Riva Razdan grew up around stories. From listening to folk tales from her grandmother to growing up reading a variety of authors like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jill Mansell, Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, Jane Austen and LM Montgomery, Riva was meant to write a book. Speaking to ELLE about her debut book, Arzu, which is hailed as a romantic-feminist fiction, Riva tells us all about her protagonist, how she’s tired of chick-lit that uses marriage as the ultimate goal and more.
ELLE: Congratulations on your debut book. How are you feeling, seeing it in print?
Riva Razdan (RR): I’m ecstatic to share this book with the world, especially with urban Indian women. I think of it as a Legally Blonde for Indians, and I hope that on reading it, women will come away feeling encouraged and entertained.
ELLE: Tell us about the inspiration behind the story of Arzu.
RR: I got tired of watching/reading seemingly progressive Indian chick-flicks/chick-lit, where the female protagonist’s main objective is to find love. The marriage plot as a fundamental backdrop to a girl’s life is no longer healthy or true in 2021. I wanted to create representative heroines for all the young girls I know who are pursuing their non-boy oriented goals with admirable tenacity and making space for love in their life as a layer or a partner. I want our culture of storytelling to make space for the heroine’s journey, with her catharsis not lying in the lap of a man.
ELLE: Your book is described in many reviews as romantic-feminist fiction. Was that a conscious choice, to write a character that’s not just relatable but also strong, independent and willing to chase her dreams?
RR: It was definitely a conscious choice. My primary objective was to create a girl with agency – a heroine, not a victim, to whom intelligent, spunky girls would relate. The romance of it, that is, her youthful passion for her fiancé/first love, merely acts as a springboard for her to begin to awaken to the necessity of earning her own independence and finding a purpose. Arzu doesn’t even know which dreams to chase at first. Her greatest dream is to be the wife of the boy she has loved all her life. But as she gets a taste of independence, of her own capability, her dreams begin to change, and the bitterness of heartbreak starts to fade. I suppose what I’m trying to say, most importantly through her journey, is that love is a dessert. The main course of life, the real sustenance and relishing, is your own contribution, your own purpose in the world. Once Arzu reconciles herself to that framework of thinking, she starts to have too much faith in herself, to ever feel powerless again.
ELLE: You grew up in a family of storytellers. You’ve also grown up in various cities. How much has that affected your style of writing? What are some of your biggest inspirations when you write?
RR: 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 Narnia). Plot analysis was all the discussion there was at the dinner table, so I grew up understanding character arcs and dialogue construction. Even while speaking to my mum or my uncles or my grandmother, the golden rule for glittering dialogue was don’t be a bore.
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 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.
ELLE: Tell us about your earliest memories of stories? Were there any authors you absolutely loved reading, while growing up?
RR: My earliest memories of stories are actually the folk tales my grandmother used to tell my brother and me when we were little. She was masterful as a storyteller, weaving high drama about kings and queens and wars to distract us long enough to eat our vegetables. It wasn’t until I grew up and started reading that I realised that she had adapted her favourite book, Gone with the Wind, to an Indian royal setting in narration and told us the whole story when we were toddlers. Margaret Mitchell, quickly became one of my favourite authors, then. Not just for my grandmother, but because of her great skill with craft and storytelling. I also loved Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jill Mansell, Sophie Kinsella, Meg Cabot, Jane Austen and LM Montgomery. They were my best friends.
ELLE: What have you been reading during the pandemic? Who are your fave female writers, and why?
RR: I’m currently obsessed with a novel called Rules of Civility by Amor Towles for its stunning sentences and dazzling encapsulation of the Jazz age in New York. Just like Arzu, it uses the setting and economic moment of the time (depression of the 1930s) as a broader metaphor for a young girl to find her place in the world as she flits amongst the different -and shifting-social classes of New York society.
I also recently read and loved Well Behaved Woman by Therese Ann Fowler, Three Little Wishes and Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty and The Portable Dorothy Parker, which is a collection of short stories of incredible wit that only a woman as courageous as Parker could be capable of! I suggest dipping into any of these when one needs a reminder of one’s own strength or sass.