Lawyer Simran Dhir's well-paced first novel follows the trials and tribulations of Gayatri Mehra, a spirited, feisty Delhi girl, who is happiest editing her history journal and is exhausted fending off her parents' perennial efforts to find her a suitable boy.
Best Intentions also provides acute insights into the two-pegs-single-malt-in the-evening bungalow life of upper-class Dilliwallahs.
Illustrations: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Ashok would not hear of his son-in-law leaving without first having a drink, so when Amar explained that his brother was waiting in the car, Ashok went himself to invite Akshay to join them. By the time they entered the house, Amar was sitting in the drawing room, a drink in his hand, surrounded by the Mehra women.
The brothers looked similar -- the same broad foreheads and sharp jawlines, but while Amar had glossy, black hair, Akshay had a head of rough-looking, unruly hair with hints of grey at the temples. Also, at six-feet-two, Akshay was four inches taller than Amar. Akshay seemed embarrassed to be standing in the Mehras' drawing room in a faded sweatshirt and shorts. His hair was matted with sweat, and his face was still slightly flushed.
'Beta, would you like to wash up?' Nina asked kindly.
He accepted the offer gratefully. Gayatri led him to the family study down the corridor and switched on the light. 'You can use that bathroom,' she said, pointing to a door at the far end of the room.
'Thanks.' Akshay glanced at the tall, dark-brown wooden bookshelves that covered two walls of the room. 'Whose books are these?' he asked.
'Mostly mine,' she replied. 'And my father's.'
'You like reading,' he said.
Gayatri wasn't sure whether that was a statement or a question. 'Yes,' she said. 'You?' she added, after a few seconds of awkward silence.
Akshay nodded, then abruptly walked towards the bathroom and shut the door. Gayatri shook her head and went back to the drawing room. She sat down next to Nandini, who was smiling happily at Amar's account of scuba diving in the Maldives a few years ago. The entire Mehra family looked thrilled, and even Dadi was pretending to understand what scuba diving was, laughing loudly.
'Amar is so sweet,' said Gayatri in a low voice to Nandini as he continued to entertain everyone with his anecdotes.
Nandini smiled. 'That he is. He's very social, na. He can make conversation with anyone.'
'He and Akshay look very similar, no?'
'Yeah, everyone says that.'
'But they don't seem alike in their manner. Amar is so easy-going, and Akshay is… a little… uptight.'
'Yeah, Akshay Bhaiya isn't very talkative.' She turned to Gayatri. 'He wasn't rude to you again, was he?' She had heard about the argument over serving alcohol at the wedding.
'No, no, don't be silly,' said Gayatri, smiling. She turned her attention back to Amar.
Akshay entered the room a few minutes later and sat beside Amar, sipping his drink silently. The two brothers rose to leave after they had finished their drinks, but their protests were no match for Ashok's powers of persuasion, which were fuelled by a desire for some company during his second round.
Akshay offered to make the drinks this time, and walked over to the wooden bar in a corner of the drawing room.
'Thanks,' he said to Gayatri a few minutes later as she placed a bottle of soda on the bar. He handed her two glasses. 'These are for your father and Amar.' She carried the glasses over to them, while he brought her mother and grandmother a glass of wine each.
'Your grandmother drinks,' he remarked as they returned to the bar for their own drinks. 'I've never seen someone so old have alcohol.'
'How does age matter?' asked Gayatri quickly.
Akshay stood behind the bar and sipped his drink. 'I didn't mean… I meant, I haven't seen women that age drink.'
Gayatri fiddled with her glass awkwardly. She looked back at the rest of the family, engrossed in conversation, and wondered whether it would be rude of her to just walk back to the sofa.
'So, where's your office?' asked Akshay, interrupting her thoughts.
'Not too far, Underhill Road,' she replied.
'That's a nice area,' he said. 'You've done law, right? And now you work with that journal… uh…'
'Indian History Review.'
'Haan, yes. I remember it from my college days. So did you actually study history?'
'I did a few short-term courses, but no formal degree. Before that I was litigating for a couple of years.' She sighed. 'We've already had this conversation.'
'Sorry, I remember now. Where did you say you used to litigate?'
'Girotra and Partners.'
'So why did you leave? Long hours?' he asked.
'No,' said Gayatri. 'I found something more interesting.'
'Studying history?' Akshay raised his eyebrows as he took a sip of his drink.
Gayatri detected a hint of condescension in his tone. 'Yes,' she said flatly.
'It must be very academic, and um… steady. I mean, compared to litigation.'
'To some extent. But we have our moments of excitement.'
'Really?' he said, his scepticism now apparent. 'Like what?'
Gayatri did not feel like continuing the conversation, but she knew she couldn't be rude to him for Nandini's sake. 'Like when we come across something fascinating in our research and discussions, or meet people interested in similar subjects. When you kind of put two and two together, that sort of thing.'
'Interesting, I can understand. But surely it's not exciting?'
'It is for me.'
'What are the readership numbers of your journal like?'
'About ten thousand per issue in terms of physical subscriptions,' she said. 'And we have a growing online presence now. It's freely accessible online because we are trying to draw lay readers, so it's not easy to track readership.'
'That's a pretty good number. Still, the Review is something you mostly see in college libraries. The ordinary person is not really interested in an academic-type journal, na?'
Gayatri, already irritated, bristled at his dismissive manner. She said impulsively, 'Actually, there are a fair number of people who seem more than a little interested in history nowadays. The papers are full of it. Politicians can't get enough of it. In fact, some people are desperate enough to threaten us so we publish their pieces.'
Gayatri paused. Might as well tell him, she thought. 'You know the SSP -- Shri Seva Parishad? The one run by that Sadhuji… I think he was at the wedding,' she said.
'Yes, of course.'
'Well, we got a call from somebody called Anil Bhargav at the SSP. Apparently, they're not happy with the kind of stuff we publish and want us to publish some right-wing conspiracy theories instead. In fact, I was planning to come and speak with your father tomorrow, just in case he knows someone who can help.'
Akshay shrugged. 'So just don't publish controversial stuff that riles these people up. Why do you want to get caught in this sort of mess?'
He continued after a pause, 'I'm just saying that talking to these people may not help much, because they genuinely believe that their versions of history are overlooked. They are not likely to be convinced by anything you say. And frankly, they probably have a point. Most academic discourse in this country is seriously skewed to the left -- that's what is provoking such reactions. For that matter, I'm sure you wouldn't publish many “right-wing” historians at the Review.'
Gayatri shook her head imperceptibly, her opinion of Akshay now converted from mild disapproval to definite dislike. 'It's obviously not that simple,' she said testily. 'We have a journal to run, and need to maintain some academic honesty and rigour. If we start bowing down to this kind of pressure, we may as well shut down. And, by the way, we have published lots of articles contradicting what is perceived as “left-liberal” history, and even agreeing with some parts of what is now mistakenly called the Hindu discourse. In any case, threatening us is surely not the way to correct a skew, if there is one. They are free to write and publish their own stuff too. Anything that's well-researched and has sound sources will pass our peer-review process, that's the whole point.'
Akshay looked at her intently for a few seconds, then looked away. 'Shall we sit down?' he said, picking up his glass.
'Sure,' said Gayatri coldly. She picked up her glass and went to sit next to Nandini, irked by the conversation.
Akshay pretended to listen to Mr Mehra's story about how he was mistakenly arrested in Ghana many years ago, but was actually thinking about Gayatri. What an idiot, he said to himself as he sipped his drink. This is how people get themselves into trouble, and cry later.
He glanced at her. I know her type. Aggressive activist. Probably indoctrinated into left-wing fantasies by her education and has zero contact with the real world. Even a man selling paan on the road has more insights into life than people like her.
Akshay brought his attention back to Ashok's account of spending the night in the air-conditioned office of the commissioner of police in Accra. Poor guy, he thought. Stuck in a house full of headstrong women with no male company. No wonder he's so fond of Amar.
Later that night, Gayatri sat up in bed with her laptop propped on her knees. The wedding photographer had emailed them some pictures. She browsed through a few, and came across one of Nandini and her. She smiled. Their happy faces were cheek-to-cheek and they had their arms around each other's necks, careful not to smudge their wet mehndi.
I hope she is always, always, happy, thought Gayatri, squeezing her eyes shut for a long moment.
As she scrolled through more photographs, her eyes locked on one of her holding a dupatta above Nandini's head as they walked to the havan kund, where the groom and the pandit waited for the bride in the glow from the fire. Everyone in the picture was focused on Nandini's smiling face. Gayatri too, holding up her corner of the dupatta, was gazing at her sister. Nandini looked perfect. Next to her, Gayatri seemed quite plain. She frowned and closed her laptop. Ujjwal Mehta's father's words flashed in her mind.
A few seconds later, she shook her head. What's wrong with me? I'm happy and so lucky. I love my job, I'm healthy, and I don't need to marry anyone just for the sake of it. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she recalled her decision a few years ago not to marry Chirag, whom she had been dating for a while. He had surprised her with a proposal just as she had begun to realise that she didn't want to be with him for the rest of her life. She knew she had deserved to bear the guilt of causing him pain, but the way her own family, especially her mother, had treated her had devastated her at the time.
When she opened her eyes after a few seconds, they fell on her bookshelves. She spotted her favourite hardbound copy of Pride and Prejudice. Three books away, her bulky, much-thumbed edition of Middlemarch stood sturdily on its own bulk, right next to Emma.
Just as a common word begins to seem unfamiliar when stared at long enough, as she looked at them now, she saw her beloved books in a new light: Still beautiful and comforting, but no longer because they stirred hope that a Darcy or a Knightley would one day whisk her away in a rush of romance. Instead, she felt grateful for the romantic adventures she had been on vicariously through them because, she sighed inwardly, such experiences seemed more and more unlikely in real life.
Excerpted from Best Intentions by Simran Dhir, with the kind permission of the publishers, HarperCollins India.