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I refuse to give up and become a harmless old lady: Shobhaa De

At 70, Shobhaa De has a new book, reserves of wicked humour, and some sharp opinions about the world

Shobhaa De at her residence in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Shobhaa De at her residence in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

On the eve of her 70th birthday, Shobhaa De is as indomitable as she was half a century ago. She pouts, pirouettes and plays to the gallery or, in this case, the photographers who throng her living room for back-to-back photoshoots and interviews for Seventy…And To Hell With It!, her latest book. It swoops in and out of her life and contemporary India, touching on sex, ageism, creativity, motherhood and mortality.

In the middle of all this, she is packing for her big destination birthday party in Phuket, Thailand, where she will usher in the 70s on a party bus with crazy dancing. De effortlessly shifts from giggly birthday girl and party planner to her no-nonsense self as she speaks about being labelled the Sunny Leone of Indian literature, anti-Maharashtrian and a dragon woman. She approaches death threats with the levity of an absurd drama, having had armed policemen sitting outside her door for over two years on the trot. But, even at 70, mellowing is the last thought on her mind. She takes on literary criticism and internet trolling spiritedly and maintains that her greatest fear is to “give up and become a harmless old lady". Edited excerpts from an interview:

What has changed in the decade between your earlier book ‘Shobhaa At Sixty’ and ‘Seventy...And To Hell With It!’?

Shobhaa At Sixty was more about externals, while this is a more reflective book. The earlier book was a much more sassy, fun, “60s is not an affliction" kind of a book. In both books there is one common thread—a fight against this cage of age, especially where women are concerned. There is a great amount of insecurity imposed by the world on women of a certain age, and some of this is self-imposed as well. I find the idea completely unnecessary. It has nothing to do with who women are or want to be and has almost everything to do with your physicality. And obviously, women are subject to this far more than men, as men can look grey and distinguished. Unfortunately, I find this a rare moniker in women—they are usually just called “buddhis". For me this was one of the triggers, the idea that you don’t have to feel apologetic about your age at 60, 70 or, who knows, maybe even at 80.

There is this bit in ‘Seventy’ where you say Paris is a city you want to cry in, New York accepts mad laughter, while in Mumbai, the city you call home, it is hard to do either.

This city has given me fodder for my books and made me who I am. It challenges me all the time and frustrates me as well but that is part of the package as it would be boring to love a city unconditionally. There is no stimulation in adoration. This is a city where I have been hounded and persecuted for what I have written; I don’t think there is another city in India that would have tolerated me and, in its own funny way, accepted me for better or worse. My formative years were spent here, the city has defined my impulses and I always feel I owe it a big one. But the city which I mention where one can neither laugh nor cry has nothing to do with Bombay (now Mumbai). It’s a different city which takes getting used to—here anger is not legitimate as we have surrendered all our freedoms to political forces, laughter is restricted, tears are accepted if they are for the right cause and approved by the establishment. At the moment, I am in a state of limbo as far as Mumbai is concerned. Being exposed to the glamorous side of the city doesn’t necessarily mean I have closed my eyes to the many other worlds out there. I write about this world because this is the milieu I know best, but I feel this fascination with the high life of Mumbai is misplaced. It’s like writer and literary critic Mary Colum said, “The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money."

You have been given many monikers but India’s Jackie Collins is a title that has stuck. What are your thoughts on it?

You know I have even been called the Sunny Leone of literature and I am very happy with it. The Jackie Collins tag is because of Anthony Spaeth, who is a brilliant writer and a dear friend, but honestly I could wring his neck. It is the albatross I will be carrying to my grave and even though I won’t have an epitaph on a tombstone, my obituary will probably be titled, “India’s Jackie Collins is dead". It’s tiresome really and you know I wish I had big hair and wore only leopard-print outfits, but alas, that is not the case and it was one stupid photoshoot involving a pink lehnga and a tiger-skin rug that did me in and it was Spaeth to blame for it again.

Did you ever find it intimidating to be in the company of literary stalwarts at festivals and panels?

I was always awestruck like a fangirl and I continue to be. Every time I read fantastic prose, I kept going back to the wonderful sentences, but it has never made me wish, “Oh God, why don’t I write like this." It’s undiluted and unconditional admiration for someone else’s craft and skills, that’s it, and there’s no question of being intimidated. The only time I was overwhelmed in the most wonderful way was when Mahasweta Devi embraced me and referred to my work. For me, that was a supreme compliment and there were no strings attached there and I felt fabulous. Then there was another time when Paul Theroux told me that he admired me as a writer and that was way back when I was being slashed and slandered on all platforms. I don’t think he meant it facetiously and that really mattered to me.

Conversations around gender today are tied to the idea of the confessional, like the #MeToo movement. What is your take on this?

I am not completely on board with this campaign and coming out 40 years later and saying a man showed his private parts to me. I mean, what the hell were you doing for all these years? The response cannot be you are afraid, unless you are in a life-threatening situation where someone has you trapped in a room and is wielding a gun. In any other situation, there is always something you can do—run, scream, or seek help. You need to call out the man right then and you cannot say things like fear of losing of your job or public ostracism held you back. Those are the choices you are making because you don’t want to face the other. Why should you get on to that couch and sleep with the director? The worst thing that could happen is that you’d lose a movie or 10 movies, but the choice to get on the couch is yours alone. And you can’t turn around 30 years later and say that he forced you into it. I wouldn’t judge the women who are finding some comfort in telling these stories but it’s not an option for me. I think this is a transitional period where women are finding the strength and voice to say that this is wrong and it must stop. But the question is, what comes next?

This leads me to a question on desire and sex. Public conversations around sex have moved into the terrain of victimhood and violence against women...

You need more writers to make sex all the things that it is—a pleasurable, wicked, liberating experience that it once was. Basically, we need a Flaubert in the Indian context. Conversations around sex need to be more sensual. Nowadays when I hear young women speaking, they objectify men just as much as the other way round. And that lack of subtlety is off-putting. I think we also need a Kalidasa, with clouds and doves carrying messages of love.

How did David Davidar (publisher of Penguin India) convince you to write your first book, ‘Socialite Evenings’, in 1989?

I was enormously pregnant and David Davidar told me I should write a book about Bombay because I got the city like not many did. I liked writing about Bombay and was quite happy doing so. However, a book would involve pounding the pavements of the city, research and so on. And it was only at that point in the conversation that he finally noticed that I was pregnant. Then he quickly changed tack and said, “Oh. You should still do it, but why not make it a novel set in Mumbai instead and then you don’t have to go out." Then he said, “Okay, I’ll be back." That was that. I promptly forgot all about it as my brain was in my womb. One month later, he called and asked me for the outline and I panicked. In the next 4 hours, I hammered out an outline on a brown paper laundry bag with an eyebrow pencil and, to my shock, he liked it and told me to write the book, and so then I had no choice. That’s how I wrote Socialite Evenings. I remember the book was a best-seller as well as the most trashed book in the history of Asian literature. It received a staggering number of nasty reviews—a grand total of 293—and even Reuters did a story about that.

Your books became the stuff of forbidden pleasure that young women would hide from their mothers and read while men would skip to the “juicy" parts. How did that make you feel?

Even now whenever I speak at litfests, young women come up to me and say their mothers never let them read my books and they used to hide them under their blouses in their cupboards! They had to sneak it out and read it in a clandestine manner. There were questions like, “Madam, all this sex-vex, this is all about your life, right?" They would never ask Khushwant Singh or any other male writer that question, but I was always asked the same thing. Nowadays I say, this is an extremely diluted and censored version of my life and the real thing is far wilder. Or, I would get asked questions like, how does your husband allow you to write this stuff?

Who is the writer who inspired you to start writing?

My father was a bureaucrat who believed in investing in books. Back then I would have rather he invested in a fluffy pink party dress for me but that didn’t happen. So we grew up with the classics, everything from Tolstoy to Jane Austen. What did it for me was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night. His description of New York high society was drawn from the world he knew and it was absolutely magnificent.

Seventy...And To Hell With It! By Shobhaa De, Penguin Random House, 336 pages, Rs399.
Seventy...And To Hell With It! By Shobhaa De, Penguin Random House, 336 pages, Rs399.

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