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Shobhaa De

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“The youth have a ‘bullshit meter’ ”

Shobhaa Dḗ is a writer of over a dozen books. Her latest offering ‘Superstar India’ is a tale of her romance with a free country that shares her age. She has also launched a line of saris, been an editor, a model, a columnist and a busy mother of six children.

Q. At a stage in life where most writers face a creative constipation, you have been extremely productive, ‘Superstar India’ being your latest. Where does the creative libido come from?
A. We have to be passionate about what we do. Writing is my passion. I’ve never faced a writers’ block. I have a deadline every single day of my life. So, I attempt every work with the same enthusiasm as my first book or first column. One can’t explain inspiration. It just comes. It’s like asking M.F. Hussain, who is over 90 now, ‘Why do you draw this line?’

Q. But, your writings have faced strong criticism for being overtly sexual, saucy and overbold. How do you react to this?
A. I’ve been on both sides of the fence and have critiqued art, food and literature. So, I don’t need to get back at the critics; they’re doing their job. I take it in my stride. However, what irritates me is when personal attacks take form as book criticisms. If you want to personally attack me, I’m game; but please don’t take it to the book page.

Q. Talking of personal attacks, there has been a lot of celebrity hullabaloo in the blogosphere of late. As a social commentator, how do you see blogging?
A.  I think it is very democratic. It’s a personal space that allows you to express yourself uninhibited. Even I blog at www.shobhaade.blogspot.com. It is the kind of freedom columns don’t give you and books can’t provide you. You publish your post as you like it and there are immediate responses from utter strangers. It’s great. If the celebrity bloggers decide to slug it out at each other, that’s perfectly fine. Just that the journalists would feel bad about being left out of the slugfest! However, for a public figure like Aamir Khan to have said something like: ‘My dog Shah Rukh licks my feet’; I thought that was in very poor taste. He did pay a very dear price given the public outrage that ensued his comment. Maybe he meant it in a very tongue-in-cheek fashion but it backfired. I liked the way Shah Rukh handled the situation by staying silent instead of releasing statements like: ‘The mongrel in my galli is named Aamir.’

Q. Even the media sensationalizes such happenings. Especially, the electronic media is suffering from a cut-throat competition. Aren’t we suffering as a media democracy?
A. I’m totally against censorship, but the media must have a sense of responsibility. The acute competition has led to a mad rush to get the eyeballs, and reduced news channels to ambulance chasers. But, come to think of it, this happened in the United States as well. It’s all a matter of the sensibilities of the audience maturing and it will take time. Today, I think there is something for everyone; if you want to watch garbage, you can. But as a society we have to cope with the changing media trends. Even pornography has entered cable TV in our living rooms and we have to figure out how to deal with it. Popular commercial cinema especially reflects the popular culture of any age. Every period has had one movie that held up a mirror to the society – making it conscious of its changing structure. For example ‘Tashan’, a horrible movie, demonstrates how the word ‘bitch’ has undergone a change. It has become a compliment if said in the right tone. Saif (Ali Khan) addresses Kareena (Kapoor) as a bitch at least four times in the movie and she preens each time. The word had entirely different connotations earlier.

Q. When it comes to societal changes, you advocate that India needs an image makeover on the international platform. But, wouldn’t an image-rectification be seen as a desperation to please by the international community?
A. The Forbes list of the richest individuals has four Indians among the top 10. That’s no mean feat. We are an economic powerhouse, a formidable military power and a nuclear nation. We are no longer a pauper nation that the British left us as after stripping away all our wealth. We have survived as a vibrant democracy and battled all odds to have a 450 million strong educated middle class with purchasing power and enough food grain to export it. This is the India story. I don’t say exaggerate it and tell it to the world, tell it as it is. That is what ‘Superstar India’ is all about. Many countries in the world which are not as commercially successful as India have their top brains as image consultants to boost the way the world views them. We have to battle old prejudices: we are not a country of starved, sickly individuals and no proper civilization. We need to tell that to the world.

Q. In spite of the patriotism, there are rifts everywhere: Telangana vs. Andhra; Vidarbha vs. Maharashtra; the North-East Seven Sisters wanting to be a separate nation…
A. Well then, look at our neighbours! These challenges existed from the word ‘go’. But, we have survived because there is a feeling of Indianness that binds all of us. It is merely a sentimental feeling and has no physical base. Except for this emotional connect most Indians have as much in common as a Scandinavian and an Italian! My father was a government employee and was the only man I knew who felt proud to pay his taxes for the development of the country that gave him so much more in return! I was married into an old fashioned Bengali family and we probably are the only family who walk into a multiplex and actually ‘sing’ the national anthem when it is played! Well, we get looks…

Q. But has the patriotism percolated into the youth? And has the youth percolated into politics to affect change?
A. The only young leaders of any worth are the young sportsmen of India. They come from small obscure hamlets and perform with the very best internationally with nothing but raw talent, grit and guts. I sincerely hope some of them think of entering politics later to inspire others and break the monotony of politicians’ sons and daughters who get a speedy entry into governing our country. The likes of Sania Mirza are examples of what is possible if the youth dares to dream; which it is doing. The best part about the youth is that they can’t be fooled. They have something I call the bullshit meter. They see through it. And speaking of the Indian connect, I encourage my daughters to go clubbing in saris! It gets them more attention than the small black cocktail dress!

Q. You have launched a line of saris, apart from being a model, an editor and a journalist. How did all this come to happen? Any new forays?
A. I’ve also designed apartments! (smiles) These are an extension of my personal identity. As a creative artist, I think I should grab every opportunity I get for the challenge and joy it brings. Though, I consciously decided to quit my day job when my first child was born and be on top of my time; that made me much productive as I became conscious of my time. However, I wouldn’t enter something that requires formal training. I never call myself a fashion designer, which would require me to go through a fashion school and understand sewing a button hole. I never designed structured garments. A sari is six yards of sensibility I grew up with. I only want to share it with others. Similarly, I’m not an architect; I only share my sense of space and sensibility of colour with interior designers. I’ve had offers to design jewellery. I think jewellery is very sensual; not just precious stones, I have no qualms wearing shells, wood, pebbles and copper. Also, I will soon start a fortnightly column with the Deccan Chronicle.

Q. If not a preachy message, what would you say to the youth as a slap-on-the-back-buddy-chat?
A. The sense of pride can be instilled into the youth if they are spoken to in their language. They aren’t cynical. (To the youth) I hope your generation realizes the dreams that our generation could only dream. We goofed up, we were disillusioned. We have let ourselves down.
Just keep the faith. And belong.


Related story: Book review of ‘Superstar India’

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