We live in dark times. Just as it seemed that the world was beginning to overcome the virus, it seems to have raised its head again. A scourge that affects all of us would have made humanity put up a common front. But nothing close to it has happened. We had been riven by conflict much before the microbe struck. Our capacity to make well-informed decisions constrained by internecine rivalries, between identities that are a complex combination of lived realities and toxic political imaginations, often championed by authoritarians who don’t brook any dissent. Amid all this, humour has been a salve despite dictators not liking being mocked at. That’s why Roy Phoenix’s Alphabetica is a book for our times. Its charm lies in making complex things simple with wit and irony, while never losing sight of its purpose.
What could be a more apt vehicle for such an allegory than alphabets, something that’s been fundamental to human existence? Alphabetica’s characters, vowels, consonants, symbols, and numbers, live in an eponymous homeland in Planet Typewriter. Their homes are built on a foundation of love and camaraderie, and their workplace, Underwood, an estate of cooperation with pay parity. Underwood is presided over by The Poet, The Benefactor of the Planet Typewriter — a self-contained machine that is also his Temple of Free Speech. But trouble is brewing in this abode of tranquility.
Ypsi, one of the keenest learners on Planet Typewriters has numerous peeves, that indicate “her desperation to be recognised as someone special, with a unique identity”. Things come to a head when this troubled soul hears the Poet and his wife discuss the evolution of the English alphabet. She gives the conversation a nefarious spin and claims that the consonants are the original inhabitants of Alphabetica, descendants of the Phonecians, who founded the planet. Vowels, she claims, are infiltrators – descendants of the Greeks, who blackmailed The Poet into changing the name of the planet from Phoenitica to Alphabetica. This newly twisted understanding of the past Ypsi inflates her already exaggerated sense of self-importance and makes her vocabulary particularly violent. In no time, she mobilises her fellow consonants by raising the bogey of Alphabetica being taken over by the minority vowels.
Doesn’t all this sound eerily familiar? The author’s intent is, of course, evident from Alphabetica’s subtitle, “A Satire on Majoritarianism”. But the 200-odd pages that follow contain a riveting narrative on the war of words in Alphabetica that will make the reader think on how and why we came to what we have become today.