Interview : Deepti Naval - “I always knew I wanted to write about my childhood”
The actor talks about visiting her home town, Amritsar, meeting long lost relatives and about her memoir A Country Called Childhood
You have been travelling with your latest book A Country Called Childhood to literature festivals all over India. How did it feel to read excerpts from it and talk about it in Amritsar, the city where you spent much of your childhood and where this book is set?Coming to Gobindgarh Fort – this place where we are sitting together right now – is quite special for me. It has a direct connection to my childhood. As children growing up in 1965, when the India-Pakistan War was on, we had never seen this fort though we were living in Amritsar. We had only heard of a man called Raju Topchi at Gobindgarh Fort who was gunning down sabre jets coming from Pakistan. He was our hero. To actually come here, to present my work at The Sacred Amritsar festival, is an experience that I will always cherish. I have been to this fort before because my friend Deepa Sahi has been involved in making it come alive but this visit is even more precious.
You have been travelling with your latest book A Country Called Childhood to literature festivals all over India. How did it feel to read excerpts from it and talk about it in Amritsar, the city where you spent much of your childhood and where this book is set?
Coming to Gobindgarh Fort – this place where we are sitting together right now – is quite special for me. It has a direct connection to my childhood. As children growing up in 1965, when the India-Pakistan War was on, we had never seen this fort though we were living in Amritsar. We had only heard of a man called Raju Topchi at Gobindgarh Fort who was gunning down sabre jets coming from Pakistan. He was our hero. To actually come here, to present my work at The Sacred Amritsar festival, is an experience that I will always cherish. I have been to this fort before because my friend Deepa Sahi has been involved in making it come alive but this visit is even more precious.
Did you ever see Raju Topchi?
No, but he was real for us as children. He was doing what he needed to do. We admired him.
What else did this trip to Amritsar do for you, at a personal and emotional level?
Well, apart from the fort itself, just being in Amritsar at this point of time feels significant. This morning, I drove down to a village called Jalalabad where my paternal grandfather – my Dadaji – lived. He was born and brought up there. A great massacre of Hindus had happened there. My family hardly ever spoke about it because it was too tragic an incident to discuss with children. But I went there looking for one old relative, and I found her in a small obscure village nearby. The experience of meeting her was amazing. I did not get a chance to see her when I was in Amritsar researching for the book, taking notes and cross-checking everything.
I wanted to make sure that everything I was saying was accurate and without any trace of misinformation or exaggeration or imagination. I wanted it to be real. That took me a long time. The woman I met today was the missing link. She talked about the Jalalabad massacre, and she put everything in its place. I told myself, “Whatever I have written is not untrue. It is finally seconded by the person whose husband had lived through it all and survived.” The massacre took place on the 8th of August, 1947, just a few days before India’s independence.
In those days, it used to be a Muslim-dominated village with just a handful of Hindus. They were rounded up and killed. Anyway, I do not want to go into that so much. The times were such that things happened, and they happened on both sides. I think that we are supposed to take it with a pinch of salt even though it is difficult for us to get it out of our systems. These things did not happen to us but they happened to our parents and grandparents. But still there is hope. The only message to take from our history is that we must live in harmony now.
Whether we are Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jains, or Buddhists, let’s just respect each other. That is my take on life. I was born in a Hindu home. I went to a Catholic school. I went to the church there. I grew up right next to a mosque listening to the call for namaaz five times a day. And we went to the Golden Temple because my mother was really fascinated with the shabad. She would take me and my sister, and we would sit for a long time. There was no ritual involved. We would just listen and come away with it in our hearts.
I belong to a family that was very open to all religions, so what is happening in India today is not comforting at all. Let us just be okay with each other’s religions. That is not so hard, is it?
How about being okay with atheists too?
Fine, let’s be okay with them too. I am an Arya Samaji. I do not believe in temple worship. Let’s be okay with everything. Do you believe in temples? Okay, fine! I am good with that. Do you believe that your Allah is the ultimate? You please go ahead and believe that. I am good with that. I would simply say that as long as we don’t impose our religious beliefs on each other, and we don’t try to change each other in any drastic way, then everything is fine.
Coming back to Amritsar, do you think that a lot of your childhood memories are resurfacing at this time in your life because you now spend much of the year in the United States? Is there a yearning for what used to be your home once upon a time?
Yes, I think that what you are saying is true to some extent. I live between Mumbai, America and Himachal now. When I am in New York City, either sitting with my laptop or scribbling something in my notepad at a coffee shop down one of the streets in Manhattan, I have a different view of Amritsar and my childhood years there. If I had continued living in Amritsar, I would not have been able to write A Country Called Childhood. I would not have been able to appreciate the exotica that was all around me. It is only because I moved away from Amritsar to America that I could have another perspective on my life as a child.
I have said to myself, “Wow! Imagine all the exposure that I had!” My childhood was so rich and enchanting because of the cobblers and the shopkeepers, my school and the nuns in it, my convent-educated mother’s background in Burma, her family’s exodus during the Second World War, and my father from Lahore who was an art enthusiast and an adventurous man.
The memories have stayed with me because I have been making notes ever since I moved to America. I did not start writing at the age of 70. I always knew that I wanted to write about the childhood I had. That is how this book got written. It took years for it to come together.
Oh, you live in Himachal as well? That is quite a life you have built for yourself!
(laughs) Yes! I have a little painting studio near Manali. It’s beautiful. I love going there.
You worked on a film called Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar back in the 1970s. How was that experience for you?
People know me from Vinod Pande’s film Ek Baar Phir (1980) but hardly anyone knows me from Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1978). Balraj Tah’s Jallianwala Bagh (1977) came before these two. Vinod Khanna played a freedom fighter. I played his wife. She was a girl from Amritsar. I had a couple of strong scenes. A video cassette of that film is now placed in the Partition Museum in Amritsar. While writing the book, I was reflecting on how my first film was shot in my home town. Being offered a role in that film must have been predestined.
What was it like to work with Vinod Khanna?
It was the first time that I was working with Vinod Khanna. In fact, it was the only time that we actually worked together. His films were different from mine. I was doing a different kind of cinema. But I remember that when I was shooting with him for Jallianwala Bagh, he was already on the verge of leaving India and going to America to join Osho. I was so surprised.
I would ask him, “Vinodji, how come you are going? You have everything that we strive for. The kind of stardom that others want to attain…you have it all. You are quitting it and going away to some ashram? How? Why?” Of course, I knew of Osho. I did not understand why such a big movie star was giving it all up. We newcomers wanted to achieve what he had.
He said, “What would I be doing here? In my roles, I will only repeat what I have already experienced. I will fall back on my memories but not gain any new experiences. By going away, I will gain something new.” That made sense to me. I could connect with what he was saying. Even if I had a day’s break, I would quickly get out of Bombay wanting to meet common people outside of the film industry…to sit and chat with them, get to know their lives. I understood exactly where he was coming from when he explained it to me so clearly.
Spirituality and mysticism have been of interest to you from an early age. In the book, you mention a faqir from the hills. Weren’t you utterly fascinated with him as a child?
Oh yes, completely! My God, that faqir has never left me! I have gone through years and years of my working life in Bombay but somewhere his influence has been so strong that I have never gone for the razzmatazz, the glitz and glamour of a film career. The deeper things have always drawn me in, and honestly this has made my life more difficult. I had everything going for me, whether it was looks, talent or opportunities but it was the faqir jo dil mein ghar kar gaya tha (who had made a home in my heart). I felt drawn to the path of the ascetic. I worked for much less money than I could have made but I did what felt right inside me. Maybe people think that I was a fool to have rejected all those commercial offers. Also, I could not become a dancing queen in films even though I was trained in kathak. Somehow, there was something spiritually inclined in me and I was always driven in that direction.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.