draws our attention to the context of the current scenario in India as well as the world. But the subject alone does not make a book worthwhile. What works for the debut novel by Roy Phoenix is the quality of the allegory, the depth of the author’s imagination and the vast knowledge and supreme command over the minutest details of the world he has built. 

This is especially impressive as Alphabetica, as the name suggests, is the story of the life and times of alphabets inhabiting the Planet Typewriter. So, crafting this book has required extensive research on the history of alphabets. The central crisis of the story, which is made to resemble our world with delicate subtlety, is the conflict between the numerical majority and the minority, namely consonants and vowels. In between, there are the ‘mixed races’ as we would find in our societies…born out of our histories of both segregation and shared workloads, intersections of class and race. 

Like the farm in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the alphabets along with numbers, punctuations and signs work together in a word factory named Underwood (a typewriter brand that was well-known along with Remington and others till the advent of computerised typing). In the beginning, in this workspace, which serves a poet’s creative production purposes, there is equality in pay and benefits. But the problem begins when one alphabet, Y, starts digging up the history of alphabets to prove her (racial?) superiority and claim higher social status. She declares that the minority vowels cannot be treated equal as she, a consonant, can form words by herself without the help of any vowels. So, the consonants can do without vowels. Thus, for the first time, majoritarian discrimination raises its ugly head on the planet. 

As Y marches on, she insists that the blue-blooded Phoenician consonant majority must rule over the intruders, the Greek vowel minority. She starts protesting against the lexicon ‘reserving’ 38% share of words for the minority vowel (do we not hear echoes of the anti-Mandal Commission movement that rocked the country in the 1990s when the already privileged upper castes came out on the streets to protest against reservation for lower castes?). 

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The consonants, thus, raise the bogey that the pampered minority will one day rule Planet Typewriter and the majority will become downtrodden. She predicts the eventual extinction of her ‘low word share’ co-consonants. Sounds familiar? Not only in our country but across Europe and the United States, the well-settled majorities are similarly worried that the desperate asylum-seeking refugees and ‘blacks’ are posing a serious threat! 

I would leave you to follow the fascinating story as you read the book. As the story carries on, and we keep on finding parallels with our lived reality, we get immersed in a game. There is a unique pleasure offered by a continuous voyage of discovery, of identifying parallel events or discursive trends, and sometimes taking a moment off and dwelling on a point made. Perhaps shuddering a bit at the incisive insight of the author. It often produces a chuckle as throughout the seriousness is delivered with a great sense of humour. We remind what Ludwig Wittgenstein had once said, “A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.”

If you like intelligent, engaging literature that makes you a partner in a journey, pick up this book.

Title: Alphabetica: A Satire on Majoritarianism

Author: Roy Phoenix

Publisher: Norton Press and Imagination Works

Pages: 209

Price: Rs 549

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Published on: Sunday, December 19, 2021, 01:30 PM IST
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