We That Are Young (excerpt) — Preti Taneja

By the time the butler has knocked to say her cocktail is mixed, her burger is assembled, and would she like salt and pepper on her fries – by the time she has scrolled MrGee and tweeted, Did you know the Company Srinagar hotel is bringing jobs and hope to over 100 impoverished local women (not true); and Bubu Balraj works out every day – he’s a role model for young entrepreneurs (could be true) and Cigar smoking is the new pastime of wealth and cool (as of now, true) – her food has been served on a bed tray, with the day’s press cuttings on the side. Radha dips a fry in mayonnaise. Almost eats it. But is caught by a snap of Bapuji in Goa, doing Yoga on the beach. Bent into positions Radha has never seen him in. Niralambha: shoulder pose (unsupported): pyjama rolled up, toosh around his neck, bums in the air. Pasasana: squatting, arms twisted around legs, hands joined in a noose. Morning prayers, evening prayers, she reads. Then, Bapuji went to Ghaziabad where he met with the strikers. He shook their hands, the cutting says, and promised to address their demands. After that, in Mumbai, he held a vegetarian lunch for all the key religio-politicos in their saffron and khadi. Which ended in a rendition of Jana Gana Mana, lead by Nanu, apparently exchanging the word ‘Sindh’ for ‘Sindhu.’ Can you exchange a province in Pakistan for a river in India? Radha thinks. MrGee goes online, finds the story and retweets it: Check it – Jana Gana Mana: the Bapuji mix.

La la la, Bloody Mary and a burger. Bapuji cannot action any of his plans. He can promise nothing to the workers but his words. Whatever he wants to do with that Goa land – retirement villas for foreigners, hundred-hole golf courses, whatever – Bubu and Gargi will not allow it. The yoga and the sing-song – maybe that is just age. Older men cultivate their spiritual intensity; India Today said so, only last week.

Her mobile chimes: Make the most of every breath. God watches over those who watch over themselves – Bapuji. Radha thinks of Bapuji’s subscribers, all reading this text right now. She bites into the burger, tasting cheese, pickle, the tang of raw onion and a tomato slice that seems to have been cooked (why do they never get that right?), as she checks through the faxes brought up from reception: every single one is from Gargi. She has seen the cuttings and thinks Radha has authorised these stories. She pulls a sliver of tomato skin off her tongue and wipes it on the bed sheets. It seems as if Bapuji is en route to Amritsar. Radha tries to visualise a What Would Gargi Do scenario; instead she can only think, with some surprise, about Sita.

—Sita, she says, to her burger. What would you do now? Be honest. Oh? You would tell Dad, when he shows up, what you really feel. Very good! What do I really feel? That’s an interesting question for a girl like me. Chalo, let’s think.

Radha picks up a French fry – it is her father. Good PR is the future of this Company. Bapuji, you are mad if you don’t realise this. I am a wife, and since Gargi has abdicated that responsibility I will also be a mother. Now that Sita has gone, it is up to me to supply the future of this family. Yes? She bites the top off the fry.

Enough thinking. Time for her daily dose of weird and wondrous, though the file is slim pickings today. Two headed-cow born in Chandigarh as full moon rises on consecutive days (the picture almost makes her spit out her burger). Freak gale brings Calcutta to a standstill: this one with a picture of the usual choked traffic lanes, the normal standstill – not that funny. Delhi’s INA vegetable market covered in filth and flies – source for all households and five star hotels. Why is that even news? The next one is better: Five limbed baby needs immediate surgery, angry villagers call her Goddess, want extra arm to stay. The parents are trying to get admission to hospital. Radha will get someone to call them up and offer to pay the fees. A little job she can do.

Five limbed baby needs immediate surgery, angry villagers call her Goddess, want extra arm to stay. The parents are trying to get admission to hospital. Radha will get someone to call them up and offer to pay the fees. A little job she can do.

Now to the columns, and The Speaking Tree, where her dear brother-in-law has failed once again to be published. Poor Surendraji, always scribbling away. Penning his mind for anyone to read. So often has he tried to get a slot here; yet, it seems all the kickbacks in the world cannot make the editor print him. Today is for Swami Vivekananda: and you have to respect a Guru who reached thousands of followers before mobile phones even happened. The path of non-resistance, his message for today. Surendraji should take it as a sign and give up.

Now to the horoscopes: all agree – this is the time for stinging Scorpio to find love and adventure. The advertisements endorse this: again and again Radha sees a picture of a brown Penelope Pitstop astride her pink scooter, her hair blowing out under her helmet, her legs in high-heeled pink boots. You, as a woman, love to revel in every sensation, and express every emotion. Here is a feeling you have never touched before. Just mount your new scooter and kick off: become one with the universe, your karma complete, your chic intact. Come into a new world you never dreamed could come to pass. Now cherish your engine power – Does she want a scooter? Is she too old? This thing is for college girls from the outskirts of the cities: good families, but even so. Or girls who, for the first time, are making their own money; who don’t yet have husbands to think about. Where would Radha even ride? She never goes out in the city. Not to markets or to restaurants where everyday girls go. Still she might get one scooter. To scoot around the Farm. She could use it as a prop in the ads for the new Company engagement and honeymoon brochures: Come awaken your senses. Begin your new life in the most elegant Company. Leather chairs, old movie posters: Mother India or Sholay: ‘entry from the backside only’ signs, and in the ads, a young couple in formalwear (or maybe lux-Western?) sipping chai (or champagne, she has not decided) on a terrace. Nostalgenticity shabby-chic circa 1950s to the 70s: this is the romance of now.

Her bedside phone rings – her hand hovers over it and she prays, Not Gargi, not Bubu, not Daddy. Let it be… Jivan. And then she answers.
—Radha beti, are you OK?
—Ranjit Uncle. I’m just, you know, catching up with work. I wanted to stay in the room; it’s so quiet, so nice here.
She hears the chained man’s whistle. She curls her toes in the bed.
—Is your food OK Radha dear? How was your burger?
The remains are congealing on the plate; the sheets are stained with streaks of red. Radha is eating beef! Radha is eating street food again! Radhababy is putting on weight! And so on, up and across the family. Blood on the sheets! Radha-baby ke Aunty aa gayi hain? Is she down? Why not call Barun and get it on the front page? Times of India of course, after all, it’s got the biggest circulation of any newspaper in the English-speaking
world. Fact.
—Thank you, Ranjit Uncle, very nice, she says. The chef is really too good. You have done such an outstanding job with this place.
—He can cook anything you want. You want to eat sushi? That he can also make. When you are here, this is your home. I got this meat only for you, airfreight.

The remains are congealing on the plate; the sheets are stained with streaks of red. Radha is eating beef! Radha is eating street food again! Radhababy is putting on weight! And so on, up and across the family. Blood on the sheets! Radha-baby ke Aunty aa gayi hain? Is she down?

—Did you try it?
—This is a holy city, beta, he says. Aur waise bhi, as you know, beef main nahin khata.
She knows. The whole business world does: Ranjit Singh, Company director. So devout, he is famous for it. Moo. Radha picks up the rest of the burger. Stuffs as much as she can in her mouth.
—I hope you find the bed to your comfort, Ranjit Uncle says.
She almost chokes, chews fast and swallows. The whole room stinks of barbecued flesh.
—Ranjit Uncle, she says. I think Bapuji is coming to Amritsar. Did you know about this?
She realises she sounds… exclamatory, as her English tutor used to say. With her fetish for glass bangles and market bought jutti, her printed tea dresses from Liberty London and Scottish cashmere cardigans – a word Radha found so alien it always made her think of old white people. Alicia, not Alice, had come out to Delhi with her husband, a property developer who Bapuji was using for deals. Alicia said she used to work in UK publishing; was always correcting Radha’s sentences, trying to iron Radha’s accent, until she gave up, and moved on to groom Sita for Cambridge entrance. Now look. Ranjit Uncle thinks Gargi can oversee 70,000 members of staff, even head the Company for now. And Sita can go hang out wherever. But Radha, wife and PR expert, is still his Little Firebrand, running about, begging for a lollipop from his special stash. Still making up stories about the others to enchant him and pressing his feet while she does so.
—Listen Little Firebrand, Ranjit says. I am going to send some paani to the back gate. Last night Bubu was very upset, but you know your Papa wouldn’t like Kashyap treated so badly. Such uncouth brutality should be left to police or the Company gundas. He should be released, at least we should give him one roti and a glass of water.
—No, Radha says.
She hears Ranjit Uncle take a sharp breath.
—It was Bubu’s decision, not mine. And Gargi wouldn’t like it. Please don’t ask me to go against my sister and my husband. I agree with you, you know I do.
Bapuji glares up at her from the cuttings.
—You know I can’t say yes. Imagine if Mummy had done something Daddy didn’t want? My hands are also tied.
—Ah! Your mother, Ranjit Uncle says.
Radha takes one more bite of the burger, ketchup and meat juice squirts out of the bun; it lands across her father’s face. She picks up the magazine and licks it. Chill pill, she thinks. Ranjit Uncle cannot actually see.
—Radha? Ranjit says. You should get up, get ready, come down. Let’s at least have tea together, before you have to go.
She won! She cannot quite believe it. Pieces of her fruit cup, the mango and pineapple, are now drowning in a melted sea of pinky ice cream. So much for silver service – they can’t even bring the dessert after the main. Giving it all together as if they trained in some two-star opposite a train station. She almost picks up the bowl and drinks the juice, then decides that a first flush Assam served in bone china is more her mood now.
—Yes, Ranjit Uncle, she says. But have you seen the press today? People are wondering more than ever what is going on in this big old Company of ours. You have to talk to Daddy. Only you can do it, before he does something crazy stupid.
—Don’t talk about your Bapuji like that, naughty girl.
She hears a sniff. And another.
—I’ll wait for you in the members’ lounge, says Ranjit Uncle. Ninth floor.
Good, she thinks. At least there will be cake.

PRETI TANEJA was born in the UK to Indian parents and spent her childhood holidays in New Delhi. She has worked as a human rights reporter and filmmaker in Iraq, Jordan, Rwanda and Kosovo, and her work has been published in the Guardian and Open Democracy. A fellow at Warwick University, in 2014 Preti’s novella Kumkum Malhotra won the Gatehouse Press New Fictions Prize. She is also the editor of Visual Verse and was selected as an AHRC/BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker for 2014.