Leela: A Patchwork Life
Leela Naidu with Jerry Pinto
“Dom had written this really nasty piece about Midnight’s Children,” Salman Rushdie said when he heard that I was writing Leela Naidu’s life. “But when I came to Bombay, he left a note saying that he had been misquoted and that he wanted to meet to have a drink. I called Vinod Mehta up and he was very angry. ‘What does he mean misquoted? He wrote the piece. I still have his manuscript. Come and see it.’
“But I thought, ‘If he wants to make amends…’ So I agreed to meet him for a drink in The President. We had a couple and then he invited me home to lunch. I said, ‘Are you sure? You know, it is very little notice.’ He asked the bartender for the phone and seemed to have a heated conversation with someone. Then he slammed the phone and said, ‘Let’s go.’ That was very uncomfortable for me but I thought, ‘Leela Naidu, I might get to see Leela Naidu.’
“And so I went along. Dom left me sitting in the hall and went inside. I could hear raised voices, a row in several languages. Then there was silence. I sat in the hall, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. Then Dom’s major domo—I don’t think there was another house that had a major domo—presented himself and asked what I would like for lunch.
“ ‘Where is saahab?’ I asked.”
“ ‘Saahab behosh ho gaya,’ said the man. And then he wanted to know if I would like some fish. The terrible thing is: I never did get to see Leela.”
I was a callow youth of 24, when Serendip, Dom’s sequence of poems on Sri Lanka, came out. When Janardhan Thakur asked me to interview Dom, I called and was invited over to Sargent House.
The interview went badly.
Dom asked, “Where’s Jeet Thayil?”
I said that I didn’t know.
Dom said, “I think Jeet should interview me.”
I said that I hoped he would make do with me.
Dom looked into the middle distance and made himself monosyllabic.
Then Leela Naidu walked into the room and the world became a beautiful place.
“Jerry Pinto,” she exclaimed. “The man who said that mushrooms sauté-ed in butter taste like water running over mossy stones? I loved that line.”
She was charming. She was elegant. She was witty. She was the Leela Naidu of The Householder and Anuradha. She scribbled a charming note in my diary. She laughed at my gauche wit. We got on so well, I didn’t even notice that Dom was not taking this very kindly. That, in fact, he was getting angrier and angrier.
When I got back to the newspaper, Janardhan Thakur called me into his cabin. “What have you done to upset Dom?” he asked.
I thought I had some inkling but I feigned ignorance.
Over the years that followed, Leela and I stayed in touch. And then one day Adil Jussawalla—whose name pops up in connection with most things literary in this city though there was never such a reluctant and self-effacing satrap—told me a story that involved a naked count, a Russian assassination, camomile tea and Leela Naidu’s family. I was entranced. Why didn’t she write this down, I wondered.
“Perhaps you could work on that,” Adil suggested.
I had read Leela’s writing in various magazines. I thought she could do a good job herself if she tried. But one day, some weeks later, Leela called. She wondered, she said hesitantly, if I might care to write her life?
Might I? I thought it would make fascinating reading. Her father was Dr Ramaiah Naidu, one of India’s leading physicists. Her mother was a journalist who had kept right on typing when hand grenades had been lobbed into the office. And she was one of the most beautiful women in the world, whose classical good looks had made her a shoo-in as a model for saris, even when she was in her fifties.
Over the next three-and-a-half years, we met once a week. Each time, I would take away a whole wad of notes and write them up. In the process, I found that she was not just an actress who had done some very important movies, including Merchant-Ivory’s first film and been taught to act, famously, by Jean Renoir. She had directed films. She had produced them and written scripts for them. (For her first script, she had been put under house arrest. Don’t ask. Read the book when it comes out. End of commercial break.) She had worked with Louis Malle. She had done radio shows and interview programmes. She had dubbed Hong Kong actioners. She had translated Ionesco and George Walter. She had learnt ballet and bharatnatyam and modern dance and horse riding and the piano. She had wept on Jiddu Krishnamurthi’s shoulder and had been shown Mary Pickford’s wig collection and Imelda Marcos’ shoes.
After three years, she asked, “Don’t you think you’ve had enough?”