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Riva Razdan: Hope is a precursor to joy

Riva Razdan   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

First-time author Riva Razdan’s protagonist Arzu (the Urdu name means hope and love) is uncertain about her future, after being dumped by her long-time boyfriend and trying to evade the society circles of Bombay in 1991.

A media baron’s daughter, she nurtures no dream of journalism, until she finds herself drawn to it in New York. Arzu (Hachette India) is a coming-of-age story of the protagonist at a time when India is on the verge of economic liberalisation.

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“The name Arzu seemed to spring up at me while I was researching the period, reading accounts of people who were revelling at having access to more consumer choices, convenience and job opportunities. Hope is a precursor to joy. She couldn’t have any other name,” says 23-year-old Riva, a graduate of New York University and a screenwriter with Anil Kapoor Films.

Edited excerpts from an interview with the author:

Your grandfather Devendra Goel was a film producer; a few other family members were also part of the film industry. When did you realize you wanted to narrate stories, but as an author?

I want to be a filmmaker myself. But I am foraying into world-building as an author so that I am able to tell stories about heroines who are original and brave. If the audiences enjoy their journey, I will be less likely to hear that there is a limited market for female-centric films.

Did growing up in a family of storytellers help you become one?

Growing up in a family of storytellers was fantastic; it meant that I was never bored. As soon as I came home from school I was given a film to watch (usually a Dev Anand or Gregory Peck classic) or a book to read (anything from PG Wodehouse to CS Lewis).

We analysed the plot over dinner, so I grew up understanding character arcs and dialogue construction. The golden rule for glittering dialogue, even while speaking to my mom, uncles or my grandmother was, ‘don’t be a bore’. So I fell in love with storytelling early. When I went abroad for college, I discovered the kind of stories I wanted to tell — fiction that was both entertaining and informative. I was fortunate to have great professors who took my narrative aesthetic and showed me how to wrap it around current (and sometimes contentious) discourses of feminism and economic agency.

You spent your formative years in different parts of the world — Paris, Florence, Abu Dhabi and New York; did writing help you look at cultures from a fresh perspective?

Living in different countries allowed me the space I needed to develop my own voice as a writer. It gave me time away from Indian society and a vantage point that allowed me to view it — and myself within it — from a distance. I stopped trying to sound like [Jane] Austen or Meg Cabot, and I stopped trying to tell stories about girls named Leah with conflicts that weren’t real for girls like me. I learnt, from excellent professors in every country, to be specific to my context. Nothing resonates in art like honesty.

What prompted you to write a story set in the early 90s rather than something contemporary for your debut novel?

I was fascinated by the period when India was on the cusp of change. A relatively young country (in terms of Independence) caught at a moment of depravity, in that we were heavily indebted to the International Monetary Fund, and dubiously embracing a policy that required us to trust foreign entities once again. India was taking a leap of faith. I was graduating college at that time, and I felt like I was taking a leap of faith into the unknown, except I had the agency and the opportunity to go to work.

It got me thinking about the women in the pre-liberalisation era who didn’t have too many job opportunities because multinational companies had not come to India at that point. Their economic agency was probably limited, making them dependent on the men in their lives. I started to wonder what that meant for a girl, a college graduate in 1991, who had been bred for marriage.

To what extent were the characters of Arzu, her father Ajit Agarwal and the worlds they inhabit inspired by real life?

A lot of Ajit Agarwal’s stories are taken from archives of debates/discussions that happened during the period. Arzu’s story is fiction. I can’t hope to be as endearing as she is, nor can I claim to have suffered any of her tragedies. My best friend in New York inspired Sarah.

The story has conversations between entitled business empires of that era. How did you navigate those zones?

I read articles, debates and accounts of journalists on whether liberalisation was advantageous for India or not. Economist Jagdish Bhagwati’s writings contextualised my understanding of the period.

I fictionalised certain protectionist elements who were against liberalisation to avoid being contentious, but those who lived through the 1980s know who I’m referring to as far as Minty Toothpastes or The Poona Club is concerned. It lightens the novel too, adding a tongue-in-cheek element to economic discourse.

What’s next?

I have recently completed my second novel. It is a love story set in 1961 and 2021.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 12:50:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/riva-razdan-discusses-her-debut-novel-arzu/article33903121.ece

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