November 25, 2016 12:52 PM NPT
By: Cilla Khatry
Photo: Pratik Rayamajhi
She has always spoken her mind and been totally unapologetic about it, even when it has landed her in hot waters time and again. Quite recently, she has had to face the wrath of Shiv Sena in Mumbai, India over a tweet for allegedly insulting the Legislative Assembly, Marathi language and people, and she is still living under police protection. But if, at 68, Shobhaa De has learnt anything it has been to stick by her thoughts and actions and buckle under pressure. The world around her will just have to learn to live with it, she says.
During her recent trip to Kathmandu, Shobhaa De talked to The Week’s Cilla Khatry about her choices and why she is the way she is.
From modeling to writing bestsellers
Modeling comes with a shelf life. You know it’s not a life that offers you a permanent vocation so sticking to modeling or showbiz was never an option for me. I was also never interested in this world of glamor. Modeling happened, like everything else in my life, by accident, and it happened when I was just 16 years old. By the time I was 18, I was already bored with it. It just didn’t attract me. So when top directors came to me with film offers, it didn’t take me more than 10 seconds to say no. I simply didn’t think I was cut out for it. You have to know your core skills and strengths. I could have considered directing movies but that was so ahead of the curve at that time.
Literature, on the other hand, was my first and only love. I have always been interesting in writing ever since I was a child. I didn’t grow up in an affluent home but I grew up in a culturally rich home where my father, if he had money left after taking care of the family’s needs, would spend the rest on books. So basically, I grew up surrounded by great works of literature. And when that happens, you naturally gravitate towards reading and writing. Writing wasn’t something that happened to me suddenly but taking it up professionally happened by chance when I became the founder editor of Stardust. This opportunity came my way and I grabbed it. I stayed with it for 11 years and created a huge brand that’s still doing well.
Her take on literature now and what makes a good writer
In the recent times, there has been outstanding work in the Indian literature scene. It may be because of various factors that young people are finding their own unique voices, they know what they have to say, and they are saying things without compromise. They aren’t patterning themselves on anybody else. They have found an identity for themselves as writers from South East Asia and that’s fantastic.
There are quite a few works I like at the moment. One of them is ‘Sleeping on Jupiter’ by Anuradha Roy. I like Prajwal Parajuly very much. His first book ‘The Gurkha’s Daughter’ was extraordinary and his second, ‘Land Where I Flee’ was good too. The books worked because the voice was authentic and passionate. He narrated a history that was so deeply felt by him and that showed. At the end of it all, a reader needs to connect emotionally with a book. Any writer who manages to get that connect right will be a successful writer, in any language.
The sexual elements in her books and feminism
In the 70’s and 80’s when there was an exaggerated sense of prudishness and hypocrisy, the backlash on the topics I chose would have made sense. But today, in the age of social media when you can so freely access it everywhere, this fake morality and hypocrisy don’t really make much sense to me. I don’t really think people have problems with sex but they are scared of confronting so many things about their own lives that they see reflected in a book. That becomes a threat to them. But even the harshest of all criticisms has never ever inhibited me from choosing my subjects.
As for having strong female characters in my works, whether it be the television scripts I penned or the books I write, I would be for anybody who is the underdog and women are the most oppressed minority in the world. I don’t call myself a feminist because it’s a cliché. It comes with too much baggage. I would speak up for men too if the situation demands. I’m not pro-women. I’m pro-equality. If that makes me a feminist, then everybody in the world is a feminist.
I live by the line: To thy own self be true. I’m a very independent minded person. I value my independence too much to ever feel the need to sugar coat anything I have to say.
I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the eye if I did that. I am what I am, take it or leave it. I’m not asking to be a part of any circle. Sometimes people come up to me and tell me they are scared to talk to me. I tell them not to, or to speak to me at their own risk.
I have not sold out to any lobby, or political party. I have no political ambitions. I think I’m much more effective outside the system and the reason why I can do that is because I have enormous support from the average person. I speak for a lot of people who may not have a platform and I think that credibility, for any writer or opinion maker, is what you build on. I speak when I think my opinions will make a difference. I don’t blab unnecessarily. It doesn’t give me a high. It’s not my objective, and I don’t need to be famous.
As for the controversies that follow some of my statements, I say what I have to say, people will retaliate but I never read the trolls so I wouldn’t really know what they are actually saying. Basically, I never complain and never explain. This was the British politician and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s advice to Queen Victoria and the borrowed line is another one I live by.
But my daughters are my censor board. They try to control what I say all the time. They get hurt sometimes when they hear and read things about me. Again, I tell them not to read the trolls, and focus on the positives. People have come up to me and told me how much they appreciate what I say. You have to be fairly gutsy to do what I do, and to stick by it. People see that too. So, there is an upside to all this.