Posted by: cochinblogger | July 31, 2011


Leela Naidu was one of the most beautiful women in the world. Vogue magazine in 1954 famously had her in a list of the ten most beautiful women in the world. And it was her face that I saw on the cover of a book in the library one day. It was a striking face, embodying a simple, natural beauty that had no need for adornment; she looked like the extraordinarily pretty girl next door every schoolboy pines for. I just had to pick up the book and read the blurb. I could tell right away that this was not the usual filmi autobiography. For one thing, there is her unusual background: Her father was a nuclear physicist who had worked under Madame Curie, and her mother was a French Indologist and journalist. That curious fact was enough to make me borrow the book, and I’m glad I did, because Leela: A Patchwork Life, written with writer and poet Jerry Pinto, is a little charmer of a book.

It’s unclear how much of the book is Jerry Pinto’s and how much is Leela’s, but Leela’s personality shines throughout the book. She describes her schooling in Europe, where her parents worked; her initiation into cinema by none other than Renoir; her move to India and the films she did here; her disastrous first marriage to Tikoo Oberoi, scion of the Oberoi hotel family, which produced twins and a divorce before she was twenty; her later marriage to the poet and writer Dom Moraes; her stint as editor of Society magazine; etc.

The book is heavily anecdotal, and is not a conventional autobiography in that there are huge gaps of her life that are not touched upon; for example, she is silent on her first marriage, except to say that she lost custody of her children to her husband because the Hindu Marriage Act at that time was biased against the mother, probably reflecting the opinion of Indian society then that only immoral women divorced. (She does forewarn the reader about this curious silence in her preface, where she says that she does not want to make yet another addition to the extant “narratives of feminine pain.”) She is more forthcoming about her life with Dom Moraes, and though that marriage too collapsed, with Dom eventually leaving her for a younger woman, it’s evident in the playful way she describes his absent-minded bungling that she was fond of him. One gathers that Dom Moraes, unlike Tikoo Oberoi, was infuriating but not unspeakable.

It’s also evident that Jetty Pinto was fond of his protagonist. If my memory serves me right, Leela died unexpectedly some months before this book was published, and Jerry Pinto ends his foreword with the following memorable tribute: “There’s a Leela-shaped hole in my heart.” The book is a patchwork of anecdotes skillfully woven into an integrated whole. And what anecdotes! There’s one about her French grandmother opening the door of her house to find a naked Russian standing outside. He was stark nude. With admirable composure, her grandmother bade him enter, went inside, and got him a robe to cover himself with. This man turned out to be Prince Yusupov, Rasputin’s killer. There’s another anecdote about a violent young man who worked in her grandfather’s factory; he turned out to be none other than Benito Mussolini! And so on, in this vein, for fascinating page after page until one regretfully reaches the last page.

Leela’s father was a Hindu, her mother a Catholic. Her parents left the choice of her religion to her, only specifying that she must choose by the time she was seven. The logic of this deadline is not clear to me, but choose Leela did, by the time she was seven: she chose to be a Sufi. Immediately after mentioning this, Leela gives the following captivating account of her conversation with the religious preceptor of the private Catholic school in Geneva to which she 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’Abbe,” 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 focusing 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 baptized?” he asked

I told him 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 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 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’d accompany him on the piano. I thought of the warmth he generated, the extraordinary generosity of spirit. But while I recognized 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 color, when I love all colors,” I said.

He harrumphed again, but we remained friends and I still visited the chapel.

And a little later:

Well, no one attacked me physically, but once Abbe Pierre held up Hinduism and India to scorn, it was open season on one Leela Naidu. They surrounded me in the gym, these rich and cosmopolitan Catholic girls, kneeling before me and laughing. They held their sweaty gym shoes up to my nose, asking, “Is this the way you pray? Is this what you worship?”

This kind of harassment led Leela’s parents to pull her out of this school and enroll her in another school in Geneva. Here, one of her schoolmates was an Iranian boy called Ahmad Khajjir, who fell “madly and extravagantly” in love with Leela, who was all of fourteen at the time. His mother, the exiled queen of the Khajjars of Iran, wrote to Leela’s mother asking for her daughter’s hand in marriage for her son, in which she said her son had promised to study better if Leela would marry him. Ahmed, though a laggard in schoolwork, was nothing if not resourceful in his ardent pursuit of Leela. He once even planted the news that he had died in an air crash in the newspapers in the hope of inducing soul-searing regret in her!

Here is how Leela describes their last encounter:

One day as I was walking down the steps that connected the Avenue Camoens to Avenue Theodore Roosevelt, I saw a familiar but somewhat woeful face.

“Ahmed!” I said.

“Hello, Leela,” he said.

“What are you doing here?” I asked, although I had an inkling that I knew.

We sat together on the steps and I tried to explain that we were too young, that I was going back to India, and no, he couldn’t follow, and that he should go back to his mother.

He looked at me, his heart in his eyes.

“Oh, Ahmed,” I said, “all you need to do is find out what you want to do. If you don’t want to study, don’t. But find something you want to do, and you will do it.”

Then I left him, sitting on the steps. Many years later, I discovered that he had moved back to Iran and become one of the finest documentary filmmakers there. He named his daughter Leela. It is a compliment I treasure. [I tried to identify this Iranian documentary film maker with the help of an Iranian classmate, but drew a blank; it looks as though Leela got his name wrong.]

Leela’s career in Hindi cinema was almost cut short before it began by the arrival of a mystery shoe box:

The first sign of trouble was a shoe box. Inside it, I found three bras with rubber baggies tucked inside them. They were equipped with little nozzles so that they could be blown up to the appropriate size.

Since I had never shot a Hindi film before, I wondered who blew them up and who decided the appropriate size. Perhaps the heroine herself blew them up and then came out of her dressing room.

“No, Madamji, in this film you are a 38 cup, remember?” an assistant director might say to her perhaps.

“Oops,” she’d say and go back to the nozzle again, to deflate or inflate her measurements.

I couldn’t see myself doing any such thing, so I returned the shoe box and almost ended my career in Hindi films, before it had started. I don’t think this would have worried me much.

Now, I must confess that another reason for my borrowing Leela Naidu’s autobiography — apart from her lovely face on the cover — was that she had married Dom Moraes. And I had read Dom’s brilliant autobiography My Son’s Father, written when he was young, still in his thirties. I was hopeful that Leela’s book would throw more light on Dom the man, and I wasn’t disappointed. Here is Leela’s account of how she agreed to marry Dom. By the way, they were childhood friends; their families knew each other.

I was staying at the India International Centre so he came and sat there with his shy, mumbling face. I offered him a cup of tea and promised myself I would make no teasing remarks.

“I have no clothes,” he said after clearing his throat. “I have one brown shoe and one black shoe. I have three shirts but none of them have buttons. My tweed coat doesn’t match my trousers.”

“I’ll do your shopping for you,” I said.

“I have twenty pounds,” he said.

“Please forget it. I’ll do it for you because you’re my friend. You can pay me later.”

“It’s not about shopping. Will you marry me?”<

“Of course,” I said, feeling sorry for him.

Leela reveals that once in Chelsea the police broke into Dom’s paying guest accommodation residence because the the owner suspected, from the foul odor emanating from his room, that he had murdered someone and decamped. This suspicion was strengthened because Dom happened to be traveling at the time. What the police found was “a huge piece of cod rotting in the bathtub.” The fishmonger had told Dom to soak it in water for a while, Dom didn’t have a vessel large enough to house the cod, and so the cod went in the bathtub, “as all huge pieces pieces of fish that need to be soaked do in the world of men. Then, of course, he had forgotten all about it. But this was the man who had once got into the bathtub with his clothes on, so I suppose a forgotten fish was nothing extraordinary.”

Another time Dom made an omelet, which eventually under his ministrations acquired a “strange shade of grey-green.” It turned out that Dom had poured half a bottle of port into the omelet. Leela has this insightful observation about Dom’s affinity for alcohol: “He lived under the misapprehension that anything could be improved by the addition of alcohol in good measure.”

.Now, before we part, dear reader, let me leave you with a final anecdote from Leela Naidu that is my favorite. Leela was all of three years old at the time:

We were living at Five Gardens then, a quiet, leafy part of central Bombay. It has not changed much, I am told. In one of the schools — a maidan really — the good Jesuits had set up an open-air school. I have no idea why they were there, but there were tents and there were students and very soon, there was Leela. I wandered around until I found what looked like my age group.

The priest in charge was slightly bemused. “Where have you come from?” I pointed to my home. When he tried to take me back home, I refused to go. “I want to go to school,” I told him. Perhaps I made a refreshing change from the whining schoolboys with “shining morning faces, creeping like snails, unwillingly to school” but he sat me down in a corner with the youngest students and told me to colour a butterfly and then pin it up somewhere.

“Hsst,” said the little boy next to me as I finished my butterfly. We were then supposed to stick them on a board with drawing pins. I looked up. He pointed at his lap. He had opened his shop and what to me looked like a grub was on display. I had no idea what I was looking at but it did not look very attractive.

Ever interested in raising the general aesthetic standards of the environment, I tried to improve things and stuck my butterfly on it. With my drawing pin, of course.

When my mother came to collect me, I was sitting with my nose in the corner. It seemed to be evident that I was already in trouble. “What has she been doing?” she asked.

The priest found it difficult to answer.

This amusing anecdote reminded me of a sentence that caught my eye in Dom Moraes’s brilliant autobiography, My Son’s Father: “Then, to my utter astonishment, my mother slapped me. It was not a very hard slap, but she had never done it before, and I couldn’t understand it. I never understood it, till years later, with slow strokes on a bed, I first nailed a woman to her cross.”

Now, I still don’t understand why Dom’s mother slapped him. But the last sentence is especially beautiful. Dom had a poet’s eye for beautiful sentences, and his autobiography is strewn with them. Also, of all the strange things one can think about when in bed with a woman, thinking about being slapped by one’s mother must be one of the strangest.

So, Dom first nailed a woman to her cross when he was a young man, but Leela did better: she nailed her first male to his cross with a drawing pin when she was just three. 🙂

The photo of the book cover was taken from


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