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 Line, Grazia 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.