If something itches, I
scratch. It was the same whenever someone asked me to write about Leela Naidu.
I’d grunt or shrug; or promise to, and do nothing. Sometimes I even said I’d
forgotten how to write. After she died I thought I’d be left alone. But the
petitions continued. Until, recently, a dear friend and excellent hostess in
Bangalore, having handed me a after-dinner whisky, threatened to lock me up in
a room and not let go unless I produced a draft!
Gradually, this chorus of voices began to co-mingle with that of Leela’s herself... and I started to recall her asking me every now and then to “start writing again”, to which I would affect my best I-don’t-give-a-damn response. She used to speak in a high-pitched raspy tone, quite nicotine stained, with a slight tremor in it. Having an equal facility of English, French and Hindustani, she could pronounce long words, and roll her Rs with dramatic modulation.
I miss that voice terribly.
It used to surprise and flatter me every time she asked, because so far as I knew, all she’d ever read of mine was a forgettable review of a book of Polish sci-fi stories for a new arts magazine that she was editor of in 1981.
The magazine folded after a few issues, and I didn’t see her again for years.
When I finally did, in the late 1990s, her second marriage to Dom Moraes was over. She’d discovered the man’s love poems to his mistress in a drawer, she told me later. Her first, as is well known, was to Tikki Oberoi, one of the heirs to the hotel empire. It was a sordid saga of rum, sodomy and the lash, lasted two years, and produced a set of twins. In the second, there was a brilliant poet, and also a mumbling cheat and liar, with a fondness for liquor, and no real friends.
When I called at her residence, I thought I was looking at Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, and not the buxom glamorous woman I’d seen years before. Surviving the shipwreck of her life a second time had taken its toll. She’d lost half her weight, the hair had fully greyed, and all she ever wore was long cotton nightgowns. The only thing missing was the wedding-cake encased in cobwebs.
She lived alone in a large old flat within a red-brick house, near the seafront in Colaba, attended by a shabby Tamil manservant called Selvam, who kept house, cooked her meals and refilled an enamel mug with “ayurvedic medicine”, as she termed her rum, from morning to midnight, and then cleared the ashtray overflowing with butts of Classic Mild, stained pale pink with her lipstick.
The huge airy hall where she received her guests, or where we sat and waited to receive her, was wonderful to behold. The large windows let in plenty of light and sounds from the street below into a handsomely furnished room with high ceiling, an old carpet on the tiled floor, phulkaris on the sofas, and long wooden shelves laden with books. An open display cabinet held some museum-quality
bronzes, while a large unfinished oil of Leela with one of her daughters hung over the dining table, and a small landscape by Raza stood alongside a framed photograph of a serene J. Krishnamurthy on the old upright piano. Close by the instrument, in a corner, was the piece de resistance: a French art nouveau mahogany writing table of exquisite craftsmanship dating back to the early 1900s. It was so slender, it seemed to float over the floor, and I could never resist sitting at or caressing it whenever I could.
There was a quiet elegance in that room, pervaded by an unmistakable air of melancholy, as though all gaiety and hope had leached out of it. And almost everything except the walls, was a different shade of brown, as if rusting.
Among the books was poetry, history, biographies, novels, short stories, and back numbers of art and literary magazines. An intelligent, eclectic collection, bought and read years ago. Flicking open any of the books, I would smile to find sprigs of dried old neem leaves, inserted among the pages by the lady to protect them from silverfish, back when life mattered to her, and things were worth preserving. Now the books looked forlorn and hadn’t been opened in years.
I have seen none of the six or seven films Leela starred in, and by all accounts she was a lousy actress. Nor could she write. That was one reason why she was in awe of Moraes and other wordsmiths. “A cuckoo!” is how one of them described her to me. It was an apt observation. As I got to know her in the coming years I never ceased to wonder how anyone so sophisticated could also be so stupid in some ways.
After her father’s death, she had signed away the “power of attorney” over some land he had owned in Delhi to a scoundrel, and then spent the rest of her life fighting a legal case to wrest it back. It was said to be worth crores. Another time, after we had reconnected, she flew to Switzerland to holiday with a childhood friend, having left her bank debit card—and the code number—with a scalawag “for safekeeping,” as she put it, and then wailed that the account had been cleaned out by the time she returned a month later.
To pay the bills she had begun taking in paying guests, appointing them singly in a spare bedroom. It was an interesting carousel of characters. Among them, a high-class German hooker in the employ of an Indian business house, who hardly ever stayed there, being away on duty for days at a time. Occasionally I would doss down too if there was space available, while passing through the city.
Meanwhile the lady of the house spent her days sipping the sauce, reading, doing crosswords, and sometimes watching select programmes on TV. When it was time for a refill, she’d ring a brass bell or yell for Selvam, who would scamper in faithfully, and fetch. Sometimes, for long stretches, she would sit staring out of the windows, her hands in her lap and mind faraway.
Although the famed beauty had faded, she could still look striking, with a regal mien that bore the mark of her station. She had dispensed with the need to wash every day, and had at most one or two baths a week. There was no makeup or jewellery of any kind upon her skin which was the colour of old ivory, and soft as petals. As for stepping out, she professed no interest at all. I would try to cajole her toward a restaurant or the park, or just a wander by the sea with me, but to no avail.
Born to an Indian nuclear physicist and his intellectual French wife, she had lead a fabulous life for almost six decades, hobnobbing with royalty, the rich and famous, and become very famous herself. But after Moraes left, the very core of her being must have collapsed, and her usual sangfroid had deserted her, for she was unable to pick up the pieces and start again.
At first wary, I found myself slowly and irresistibly drawn to this relic as time went by, like a moth to a flame. For, despite her state of unremitting ennui, she possessed a dimension which shone now and again, and could enthrall. A quality so rare, it seems almost ethereal in today’s context of mind-numbing vacuity and bland conformism. It was something that can only be cultivated and nurtured, never acquired—which she carried with effortless ease.
She had impeccable taste. Many a time I have shuffled names of men and women in my mind, Indian and otherwise, whom I could compare to Leela. No one even comes close. She was the incarnation of what is commonly called “good breeding”. You could see it in the way she moved, spoke and ate. Never once did I hear her yawn loudly even when alone, use foul language when angry, or chew with the mouth open; and she always took care to tilt the plate forward while finishing the soup.
Her eye was superb.
She could, in a glance, pronounce a thing “right” or “wrong” from ten paces
away, be it pottery, textile, jewel or lamp, of any era or provenance.
She had read the classics and could quote from obscure poets; discuss different acting styles; hum bars from famous operas; and recite lines from classic films. Jean Gabin and Yves Montand she adored. But twitched her nose when asked about Alain Delon, and was the only person I know who was not very impressed by Audrey Hepburn, calling her “twee”. Sultry Anne Bancroft was more to her taste, and she had a biography of the woman. Shashi Kapoor, with whom she’d acted, she dismissed with a roll of the eyes and exaggerated sigh. While the Oscars to her were mere festive wrapping. The popular didn’t find much favour. Georges Simenon was preferred to Agatha Christie, Pahari painting to Mughal. Anonymous artistry to branded luxury. Nike to her did not mean trainers and T-shirts; she was the Greek goddess of victory.
Once, while watching the news on TV, she lunged forward and pointed out a bit of a sculpture by Alexander Calder jutting into a corner of the screen. (And I thought I was observant!) Rothko, Rembrandt, and Rodin she greatly admired. While much to my satisfaction, she looked upon M. F. Husain with scant regard, and in turn approved of my description of Ravi Verma’s oeuvre as “barber shop art”.
We were united in our love of art deco, and likewise disdained all Victorian, especially the furniture, so coveted by the upper-classes in this country.
Having had no formal education after her Swiss finishing school, she had had to look and learn on her own. Museums and art galleries were her temples. The Prado, Guggenheim, MoMA, and Musee d’Orsay she knew intimately, and told me gleefully that in Versailles she had had a moment of epiphany, when as a little girl, she learnt that the pearly kings and queens had to shit beneath the stairs for want of a loo.
I began calling her Leelu, in the affectionate Maharashtrian manner, which pleased her no end. “That’s what Daddy used to call me!” she exclaimed, beaming, the first time I did. We came from different backgrounds, but were aesthetes, lacking in formal education, but passionate in our pursuit of the best, and abhorrence of the sentimental and tawdry. All of that was capped by a complete irreverence and streak of wicked humour. It was a natural bonding, and before long we were completing each other’s sentences.
Sometimes, I’d join her in the evenings and we would amuse ourselves by dredging up the vile creatures that dwell in the society pages, and shred them all, one by one. Like most women, she liked gossip. I was told of the extreme parsimony of Indira Gandhi’s household, particularly that of the daughters-in-law, who kept the fridge locked, and let food go to waste rather than share it with the servants.
There were other tales of bubbly and caviar from different parts of the world, and the caprice and foibles of the upper crust. The names of celebrities whom she’d met or known read like a lengthy grocery list. Once, while discussing feminists and their ilk, she pointed offhand to the sofa I was upon, saying Bianca Jagger had once visited, and sat “right there”. While Selvam told me Salman Rushdie had eaten lunch in the house many years earlier. And of course, she had gone shopping with Ingrid Bergman in Paris in the late 1950s.
One night, I answered
the doorbell, to find a portly, snowy-haired Caucasian gentleman with a
luxuriant beard and beatific smile, asking softly for Leelu. Having let him in,
I was introduced, bid goodnight, and left them together after few minutes. The
next day she told me he was of the family that owned the Guinness brewery, and
a brother (or cousin perhaps), of Tara Browne, whose death in a car crash was
immortalised in A Day in the Life by the Beatles.
A sybarite who liked good food and drink, her knowledge of culinary matters was extraordinary, culled from a battery of Larrouse encyclopaedias and cookery books bequeathed to her by her mother. So the maternal French side dominated her palate, although I never saw her even boil water for tea. She would often open one of the many tomes stacked near the dining table and select a recipe for Selvam to use.
Trying to pick her brain, I once asked her how she preferred a martini: with vodka or gin, shaken or stirred? “Gin of course,” she snapped. And only thugs like James Bond have it shaken. Too easy. Another time I asked slyly about the genealogy and origins of the first apples— having read it in a science journal recently—sure that she’d be stumped. Incredibly, she knew the answer, although she was off by a few hundred miles. She then went on to explain how calvados was distilled, and which was the best.
When I told her of the splendid Danish film Babette’s Feast I’d seen, she was most fascinated and wanted to watch the same.
She never tired of talking about gastronomy, and would lead me through the labyrinthine byways of French cuisine, gently correcting my pronunciation of infernal Gallic terms. It was Catherine de Medici who first civilised the French and introduced elaborate sauces into their limited fare I was told. The difference in soufflé and mousse was explained; and that between consomme and soup. The origins of the word “restaurant” she said went back to the 1760s when Monsieur Boulanger opened his soup kitchen in Paris, and advertised his broths as restaurants—a centuries-old label for nutritional tonics—used for the “restauration’ of body and soul. She would go into raptures while recreating the taste of goose liver pate or escargot in garlic butter, eaten out of the shell at Maxim’s. Not to be outdone, I’d enlighten her about the complexity of a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Or pretend I’d gorged on mughlai, bhelpuri, or some other variety of dogfood.
“You’re disgusting!” she’d exclaim, recoiling in mock horror, beseeching me to stop. She had a great sense of timing when she wanted to be funny. While languorously having a frugal meal one night, she impromptu, lapsed into a perfect imitation of Chaplin eating in The Tramp that had me in splits.
Once Selvam was ordered to cook an artichoke for me and serve it with mustard sauce. When the dish was produced, Leelu sat like an alchemist watching me closely while I tackled the boiled vegetable for the first time ever. The only flavour, I remember, came from the sauce. Another time, I was gently woken up by her, bending over me like an angel in the dark, asking how I wanted my eggs done for breakfast. Groaning, I turned to the bedside clock and saw the time. It was 4.30 in the morning.
We would spend time chatting about the state of the world and many other matters. Her political beliefs were left-of-centre and quite out of joint. She was against the invasion of Iraq and railed against George Bush. But couldn’t quite decide what was best for Afghanistan or Burma. As for religion, she practised none, but liked to call herself a Sufi.
“If you’re a Sufi, then I must be Superman,” I told her. She knew precious little about the subject, except that she was a Sufi. She would wince at my put-downs and sarcasm, but the truth is I was just as scared of her mood swings and temper that could send the crows scattering from the windows and leave her gasping for breath.
Sometimes I would hear her screeching from the pavement below, and walk on. I do not know if her flares had anything to do with the drinking, but it was very unpleasant when she was like that. In a few hours she’d have calmed down, and when I came up again, inquire sweetly if I’d had supper. On a regular day she got through a whole bottle of rum, and little more than one square meal.
Her only contact outside Bombay was with her best friend, Catherine, in Geneva, whom she loved dearly and would telephone; and occasionally with one of her daughters, in Bangalore, whom she did not love dearly, and dismissed, quite rightly, as “illiterate”. (The other lived in a halfway home in Delhi, and died two years before Leelu.). While they believed she had abandoned them in the Oberoi fold for the sake of her film career, and led lives of wanton debauchery and sloth. So there was not much rapport there. Sometimes she would talk of Moraes, the pain of the loss still evident in her voice, but never of Oberoi. And much as I tried, obliquely, I could never get her to tell me if there had been any romance or liaison in her life.
Occasionally she had visitors, and would receive them graciously, conversing over tea or lemonade in the drawing room, but was never invited in turn.