Who’s Afraid of Vrinda Woolwalla? | Verve Magazine
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March 28, 2022

Who’s Afraid of Vrinda Woolwalla?

Text by Harsh Aditya Images by Naveed Hussain

The ever-present questions about love and heartbreak confront three college-age friends catching up in a Kolkata cafe as the presence of Virginia Woolf looms large in this semi-autobiographical vignette

It’s late December when my best friend Firoz and I arrive in Calcutta. After a brutal breakup (him) and increasingly frequent episodes of emotional breakdowns (me), we decided to make a quick escape to the city of our dreams before being catapulted back to our respective semesters in Delhi and Guwahati. I guess we had imagined that our tears would feel more poignant against the backdrop of Tagore and romantic Indo-Saracenic architecture.

“Remember the friend I was talking about on the train today? I’ve asked her to join us for tea,” I tell him while we’re getting ready in our homestay.

“Remember?! Lawl. My ears are burning from hearing the name ‘Vrinda Woolwalla’.”

Although I have come to find most of Firoz’s quirks endearing, I can barely tolerate his habit of pronouncing “LOL” like it’s an actual word. I suppose two years at DU has made me somewhat of a language purist.

I tighten my clutch on the copy of Orlando I’m holding. “Well, she’s special to me… and I really want you both to meet before we leave.”

“Wait, is she also one of you Literaturewallas?” Firoz puts down his mascara wand to give me and my book a skeptical glance. An unruly lock falls out of his black-and-red polka-dot hair clip.

“I guess. But don’t worry, you won’t feel left out with her.” I reassure him, knowing he’s still annoyed about the rambling three-hour discussion on Foucault that he recently had to endure with some of my drunk final-year Lit classmates.

“Okay, anyway…how do I look?” he asks, puckering his lips.

Today, he has chosen a black turtleneck and vintage trousers, a houndstooth coat and Chelsea boots.

“P.H.A.T. Pretty, hot and tempting!” I say without missing a beat. I can’t remember how or when this cringe-y K3G getting-ready ritual began, but it’s become our thing.

“I thought you’d approve. I am trying out dark academia.”
“What about me?” I ask, nervously adjusting my khaadi kurta and woollen shawl.

“Uh, what’s with that gaudy nawab ring?! It’s ruining the outfit.” He dismisses my prized vintage find with his signature two-finger wave.

Chalo, let’s go before we’re late. You look pretty though…let me just fix your shawl,” he adds to soften the blow.

An hour later, we’re sitting in an Instagram-worthy cafe somewhere near Hindustan Park, waiting for Vrinda. In Patna, the city where we’re both from (but yet, do not belong to), we are used to the judgemental stares of strangers. Here, the eyes that follow us are much kinder. I scan the crowd and land on a group of girlfriends catching up over a bottle of wine; a bearded 20-something typing profusely on his laptop; and a nonchalant Kolkata boy gang passing a single cigarette between them, a copy of the Communist Manifesto placed conspicuously on the table. A low-quality black-and-white portrait of Amrita Shergill, probably downloaded from Pinterest and framed at a local shop, hangs in the far left corner. Next to it, I observe an enigmatically beautiful woman in a handloom saree, smoking and gazing out at the street.

The bearded guy looks up from behind his tortoiseshell glasses and, for a split second, makes deliberate eye contact with me. He returns to his screen, unbothered as I stand there trying to read into his body language. Did I imagine that exchange? The mind is good at playing games, isn’t it?

“Ooh… so now you don’t have a problem with Milk and Honey? Firoz gestures at the book on the guy’s table. All that fire you spewed at me because I liked it…why don’t you stop ogling and go give him the same lecture about ‘co-opting trauma’?” His chunky rings clink together as he makes air quotes.

I ignore his comment and ask a passing waiter for prawn cutlets and hot coffee.

Had my stares been that obvious to everyone?

“Shall we order for Vrinda?” Firoz asks. We are almost done eating, and it’s now 45 minutes after she promised to be here.

Just then I see a tall figure half running, half walking into the cafe. Vrinda pauses at the entrance to look for me. Her delicate silver rings, septum piercing and tiny nose pin glint as shards of sunlight catch them. Her hair hangs down loosely, hurriedly combed, as usual, partially covering the words inked onto her collarbone: “Die Young”. I vividly recall following her into a shady Hauz Khas parlour during one of our post-lunch strolls, when she made the spontaneous decision to get a tattoo.

Ordinary things tend to take on a poetic air with Vrinda: the way she answers calls with a melodious “Jee, boliye [Please speak]”, her habit of marking new books with a “VW” in black pen, the fact that she only drinks shikanji no matter the season or venue.

“Dude, she is serving a look! Ruby Woo lips, those silver rings are from Janpath, and the embroidered wool jacket is from the Tibetan market. The ajrakh dress is bespoke, and those Oxford boots are from Woodland,” says Firoz, who is otherwise quite the style cynic.

“Are you for real? How did you just do that?”

“I study fashion. This comes naturally to me,” he says. “I am one of a kind, na? Just don’t ask me what book she’s carrying!”

I recognise the cover instantly, even from a distance. “Virginia and Vita!” I say, as if it’s my turn to guess in a game of dumb charades. Firoz absent-mindedly places his hand on my mine and plays with my ring, still looking her up and down.

Jaanan!” I stand up to hug Vrinda.
One…two…three…four…five. I let her go.

“Five seconds,” she told me when we first became friends. “I don’t hug people for more than five seconds, no matter how close we are. Not big into long hugs.” Since then, it has become a cardinal rule for me as well.

“The rest of the world forgets, but you never do,” she says. Her signature attar wafts over me (she still hasn’t revealed the mysterious scent).

“Girl, you look bomb…the literal definition of fashionably late. I give it a ten. Chef’s kiss.”

I roll my eyes at Firoz. “Okay RuPaul, stop with the fashion critique already.”

“Thank you. I try.” Vrinda smiles graciously and turns to me. “I like this one, Janaan.”

“Before you get too comfortable, I think you have some explaining to do.” I crinkle my face into a fake scowl.

“How could you randomly decide to move away, to my favourite city at that, without even one last hug? All I got was a text saying ‘A woman must have a room of her own’…yeah sure, but didn’t I at least deserve a goodbye in your own words?!”

Vrinda had been my senior in college, but two years of long strolls along Delhi University’s North Campus ridge, getting emotional over everything from Walt Whitman’s poetry and Faiz’s ghazals to Amrita and Imroz’s love story to our regular Sunday dosas at Madras Coffee House had turned us into each other’s janaans.

“I couldn’t even meet myself, Harsheey. I just needed to grow. I had to break out. The moment I realised that, I packed up whatever I could and left my old life behind – Waiter! teen shikanji, please.” She interrupts herself and presumptuously orders for the three of us, much to Firoz’s amusement.

“I did tell you about the publishing house job, right? I texted that quote to you because it was the only thing I had to say at that time.”

“Okay, okay. You are forgiven. I’m just happy to see you again.”
Vrinda pulls out a fancy DIY cigarette holder from her bag, an old-fashioned brown leather tote with a bunch of colourful tassels. I spot some other familiar objects – black cat-eye sunglasses, the Pilot pen that she takes everywhere and an ikat-print notebook that I had bought her for her birthday last October (she calls it her “dump diary” and spills the many thoughts and ideas that run through her overactive mind onto its pages). There’s also a crumpled sheaf of handwritten letters – I know they’re love letters, and I know who they’re from, but I don’t say anything. I guess she wants to leave out this part of the story of why she moved here.

She places the tote on the empty chair between us, next to Firoz’s open messenger bag. I notice a book poking out of it.

Did I really miss that during our entire train ride? When did he stop needing my opinion?

“So, All About Love now?” I ask.

“Yeah, I’m trying to get over a heartbreak. And Rega Jha recommends bell hooks. You should add her to your bookshelf too, you know, Harsheey. There’s more to literature than the thoughts of the centuries-old people you keep obsessing over.”

“Ooh, burn!” Vrinda’s trademark mischievous smile plays on her lips. “So, what else are you Instagram gays reading?”

“Please, I don’t put myself in any boxes. And what even is an Instagram gay?!” My voice prickles with defensiveness.

“Anything for the main course?” Thankfully a waiter emerges. We order kheema samosas, a BLT and cheesecake.

“Anyway, I’m actually curious, Firoz. Has All About Love helped you cope with your breakup?”

“I think so. It’s comforting that someone took up the responsibility to write so sensitively about what it means to love. Like, what it means to be in love. But we don’t have a rule book. We don’t, right?” Firoz looks at me expectantly and fidgets with the two silver-plated chains around his neck. I notice that he has left his top two shirt buttons open, something he only does when he’s feeling fearless and confident. Must be Kolkata.

“‘We don’t,” I say. “Isn’t that scary? But I also find it liberating. Unlike the heteros, we have the freedom to create our own world and norms. Sorry to get all professor-ish, but I just have to point out how we’re made to believe that the non-conventional is transient and that our experience is an abnormal phase in the grand scheme of things. But honestly, the mainstream makes no promise of forever either. And that’s exactly why I keep going back to Virginia Woolf.”

I reach for Orlando and read aloud:

“At one and the same time, therefore, society is everything and society is nothing. Society is the most powerful concoction in the world and society has no existence whatsoever.”

“See. Isn’t it exactly what we are saying?! I clap the book closed with a flourish.
“This is Woolf in 1928, but she was talking about transcending the boundaries of gender and conventional marriage even then.”

“Me next!” Vrinda eagerly thumbs through the dog-eared pages of Virginia and Vita. I remember her telling me that she bought it using her meagre first stipend during her days in DU. I always made fun of how she would fill its margins with notes like “goals” and “mind=blown” in her meticulous, calligraphy-like handwriting.

She reads us a short passage, dramatically pausing every few words:

“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way.”

“God. I just loooove love. In whatever shape I get to experience it.” Vrinda sighs.

“Wow guys, I thought we were done with the daily dose of lit-freakism. But I’ll admit, I didn’t realise how relevant Virginia Woolf is. All I knew was that she had drowned herself…too much tragedy for me. And Harsh, sorry to break your heart, but when you inevitably start going on about her on our Thursday calls, I usually tune out and watch Otherwarya’s stories. But maybe now I’ll actually listen!”

I don’t respond to his dig because I’m too caught up in a silent existential spiral thanks to Vita Sackville.

Desperate human way. … Maybe I can make that my new dating profile bio. Harsh, 21. Desperately human.

The repeated clicks of a lighter intrude on my thoughts. Vrinda takes a deep puff of her cigarette and offers one to Firoz, who refuses and discreetly moves his chair closer to mine. (His ex’s new fling, a common friend, also smokes Marlboro Golds; the smell and taste make Firoz anxious now.)

I quickly glance over at him to see if he’s okay. “You know, she and Vita exchanged letters for years, but I feel like words were just not enough, even for Virginia Woolf. Her feelings went beyond what has been documented. Beyond our limited concept of love. And definitely beyond her so-called love for her husband.”

“Leonard Woolf was trash,” Vrinda says, which is something she’s told me more than once about my own romantic partners.

Firoz finally perks up. “He can’t be worse than my ex!”

“Um, I don’t care how good of a husband he was to her. He basically kept her restricted to bed and controlled her life using the excuse of her mental illness. Typical fragile male ego. Women are so much more empathetic – I remember having the most beautiful days with my ex-girlfriend. And I’m actually more obsessed with what we share now, after the relationship ended. There is love but no romance, which works for me, you know? We’ve even written a paper together on the representation of women in the Athenian tragedy.”

“Lawl, here we go again,” says Firoz. “Can y’all make some references I will actually get?”

“You’re making me lose my train of thought!” Vrinda looks worked up and reapplies her lipstick, most of which is now on the cigarette butt dying in the ashtray. (Firoz was right, it’s Ruby Woo.) “Anywayyy….all I’m saying is who decided that we have to experience love in that head-over-heels, butterflies-in-the-tummy way? Most importantly, whose definition and criteria are we all blindly accepting?”

Janaan, thanks for always reminding me that our romantic worlds and fantasies don’t have to be so rigid and seedha. I wish I could be as free as you.”

“Vrinda Woolwala, more like, Vrinda Woolf-wala!”, Firoz jumps in.

“Thanks, like I’ve never heard that one before…. Well, clearly, I was destined to love Virginia Woolf, what do I say!”

At 21, it has begun to sink in that perhaps the true beauty of queer relationships lies in their queerness itself. They present endless possibilities when you are able to break down structures of morality and rebuild your world. I suppose that’s why I also like to revisit Kierkegard. He believed that the human mind is in a constant war between ethics and aesthetics, the latter being transient and the former the “‘right”’ path to existing in society. However, I can’t imagine that it isn’t possible to give oneself to the aesthetic of life, knowing the consequences that will follow this choice?

The girls next to us are now tipsy and holding each other by their shoulders, singing along to the song playing on the speaker.

Roka, haan roka isko kisne
Hai yeh toh behta paani…
Kaisi, paheli hai ye kaisi
Paheli zindagani….

“Shall we? Don’t you both have early flights back to college tomorrow?” We pay the bill and step out into the evening breeze. Vrinda pulls out her vial of attar and ceremoniously dabs some onto mine and Firoz’s wrists, another one of her eccentricities that I adore. “Until we meet again, my ships in the night,” she says with a final wave before heading off to look for a taxi.

A dreamy, orange-tinged dusk has set in, and Firoz and I decide to walk back to our homestay. I don’t pull away when he takes my hand in his.

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