Excerpt (Fiction) | from ‘Arzu’ by Riva Razdan (Hachette 2022) | Issue 42, March 2023

Excerpted with permission from Arzu by Riva Razdan, published by Hachette India

Parul Bua was appalled by this new development, as she is by all new developments, but less so when Rohit came over and pronounced my final dish of a salad of roasted sweet potatoes, squash and pumpkin to be ‘quite nice’. Then, she was recounting her own summer at Cordon Bleu in Paris, and boasting of her famous poached eggs with Hollandaise sauce that Brij Uncle fell in love with, instead of pretending that she was too rich to ever have needed to acquire a skill. I think if I ask her to tell me a story from your childhood in Meerut in front of the Gargs, she will explode like the yolk of an overheated egg.

I’m sorry I haven’t written to you in such a long time. The truth is that I had been finding it quite tough to write anything at all. Everything that I put on paper seemed frivolous or uninteresting. After all, what could an erudite entrepreneur like you care about my mornings in ‘Poise and Social Grace’. But then, I was recently told by your star employee to be less concerned with impressing my reader and more concerned with speaking my truth. Counter-intuitive as it seemed at first, it has allowed an easier flow to writing for me and (I hope) for the reader too. Here are some of my ‘tales’ from New York.

Finishing school flutters on with all the excitement of a folded napkin swan. We recently had a week of art history that was interesting, but the curriculum was focused on being able to talk about art at a party instead of actually appreciating or studying it. The more time I spend at Mme Viv’s, the more I become aware that all I am supposed to do is appear to know things, not to actually know them, or formulate an opinion of my own. I am tired of being decorative. I think Sarah is too. So, we decided to sign up for a media and communications class at her father’s college. It’s not too demanding, nor is it a certification of any kind, yet it is fun to learn about the impact of the constantly evolving visual communications industry of the twentieth century. I’ve learnt to use a professional camera – although I’m not nearly as good as Sarah at setting it up and taking pictures. She can fit simple things into a camera frame in a way that suddenly renders them vivid and interesting. I’m attaching a few pictures she took during our photo-walk in Brooklyn last weekend so you can see what I mean. The knee poking out of the window on the fire escape is mine! Don’t turn your nose up at the denim skirt. Corduroy, plaid and denim are the only acceptable fabrics for fall in New York, and I’m not going to be the only one who isn’t part of the party.

Even though I’m not a maestro like Sarah, I’m enjoying this class. There’s something very satisfying about sequencing pictures and videos together on a timeline to illustrate a story. And as much as I love a well- written article, I can see just how wonderfully democratic the news process becomes when information is fed to you through picture and sound. It’s too bad we only have one news channel back home with such a contrived, boring format. There are so many things one can do with video editing and reportage to make information interesting to a viewer, especially an illiterate one. Just imagine if we could creatively deliver India’s affairs to the thousands of uneducated people who can’t read our papers so that they might understand how to use their votes to improve their circumstances! Plus, now I control this huge computer, with two big screens and all these different dials to play with in class, and it makes me feel very important and knowledgeable, like I’m controlling the world at NASA. Sarah has started calling me Mistress of the Machine, and I will confess that I quite like the term. I’m looking forward to coming home, but I’ll admit that I am going to miss the tech facilities we have access to in New York. There is so much we can do news-wise with this technology, it’s mind-boggling.

Thank you for refusing the Gargs’ invitation on my behalf. As much as I enjoy their company, I find myself requiring a respite from their undivided attention these days. Mrs Garg is so kind that it is nearly impossible to turn down her invitation to dine with them every other evening and join them at brunch on the weekend. Rohit Garg is around, a lot too, and he is a very nice, upstanding, charming man. But between school, my media class and him, I haven’t had much time to myself, to wander around the city, discovering pockets of life in little alleyways as I used to. He has an exclusively expensive taste so we’re always shopping for something fine. Art, furniture, clothes, cars. We’re either at auctions of priceless things or talking of his next purchase. Not to say that he isn’t hard-working. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time at business dinners with his clients, watching him woo them into buying his diamonds at his price while plying them with the best steak at the Waldorf Astoria. While the negotiations were all interesting and novel at first, I find that I have gotten quite tired of watching. I’m restless and impatient and as bursting for change as an oak tree in October. Plus, there are only so many cocktail peanuts your daughter can eat without going up a dress size. My Saturdays spent lolling on the Stewarts’ couch with a good novel in my hand have come to a regrettable end too. Still, Rohit is a good friend and a kind man, and I’m sure I will miss his company terribly when he leaves for Belgium this week.

Fortunately, my time spent reading at the library occupies my afternoons so that I can go to bed feeling somewhat fulfilled. I’m reading some interesting journalistic pieces from the New Yorker’s archives at the moment. I think you’d enjoy them.

I cannot wait to see you. I have so much more to share that neither a letter nor a phone call could convey. Send me news, both of yourself and of Bombay.

Lots of love,


Ajit Agarwal was ruminating over his daughter’s letter for so long that morning that he missed his second game of squash at the club. It was just as well, since he couldn’t concentrate on his serve when he was overcome by this queer mixture of pride, curiosity and concern. He sat by the pool in his white shorts with his racquet by his side, and reread the letter, trying to puzzle out the veiled meaning that lurked under her bright attitude. He was happy that she was becoming more independent in her thinking every day, but still, he sensed that something was amiss. There was a restraint in her sentences that removed him from the complete truth of her life in New York and her friendship with the Garg boy.

Formerly, he had appreciated the secrecy. It shielded him from the uncomfortable particulars of his daughter’s puberty, the affairs of her adolescence and her relationship with Prabhu. He remembered when at thirteen, his young daughter had tiptoed into his study to ask him to phone Parul Bua. A shock, considering that they barely got along at the time. The two had rushed into her room along with a maid who was instructed to bring fresh sheets. Ajit had been grateful to his daughter and sister at the time, for excluding him from the process.

But now he realized that he had forced his daughter to remain at arm’s length by expecting her to maintain a facade for his benefit. Now, he did not know whether she was content or discontent. Whether this Rohit fellow respected and encouraged her, or whether he thought of her as a fine object to have, like he thought about all his art and cars and whatnot.

Ajit bristled, shifting in his poolside chair. He strongly suspected that his sister was making a mess of things again.

Still, what had he expected of Parul? She had done what she thought was best for Arzu with Prabhu, and was continuing to do her best by flinging this diamond merchant’s son at her like a lifeboat in the capricious sea of Bombay’s society. It was his own fault for trying to dodge the duty of a single parent by pretending that his daughter didn’t inhabit a world where the malicious intrigue around a jilted girl could start dictating the terms of her life. When had he ever sat down with Arzu and insisted that she discuss her ambitions and desires with him? He had been so engulfed by his work and so convinced by her good grades that she would make the right decisions for herself, that he hadn’t thought any guidance necessary. Afreen was probably screaming in indignation right now, at the cool indifference he had shown their daughter. At the carelessness with which he had sent her off to America, to finishing school, of all places! When a mind like hers most needed moulding at an institution of learning, he had sent her to a charm school that would quell all of her wonderful, original thought to create a perfectly charmless partner for some intrepid businessman. What did this Rohit Garg know of the human spirit, if he couldn’t weather the lack of air conditioning long enough to walk the streets of a great city like New York?

Riva Razdan is an author based in Mumbai. She is also a screenwriter for Anil Kapoor Films and Saffron Films. As a writer, she is determined to create romantic-feminist fiction that encourages, supports and comforts young Indian women. Her work has been featured in The Hindu Business LineGrazia India and The Telegraph. Her debut novel, Arzu, was published by Hachette India in February 2021. Her new novel, The Naani Diaries, is represented by A Suitable Agency.

Excerpt | from ‘The Plague Upon Us’ by ‘The Plague Upon Us’ by Shabir Ahmad Mir (Hachette, 2020) | Issue 42, March 2023

‘Excerpted with permission from The Plague Upon Us by Shabir Ahmad Mir, published by Hachette India’



Once upon a harsh  winter, in the  house of Hamid Puj, a baby girl was born. She was named Sabia.

Hamid Puj was a butcher only in name. True, his forefathers dating back to an ancestor named Nabir Puj had been butchers, but at a very early age Hamid had noticed how people smirked at the mention of the word ‘puj’. So he decided that come what may he would be a puj no more and vowed he would do whatever it took to make an Abdul Hamid out of a Hamid Puj. Thus, as soon as Hamid thought he had come of age, he asked his father for some cash as his inheritance so he could start a business.

‘What is wrong with being a butcher?’ his father asked. ‘There is good money in butchery.’

Hamid could not explain himself well, and his words made his father feel that he was abusing his ancestors for being butchers. So he told his son quite clearly that he could go and grind his arse at whatever business he liked, but he wouldn’t get a single penny from his father unless he repented and swore lifelong fidelity to the family knives. But Hamid could not take such an oath; the distaste left by the sneers and scowls he had faced all his life was too strong to be overcome by his father’s threats. As soon as he was married, he decided to put his resolve into action. Now more than ever, he wanted to give up being a puj.

As the first step towards his purported journey of moving away from being a puj, Hamid started to work as an apprentice to a carpenter. One morning, the master carpenter called Hamid aside and asked him to accompany him to the army camp that had been set up on the periphery of the village.

The army needed carpenters for some work on the roofs of the structures in their camp. Army camps, as everybody knew, were localized black holes. A man could walk into one of them, willingly or unwillingly, but no one could be sure if he would walk back out. Consequently, neither the junior carpenters nor the apprentices were willing to go there. They could afford to refuse – it was the master carpenter who had been summoned by the camp, not them. The master could not force them either – what if something happened to one of them? Their families would hold him solely responsible, because nobody would ever hold the army responsible for anything. It was unthinkable.

Hamid thought about the master carpenter’s request. It was risky; the summons may or may not be about the work – one could never be sure. Even if it was indeed about the roof, he would be paid next to nothing, if he was paid at all. After all, who could dare to ask the army for compensation?

But, Hamid thought, this was just as much an opportunity. For one, he would now be in the good books of the master carpenter. More importantly, he felt he could try to work out a business proposition at the army camp. There was great potential for doing business there. The soldiers stationed at the camp were men, after all, and strangers to the land and climate

– they must have needs; needs that Hamid could cater to, with a neat margin of profit of course. Carpentry was too slow and too unreliable a way out of being a puj, and now that Hamid had children to raise he was not particularly averse to taking risks. So he agreed to go along with the master carpenter.

Once he got past the barricade and the obligatory frisking, Hamid realized the army camp was mainly the village’s old school building and a few sheds that had been erected haphazardly around it in apparent haste. The new structure, a secondary two-storey building, had been built on what had once been the school playground. From its appearance, it was obvious that the new building had been constructed by the men in the camp. It resembled the houses in the plains from where these men came, and stood quite in contrast to the old building. In the plains the houses did not need tin roofs to survive the snow and the winter; here, in the mountains, they did. And it was to build a tin roof that the expertise of a local carpenter was required.

It took about a week for the work on the roof to be completed. During this time, Hamid discovered, much to his dismay, that the men stationed at the camp did not need anyone to fulfil their needs. They were often outside the camp, not just for search operations but also to patrol the streets, establishing what was called ‘area dominance’. And, while they were out there, they took whatever they needed, both out of necessity and to reinforce their authority.

Nevertheless, Hamid found a way to do some business on the side. The camp had a defense canteen outlet, where a wide range of products – shampoo, soap, perfumes, clothes, biscuits, chocolates and shoes, among other things – were sold at subsidized prices. Hamid worked out a friendly association with Bittu, the canteen salesman. He started to buy products from Bittu at the subsidized rates and sell them outside the camp at less than their open-market price but more than what he had paid for them at the canteen, pocketing a neat profit for himself.

Once the roof was complete, the master carpenter said his prayers at the nearest shrine in thankfulness for his safe week at the camp and left the premises. But Hamid kept going back, ferrying goods from the canteen out to the village, and to keep his business going he wove a fine web of alliances with the men at the camp. Any new person he encountered on his way into or out of the camp would receive half a kilogram of almonds or walnuts packed in a blue polythene bag. Soon it was difficult to find a man at the camp who had not received one of Hamid Puj’s blue polythene bags.

It was not long before Hamid’s business expanded widely and he began to receive orders from beyond his village, and for products beyond the essentials, such as watches and electronics, which Bittu had to procure from the military canteen depot located at the city garrison. The size of the blue polythene bags Hamid presented to Bittu also increased commensurately.

One day, when Hamid needed a particularly big consignment, he brought along a box of apples in place of the regular bags of nuts. The problem with the nuts, Hamid had realized, was that even if he packed a lot of them into a bag, the size of the packets was never large. In a world where size mattered most, a box of apples looked like a more substantial gift. But, to his surprise, there was no Bittu at the canteen. He had been replaced by a cleft-lipped man with a perpetual scowl on his face whom everybody called Trivedi-ji.

Hamid approached the dour Trivedi-ji with the box of apples.

‘So…you must be Hamid?’ Trivedi-ji said without moving his lower lip, his scowl intact.

Hamid nodded earnestly, hoping that Bittu had already initiated Trivedi-ji into the business arrangement that Hamid had with the canteen. It would be quite daunting to start afresh, and particularly with a man as ominous as Trivedi-ji.


Shabir Ahmed Mir is a writer and poet and has been awarded the Reuel International Prize for fiction in 2017. This is his first novel.

Book Excerpt | ‘The Play of Dolls’ by Kunwar Narain | Penguin Random House India | Issue 41 (May, 2021)

from The Play of Dolls by Kunwar Narain (Penguin Random House India – 2020)
translated from the Hindi by John Vater and Apurva Narain


Like some scary and dirty insect, it crept into the room and, settling over my papers, sat down, maybe with the intent to nibble at them, and eat them up. I had a mind to pick it up and throw it outside. But it was unimaginably grotesque. I thought, I’d ask my helper to toss it out – and if one helper wouldn’t do, then several. Maybe it sensed my plan. But, surprisingly, it seemed completely unafraid, and undeterred by this too. I was looking at that weak little thing, unable to fathom the source of its audacity.    

Despite the expression of anger on my face, there had been no change in its arrogant composure. On the contrary, its crude daring seemed to take on even greater proportions. It was looking at me as if I was powerless to do it any harm, whereas, if it wanted, it could destroy me all in a moment with a mere flick of its fingers. That a beast like it should hold in its hand the power to destroy a human being like me – the very thought filled my heart with aversion, and my spirits sank. 

Until now, it had displayed none of its power; but even then its mere existence was slowly taking on the form of an inexplicable terror. There were only two beings in the room – me and it, but I got the feeling that only ‘it’ knew who posed the bigger threat to the other. If it were up to me, I would have liked for it to stay away from me at any cost, because there was no relation at all between us other than that of loathing. Its sheer proximity to me was itself a warning that I should guard myself against some unforeseen danger. 

All of the sudden, it moved from its position and reached the door. The door was closed. It felt relieved at this. Its manner of movement struck me as incredibly ominous. Amongst its legs, one seemed to suffer some defect; it moved a bit lop-sided, like a crab. From its movement, it was as if all the surroundings moved too, and, for the first time, I sensed that its entry had filled the room with a strange kind of fleshy, carnivorous odor – a smell that I was not used to, and which intimated, in some context or the other, violence and inhumanity. And also this, that it had dwelled among mostly bloodthirsty beings, and could be completely unaware of human attributes like pity and compassion. Its method of dealing with situations must have just involved primal impulses like either attacking or saving itself from attack. Its first response toward any foreign object must have been the same as that of every feral animal’s – that is, for its ears to jerk up in distrust; to become wary of that object, and to gauge its strength. If felt to be weak, then to very deviously, with padded footsteps, leap upon it and finish it off, or bring it under its control; and if stronger than itself, to flee with all its might.       

Returning, it dominated the papers again. I noticed it was only showing interest in pages that had writing on them, not in the blank sheets. From this it seemed that its gaze was actually on the ink, not the papers. It examined each letter by licking it, but it seemed most letters were not to its liking; it wasn’t finding material to its taste in them. I was watching its red and fierce eyes very attentively, which were almost fastened up against the page. From those eyes, it didn’t seem that they were nourished by paper or ink; because the single-mindedness with which it stared at the writings was one with which, not written things, but things about to be slaughtered, are seen. 

It wasn’t as if it didn’t find even one paper to its liking. It was separating some of the papers from the rest, for some unclear reason. It’s possible it wasn’t especially pleased with these papers either; just that, in the absence of anything better, it may have decided to make do with them.

By now, one thing had become completely clear: that in reality it wasn’t as weak, as it appeared. Its shape and size might not have been especially large, but it definitely possessed some hidden power, on the back of which it was sitting so haughtily in front of me. Poisonous fangs inside its mouth, or concealed claws that were sharp and lethal, like a wild cat’s. It is equally possible that, like a rhino or boar, it trusted its thick skin, or, like snails, had some thick shell it immediately withdrew into when attacked. But I quickly discarded this possibility, thinking that no one would have come to me expecting an attack. It was more likely that it would be the attacker. Then, from its entire conduct, it didn’t seem to be afraid of me. On the contrary, its entire demeanor was such that I should fear it.    

Undoubtedly, it continued to act so as to agitate me into assailing it, and thereby give it a chance to reveal some secret strength it had. It scattered the papers around with such callousness that my mind fired up with unbearable rage. I was trying hard to estimate its true strength, because by now I’d almost accepted that, by viewing it as weaker than myself, I’d made a fatal error somewhere. This conclusion had a negative effect on me because, for the first time, I sensed how intensely nervous I was. Until now, I believed I was safe from things like it, because I stayed far from them – but now I found that keeping my distance from those things held no meaning. It was only if they kept their distance from me that I would be safe…

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.

Kunwar Narain (1927-2017), an iconic figure in Indian literature, is regarded as one of the finest writers and thinkers of modern time. He read widely, across literatures and disciplines, and blended an international sensibility with a grounding in Indian history and thought. He has written in diverse genres of poetry and prose, including three epics recognised as classics of Indian literature, poems across eight collections, translations of poets like Cavafy, Borges, Herbert and Rózewicz, two short story collections, criticism, essays, memoirs, and writings on world cinema, ideas and the arts. His oeuvre of seven decades, since his first book in 1956, has evolved continuously and embodies, above all, a unique interplay of the simple and the complex. After over five decades in Lucknow, where a major part of his writing was done, he moved to Delhi. Widely translated, his honours include the Sahitya Akademi Award; Kabir Samman; Warsaw University’s honorary medal; Italy’s Premio Feronia for distinguished world author; India’s civilian honour Padma Bhushan; the Senior Fellowship of India’s Academy of Letters; and the Jnanpith, India’s highest literary award. A reclusive presence, he has published selectively; some works remain unpublished.

Apurva Narain is Kunwar Narain’s son and translator into English. His first book of translations, No Other World, was published from India and the UK. A new volume of poetry translations is due this year. His work has appeared in several literary journals. Educated in India and at the University of Cambridge, he also consults in the international development area, and has had interests in ecology, public health and ethics. He writes in English. Well travelled, he has lived in India and abroad, and is now based in Delhi.

John Vater holds an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa. He lived in India while researching Hindi literature as a Fulbright-Nehru student scholar, and in 2018 was selected as an emerging translator from the US to attend the Banff International Literary Translation Centre residency in Canada. His translations have appeared in Ploughshares, the Asia Literary ReviewWords without Borders and Exchanges. He currently works as a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.