The life behind the legend
Date: June 5, 2010
Leela Naidu's life could easily have been a label. Several labels. The self-proclaimed princess of kuch nahin. The beauty whom Vogue once called one of the five most gorgeous women in the world. The actor whose spontaneity shines through in The Householder. The privileged child who was sent by Sarojini Naidu to meet "Mickey Mouse" (Mahatma Gandhi) with a bunch of gladioli and box of fine chocolates. Naidu was more than all that. She was the actor who went to Hollywood much before it became a must-do for every bosom-baring starlet.
Her gift to us is to read her life like a fairytale, from the naked Count Yousoupoff on her grandmother's doorstep to her grandfather's encounter with a young and brash Benito Mussolini; from a private showing of sketches by Salvador Dali to film screenings with Truffaut and Godard. And though it may, like her life, be an unfinished poem, the book at least allows us the pleasure of having dreamed.
She was the ingenue who sat at the feet of Jean Renoir and went to dinner with Ingrid Bergman. She was the young mother whose twins were snatched away after her marriage to the late Tikki Oberoi broke up. She was the unpaid translator who accompanied the poet-journalist Dom Moraes on his travels to the exotic. She was the feminist who always paid her own way, as much at ease with coal miners in Asansol as she was with emigre royalty in Paris; the humanist who would be as moved to tears by the plight of a hungry elephant as she would by the homelessness of her domestic Anguri; and the aesthete who would be as offended by a vulgar word as a thoughtless gesture.
Co-written by Jerry Pinto with a foreword that is as thoughtful as it is traumatic to read, the autobiography is much like her life-elegant, spare, kind to enemies and warmly reminiscent about friends. It leaves out much. Certainly we can only imagine the brutality of being denied her own children, the transgressions by Moraes, the loneliness of her later life, having nursed and lost both her brilliant parents, the scientist Ramaiah Naidu and the French journalist Marthe Mange. And just as well.
There is so much unspoken pain. Not of unfulfilled ambition. But of promises that were not kept and kindnesses that were punished. She allows us for a moment to step into a wonderful world where money didn't matter-at one point she talks of how she and Moraes had just Rs 45 in their account-but talent did. It helped that JRD Tata was Uncle Jeh and happily posed for a magazine she briefly edited or that B.K. Nehru could, as Ambassador to the US, get on the phone with the California Governor to organise a work permit. But that, like her beauty, was simply a gift of DNA.