My latest book is The One Who Swam With The Fishes.

"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

"Themes of fate, morality and power overlay a subtle and essential feminism to make this lyrical book a must-read. If this is Madhavan’s first book in the Girls from the Mahabharata series, there is much to look forward to in the months to come." - Open Magazine

"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

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20 October 2023

The Internet Personified: You used to call me on my cellphone

Marvellous murder hornets,

Autumn is here. When exactly it slunk up on us, I can’t say, but the days are cold and the nights are colder. It’s not so cold that I can’t wear my nice (read: fashionable) coats, but it’s too cold for bare legs and arms. My cashmere socks have been dug out of the drawer they lay unattended in for four months. Only four! Summer that seemed so endless and perfect has given way to a memory of something that we once had. This morning—grey, rainy—the lamps are on, but not the ceiling light. I like the pools of warmth they give off. Our heating is not on yet, we live in an ugly but functional new building, very much post-war, so our windows are snug and double insulated. The neighbours have turned on their heating so our house is warm through them and slightly smelly because the windows are closed, but cozy. I started to take my vitamin D supplements in September, these might be a placebo, but I’m not feeling the bone-tiredness, the melancholy moods of winter just yet. It’s 8 degrees celcius this morning, and tomorrow, my forecast promises, will be a golden autumn day with a high of 18, so Berlin is hard to predict if you were packing for it.

Winter clothes, winter mood. (Portrait of Katharina Merian by Hans Brosamer) (I don’t know who they are but I liked her face and also her pendant.)

When I first visited Berlin, November 2015, that was a golden autumn if there ever was one. The outside was bright, sparkly, the insides were snug. It was warm enough to just wear a coat over a t-shirt. I walked on the road and drank in public, and thought I never wanted to leave. People warned me it wasn’t always like that, but I thought they were exaggerating.

I still never want to leave though. A day like today, a wistful melancholy day, the trees beginning to lose their leaves, everyone under their umbrellas, and me with no errands to run outside the house at all, what bliss. I look at the news and feel the crunch of despair just pushing down in the centre of my chest till I have to sit down and so I’m even more thankful for, you know, all this.

I hesitate to say I’m “too old” for anything, it seems so simplistic and so final. “Too old” is the “sorry I can’t come tonight, not feeling great” of life excuses, something you toss off and feel wordly wise or weary about. What you mean is that you’re tired, you’re not ready for a new experience, you don’t feel like you can cope with the situation in this particular time of your life etc etc. (I just saw a Substack whose intro opened with, “I’m 33, and that feels too old to write for free on the internet.”)

As of this morning, writing this newsletter, here are some things I am doing/have done recently that I would have, for sure, told you I was “too old” for. Joining a drama workshop where we all speak German and act together. Got more comfortable biking, despite the fact that the last time I was so confident about biking, I was twelve. Stayed out till 3 am (okay, I started protesting at around 1.30, but I powered through!) The things I believe to be true about myself are not actually that set in stone. A thousand years after I decided I didn’t like fresh tomato, I have begun eating it in sandwiches again! I bought silver boots! I am currently listening to Taylor Swift! I meet people much younger and much older than me, and I realise that their ages aren’t the first thing to strike me in the face (unless they’re very self consciously youth performing, that annoys me).

But there’s one thing I realised I’m actually “too old” for. And that’s migrating social media platforms. X (Twitter) has died, and I’ve joined everything that sprung up in its place, your Bluesky, your Threads, your Mastodon, your Substack Notes. But try as I might I couldn’t get the platform/s to act exactly the way Twitter did, back when Twitter was a party. Back when it felt like you didn’t need to actually go outside to socialise, because you could do it online, and if you did go to an actual real-life party, it would be with other people who you followed and who followed you.

In 2019, I wrote this little essay for an online publication called Paper Planes. It was about time-specific nostalgia, how you missed a place in past tense. I find myself thinking about that today. I miss Twitter as it used to be, a few years ago (maybe five?) when you could say something and people would jump in and interact with you, and you had your “viral tweets” and your people sending screenshots of each other’s tweets on WhatsApp groups, it was an actual space, even though it was online.

I, more than anyone I know, know how real an online space can feel. I used to have a blog, it was a nice blog. I used to have a community. I mourned the end of that, but Twitter swiftly replaced it in a way Instagram couldn’t. Instagram was too polished, too many selfies. I was never that interested in my own face—it’s a nice enough face but eh, I get boringly obsessed if I look at it too often, I see my flaws and I start to think about them and it’s all so annoying, even if I’m telling myself I look pretty, what even is pretty, right? It’s a very dull conversation to have, even inside your own head—and I only took nice photos when I travelled, otherwise it was just cats and sofa and books and clothes. By contrast, I was tweeting all the time, any time I had a strikingly random thought. Such as:

Do cats understand dogs or is it like hearing Portuguese when you only speak Mandarin?

A FRIENDS-SATC mash-up where Carrie goes on a date with Chandler but his friends are the red flag for her. “I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of man wants to spend all his time with five other people all the time.”

Listening to an American speak German with a v thick American accent, wondering how come their accent stays the same between languages and Indian English sort of vanishes the longer you live abroad

Berlin hipster coffee shop with self service: I go to pay by card. "Oh," says the cashier, "You can select tip or no tip and then pay." His eyes look at me, waiting. Cowardly, I select "tip" for everything including collecting my own coffee & taking the dirty glasses back.

sending some of my best texting banter to people who respond with thumbs up emojis. (which is also a good metaphor for the state of my novels)

how does all the spiderman stuff get passed down genetically to spiderbaby? unless the spider recodes your dna or whatever.

See? I had good stuff there. Some of the above, I even tweeted hopefully, but most went unnoticed, one or two got a single like or one lonely retweet. I have a lot of followers (close to 10,000), I used to have a verified button, and now—crickets.

It feels like a loss. I even surprised myself by talking about the death of Twitter to my therapist the other day. It’s not something I would usually mention, a current-affairs-y thing. My sessions tend to be far more inside my head. Deep inside, like childhood memories and shit. But I began talking about Twitter, complaining about how I couldn’t spread the word about anything anymore, not my new novel, not my book launch and not my fleeting thoughts as I push through the world. I realised I was more upset about losing all this than I realised. Twitter was a writer’s social media more than anything else, and now it’s gone and with it, a tool that I depended on to find out I wasn’t alone.

It’s not just existential loneliness either. All writers these days are expected to sell their own books. Publicists and sales people will tell you that “word of mouth” is the only way to sell books these days, and those mouths are accounts with large followings. I emerge from writing, from inventing new people and new worlds and then I have to sell. “Look at me!” I have to say, “Here’s my new book! Please buy it! Please tell me I’m relevant!” And the problem with all of this playing out online is that you get very cynical about everything, which is the worst thing for your writing. I don’t mean that you can’t write with a certain ironic flair or be flippant or whatever, but you’ve got to believe in your own writing otherwise what’s the point? Instead you begin to “what’s the point” everything else, including your role in the world and your own self-worth. It’s awful and it’s killing any baby creative thoughts that might be creeping up inside your brain, getting ready to grow.

I had a book launch last week in this brand new city where I don’t know any publishers or media people or influencers. I had a small box of books I offered for sale at the event, a venue whose details I worked out a couple of weeks before with the people who run it and a tiny mailing list consisting of friends and acquaintances I’ve made over the past two years. I told my mum, “I’ll be happy if ten people come.” I was expecting six. I put a post up on my Instagram (mostly followers from India) and then considered Twitter. I follow a lot of random Berlin-based accounts on Twitter, just because they were suggested to me around the time of Elon’s great takeover that ruined everything (GTTRE). I used to think if I could see them, maybe they could see me, so whenever I tweeted about Berlin, I sat back, like a child with artwork, just waiting for them to discover me. They never did. I didn’t post about my book event on Twitter in the end. It went really well—about thirty people, the small room was full. It might’ve been a fluke, just good timing and curiosity and friendly people, but it was the first time I attempted something like this—in a new city! on the other side of the world!—without the help of a social media following.

The other day I got an email from a reader who had just bought my new book. She hit reply on an old thread we apparently had going, from the year 2007, back when I was an anonymous blogger and she had gotten in touch to ask what my first book was called and when it was going to be out. “Is this still you?” she asked.

It’s still me.

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Currently re-reading: The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman, originally introduced to me by bestie Samit Basu, which also has a really good TV show based on it which I’ve also seen, but the books are so good that it feels like I’m reading them for the first time. Snarky adult Harry Potter meets Narnia meets millennial angst.

Currently re-watching: Sex and The City because I finished re-watching Downton Abbey and this felt like the… logical? sequel. We also began watching a really fun sci-fi show called Counterpart, set in Berlin, starring JK Simmons. Everything seems like it’s set in Berlin these days.

If you’re searching for the link list, I have migrated those to their own issues.

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It seems that Substack is the last place we’ve got to talk to each other, so talk to me, tell me things from your life that are particularly interesting even if it’s just that you discovered two ladybirds mating in your balcony palm tree.

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Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of eight books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.

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