“I have been looking for Anuradha for 70 years. Does she even exist? Did she ever exist? Have I invented Anuradha?” asks Shobhaa Dé in her latest book, Insatiable, a memoir of sorts that records the passage of one year before her 75th birthday but is also layered with memories of childhood, wisdom about growing up, and how food is associated with memory-making.
As for Anuradha, she is a doppelganger that Dé says she lost in her childhood and has been looking for ever since. Born under the Anuradha nakshatra, Dé was supposed to be named Anuradha, as per the tradition in her Saraswat Brahmin community, but an uncle put paid to it because he felt that her full name, ‘Anuradha Rajadhyaksha’ would be too long. He suggested her parents call her Shobha instead. “Maybe Tatya (her uncle) killed Anuradha then and there. When the story was narrated to me, I was five years old. I cried and cried,” writes Dé.
There are several other instances of crying in the book, perhaps a first for a writer who has always come across as a no-nonsense person with sharp edges who abhors showing any kind of weakness. But the covid-19 pandemic changed all that. “In some ways, this book is a way to introspect and come to terms with the emotional aspect of so many things in my life that I had maybe kept on hold for way too long,” says Dé over a Zoom call. “For most of us, the pandemic was a time for a lot of inward thinking. And I'm glad those of us who took that time and used it well came out richer and more aware about their own interior, emotional lives. Also I think, overall, more compassionate people… for the first time in the history of the world, we were all equal, we were all together and there was no guarantee that we'd wake up the next morning.” Initially that led to a lot of panic, she says, “but it also led to a lot of reconciliation of contradictory emotions and experiences.”
The book was written after the worst of the pandemic was over, almost in real-time as Dé records the passing of each month in 2022. “It is an unconventional memoir, I'd say. I didn't want it to be a deadly boring account — I am 75 years old and I was born in Satara etc etc,” says Dé. “And attention spans now being what they are, I thought I’d rather do a snapshot of one year leading up to the big one, the big birthday. And it's very stream-of-consciousness; it's a free-flowing, chatty style, almost following the rhythm of each occasion.”
It is journal-like in recording things of the moment that also lead to reflection. “I've been journaling since I was 14 years old, and journaling is something that I find deeply satisfying. It's something I would strongly recommend to everyone. You don't have to be a writer, you're only telling yourself something that you may already know, but when you have something written down, it changes your perspective,” she says.
Her generation, she feels, was always taught to repress vulnerabilities and be “tough”. “It was perhaps the Indira Gandhi imagery and syndrome — that if you want to be taken seriously as a woman in a public space, if you want to convey the message of ‘don't mess with me’, then you have to be this kind of person,” says Dé. She finds the way younger generations — millennials and Gen Z — have embraced their vulnerabilities refreshing, but that can also be problematic at times, she says. “Being authentic, being real — I am all for it. But sometimes I can sense that it's somehow synthetic or manipulative… a certain exaggerated exhibitionism, which is glorified by your peer group. The problem is that it comes at great personal cost to those who are not strong enough to handle the aftermath,” she says.
In one of the early chapters, Dé recalls waking up at dawn one morning during the pandemic and, unable to sleep, going through her wardrobe and looking at her saris, each of which has a story attached to it. “My daughters are indifferent, even disinterested in my collection… Only I know their stories. Why am I hanging on to garments nobody else will have the slightest interest in preserving after I’m gone? Suddenly, I’m overcome with feelings of self-loathing and immense guilt,” she writes. This is a new turn for Dé, certainly, embracing her vulnerabilities and shedding, from time to time, the glittery, well-put-together personality, always ready with a quip or two, that one is used to seeing reflected in her columns and in her many appearances at literary festivals.
“Being a veteran does not make you a cynic. It does not make you jaded. And the last thing a writer should be is a narcissist,” says Dé, talking about a chapter in which she admits to feeling insecure as a writer during a lit-fest. It is a necessary element of being a writer, she feels. “You cannot be full of yourself and yet imagine that you're going to make it big as a writer because a writer needs forever to be uncertain and afraid… Forever in that zone of feeling desperately low and small about your talent. But at the same time, you can't let it cripple you. You have to have your own voice and be proud of that voice, which I indeed am.”