Shobha De, Celebrated Columnist and Novelist in a candid conversation with Canta Dadlaney for YourStory
She is sophisticated, slender, smart, sharp and shrewd – she has written 16 books till date and they all start with the alphabet ‘S’! Her name too, starts with an ‘S’ - Shobhaa De!What is it about the alphabet ‘S’? Are you superstitious or is there some power quotient? “It’s a coincidence, well yes, okay, even the word ‘superstition’ starts with the alphabet ‘S’! I smile, short of words at the quick retort. A child of Independent India, born in 1948, one wonders if that could be the cause of her independent streak. ‘It was there in me always. I guess I was born with it’. The lady oozes of confidence. And ‘De’ – is it just that. “Well, Dilip chose to keep it as ‘De’, a short form of ‘Dey’, like you have Manna Dey. And I, of course went ahead to put an accent on ‘De’ because when I went to France, they thought the name was incomplete – ‘de’ what? “
Born in a Saraswat Maharastrian family Shobhaa De has broken the shackles of a conservative community to prove that women can make it even if they choose to take the path less travelled. She raises her eyebrows at the mention of her community. ‘I was never into communities and I never will be’. I smile again. An alumni of St. Xavier’s College with a specialization in Psychology, achievements just came along her way. A determined young lass who was never overawed by money or fame for she knew exactly what she wanted and at what stage of her life.
Close your eyes and think about how orthodox Indian society must have been then and more so her community and one wonders what kind of resistance she must have put up with to make a foray into the world of modeling! ‘Well, it sure as hell was difficult’ she replies nonchalantly. My father resisted the idea of modeling in toto! I could have become what he wanted – some bureaucrat or a government secretary in the Ministry of Law but I didn’t want to. My brother became an engineer, one of my sisters became an ophthalmic surgeon and the other completed her M.A. in law (now in New York) so very naturally, my family expected me to follow a well-charted path of academics. My Dad was keen for me to get into the I.A.S but that was never an option for me. I could never, ever, dream of ending up as some assistant collector in Dhule!” The lady’s sense of humor can send you in splits and you forget for a while, that you are there to interview her.
A slender frame, aquiline features, high-cheek bones, not to forget the oozing confidence – did all that make her a potential avant-garde model? “It just happened. It always has. It’s always been others who have sensed talent, skills or what you may term it as, in me. Modeling too, just happened. I was with my Dad at the Taj – we had gone to meet someone -and I was spotted by an individual from the modeling fraternity. That’s it!” Wow! Could people get lucky just like that? “Yes, why not? My innate skills have always been identified by others more than myself being conscious about it”. When you probe more into her modeling days, she admits with great pride, ‘I modeled for the most prestigious brands, ‘Khatau sarees, Taj Tea (what Zakir Hussain endorses today) Ponds, Bombay Dyeing, all the top brands!”
And was it as sleazy as it is now? (without me elaborating on the dark side). “With the exception of my face, I would say I had modeled in a burkha”. She flashes her pearlies at you and I flash a smile .
Shobhaa endorsed the most celebrated brands way back then and she did that for almost 6 years until she was 22 years. When queried about a natural progression to Bollywood, she states “I did receive every conceivable offer to act in Bollywood, but acting per se never attracted me. I am a reticent individual” - I am sure once you get to know her, she makes splendid company – “and I enjoyed modeling not so much of ‘ramp’ though I did quite a few shows but ‘still’ photography was what I was most comfortable with. You have the photographer and a few individuals around you, that’s it and it’s like you are walled in. I could never be comfortable in films though I had been approached by the likes of both, Benegal and even Satyajit Ray”.
But surely the lure of money, fame et al would have made her consider it at least once! “Never. I had my priorities in place. As a student, I had been a state level athlete, and a record holder in basketball. Achievements came naturally to me and I took them in my stride. I could have brought home an Olympic medal but I didn’t”.
So were you the rebel in the family? “Yes, you can say that. I was too clear about what I wanted to do. I did my Mass Comm from Bhavans College and at the age of 22, I was an Editor”. Shobhaa started off as a trainee copywriter at ‘Creative unit’ which was Nari Hira’s advertising agency and then went on to become the editor of magazines like Stardust, Society and Celebrity.
Were these magazines your babies entirely? “Yes, they were totally my babies”. But they all had the glamour quotient to them so how did you differentiate between the content for each. “It was pure people journalism. They were not frivolous and not devoid of content. They gave birth to the careers of many good journalists. Stardust and Society are very popular and successful magazines even today. I was the one driving these brands and of course there was immense support from Nari Hira the founder of Magna Publishing. It was a joint effort and involvement because you can never fly solo”.
So when did the shift to ‘writing books’ happen? When did you see the need of becoming an author? And pat comes the reply, “There was never any shift. Writing is a vocation, it was there all along and was never a hobby. I didn’t want to confirm to familial traditions. Writing was and is like an alter-ego”. And where does the inspiration for the stories come, real life experiences or the ink just flows? The book ‘Socialite Evenings’ e.g. is about a prominent Bombay socialite
wanting to escape the nightmare of a broken marriage, a failed relationship and a mentally disturbed sister. Were they flavors of her own personal life”? “Look, one does tend to get inspired, very naturally, through their own experiences but not totally”.
Sports, Modeling, Books, and of late, Saree designing – how did that happen?
“It is a passion which I wanted to pursue in my space and I decided to follow it”. Are you planning to commercialize it? “No, but I will continue to do it, perhaps for friends but not on a commercial basis”.
What about scripting for television soaps? By far, everyone knows about ‘Swabhimaan’ and ‘Kitty Parties’. “ Oh, that too just happened. Mahesh Bhatt approached me to do it and ….” How can so many good things ‘just happen’ to Ms De? Believe it or not, they do.
Eroticism seems to be the heart of your books. Do all 16 of your books have erotic content? “No, not at all. And even if some of them do, why should anyone raise eyebrows? Does anyone ask M.F. Hussain why he paints horses? Does anyone question male authors why they write on erotic stuff”. The lady has an answer that drives home the point, doesn’t it?
Question her on her insane travels and she says “I get invited for ‘book readings’. I am proud of the fact that I am considered to preside over book launches and it really doesn’t matter if I have to travel”.
A columnist in the country’s leading and most widely read newspaper – the Times of India, Shobhaa is also associated with the ‘The Week’ and more. On a day she can pen down at least 1500 words but of course “There are days when nothing happens, yet when I get down to it, I can write at a manic pace”.
Dilip’s kids from his first marriage, your kids from your first marriage and the kids you’ll have had together, but even before I pop the next question, she stops me mid-way and says “I have 6 kids, period. How does anything else matter?”. That, is a great Mom, a wonderful wife and all of it together, that is Shobhaa for you!
Are you a content human being? “No one is content. There is no such thing as contentment. Only a cow can be happy”. I actually break into laughter. A cow indeed! Explain that? “If a cow has some grass and water, is in the shade, has her calves with her, she is happy”. Contentment brings complacency and one cannot be complacent because one can never be happy”. Regrets in life? “Life can never be possible without regrets”. What about religion, spirituality? “I am religious but not in the conventional sense”.
A liberal in her days, a rebel of her days, what does she feel about the current generation. “Everyone is judgmental about the next generation”. There have been articles where you have expressed your displeasure at the manner in which GenX behaves, like the girls today, acting coquettish. “But I like that, the way they do it. I hate talking to young people, telling them they are wrong. My youngest daughter wants to be a DJ and despite being a broad-minded woman, I freaked out. I did a double-take! However, I believe you have to define your own course. You have to live life courageously, in a meaningful manner and that is all that matters”.
Her current status on wearing the hat of a Publisher: “Oh, it is a challenging responsibility for sure. We have a young India, there are fresh minds for writers and it all is very fascinating.
And now for the rapid-fire questions which Ms De answered without batting an eyelid:
Two things in a man which put you off
“Bad breath, dandruff”.
Define an ideal man
“I prefer flawed guys. There is no such thing as an 'ideal' anyone. A combo of a Superman and a Ravan works for me”. – No where do we find such a combo!
The secret behind your glowing complexion - geez, did you give me a complex !!!!
“It’s the genes and basic skin care. Moisturise, Moisturise, Moisturise...”
If not a writer, what do you think you would have been
“An architect - I love the idea of reshaping skylines” – Thank god she isn’t coz I for one would never have been able to afford her fancy residences.
If you had to re-live your life all over again would you want it to shape exactly the same way it has till now or would you want some changes? “I am not an aspiring Miss India to respond to that”. Perhaps she doesn’t believe in reincarnation / karma.
Does Mr De enjoy your social status in society?
“I think both of us are well beyond such fluff...”
Does he feel over-shadowed by your 'larger -than - life' persona at social Do's?
“Come on.... are we at a high school prom vying for attention??” - She didn’t like this question
A few of your favourite things - hobbies, past-times - whatever
Movies and more movies. I am an addict. I enjoy travelling the most
If a million dollars landed at your doorstep (out-of-the blue), how would you spend them?
“Travelling to South America till the money runs out....”
The 5 languages you speak
“Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, English..... some French”.
Your favorite author
“Vikram Seth, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Your favorite movie
“Too many, but if I had to pick just one, it would be Pakeezah” – ho hum!
“Life and Loving”
With her charm and her wit
She leaves you tongue-tied in a bit
But that is how Ms Shobhaa De
Charms everyone along the way. – Canta Dadlaney