“There are only two kinds of people,” said a cynic. “Those who live, and those who write diaries.” I never kept a diary and at this stage of my life there seems scarcely any likelihood of my doing so . Memory, of course, is a substitute, but a poor one, because when it casts its nets, the catch inevitably assumes a roseate hue.
In recollecting the past, one runs the risk of romanticizing it. The mind colors everything. And, being in a profession which makes one temperamental, moody and even hypersensitive, I realize that I am prone to this error more than other people.
The tendency to color everything, which is undeniably an aesthetic experience, frequently obscures reality and so overdresses an account of it that the substance is rendered meaningless.
So the writer cuts, chops and shapes his raw material to give it dramatic form. Whether this is permissible in writing a diary from memory is a moot point.
There are events in my life which on the surface seem to be mere trifles. But they stand out so vividly and so sharply that I must recount them here. Others have made deep wounds. They have left their marks. To think of them nearly makes my hair stand on end.
I am a small boy. I had gone to fetch milk for the house. I am walking home leisurely on the hot dusty street, lined with sprawling shops and crowded with people. Suddenly there is a commotion. There are shrieks and shouts. People are running in every direction—some stumble and fall. A mad dog is in the street. I panic and turn to run. The dog rushes out of the confused crowd and springs at me. I feel a sharp pain in my right arm. I drop the milk can and run home, crying. Blood is streaming from the bite just above my elbow.
I have the mark of that wound to this day… It is nothing serious. Other boys have been bitten by dogs. Yet I could color it any way I desire—say that I can still feel its effects. I am moody and variable. In the midst of laughter and gaiety I am lonely. I am disgusted for no apparent reason. Sudden, extreme happiness pervades me unaccountably, only to throw me as swiftly into despondency and despair. Why?
Well, that is color!
Moharram. It is the most awesome of religious festivals. Wailing and praying and beating their chests, masses of mourning humanity work themselves into a frenzy. Above this din and wailing rises the cry of a woman with her personal sorrow. Her four strapping sons have been killed in a lorry smash-up. Relations are mourning for them up there in her house. I sneak in. The four gruesomely mangled bodies are laid on the ground. Beating of chests above, beating of chests below, and the shrieking throng turns the night into a pandemonium of grief.
It is a harrowing experience, etched deep into my child-consciousness.
Why does the mind suddenly recollect an apparently pointless picture?
It is a sunny winter morning. A cold, sharp wind on my body, every nerve tingling, I feel exhilarated. I am happy, intensely, inexplicably happy as I come to the railway-tracks on my way to school.
There is a man working on the tracks. He is bare-bodied. He has only a loin-cloth. I am shocked. Why is he bare-bodied in this cold? The sun’s rays break into a million sparkling emeralds on the leaves, and a chill, inconstant breeze caresses me.
I am very happy to see the man. I don’t know him, but I shout a salutation to him and he responds with a smile.
In how many colors can this picture be painted? But the colors would all be misleading. I say it here because the picture itself is vivid, and comes back to me in moments of extreme happiness.
Nana, our elderly mali, is a great pal of mine. I sit for hours with him, listening as he talks in Marathi of his mother, his village, while our buffaloes graze in the field.
One day Nana’s back is turned to me. His box of “bidis” is lying near where I sit. I take a “bidi” from the box and light it, thinking it will evoke from him some exclamation, surprise or annoyance.
Nana turns to sit again. I put the “bidi” to my lips, inhale and puff out a thick cloud of smoke. Now! He will say something!
Nana was in mid-sentence when he sat down and he goes on talking. He has taken no notice of my smoking. To him, it is nothing untoward, so he says nothing. What is to me a big joke falls flat on him, and I like him all the more. I think he is very generous and lovable.
One day Nana’s hut was burned down. It was mid-afternoon, and there was an unearthly stillness in the fields. Nana was rushing in and out of the burning hut, rescuing his family, trying to salvage what belongings he could.
There were occasions when I saw Nana being very tender to his wife and occasions when he thrashed her. I never saw a more devoted couple.
I am six or seven years of age.
I am on my way home from my uncle’s shop at the Kabul Gate. There is a great commotion in the streets. I see uniformed figures with rifles scurrying everywhere, some on the roofs of shops.
Before I recover from the shock, British soldiers arrive and start firing at the people. I take refuge under a low roof on the roadside, watching everything with fear-filled eyes. Suddenly a policeman pulls me out by the scruff of my neck and slaps me very hard. I fall, then pick myself up and run blindly home, shots and cries ringing in my ears.
News reached us later that an armoured car was used to spray bullets from machine- guns. Many were killed, until someone managed to get under the armoured car and set fire to it
And in Bombay too, during the 1942 agitation, many people were beaten at Shivaji Park. I was in college then. The police used tear-gas on us. It is difficult to say whether it was patriotism that took us there, or whether we just wanted to join the crowd. Independence Day comes to my mind, too.
I cannot help saying that I approached those events with a feeling of detachment. Perhaps it was curiosity. Those events were to be appreciated objectively. There was no personal involvement in any of them.
My reactions to them may seem peculiar. At any rate they are inexplicable. Perhaps I should feel some embarrassment in admitting that my memories of Nana’s “bidi” and of going to school on that winter morning are more vivid and more important to me than these big events and issues. But that is how it has always been.
I was saved once from drowning. Twice my face was burned. Once a scorpion bit me. Those accidents also crowd into my mind.
My “Dadi” (grandmother) is very religious. She prays all the time. While she is praying she sometimes sees a human form which tells her something but she is not able to grasp it.
When she comes from Peshawar to visit us at Deolali we are forbidden to play the gramophone lest we disturb her at her prayers. The gramophone is put away under her bed.. But I get under her bed after school in the afternoon and play my favorite records stealthily, holding the needle in my hand!
If you’ve ever tried that, you’ll know that this way you can hear the music very faintly.
Dadi sits in her bed and recites verses aloud. She complains to mother that she hears odd sounds which disturb her prayers and her sleep!
I take a wicked delight in worrying her, and feel relieved when she goes back to Peshawar!
The passing of the trains behind our house at Deolali is another vivid memory picture.
The shrill, piercing whistle rending the silence, dying in a wail … the growling chug- chug of the wheels corning closer, louder, louder … and then a burst of sound and fury racing past, away and dying in the distance.
We boys used to run to the fence on hearing the approaching trains, wave to them and watch them thunder past. We had to run through a deserted graveyard where Turkish prisoners of World -War I had been buried. People said there was a ghost there which went about holding its head in its hands. Thought of the ghost used to make us run all the faster.
Kulsum is young and very beautiful. She is the daughter of a Turkish prisoner and a Deccani Muslim woman named Halima. Her father died long ago. She and her mother live in a hut near our house.
Many men want to marry her. Two of them are very fond of her. One is a young hakim from Lucknow whom my father has brought to Deolali to treat my brother Ayub who has been ill for a long time. As far as Kulsum is concerned, he is wasting his time!
The other, a handsome young man, is a ticket-collector at the Deolali railway station. He is a Christian but he becomes a Muslim and marries her.
My mother frequently helps Kulsum and her mother. She and I go out to mind her flock of goats.
She teaches me to climb trees and pluck mangoes. We are great friends.
POSTSCRIPT TO KULSUM
Some years ago I went to Deolali to perform a ceremony (my mother is buried there). I ran into Kulsum and her husband. She had four or five children, had become very fat, and her pearl-white teeth had been ruined by years of paan-chewing…
Talking of girls, I began to feel romantic about them when I came to Bombay to go to college!
In the manner of college boys, many silent attachments for many girls were formed in my heart, and ended there!
One day, a girl whom I admired secretly was crossing the football ground with a boy, a Gujerati lad who was obviously more plucky than I!
I was the Sports Secretary and I had put up a notice on the board asking students not to make the football ground a short-cut to college.
I watched them coming towards the ground and grew more annoyed every moment, both because they were ignoring the notice and because the young man was with her.!
When they got to the rope cordon, I told them to go back and come round by the road. The boy was amenable to reason, but the girl challenged me to stop her. I threatened to stop her with the stick I had in my hand, but she only laughed and stooped under the rope to cross my barrier.
I touched her lightly on the head with the stick. She turned and faced me. Instead of feeling triumphant, I felt humiliated.
There was another girl who came and sat beside me when I played the Inter-Class Chess Final against a senior student. She was quiet and serene-looking. I could never muster enough courage to talk to her.
I was so overcome by her presence that I lost the final! I couldn’t concentrate on the game.
I am a good football player. I find to my dismay that the girls go in hordes to watch cricket matches, but never turn up at football matches.
I wasn’t the only one in college who was too nervous to talk to the girls and make friends with them. There were several others. We formed a league to run down the bolder boys. We were jealous, but we said those other boys had no self-respect because they “trailed the chickens”. That was the phrase we used.
When I joined films and on the very first day had to run some distance to prevent the heroine (in “Jwar Bhata”) from committing suicide, and then hold her in my arms and whisper tender words to her, I found myself in a most embarrassing and difficult predicament!
The heroine was quite calm. Although she was a newcomer like me, she had a smile on her face. But I had the jitters! All through that first picture she was confident, while I was ill at ease. I thought the clever footballer had strayed into the wrong field.
I find myself in surroundings of which I know little, and from which there is no escape.
I walk into the Bombay Talkies Studio one morning. Devika Rani receives me with an affectionate smile. She is the boss of the show and has helped me to secure this fateful entry into films. She is very kind, encouraging and considerate.
But I am so awkward in my manner that, instead of responding to her smile and greeting her, I stare at her blankly, panic-stricken, not knowing what to say, how to talk. So I turn round—and fly.
I come out of my shell. I am desperately in love. The void, the vacuum in which I have lived all along, without knowing the meaning of life, is filled with warmth and an exhilarating happiness.
A friendly hand is extended to me. It leads me from a jungle of doubt, fear and ignorance towards bright sunshine and confidence.
This is the richest episode of my vaguely troubled existence. It gives me a sense of completeness and a new awareness.
Life is not the same any more.
But I must not speak about that glorious experience….
Years have passed since then. “It is the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet tender joy.” So I, I ask myself: “Is this enveloped by that subtle beautifying hue which comes with time? Have I slipped into romanticizing?”
The answer is “no.” It is still an understatement which merely indicates the truth without fully reflecting it….
There are heartbreaks, hardships—and the income-tax! Time marches on. Dilip Kumar, the star, goes from one film to another. He wants a great many things. I, his usual self, try to keep a check on him. He is a bit of a poet. He wants to distort things, beautify them. Sometimes he fools me, but I don’t take my eyes off him. I keep telling him to restrain himself, and to stop fooling!
There is no lack of kind people, but the only ones who really matter are those you meet at the right time. And what do you learn? You learn to rely on yourself alone. Reliance, not through smug self-satisfaction but from a true appreciation of things, values and people.
But enough of the abstract!
The scene requires of me to smile at the leading lady, to tell her in a deep monotone: “My soul yearns for you. Without you, life is a hell of raging fire.”
The camera is ready. There are distinguished visitors on the set who have come to watch this realistic make-believe.
I feel sluggish and inadequate. I’d like to get away from it all. I’d like to give a piece of my mind to—.
“Come down to earth!” the heroine tells me, tugging at my sleeves.
I “come down.”
While I do the scene, I can see pity in her eyes. I know she does not understand me.
I sit and stretch myself in a chair in front of a table fan. It is very warm. I wish I was in Switzerland with my sister.
“What do you think of me?” I ask the heroine. She twists the sleeve of her choli, looks straight into my eyes and says: “I think you’re in a mess.”
Our unit is camped at Bhowali, near Naini Tal. People come here from Ramgarh and Mukteshwar, bringing apples and apricots for sale. The fruits are sent to Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta. Fourteen years ago I, too, came here to buy apples for the family business. The hotel where I once stayed (a room costing two rupees a day) is still there.
Beneath a large tree on our location site a veteran political worker sits meditating, his eyes shut. He has lived a rich and varied life, been in and out of jails, and now has only one single orchard to sustain him.
I got into conversation with him and in the course of our talk he remarked: “The best thing for anyone to win in life is peaceful sleep.” He had simplified his life to the extreme after many intense experiences.
Shobha, the sister of a friend who has been very helpful to us, tells me that she falls asleep within two minutes of going to bed. Kamalji, a school teacher at Bhowali, takes half an hour. But, I take two hours! I must say here that I have met people who are better off than I….
Resolutions for all my tomorrows: To keep to the Truth, because Truth is simple. To work and spend myself in a manner which gives a night’s rest without brooding, without regret..
For the third time I stepped on the dais to receive the “Filmfare” Award. As the President handed it to me with a smile, I stretched out my hand to receive it—a tired man, with only gratitude in my heart to God and to people.
Here I am reminded of what Will Durant says somewhere: “So much of our lives is meaningless, a self-cancelling vacillation and futility: we strive with the chaos about us and within; but we would believe all the while that there is something vital and significant in us, could we but discipline our own souls.”
I have come a long way from Nana and my first bidi, from Kulsum and her goats. As we grow, our problems grow. The perspective becomes diffused with multiple angles. Trains still pass behind a certain bunglow in Deolali, but now I sit back in my car thinking of other things….
This is a commercial age. So many people market so many things. There is nothing wrong in that. But there are some who sell their conscience. They become insensitive to goodness and beauty. They are insensitive to everything except the things that please them, and the things that hurt them.
They change their yardstick from person to person. They pull and push you, expecting you to play their game.
The other day I said “No!” to them. I held my ground and refused to budge. They flung mud at me. They yelled and cursed me.
Beware of the kindness which leads to folly. No man or woman can love you, be honest with you, if you cannot love others and be honest with them.
Love without honesty is an ailment, a curse. But honesty comes from simplifying issues, not burying them under layers of one’s own appetites and vanities.
Long ago I determined to put all my honesty and love into my work. It paid, but not without taking its toll.
Many people say many things about me, but nobody can say I have ever been insincere in my work. The fact of the matter is that I am still trying to grow up (This interview was conducted in 1957).