Shobhaa De – “I frequently falter”
On her new memoir, Insatiable; My Hunger for Life, confronting uncomfortable truths, her equation with her family, reality TV, and the pervasiveness of politics
Would you have done anything differently in your life if your parents had stuck with the name Anuradha for you?
That’s such an inspiring and inspired question! I wonder! Anuradha is such a poetic and classical name, and it comes with its own emotional implications. It is the seventeenth nakshatra in Hindu astrology. People born under this nakshatra and named Anuradha are said to be as “fragile” as the nakshatra with the “shakti of granting abundance”! Not sure what this means — sounds like mumbo-jumbo. But I am equally of the view that there is a reason why children born in a traditional Hindu home are named after the nakshatra – there has to be a resonance/vibration that makes spiritual sense. Perhaps, I would have been significantly “fragile” in appearance, thought, word and deed had I remained Anuradha.
But I am happy enough being Shobhaa Dé! The name has worked brilliantly for me professionally – it has become a brand name - and on many levels, I am glad about the “switch” in names when I was five years old. Shobhaa with the double ‘a’ made it a lot more individualistic than the more common, garden variety “Shobha”.
Every essay in the book is like a lid covering deeper sentiments – a guise of chatty discourse hiding vulnerable personal matters that you’d rather not share with the world. How do you rehearse this act of problem-solving?
It is a tough and challenging balancing act. I frequently falter. When there are so many balls up in the air, the fear of losing one of them, remains a hideous constant. There are no dress rehearsals in life. If you trip, you fall and get bruised. At 75, there is no excuse for hiding under an emotional duvet. You have to find the courage to confront several uncomfortable home truths. And then – here’s the toughest part – to share some of the discoveries with strangers (readers), who may have their own demons to deal with while they’re absorbing yours.
We all want the good things in life, and you are no different. Among all things materialistic, what are the things that you most fear losing?
The good life is seductive, hypnotic, alluring, but it certainly isn’t ALL of life! Nobody gets a feast served on a silver platter without paying for it! I have worked hard for 50 years to enjoy what I do, today. I have never romanticized poverty. Hunger is the worst punishment for any human forced to endure food deprivation, due to unfortunate circumstances. I am familiar with that hunger. I do not glorify it nor do I exaggerate it. I enjoy the perks of the life I have created for myself. Both, my husband and I, are self-made professionals, who continue to work as hard as we did in our twenties. I feel wonderful about the fact we have enabled whatever it is we enjoy on our own terms, without a single compromise. We travel, we feast, we drink, we dance, we learn, and we give back. I am okay with this mantra. The one thing I fear losing is good health. And my voracious appetite for life.
The section The Brood very well defines the metrics of what most of us have experienced with our own families too. There’s good, bad, ugly, dependency, frustration, all of it. Do you step back and look at everything as an outsider, simply to perhaps touch wood and be grateful?
The amount of wood I touch on a daily basis constitutes a gigantic forest. The Brood and I share a very powerful, and I fervently hope, a deeply unshakeable bond. Despite that, I don’t have blinkers on, and it is important for me to step outside this cocoon from time to time, just to clear my head and get a perspective. Children cannot be your blind spots. I am not one of those mothers who supply unconditional love on tap. Neither are they non-judgmental and guarded about protecting “mummyji’s” feelings. All of them hit hard! I am the one who generally backs off because — I hate admitting this — when they do give me a hard time, they are generally right. In any case, you can never win with family! Each one of them comes with individual strengths and weaknesses. Their skill sets and professional lives are distinct and different. We don’t always like the same things or the same people. But theirs is a cohesiveness to our five-member band that gets us to sing the same tune pretty melodiously at that!
Food dominates almost every chapter. From malai chingri to thick mutton stews, from galaouti kebabs to the humble adrak chai. Will there ever be a book dedicated to just food some day?
Who knows? Food occupies a great deal of space in my life and imagination. I find food very, very sexy. Fifteen years ago, I had proposed a food book to my then editor – who didn’t think it was the best commercial idea back then. Perhaps she had underestimated the erotic power of food! Too bad!
I am not a food writer. Nor am I a food critic. I don’t possess deep knowledge about food, either. I just know what my palate responds to. And I am learning constantly. Not being a food snob / gourmet / connoisseur, I don’t make the official cut as a food writer per se. But I trust my taste buds. I salivate at the thought of enjoying daab-chingri in a Kolkata home, or eating a humble Maharashtrian meal of thechha, white butter, bajri bhakri, diced white onions from Raigad district, with a side portion of velvety varan bhaat. And I love sharing my excitement with like-minded food fanatics.
There is trend going on of letting people into their personal space and lives (like Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives and Moving in with Malaika), and it’s mostly the “non-celeb celebs” who are doing this. We know it’s probably scripted but there is a voyeuristic entertainment value attached to it. What are your thoughts about it?
Well, I am not known for “following trends”, and I have no issues with those super celebrities who happily allow cameras into their homes, bedrooms, offices (but not toilets, mercifully). Several, highly lucrative offers have come my way over the years. Call me plain lazy or unmotivated, but it’s a format that doesn’t appeal to me. It is way too nosy and intrusive. And frankly, it takes away the mystique. I do think Malaika Arora was better off when she didn’t open her mouth. Her daily gym “lewks” created enough noise on social media and spawned an entire industry of paps waiting to click her in gym gear and flip flops. Even her pet dog became an Insta-celeb. The Bollywood Wives made serious money and the show had its fans and detractors. I, however, found it dead boring. The vapid lives of Bollywood Wives did not engage me. But there were millions of viewers who consumed every minute greedily. These are shrewd business decisions. Like the wise ones often say, “Never say never!” I look at the phenomenal trajectory of the Kardashians and my jaw drops!!
Would you ever entertain a series like this if a big network like Disney+ Hotstar or Netflix were to approach you? Perhaps a series on food which is somewhat less intruding?
A chatty, happy web series on food – sharing meals, talking khaana-peena — that’s a whole different ball game. So far, I have resisted green lighting a biopic. But then again – if it’s Kangana Ranaut playing me…hmm.
You say in your book “Politics is everything”, and you also say how some people like to stay away from it, remain “apolitical”. Do you see this mannerism mostly in the older generation as opposed to the more vocal, opinionated younger men and women of today?
“Politics is everything”, comes with many strands and connotations. Every single act of our everyday lives is entrenched in politics, whether we recognize that or not. Who we marry, which school and college we pick, what we eat, how we bathe, who we sleep with, the music we listen to, the books we read, the movies and plays we watch, the friends we choose, the people we avoid. Politics is not about which party one supports or votes for. Politics colours every decision, big and small.
Are the young more vocal and articulate? I am not sure. They are selectively so; they choose their battles. My generation was more naive, gullible, confused and stupidly idealistic. Our idea of India was nebulous. We had dreams and hopes that lacked focus. We thought we could make a difference just by crooning Michael Jackson’s anthem: “Change the world... make it a better place... for you and for me and the entire human race...” I still love the purity, the innocence, the naiveté of that belief. One should never stop believing.