Among the Gujaratis on the quiet, sun-dappled slopes of Mumbai’s posh Temple Hill, the fear of god is a mere second to the fear of what people will say. Reputations are prized. Appearances are vital. And keeping them up is a life skill, passed down through generations, alongside the family trade. There exists a code of conduct, unarticulated yet palpable in the power it exerts. Everything is as it should be – at least on the face of it. The actual messy business of living is conducted behind the gilded doors and silk-draped windows of plush, sea-facing apartments.
On Temple Hill, being happy is not quite as important as seeming happy.
As she darkened her lipstick, Radhika Zaveri thought about the world she’d returned to. In a few minutes, she’d enter the welcome-back party her sister and brother-in-law were hosting for her. She’d be surrounded by family and friends. Some would be here because they cared for her, but most would attend out of curiosity. She couldn’t blame them. They were sure to have heard the rumours.
Radhi had been abroad for more than a decade, but the Gujaratis of Temple Hill were many-tentacled, with uncles and aunts and cousins across the world. Snatches of her life, or some warped version of it, would have got back to them.
She inhaled deeply. She couldn’t afford to appear weak. Most of them would be delighted if they thought she was suffering. It would validate their own approach to life, their narrow, rigid world view. It served her right. She’d been one of them but hadn’t minded their ways. For anyone else, the community of Temple Hill would have long cut the cord. But her family was too well connected and Radhi herself was almost frightfully rich. For her, they’d made an exception. But it would be good to see her down. And she was damned if she gave them that pleasure.
She could deal with their probing questions. The whispers behind her back. The stories they told each other, which often made their way to her, twisted so much that she hardly recognised herself in them. What she couldn’t bear was their pity.
In a way, she was still one of them. It was essential to her that they thought she was fine.
She gave herself one last look in the mirror. She was dressed in white cigarette pants and a sheer nude top through which you could see her black lace bra and flat stomach. Regardless of how she
felt, she looked good. And that was the important thing. Taking another deep breath, she walked into the bright, chandelier-lit living room. A hush descended for a nanosecond, then a woman’s voice squealed, ‘Radhika dikra!’
Wincing as she recognised the voice, Radhi turned to see a chubby, sari-clad woman waddle up, her jiggling arms outstretched, large sweat stains beneath her armpits, despite the heavy air-conditioning. She pressed Radhi into a hug long enough for her to gag at the strong smell of garlic on the woman’s breath.
‘Hello, Kaki,’ she said, pulling herself free after what she felt was a reasonable amount of time.
‘How skinny you’ve become! Just look at those hollow cheeks! It’s that terrible business with whatshisname...McDonald...no, Mackinzey, no? Lost your appetite because of that, I suppose. Perfectly understandable, of course...but never you mind, you are back now...among your own
family...you can trust us to feed you well.’
‘Oh? And then pay Sonali Kulkarni to lose all that weight again? Come now Kaki, that’s hardly a sound plan,’ said Radhi, referring to her aunt’s long-standing dietician.
Radhi knew she’d been blunt, even by her standards, but she hadn’t expected her aunt to bring up Mackinzey’s name quite so soon.
It had come as a bit of a shock. She hadn’t heard his name out loud in over a year now.
But this, she supposed, was Ila Kaki’s speciality. She had a sixth sense for sniffing out where people were hurting the most.
Before Ila could answer, she was joined by her husband, Pankaj Zaveri. ‘Hello, beta,’ he said as he gave Radhi a hug.
‘Hello, Kaka,’ said Radhi with genuine pleasure.
Mild-mannered and kind to a fault, he was Radhi’s father’s brother and her only grouse with him was that he’d married Ila Kaki. That, and the fact that he never spoke up when she behaved badly.
‘I’m so glad you decided to move back. We hear you’re opening up the old apartment again?’ He was referring to Radhika’s childhood home.
‘Yes.’ Radhika smiled. ‘Though it’s not going to look like the old place much longer...I’m changing all the furniture.’
‘That’s good. Make a fresh start...India has changed so much in the last decade. The publishing scene here is booming – ’
‘Oh, you are still writing then?’ Ila Kaki’s voice was like a chuski: ice-cold and dripping with sugar. ‘I had no idea! We live under a rock, here in India. Can’t believe we missed your new book. What’s it called?’
Radhika’s cheeks burned. It had been three years since her last novel came out. She wasn’t working on anything new.
In fact, she hadn’t opened a Word document in over a year. Her aunt probably knew all this. There’d been an article in the Post about how writers these days were starting young but burning out early, and they had cited Radhi as an example. It had been circulated widely in their circles on WhatsApp.
‘It’s top secret, Kaki,’ Radhi returned brightly. Then, leaning towards her conspiratorially, ‘The thing is, I’ve got a three-book deal. Can’t really have the first one out without knowing where the other two are headed, no?’
Her aunt gave her a cold smile. She hadn’t expected Radhi to lie so barefacedly. But she couldn’t very well call her out on it, not without revealing that she’d known about Radhi’s dry spell to begin with.
‘How lovely. We want our signed copies as usual, of course.’
Madhavi, Radhika’s elder sister, suddenly materialised by her side. ‘Kaka-Kaki, I’m just going to snatch Radhi away for a minute.’
‘Couldn’t you have come sooner, Di?’ hissed Radhi when they were out of earshot. She swiped a chilled mojito from the tray of a nearby server. ‘I’ve just gone and told her I’m working on three books at once!’
Madhavi grinned. ‘Good! Whatever it takes.’
Radhi made a face as she took a sip of her mint-flavoured drink. ‘When will we start serving alcohol at family gatherings?’
Madhavi laughed. ‘Ha! Fat chance of that.’
‘It’s not like they don’t drink.’ Radhi waved at some cousins. ‘So, why can’t we all drink together?’
‘Come now...good Gujju children don’t drink in front of their elders, you know that. In any case, do you really want to do shots with Ila Kaki?’
Radhi grinned. ‘Not particularly. Though she is the reason one needs the drink in the first place!’
As the sisters made their way across the room, Radhi stopped to greet an assortment of uncles, aunts and family friends.
‘Seems like we have a full house,’ she muttered to Madhavi.
‘Are you kidding me? You’re like the most scandalous person they know. They wouldn’t miss it for the world,’ said Madhavi as they stepped out on to the balcony, where a tall, bespectacled man, with salt-and-pepper hair and tired brown eyes, turned to look at them.
‘Hrishi!’ Radhi gazed at him in surprise. ‘How wonderful to see you here!’
The man’s eyes lit up when he smiled. He immediately looked a decade younger. ‘Sorry, I asked your sister to drag you here. I wanted to say hi before I left.’
‘Neha is expecting me back. On school nights she...uh...she likes both of us to be home, to tuck Anoushka into bed.’
Hrishi and Radhi had been close in college. One of those intense friendships where everything was always deeply felt and dramatic. Their friends had been sure they’d end up together. And the idea hadn’t seemed so terrible. But life had got in the way and, apart from the occasional birthday wish
on Facebook, they’d hardly spoken over the past few years.
Now he was married, with a daughter.
‘Well...I’m glad you came,’ she said.
‘Me too. I’ll call you once you’ve settled in a bit. I want to meet you properly over chai.’
Radhi smiled. ‘Sounds good.’
As she watched his retreating back, she turned to her sister.
‘Is it me, or was that a little off?’
‘Definitely off,’ Madhavi agreed. ‘From what Sanjana tells me, his wife is...shall we say...a bit of a character.’
‘Oh? I had no idea – ’
‘It was Sanjana’s idea to invite him today.’ Madhavi checked the slim Rolex on her wrist. ‘Speaking of, where is that girl?
She called me this morning, asking if I needed help with this party. She’s been so excited about you moving back.’
Radhi smiled fondly. Sanjana was one of her oldest and closest friends. They’d attended the same school, lived in the same building and, for almost eighteen eighteen years, shared everything – toys, clothes and secrets.
Excerpted with permission from The Death of Kirti Kadakia, Meeti Shroff-Shah, Bloomsbury.