Leela Nadiu was listed as one of the five most beautiful women in the world by Vogue magazine. But she was much more than that. She was the fine-boned, haunting face in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anuradha, in Merchant-Ivory's The Householder and in Shyam Benegal's Trikaal. She was the woman who refused to sign Raj Kapoor's films four times, and the actor who asked for a script long before the phrase 'bound script' became Bollywood cliché. Jean Renoir taught her acting and Salvador Dali used her as a model tor the Madonna.
Leela was married, the mother of twins and divorced before she was twenty. Later, she was Dom Moraes's muse, his unpaid secretary, his best friend and, when he was interviewing Indira Gandhi, his translator (interpreting 'his mumbling questions'). Through this time she also edited magazines and dubbed Hong Kong action movies, was Kumar Shahani's first producer, and when J.R.D. Tata wanted a film on how to use the washroom on a plane, she made it for him.
Leela: A Patchwork Life is a memoir that is charming, idiosyncratic and a window to a world of Chopin, red elephants, lampshades made of human skin, moss gardens and much more: a world where a naked Russian count turns up in a French garden, plush hotels offer porcupine quills as toothpicks and an assistant director sends his female lead an inflatable rubber bra.
Leela's life was about 'staying in the moment'. Everyone who met her has a Leela Naidu story.
This is her version.
'Naidu was one of a group of beautiful women
who, from the Forties to the early Sixties, helped create an idea of a beautiful, elegant and accomplished new nation . . .'
--Vikram Doctor, Economic Times
As the daughter of the Indian scientist Dr Ramaiah Naidu and a French journalist mother, Leela Naidu grew up in a world full of interesting people and events. Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anuradha (screened at the Berlin Film Festival) launched her film career that included Merchant-Ivory's The Householder, Pradip Krishen's Electric Moon and Shyam Benegal's Trikaal. Leela also made her own shorts and documentaries, including A Certain Childhood. In the early 1980s, she was Ramnath Goenka's communications manager, and later editor of Society and managing editor of Keynote.
Leela's story was completed shortly before her untimely death in August 2009.
Jerry Pinto is a poet and journalist based in Mumbai. His published works include Surviving Women (2000); Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb (2006), for which he won the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema; a collection of poetry, Asylum (2004); and a novel for young people, A Bear for Felicia (2008). He is the editor of Reflected in Water: Writings on Goa (2006). He has also co-edited Bombay, Meri Jaan: Writings on Mumbai (2003) with Naresh Fernandes and Confronting Love: Poems (2005) with Arundhathi Subramaniam. He is on the board of Meljol, an NGO that works in the child rights space.
THE NAKED COUNT ON THE LAWN
FROM FIVE GARDENS TO PARIS
OF RACISTS AND OTHER ANIMALS
PARIS BY RENOIR
THREE RUBBER BRAS AND A YELLOW NOSE
'WHO AM I PLAYING, LEELA?'
A MAN POSSESSED
'SHE HAS NO BAD ANGLES'
LEELA NAIDU, PRODUCER
AMONG THE NAXALITES
CAUTION: LEILA KHALED IS COMING
TRAVELLING WITH DOM MORAES
LEELA NAIDU, EDITOR
'HAVE YOU STOPPED ACTING?'
THE BRITISH ON A HUNGER STRIKE IN THE LAND OF THE MAHATMA
SEASON OF MISTS AND MELLOW FRUITFULNESS
The last time I saw Leela Naidu, she was sitting up in bed. She had on a faded nightgown and the bedclothes, relics of a visit From one of her grandsons, sported cheerful cartoon animals. But she extended her hand with the grace of a dowager duchess in exile and smiled upon me. The room brightened and the world turned into a gracious and charming place for a moment.
The first time I saw Leela Naidu? I don't think any forty something man can remember when he first saw Leela. She was there, an iconic image, a presence, a reminder of what feminine beauty could be about, if it were not saturated and enhanced and made to look like a parody of itself. But it wasn't just that. Beauty, as she points out somewhere in the book we wrote together, is simply one of those gifts of deoxyribonucleic acid. It's an accident, a happy accident, but nothing more than that. The lives of hundreds of supermodels and starlets show that you can be beautiful and it won't get you much more than five minutes of fame. Leela was different because she had a very sharp mind behind that porcelain face with its flawless skin and greying head of hair. She was different because she knew that when she entered a room, she owned it—how could she not know? She had been beautiful since the time she was eight years old or thereabouts—but she never let you think you were a devotee, even if you were looking at her with your heart in your eyes. She turned her attention on you and she made you feel that her beauty was a special gift to you, that she was only the steward of its ability to make you think of chocolate and jazz, of the inside of a shell and the morning monsoon sky.
The first time I met Leela Naidu was on 1 May 1990. I had gone to interview Dom Moraes about a book of poetry, Serendip; it had been published in a limited signed edition, a publishing first in India. But more importantly, it was his first work in verse after an interval of nearly seventeen years. I was writing for the Free Press Journal, then edited by Janardhan Thakur. He was a friend of the family and when I arrived, he was sitting with the Moraeses. I had heard much about these two: Dom and Leela, Leela and Dom.
'UN coup DC fodder,' was how an old-timer described their first meeting. 'She came to a party with Zfar Hai. DOM was alone. DOM and Leela looked at each other and left together. That was it.'
'Nonsense,' said Leela, when I told her about this. But so many people have told me this story that I have put it in as one of those Leela legends. She has told her own version of the DOM and Leela legend in these pages, with a curious mixture of affection and contempt so I won't belabour the point. Anyway, at that time, it was said to be a marriage made in heaven. But I could smell unhappiness in the air.
How could they be unhappy? She was one of the most beautiful women in the world, according to Vogue. He was one of the most talented of poets and writers. They had known each other since they were infants. He was writing poetry again. She had acted in Electric Moon, said to be something of a critical success. They were living in Sargent House, a beautiful colonial building on a quiet street of Colaba Causeway, all high ceilings and teak furniture, paintings by S.H. Raza and Jatin Das on the walls. Selvam, faithful retainer, and the only domestic help in Mumbai to be described as a major domo, turned out perfect coffee for all of us. It was served in elegant crockery and the sum total paralysed me. I was sure I would commit some awful social faux pas by virtue of just being there.
Leela must have sensed this because she was inordinately kind. She said that she enjoyed my writing.
'Where have you read his writing?' DOM asked.
Leela dismissed this with an airy hand. We talked about food. DOM told a story about how he and Leela had taken Stephen Spender to a restaurant in a five-star hotel and the British poet had ordered a steak. It had arrived so tough, that his fork slid off it and it flew off his plate and landed on the floor.
Thakur suggested that she write a column for the FPJ about food. She should 'bust open' the myths of the five-star hotels, he said. She grinned and suggested that she and I could do a joint column. But it would have to be anonymous.
'Would you pay the bills?' she asked Thakur.
'No, no,' he said and I like to think it was not because he did not see the sense in anonymous reviewing but because the management would never agree.
Leela wrote in my diary, 'Pot it! Against all those stingy-mingy editors who have lost "our" (yours and mine) coup! We shall meet, we shall eat—at least at my place which you can "bust".'
Then she gave me an orchid in an egg-cup. For some reason this seemed like the perfect gesture.
I met her infrequently after that, mainly because Dom was around and Dom wanted to be the poetic father figure. I do not take well to patronage. It makes me want to bite someone. I was pleased when he said he would like to help me publish my poems but I didn't want to be a drinking buddy. When Leela and I met, which was infrequent because I was still working my way past my own inadequacies, we drank coffee, smoked cigarettes and talked about nothing of any consequence.
I heard that Dom had left Leela in a roundabout 'You do know . . .' way. I went over and she wept on my shoulder for a while and then wiped her tears, sniffling into a man's hankie.
'My father's,' she said with a watery smile. 'He's not good enough to blow my nose into.'
I tried to visit her more regularly after that. One day, she was giggling merrily.
'I've been reading Henrietta,' she said, referring to the autobiography of Henrietta Moraes, the woman once described as the only female queen of Soho, muse to Francis Bacon, wife to Dom Moraes. 'Do you know she says that Dom said he was going out for cigarettes and never came back? Why didn't someone tell me that before I married him?'
'Would you have listened?' I asked.
She cocked her head, a gesture that made her look like an intelligent sparrow considering the world view of a crow.
'You are such a brute,' she said appreciatively and my ego bloomed and shrivelled simultaneously.
She was that kind of lady.
We began writing the book some years ago, I can't even remember when. I thought I would have the date in a diary somewhere but I don't. I have an entry late in 2003 that says 'Leela finally' which could possibly mean that we had finally begun the work of writing.
On the first day, I remember she had a recording machine on the table. 'There's a journalist who wants me to record myself. He says he will turn it into a book,' she said. 'He gave me this machine and he said I should just speak into it. Then he went away.'
We both looked at the machine.
'Do you think you should do this book with him?' I asked eventually.
'No, no,' she said. 'I'm just telling you about it. I'm going to send the machine back to him. With a nice note. That would be convenable, non?
Leela was bilingual. She spoke excellent French and she spoke excellent English but she often spoke them both at the same time. this was not always at the level of words. Sometimes, it would be hi intonation, an inflection that would remind me that somewhere she was thinking in French as well.
We met every week, once a week for nearly three years. Then, in the fourth year, I started writing drafts. We went through seven or eight drafts until we were done. We worked through the calamities of an old house—a fire escape that collapsed in the night, the death of a lime tree in the garden that Leela tended with such love, a slab falling from the ceiling in the kitchen. We worked through health problems—a fall, a cough, an attack of influenza. We worked through personal problems—the worst being the death of her daughter, Priya.
'Do you want to talk about all this?' I asked her, once. She had been crying quietly and we were both a bit soggy.
'All this?' She thought about it for a bit. 'There's been quite a hit of all this in my life. And I have never wanted to parade my grief in public'
'But you have talked about it,' I pointed out. 'It's in magazines, newspapers.'
'They took advantage of a relationship,' she said.
'You must have known they would print.'
'I did not.'
'You must have wanted to tell.'
'I don't now,' she said, firmly. 'There's no point.'
We talked a little about pain, about narratives of pain and about narratives of feminine pain.
And then we were done.
At the end of this book, she insisted on appending an epilogue. She bid her adieux. And a week later, she was gone.
An odd week followed. Many journalists seemed to want to memorialise her but few seemed to have any idea what they wanted to say. I received this rather strange email from a journalist who said she was working for a reputable broadsheet:
As I mentioned in the few texts we exchanged earlier, the Indian Express intends to do a Sunday feature on late Ms Leela Naidu. Not much of her life is documented and since she kept a low profile, limiting her social life to a few close friends, I am challenged in terms of sources.
However, I read in the Times of India about your book on Ms Naidu and hence seek your help. While a phone conversation would have allowed more space for an exchange of ideas and views, you say that looks tough. Hence, I'd like to initiate this with the following questions. I have one more request: we are also looking for some photographs from the various stages of her life and Mr Ranjit Hoskoté, whom I happened to speak to earlier, mentioned you might be able to guide me on that front too.
Would you be able to tell me about her early years—birth, upbringing (especially since her mother was French and father Indian), education and how she ventured into modelling? Where did Dom Moraes feature in her early years?
What were her interests and personal life like, off-screen? How did she keep herself occupied, what were her literary interests, et al.
She married early but what made her end her career in the film industry?
What ailed her marriages?
How did she survive financially after Moraes moved on?
What was the last decade of her life like?
Who were her close friends and did she have any friends in the film industry?
I know I ask a wide range of questions and that to answer them all and in entirety may not be possible for you, hence, I would appreciate whatever you can share with me. Will appreciate [sic] any guidance in terms of direction and whom I could speak to.
Thank you for your time.
I shall omit the name to be kind. But there were some journalists who did an exceptional job of putting her in perspective. Vikram Doctor wrote in the Economic Times, 'Naidu was one of a group of beautiful Indian women who, from the Forties to the early Sixties, helped create an idea of a beautiful, elegant and accomplished new nation. This included Rani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, the other name that people remember from that "10 most beautiful women" list and Nayantara Sahgal, the writer and Jawaharlal Nehru's niece.
'All these women shared a certain style. While unmistakably Indian and nearly always dressed in saris, there was also a Western air to them as well. They all had Western connections (Naidu's mother was French) or had lived abroad (Gayatri Devi came from the relatively liberal Cooch Behar royal family, which had let her travel abroad at an early age, while Sahgal had been allowed to study in the US), and they presented themselves in a mix of Indian and European styles—saris and Indian jewellery, but worn with Western sophistication.'
Art critic, curator and poet Ranjit Hoskoté, wrote in the Hindustan Times, "Those who knew her well often voiced the feeling that Naidu had never been able to fulfil the potential for which her birth, upbringing and education had equipped her.
'Indeed, she belonged to that rapidly disappearing class of people, of whom words like birth and upbringing can be used without irony. They recognised the role they were meant to play in a civilisation rather than a society, even if circumstances conspired to prevent them from playing that role in full measure. It is possible that Naidu was doomed by her membership of a lost intermediate generation of Indian women, who came of age after the structures of feudal and colonial patriarchy had collapsed, but before the advent of feminism made it possible for women to shape and manage careers in the public sphere as agents of their own choice and destiny. Leela Naidu was among the last of Mumbai's truly Romantic figures. As with all such figures, the legend came to overwhelm the life.'
And because Leela would not have wanted anyone to go away without a chuckle, I'm not going to let this end on a sombre note.
Everyone, it seemed, had a Leela Naidu story. I had only to mention that I was helping her write her autobiography and someone would say: 'But you must hear Salman tell his Leela Naidu story' Or it would be, 'You must hear Suketu tell his Leela Naidu story.'
And here is the Salman Rushdie story, told to me on a cool night in Jaipur: 'Dom Moraes had done a rude piece about my work, which had appeared in the Sunday Observer. But when I came to Bombay, he called and said that he had been misquoted and could we meet for a drink? I agreed but thought I would check with Vinod Mehta. "How can we have misquoted him?" Vinod asked, outraged. "He wrote the piece. I have his hard copy here with me." But I decided that I would let it go. If he wanted to extend the peace pipe, I could take a puff too. We met at the President, around noon, and we talked about this and that, while he put away several large whiskies. Then he suggested that I should go home with him for lunch. I didn't really want to but I thought, "Leela Naidu!" so I agreed. We left together, after he'd had another whisky, and we went back to their flat at Sargent House. We arrived, Dom drank, Dom expatiated on this and that including his war writing on Vietnam, we waited, nobody appeared, we waited some more, Dom drank some more. He then disappeared into the depths of the apartment, then he disappeared into another room and suddenly there was an explosion of feminine rage. The walls shook as Leela raged at him in at least three languages. Then there was a silence. I waited some more. Then the bearer came and asked if I would like to have lunch. I said I would leave but he insisted. I asked where Dom was and he said, quite calmly, "Saahab behosh ho gaya". I ate a chicken cutlet and chips in solitary splendour wondering if Leela Naidu would show. She did not. I was then offered dessert, declined it, and fled. And I never met Leela.'
This is Suketu Mehta, on Leela Naidu. 'When I first moved back to Bombay I was staying in a sort of Gujju ghetto on Napean Sea Road, an old building with a lot of garbage strewn around.
I thought I would have a dinner for some of the people I was meeting. Leela Naidu came and sat down on a sofa early in the evening. At some point she stamped her exquisite chappal-clad foot hard on the floor. She did not get up from the sofa. Someone brought her her wine there and someone took dinner over to her. She sat unmoving through the evening and into the night. One by one, the guests drifted away until it was only Leela, sitting on the sofa. Finally, she asked whether it was now only the family. I said it was. She lifted her foot. Beneath it was a cockroach, which she had squashed to save me embarrassment in front of my dinner guests. We both regarded the flattened bug. Then Leela said, "I think it's fainted."'
There's a Leela-shaped hole in my life.
An arid day in August 2009
I am fortunate to have begun writing this account of my life at a time when no one believes that there is a single truth or a single version of a life. Had I been writing some decades ago, I might have been forced to offer an extended apologia for my decisions. But my friends tell me that literary critics have now come to the conclusion that no one can give a full account of their lives any more than anyone can document every moment in the life of a universe. It seems to me that a great many trees would have been saved had they come to this conclusion earlier and the doorstop-sized biographies and autobiographies to which we have been subjected might simply have been pared down to what matters. And had they paid attention to ancient wisdom, they would have known that no human being may be summed up in words. The Talmud puts it beautifully when it says, 'You do not kill a man, you kill a universe.' Nor does one sum up a person, not even the person one is.
So this book is about what matters to a certain Leela Naidu. I qualify that because I believe that the person narrating this is the Leela I am at this point. I may have been another person earlier and I may change yet again. The person I was earlier may have had another view of the life she led; the Leela to come may see things differently. I give her leave to do so.
With that mad visionary William Blake, I believe, Joy and woe are woven finel A clothing for the soul divine. l Under every grief and pinel Runs a joy with silken twine.
I believe this to be true of every life and mine has been no exception. To tell one's life fairly then would be to tell the sorrows and the joys in equal measure.
I have had my fair share of pain. I was married twice, once to Tilak Raj Oberoi of the Oberoi family that has done much for the hospitality industry in India; and the second time to the poet Dom Moraes. The marriages did not work. I do not flinch from the memories I have nor do I consciously relive them. (What dreams bring is another matter.) I do not see what use it would be to recount my 'trials and tribulations', except to add yet another narrative of feminine pain to the ones that are already extant. I offer no disrespect to those women. I respect the choices they make in the narratives they shape out of the raw material of their lives. I expect the same respect for the choices I make.
I would willingly bare the scabs on my soul were I to suspect that there would be some value in so doing. When I was beginning my career in cinema, the socialist writer and columnist Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, who wrote some of Raj Kapoor's early films, said to me, 'You are too young to be an actress. You have not suffered enough.' I suppose I could have asked him how much I was supposed to suffer before I could qualify. I suppose I could have offered to sleep on a bed of nails for a month or to wear a hair shirt. I suppose I could have asked whether he had suffered enough to be a writer. I like to think these witty retorts were only held back by my respect for his seniority but I suspect that I was simply left dumbstruck by the notion that there is a certain value to suffering.
There are some religious traditions, I know, that place a high value on suffering. I myself was born into a family that did not make too much out of organised religion. My father was a Hindu by birth, my mother had been born a Catholic.
They lefe me to choose, stipulating only that I should make my decision when I was seven. When I did, I opted for Sufism.
I remember the conversation I had with the Abbé Pierre, the religious preceptor at the private Catholic school in Geneva to which I was sent.
'In India,' he told the class once, 'they revere crocodiles and Venerate fish. Their gods are wood and stone.'
If ever there was a misreading of the inclusive tradition of Hinduism, if ever there was a more narrow-minded reading of the representation of the Ganga as a crocodile and the Matsya avatar of Vishnu, I have yet to hear it.
I was young but I was ready to stand my ground against such notions. 'But, Monsieur l'Abbé,' I said. "The statue of the Virgin Mary in the chapel is also made of wood.'
He spluttered his contempt of this remark. Of course, his statue was only a representation and a mnemonic, a reminder of his beloved Mother Mary. It was not an idol, it was a way of focussing attention on the Divine. I believe that even as he said it, he knew he was digging a hole for himself, so he changed the subject.
'Have you been baptised?' he asked.
I told him that I had not.
"Then why is it that the only child I see in the chapel every day is you?' he asked.
I could not put it into words but I think he knew that I responded to the shelter and the silence of the chapel. I responded to the beauty of the faith that had built it, not to the crudeness of that very faith's attacks on those different from it. We eventually grew to be great friends and when I told him that I had decided to be a Sufi, he asked why.
This time I had thought it out. I remembered the candles that the Sufis lit in their room in Geneva. I remembered the candles that represented the major faiths of the world—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, tribal faiths—and one for the unknown religions. Ali Khan, the cousin of Sufi teacher and celebrated musician Inayat Khan, initiated me into Sufism. When he visited Geneva I would accompany him on the piano. I thought of the warmth he generated, the extraordinary generosity of spirit. But while I recognised these things with a child's instincts, I had not the vocabulary to express them. As the Bible says, when one is a child, one speaks as a child.
'Everyone else wants me to choose one apple when I love all apples,' I said. And as I said it, I knew I needed another metaphor.
'One apple is generally enough for a little girl like you,' he said.
'Everyone else wants me to choose one colour when I love all colours,' I said.
He harrumphed again, but we remained friends and I still visited the chapel.
A friend of mine has suggested that it is also because of my wandering life. I was born in Bombay, and by the time I was seven, I had lived in two other cities: Paris and Geneva. The Sufis, he suggested, were also wanderers. But I think what attracted me to Sufism was its passionate commitment to love, not the agape of the New Testament, but love in the here-and-now, God as the beloved who must be sought, who can be found, and who often leaves one for a while to experience the sweet sorrow of parting. And there was the music and the celebration of God that it so beautifully expressed. Pain is the antithesis of celebration.
I remember asking my father why we should feel pain.
'If a child puts her hand in the fire, she feels pain and she learns that she should not do it again,' he said. Well, yes, but how does one know what will hurt and what will not? The only way is to find out for oneself.
With the benefit of hindsight, I have discovered that, as a species, we do not learn from the mistakes of others, especially in matters of the heart. Perhaps it is the belief that we all have when we are young, the belief in a personal exemption from the workings of nature or karma or what you will. Perhaps it is that we cannot believe that we will be so foolish, so foolhardy, so ill advised as the person we are reading about. Whatever the reason, humankind does not learn from history and I believe that the readers of angina monologues learn nothing.
This then is my story in the way I should wish to tell it. There are other versions because there are other people in whose minds I have a presence. This is the Leela I know. She had an eventful life by her own understanding of it and she thinks you might like to hear about it.
Tolstoy's Anna Karenina begins with the immortal and oft-quoted lines, 'All happy families are happy in the same way, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way' With due respect to Tolstoy, I am not sure whether that is how it works. It suggests that happiness is a bland monotonous state and unhappiness is the only state worth investigating. Or writing about.
Of course, Indians are only now discovering that they had unhappy childhoods. It was perfectly common for adults when I was growing up to talk about how their parents were tyrannical, cold aloof presences ('they taught me values') and how their schools were chambers of horrors ('it toughened me up') and then to add with a reminiscent and sentimental sigh, 'Ah, the golden days of childhood.'
People did speak like that. And they did not see the contradictions. I would often wonder at it. Every child is a bundle of feelings, the most important ones of which are helplessness and self-interest. If your father beat you for every minor misdemeanour and your school made you take cold baths at some unearthly hour and then forced you to do physical exercise that verged on hard labour, both these feelings must be outraged. No child wants to have values beaten into him or her; no child wants to run around a playground fifty times even if it builds them into wiry Spartans. But to say any of this would mean to cast some doubt on one's parents and no one doubted their parents when I was growing up.
Nor did I doubt mine.
Suffice it to say that I was happy and that I am perfectly willing to accept that this is only nostalgia. But as for presenting my parents in the best light possible, I don't think I need to do that. They were good parents and good people to begin with. But if they had had flaws, I would have still loved them for that is the nature of the child. And as an adult one should know that to look for perfection in others is somewhat silly when one is constantly reminded of one's own imperfections. As an adult looking back, I can only remember being treated with respect. Neither of them ever beat me or inflicted any cruel or unusual punishment on my person. When they felt the need to correct me, they appealed to my sense of reason and my sense of right and wrong.
So I will begin randomly with a naked Russian in a French garden.
2 July 2009
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