A teen Deepti Naval once decided not to speak for an entire season. She had been touched by Sharmila Tagore of Anupama (1966) – who “didn’t say a word in the whole film and only communicated through her eyes”. On Tuesday, Tagore was the featured guest at the release of Naval’s new book, A Country Called Childhood: A Memoir (Aleph Book Company), which was launched by the non-profit Prabha Khaitan Foundation of Kolkata as part of its Kitaab initiative at the India International Center in Delhi. The evening was also attended by former Lieutenant Governor of Pondicherry and IPS officer Kiran Bedi and artist Jatin Das, and the conversation was moderated by journalist-author Kaveree Bamzai.
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“Childhood for most of us is another country; it is very, very dear to us. The textured memories that shape who we are/become. It comforts us and heals us,” Tagore said of Naval’s book, which she said she would “cherish,” and that while reading it she “felt a lot. emotionsbut the highest emotion was pure joy… Walking through his journey makes you want to look at yours and explore your own journey.
Writing the book, for Naval, was “almost cathartic”, “a whole process of becoming aware, about myself, and especially about my parents” – it allowed her to reflect on herself and chart where she went. The book is also a love letter to Amritsarthe place where she grew up in the tumultuous 50s and 60s, or Ambershire, as her Catholic school nuns would say, and, even more so, to her parents, researching who they were, where they came from, what who had made them, their history, and in turn the evolution of a country’s history.
The story of an unconventional Punjabi family, surrounded by the distinctive sights, smells and sounds of a vanishing India: single-screen theatres, people/professions such as kaliwallah (gilder). How her grandparents’ families were uprooted because of events like The Second World War and partition. How children became aware of the India-China and India-Pakistan wars of the 1960s. Naval’s equation with the “maseet” (mosque) next door and how azaan and havan would co-exist. How she liked to clean vessels with raakh. How her mother’s Myitkyina-based family had to make the torturous journey on foot to Lahore (then in India) when the Japanese attacked Burma – this Exodus “We don’t talk about it often,” she complained. How the Jalalabad massacre impacted his Hindu grandfather and how an elderly Muslim Tongawalla saved the lives of three daughters, including his mother – “it’s about pain and tragedy on both sides. I wanted to see all sides,” she said. How his follower of Jan Sangh Bauji (paternal grandfather) and Congressi Bibiji (paternal grandmother) had a respectful married life. How his lawyer grandfather relaxed while capturing parts of a movie showing theater Every evening. The triumph of growing up a bit to see her face in the mirror of a hat rack, which would be the only thing she would have kept after selling the ancestral home, which she now regrets. To want to be like Meena Kumari, Sadhana and Sharmila Tagore. How his 48-year-old father would leave for America and start from scratch, among other things.
The trip was “rewarding”, knowing “how they struggled to make our life?” “What do they think of their own life? To make even the things that are hard to talk about joyful,” said Naval, who has worked in more than 90 films, including Chashme Buddoor (1981), Saath Saath (1982), Katha (1983), Mirch Masala (1986), Leela (2002), Firaaq (2008), Memories in March (2010), Listen… Amaya (2013), NH 10 (2015) , etc.
“Every time I went to New York, I sat down with a recorder, asking them (his parents) to remember, to reminisce about their lives,” said Naval, a wearer of many hats: actor, director, poet, news editor, painter and photographer, adding: “Sometimes it was annoying. I wanted them to read the book, but in recent years they’ve been gone.
Recalling the good times they had together, Tagore explained how Naval has always been “sweet, gentle, but gritty, with a clear vision, constantly pushing his limits, a sensitive actor, poet, filmmaker, but above all a thinker” who plunges into this book of “evocative vignettes” (family photos and anecdotes from all stages of her life) with “admirable honesty”.