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Nargis – Leaves from Her Diary

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This is an unusual diary. It is about Nargis, the film actress, by Nargis, the woman, who believes that the soul of Nargis the film actress and star is still childlike.

PERHAPS it is a matter for much conjecture. Who can write about her? Who knows her so intimately? Who else but myself? I have dwelt within her for twenty-eight years. I am her soul.

Nargis, whom you all know—or think you know—sustained severe burns on the 1st of March 1957 during the shooting of a scene in “Mother India”. Old orthodox women told her afterwards: “You have been granted a new life, my dear …” Nargis resolutely burned all her memories then. But I know them well, and I shall tell you something about her.

June 1, 1929: It was a hot, sultry day. Two little boys, ten-year-old Akhtar and nine-year-old Anwar, were in front of the closed door of a small room in Calcutta. They were eagerly awaiting “the new arrival”. Soon the nurse came out and told them they had a little sister to play with.

The little June-born baby did not cry the moment she was born. She looked round with wondering eyes, but with the first realization that she was to be part of this world, she let out a lusty yell—and those around her greeted it with joyous laughter.

The year 1934: A little girl had dozed off wearily behind some plywood and canvas flats, part of a studio set. It was three o’clock in the morning. She was wakened by a dash of water on her face. They were ready for the shot. She had to get back to work.

Her mother had promised her a big doll which said “Mommy”! At five, Nargis earned her first wages, the doll, for working in her mother’s own film: “Search for Truth”.

The year 1936: The Queen Mary High School for Girls, Bombay. Nargis was led by her father to the Principal’s office. The Principal asked her: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Boldly, unflinchingly, she answered: “A doctor!” Her father left her in the school, in the first standard, in the midst of strange faces. But she did not cry. She always felt lost, even as a child. She was lonely among so many children. She had no friends because the whisper went round: “She is acting in films. Don’t talk to her.” It hurt.

At age twelve: Everyone was worried. Nargis was dying of typhoid. Her mother looked up with tearful eyes and begged the Almighty not to take her away. After forty-five days, her temperature came down to normal. Once again there was rejoicing all round her. Nargis could not rejoice. She lay with open eyes in complete, absolute; darkness. She was blind. She remained blind for four full days. When she regained her sight, she could see the world and its people only through a hazy mist.

Strange that the first happiness Nargis experienced (and was able to give to others) was on the day she went back to school after her illness.

The care taken of her during her convalescence left rolls of flesh on her body, and it was an abnormally fat little girl who “rolled” into the class. She made everyone laugh.

She came to be known as the clown of her class; at the same time, she became the favorite of the other pupils and the teachers. She thought: “Why does anything abnormal become the object of so much attention?”

The year 1943: Nargis went back to the arc lights and movie cameras. It was for the leading role in Mr. Mehboob’s “Taqdeer”. Her dreams of becoming a doctor and healing the sick were pushed back into the far corners of her mind. They receded further and further with each picture, but she never forgot them.

Nargis was on the ladder of fame. She looked up to its top and somehow knew she must not look down.

The year 1948: Death came to Nargis’s house. Her father, whom she loved very much, passed away. Less than eight months later, death came again, this time to claim her adored mother, Jaddanbai.

The loss of her parents left deep scars on Nargis’s mind and heart. She missed them all the time, even when she outwardly seemed gay and happy. She travelled over half the world and met many people, yet she always felt lost and very much alone.

Somehow, she found ways and means to help others who were suffering.

Nargis was ambitious and very stubborn. She found life, and clung to it. But she soon found that life is adept at playing a game of hide-and-seek. She yelled when she was born. When the world yelled back at her, she smiled. Later, she even rebuked—she did not care.

The year 1957: She was working in “Mother India”. She felt that her desires were being fulfilled, as far as the artist in her was concerned. But she felt as lost as ever before and seemed to be constantly in “search of Truth”— it was an urge which her mother had planted in her mind at the tender age of five when she began her acting career.

The 1st of March, 1957: It was 4-30 p.M. Preparations were being made for the fire sequence in “Mother India”. Nargis, made up to look like an old woman, was talking to some of the members of the unit. Strangely enough. she was talking of death and saying how much her hands, with the make-up on them, resembled her mother’s hands.

“Ready for take,” came a voice. Then “Light the fire”—and the studio hands proceeded to do so. Mr. Mehboob’s quiet voice came through the megaphone: “Baby, run in!” .. She ran in, to embrace the flames. The flames responded willingly. They embraced her and planted burning kisses on her weary but determined brow.

It was soon over. Nargis was rescued. She had sustained burns. But, in the flames, she had at last found the TRUTH she had been searching for, the Truth which freed her. The old Nargis died in those flames.

Nobody knew her. No one understood her. Only I. I knew her. I am her soul. I am the new Nargis, still childlike as the old but, after passing through that fire, somehow happily, gratefully, satisfyingly different.

(This interview was conducted in 1957)

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