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India’s original influencer has compartmentalised her latest book into 12 seasons, sorry 12 months. Insatiable: My Hunger For Life by Harper Collins shows Shobhaa De has turned passionate and caring, she wants the world to embrace love because she is confident love will always triumph over hate. She wants to kiss the earth and tell the gods she is grateful because she and her family survived the deadly Covid.
Why not, you can discuss anything and everything over food, right? As she writes in the introduction: “Being a compulsive people-watcher, I love to spy on the unsuspecting enjoying their meals. How, When, Where and What someone eats tells you as much as the person’s janam kundali. It reveals habits, upbringing, attitudes, sensitivities, preferences, fetish, cravings, hang-ups, obsessions.”
De has been at it for more than five decades, she will continue to write more columns, articles and books and pick up very, very interesting lines. I once had the privilege to share some space with her in the Mumbai Mirror post the traumatic death of Sunanda Pushkar. De wrote in her inimitable style how Pushkar loved the lines "Raat Baki, Baat Baki." De’s assessment of India’s public space is brilliant, she is always bold and never been interrupted by anyone.
In the chapter on January, De writes passionately: “We had become greedy for emotional scraps thrown our way. Tactile greed—there was nobody to hold! Aural greed—I missed the blaring horns of city life at its busiest. Even olfactory greed—toxic diesel fumes on highways once we travelled on without a care in the world. And then—the sight of strangers! Yes—strangers. Not just the people we were stuck with at home during the punishing lockdown. We grabbed at anything that reminded us how fortunate we were to be alive. Alive! pulsating alive.. my own heartbeat had become my music of choice.” Brilliant lines.
De is just emotional when she talks about life during the pandemic. It was a time when she had nowhere to go, yet she lived happily through those unending, silent and tragic months. She made no effort to go through her clothes. There was no one to go to, no one to impress. Writes De, “This had become a shared syndrome world over—a symbol of our collective isolation. And yet, those unopened packages provide an incentive. It was important to believe that I would be donning those silken wonders soon.”
De does write to get reactions, she has been writing because she had to write, she loved to write. She has not missed a single deadline, not missed a single column. But she feels the current times are different, she does not explain clearly, there is a subtle political hint here. She writes in the book: “Getting into trouble becomes an addiction. The force is with me! Take that, you activist-shaktivists. See you in Srinagar.”
And she wants people to write and express themselves. She knows there are thousands creating content by the micro-seconds. De feels it is a wonderful way of expression. I heard her talking to a television host where she said she has made her life simpler, examples of which are all over Insatiable.
De loves watching Uorfi Javed every morning to see what she wears and the way she carries herself, the way she comes to the turf without degrading herself. De gets upset when people say Uorfi should be arrested. She feels it is wrong, why should Uorfi be arrested, for what? Is she breaking any law?
I loved the lines where a staunch feminist De argues for women, and tells men to shut up when she compares breasts to cleavage. She prefers mounds and wonders if men genuinely feel strong about their private parts since they are obliged to hold their genitals several times a day while peeing. “Women also stare at other women’s breasts, but the opportunities to do so are far fewer.”
She wants to enjoy life. March brings the Maharashtrian new year Gudi Pawa, and De’s secret wish is to join the gorgeously dressed Maharashtrian mulgis, the attractive young women of the community, dressed in traditional finery, prominent naths (big nose rings) in place.
Insatiable explains why De constantly wants to explore. She admits that she still feels insecure, and it is not about the recognition or numbers. Insecurity keeps a writer going. A writer should always be a little afraid and very insecure, it will keep the writer on toes. There is no place for cynicism for a creative person, a writer. You cannot afford to be jaded and negative, De reminds her readers.
She is also amazed at the air of finality writers display at literary fests as if they will change the world. She remembers her days at the Jaipur Literary Festival and wants to tell the new writers that they should not hyperventilate just because they have written one book. And it is not penicillin.
De has filled Insatiable with interesting stories about family, and friends. She remembers MF Husain who passed away at a London hospital eleven years ago. She remembers how Husain Saab would come for meals but hardly eat, visit cafes near Kala Ghoda and sketch on paper napkins and give them to people standing nearby. De remembers how Madhuri Dixit would patiently brew tea eight times in her kitchen in Denver, Colorado when Husain dropped in. For Husain, she was the perfectionist. “Husain Saab could not quite accept the sight of an apsara he worshipped going to the neighbourhood mall to buy groceries, pushing a cart like an ordinary hausfrau, with a toddler in tow. To him, she was the eternal enchantress— Chandramukhi from Devdas (2002).”
She remembers the night Salman Rushdie was attacked. And that the attack took place thirty-three years after the fatwa was issued against Salman, made it more demonic. De writes in the chapter titled August: “There are reports he could lose an eye and perhaps the use of his arm. Dear God! No! Spare Salman. I think of him as one of the world’s most important writers - erudite, gutsy, deeply human. I want him to live! Selfishly …for myself. And for readers across the world who admire and love him. I feel proprietorial. He is ‘our’ genius, our original Bombay Boy, and that will never change.”
I checked some of her interviews after Insatiable hit the stands. De appeared very forthcoming. She heard a lot of Coke Studio and Pasuri, now she wants to hear the Chaudhary tune. And in Pathan, SRK was not at his glorious best. She wanted more and more of SRK. She wants to meet many many people in India, people who define the new India, people who have ambitions, who have aspirations.
She does not want to meet only socialites, never mind her first book in 1989 was about socialites. It was the world she knew best; it was the world not many in India knew. So, De took the plunge first before the Page 3 phenomenon started. De turned Malabar Hill into Mandrake’s Xanadu and compared it with Beverly Hills which hundreds, sorry thousands, sat up and took notice of.
Her favourite still remains Socialite Evenings. She says she does not construct controversies; she says she is not afraid of them. She writes her truth and she is not forcing anyone to read her books. The position of women in her books has been a subject of global discussions, some study papers and even some doctorates. That’s a wonderful feeling.
So, what will keep De going? Macher jhol keeps her charged up, the elixir of life for her is the air in India, just hawa. She loves hing kachoris of Jaipur, a city of myriad colours. After a hard day's work, De’s best food must be a gently made khichdi. Semi-solid, it has to be piping hot. It must have ginger and green chillies and a generous dollop of ghee. She is hungry to travel, she will visit Argentina and Brazil and do the Tango she never did.
Finally, she has connected with Anuradha within. The original De. She has neglected Anuradha for 75 long years, she needs to find her. Her husband is now connected with Anuradha, he calls her every day “Good morning, Anuradha”.
And then she plans her dream dinner party list: The invite must go to Amartya Sen, and Abhijit Banerjee, both Nobel laureates, so knowledgeable and yet, deeply interested in food. Then she must have at the table economist Raghuram Rajan, and Rahul Gandhi. Right now, she is crushing on him.
She is seeing a totally different version of a man India has always taken for granted and written off. And then definitely Narendra Modi because she likes him and she has a list of questions for the Prime Minister. She knows Modi will answer them wonderfully well, and she will be left eating her words but so what. And then there must be one brilliant dancer, Arundhati Roy who is deep, playful, mischievous and stands for something she feels very strongly. And a great singer like Lucky Ali who breaks her heart.
That’s Insatiable, that’s De for you. It’s about food, people and conversations.
(Shantanu Guha Ray is the Asia Editor of Central European News, UK and Zenger News, US. He is also a columnist with Moneycontrol. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)