January Issue 2007
Interview: Shobhaa De
“Writers do not choose their genre, the genre chooses the writer”
– Shobhaa De
Her reputation preceeds her. She is bold, provocative, scathing — tells it like she wants to and doesn’t mince words. And yet, when I met Shobhaa De, variously described as the author of the Jackie Collins-style “racy and raunchy” novel and the gorgeous columnist “with a pen dipped in poison,” I was pleasantly surprised to find that she is far from the battleaxe the Indian media has made her out to be. Intelligent and blunt and at the same time, emotional and pragmatic, she comes across less as a feminist and more as a well-rounded, progressive woman who knows where her priorities lie.
In Karachi for the launch of Nadya A.R.’s debut novel, Kolachi Dreams, Shobhaa De chats with Newsline about her books, Indian celebrities, her family and more.
A: Actually, it’s not something I had planned. Many people are not aware that I have also written non-fiction, and that certain novels are non-racy. Only three of my 14 books are racy novels, the remaining, whether fiction or non-fiction, are provocative, have attitude and are up-front in what they are saying, but cannot be described as raunchy or racy. I think it is true of any writer that they do not choose their genre, the genre chooses the writer because of the way he or she is wired.
Q: But, your writing, by and large, tends to be controversial. Do you agree?
A: Yes, I don’t believe in safe. The only thing is that when you decide, or even instinctively, write something that is deemed controversial, you have to be able to substantiate what you are saying and have a track record of credibility. There has to be some sense of responsibility and you have to take what comes your way too. There have been enough controversial things said about me — one cannot afford to say, “I am the one who has the privilege to say something, but will not accept any criticism or reaction to it.” Dissent is a very good thing in any society and keeps everyone on their toes, including me.
Q: How do you react to being called the Jackie Collins of the East?
A: I don’t identify with it in the least and I’ve outgrown that label a long time ago. I was quite surprised to find it in your papers — I think someone must have just got it off the net and thought it a convenient tag to put on a woman. This sort of stereotyping is typical — I thought I had left it behind.
Q: Do you see yourself as part of Mumbai’s ‘high society’?
A: I don’t regard myself as part of it. It’s not just a feeling that you belong to high society — it’s your circumstances — which you don’t engineer. I’m very much a by-product of my city. With 30 years of writing behind me — having edited magazines, been a columnist and an author — it is inevitable that you are identified with the elite. But, it doesn’t add value to my life — nor does it take away anything from it. If that’s how it’s perceived, so be it. But, it would be fake and hypocritical to claim that I belong to any other segment — if at all one is to slice up society. I feel no reason to explain it or apologise for it.
Q: You say that you maintain a ‘glamour girl’ image at all times simply because it is expected of you, even though you often find it tedious. Isn’t that in a way, being fake?
A: I have to do it as it’s part of my professional obligation. For example, if I were to go for my own book launch, I think it would be insulting to the readers, organisers and my publishers if I were to go in a scruffy pair of jeans and uncombed hair. And I think each one of us, whether we realise it or not, tries to dress appropriately for the occasion. But, what I find intrusive is that even at times when I just want to hang out at an ice-cream parlour or I am holidaying somewhere, I have to maintain a certain image. Sometimes it can get to you, but even then, I feel that any person who is a public figure owes that much to the public — to be courteous at all times; to never, never rebuff someone who wants to speak to them about their work or be stand-offish or hostile to a person who might want an autograph, because without those people they would be nowhere and nothing.
So, when movie stars say they can’t stand it when fans bother them, they have no business to be in show-biz because the up-side is so phenomenal — they are getting paid a lot of money to live up to people’s fantasies and expectations. If they are in show-biz, there is no excuse for bad behaviour. For instance, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt behaved disgracefully when they were shooting in India. As international public figures they did owe their host country some grace and ‘tameez’.
Q: There has been a drastic change in Mumbai society from the days when society ladies dressed in silks, chiffons and pearls. How do you react to today’s casual dressing style?
A: It’s a global phenomenon. Mumbai, more than any other city in India, has always reflected global changes. I think the younger generation is much more laid-back and casual on one level; at another level they are completely label-obsessed. The biggest brands in the world are available in India today and there is a lot of conspicuous consumption. Discreet is no longer in — it’s all about bling. It’s part of change and one should accept of it. I am sure the chiffons and silks, which are classics, will come back — eventually, everything comes back full circle.
Today, it is more important, I guess, for a young Indian to be completely in tune with what is happening with their counterparts in Milan, or Paris or New York. They want to be global citizens — therefore the obsession to carry the latest Fendi bag, and have the latest shades and chains. However, I see this as a temporary phenomenon. I have just launched my own fashion label and am beginning to understand the whole consumer mentality and the retail game. To be able to understand the psychology of the new buyer — the nouveau riche, and the young in general — is quite fascinating. The kind of money they spend on a Chanel tote for instance, would have been unthinkable ten years ago. For a young adult to spend Rs 80,000 on a handbag — parents would never have endorsed such an act, even if they had the money. There’s a lot of pressure on teenagers today to be hip, cool and happening — and apparently all that is defined by the latest designer accessories — I really feel sorry for them.
Q: You were quite emotional when speaking about your husband at the book launch. How understanding has your family been about your provocative writing?
A: I tend to become very emotional when I think of my family and what we share, and I just feel very fortunate. I think they are very proud of me. We live in the twenty-first century and my racy novels are just one aspect of my professional life. I enjoy doing certain things that are very meaningful to me and my columns are not at all racy — they are just consistently provocative. I write for television and reach out to a lot of different constituencies in a way. Also, I don’t think there is anything that shocking at all, even about my racy books. This is the biggest shock-proof generation, in any case. What is there in my novels that they cannot access with the click of a button — in cyber world you can access anything you wish to. I’m tired of having to explain or defend my work because I don’t think a man in my position would be asked to do so.
Q: Is it is because you are a woman, and that too from the subcontinent, that you find yourself in this predicament?
A: There are at least ten women authors in India from my age group whose books are far stronger in terms of what they are saying — whether it is incest or homosexuality or what-have-you. There is no such thing as a taboo subject left any more. Even in The God of Small Things, the central point of the whole book was incest.
Q: Do you find any commonality between your book and Nadya’s?
A: Well, my first book, Socialite Evenings was a very truthful representation of a certain segment of Mumbai society, with its underlying hypocrisies, and in that sense I think Kolachi Dreams is also holding up a mirror to Karachi society – and it is not a very pretty face that is reflected in it. I am sure that Nadya is aware that her book is likely to cause ripples and she is prepared for that.
Q: How do you feel about the fact that some of your books are part of course studies in certain states in the US?
A: Also, in the University of London, where four of my books are being taught. There are 80 to 100 dissertations on my works. On one level I feel surprised and on another completely delighted that someone spends so many precious years getting a doctorate and probably seeing a lot in my books that, on a conscious level, I may not have been aware of when writing them — especially the strong elements angle since all my books have female protagonists who don’t see themselves as victims or door-mats, and eventually come around and take charge of their own lives. Most of the dissertations are based on the feminist angle.
For me, it is a very touching moment when someone visits me because they need a short interview or some clarification prior to submitting their dissertation. A lot of them are women and professionals teaching at universities, and they often come with their husbands who are not really aware of my work. On one such occasion, a husband who had sat quietly throughout, said to me before leaving, ‘We have lived with you these past three years like a member of our family, while my wife has been working night and day on her thesis, and we have helped her gather cuttings and information on you. My attitude towards my wife and women in general changed when I read her thesis.’ They come with so much respect that it makes everything worth it.
Q: Why is it that the titles of all your books, save perhaps one, begin with the letter ‘S’?
A: It just works for me. I like the ‘sh’ or ‘s’ sound — there is a certain resonance that can’t be explained. And, since it has worked for me since the time I was editor of Stardust and Society, till my last book Spouse, I feel why knock it?
Q: You have been a king and queen-maker from the time of Stardust. Over the years, who would you personally rate as an indisputable star?
A: The era of the big star is over. I think it’s such a shame because mystique is a very crucial aspect of stardom and today most of the stars have forgotten that. You don’t want the star you fantasise over on the big screen to be the girl-next-door. You want the aura. I think Rekha is the last of the Miss Mystique’s left; she is very aware of the fact that she needs to preserve that at all costs for her own survival, and she is very good at it. But, if I were to think of someone with great star presence, someone whose presence sends an electric current through the room, I think it would be Sanjay Dutt to a very large extent. Plus, he is adored by the public that is willing to forgive him anything.
Of course, Amitabh Bachchan is larger than life. Sri Devi, in her time and even today, certainly has star power. Madhuri Dixit — elusive, beautiful, talented — is definitely one of the greats. Shah Rukh Khan, one of the smartest, most intelligent persons I have ever come across — and I have met many — has manufactured star quality. It is a very conscious construct. He has actually worked on compensating for what he may not have in his own personality. He is one person on the screen and quite another when you meet him.
I think Aishwarya Rai is quite a star. Sushmita Sen is a star. When she enters a room, you notice. Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta, Priyanka Chopra, Kajol, are not stars. Hema is a star, with extraordinary presence and a lot of dignity and grace. She is very much her own woman and is coming into her own fantastically — she will be sixty this year. She is definitely one of my top five favourite women.
Q: Where do you think Bollywood is heading?
A: The sky is the limit. It’s finally found its groove, understood its own potential — and with the corporatisation of Bollywood, they are putting in systems they should have 20 years go. Today, with the business models they are following in terms of distribution, marketing, promotion, set-up and financing, it is obvious they are going about it in a very smart and systematic way. This means that they will be able to penetrate markets they haven’t so far — which they are already doing very successfully. Now, they have to seriously work on content. But, the good thing is, that with the multiplex culture coming to India in such a big way and so many cinemas coming up, the smaller budget films, which used to be called art films or alternate cinema, are getting a boost. There is more dynamism and better leadership within Bollywood today, and Bollywood is being looked at the way it deserves to be — as a conglomerate.
Q: You’ve done so many different things over the years — which of your achievements are you the proudest of?
A: The strange thing is that I don’t look at them as ‘achievements’ and am always a little suspicious of that word. I just feel blessed that I’ve done what I enjoy doing with all my heart and have never looked at life as a series of milestones. I’m very much a creature of the moment and live in the today and the now. So, it’s difficult to answer a question like this truthfully for what I say may sound like a clichÃ©, but it’s the truth — that nothing else gives me the satisfaction and sense of fulfillment as when I watch my kids. It’s not related at all to their achievements but to the fact that they are good human beings with the right values, are happy, and in such a dysfunctional world we have managed to be there for one another and enrich each other’s lives in our own way. Nothing can compete with that or give me more pleasure.
At the end of the day, success is a very cold word — you can’t take it to bed or cuddle it or hug it, and I really could walk away from it all without a second thought. My highs come from very small things. Things that seem insignificant to people could be of tremendous joy to me. I hope my curiosity for everything stays with me always for if I lose that side of my personality, I will probably die of boredom.
Q: Are there any causes you espouse?
A: Yes, several. But, I just feel it’s so unnecessary to beat your little drum about it. I think it’s demeaning to do that. I just do what I have to do and what my conscience tells me to do, and I do it with all my heart and sincerity and leave it at that. But, I am willing to support any cause anywhere in the world that involves women and children, and cancer.
To me it’s very important to speak up on behalf of the voiceless — even if it’s a man – and that is why I write my gender column. For those of us who are in the media and have a platform, to not speak up is to not respect our position. I think of a column as a sacred space that should not be abused or taken for granted.
Q: Have you read any other Pakistani writers — besides Tehmina Durrani and Nadya?
A: Only Bapsi Sidwa. Tehmina’s book, My Feudal Lord, like Kolachi Dreams — and even more so in a way, because of her circumstances and the person she was married to at the time — was a gutsy book. Her second book, Blasphemy, didn’t impress me as much. She also sent me the book she did on Edhi. I liked My Feudal Lord and thought she was certainly breaking the mould. It needs a lot of courage in a conservative society to go public with your wounds as she did. I enjoyed meeting her and thought she was a very beautiful, fragile, crushed bird.
Q: Are you afraid of old age?
A: Never. Age is a non-issue for me — something that has never pre-occupied me. I’ve enjoyed each facet of my life in different ways and for different reasons. Now I’m looking forward to becoming a grandma, but none of my children are willing to oblige and get married. I think you look as good as you feel, so if you have led a life which you feel is fulfilling and feel good about yourself, chances are you will look good, and that’s the best cosmetic in the world.
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. She also works at Hum television.