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August 17, 2014

An Idea of India

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper

A myriad families with roofs over their heads made room, even if there wasn’t any, for those coming in from the other side of the new border in search of shelter and survival, writes Madhu Jain discovering that there was a spirit of generosity and conviviality in the afterglow of Independence

Dear reader, a disclaimer at the outset: this is not an obituary. Zohra Segal, a magnificent actress with outrageously mischievous eyes and a screen presence thespians would kill for, had died the night before I sat down to write this column. This being the month India was born 67 long years ago – amidst much hope, idealism and not a small amount of trepidation considering the violence and bloodshed that came with it, I was toying with the idea of writing about whether subsequent generations had fulfilled the dreams of the freedom fighters and those of the founders of the country. Those who had a dream – for India.

Questions buzzed round my head like pesky mosquitos. Was idealism dead or just hiding? Did we no longer have, or even care about an idea of India? What did being an Indian signify? What was the glue holding together this nation with scores of diverse ethnicities, languages, customs, religions, cuisines and ways of being? Had we given the ‘tryst with destiny’ a nasty twist?

Sepia-toned picture
Cliché questions, all of them, you might say and I would agree. My column wasn’t going anywhere until I flicked through this morning’s newspapers – a kind of revving up ritual before I confronted the blank screen of my laptop.  Accounts of Segal and her vie extraordinaire, of a woman whose lust for life and theatre continued all the way to, well, a little past the 102 milestone, guzzled the newsprint. But what really set me thinking afresh and sent me down a different path was a photograph posted on Facebook that morning by author and journalist Sidharth Bhatia.

The sepia-toned picture from the early ’50s, perhaps even earlier, showed its age. Yet, the faces of the people huddled together on the floor were fresh, and seemingly lit up by an inner glow: Zohra Segal wearing a dazzling smile and a bindi, Dev Anand with his trademark forelock and optimism writ large on his face, a young Guru Dutt in a checked shirt standing in the doorway, his head out of the frame, an unspectacled SD Burman and Madan Puri and Manmohan Krishna posing happily for the camera long before the age of the selfie and narcissism had set in.

The scene: 41 Pali Hill. Chetan and Uma Anand had rented the ‘rambling, tumble-down bungalow on a hillside in Bandra’ for Rs 50 a month in 1944, as the late Uma Anand writes in her engaging book Chetan Anand. The Poetics of Film. Chetan Anand’s two younger brothers, Dev Anand and Vijay Anand moved in later. Others gradually began to move in – usually in pursuit of a livelihood in Bombay and in search of a roof over their heads. Hameed Butt and his wife the actress Uzra came, bringing along Uzra’s sister Zohra, her husband Kameshwar Segal and their two children, Kiran and Pawan. Balraj Sahni and his wife Damyanti came with their two children Parikshit and Shabnam. Balraj Sahni’s younger brother, the writer Bhisham Sahni and his wife spent their honeymoon here. Safdar Mir, a young man who worked in Films Division ‘dropped in for a cup of tea and stayed three years’.

Displaced by Partition
The influx didn’t stop. And soon 41 Pali Hill began to resemble the Mother Goose nursery rhyme, with the bulging-to-splitting-point shoe-house: “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe/ She had so many children she didn’t know what to do.” The Anands were not the only ones to give a new meaning to Open House. Prithviraj Kapoor did much the same in his home on College Street near Matunga. In addition to the large Kapoor clan, including his sons Raj, Shammi and Shashi and sundry relatives, there were many people displaced by Partition. There was such a crowd that a stranger managed to live here for a few years. He just walked into the house and stayed on: the family presumed that somebody in the larger clan had invited him.

Such largesse was not confined to the film world: a myriad families with roofs over their heads made room, even if there wasn’t any, for those coming in from the other side of the new border in search of shelter and survival. There was a spirit of generosity and conviviality in the afterglow of independence. And even more important, an idealism not yet tainted by cynicism.

But I digress. It wasn’t just about sharing the little you had with those who had less, or nothing at all. Number 41 was not just a shelter. It became an ‘adda’, a kind of salon for intellectuals to discuss ideas late into the night, and creative juices surfaced. K.A. Abbas’ Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) brought many of them together and gave them a common goal. Poets, writers, cineastes, journalists, musicians, music composers and actors frequented this magnet for intellectuals. Uma Anand writes: ‘Ideas were what we lived off; theatre was what we worked at; films were what we dreamt of. It was an exciting time.’

It was the best of times…. Perhaps. The embers of the Quit-India Movement of 1942 hadn’t yet been extinguished. Money had not yet become the only currency in the country: intellect and creativity were assets which invited admiration. A spirit of camaraderie prevailed. An artist friend of a certain age and reputation, who chooses to remain anonymous, tells me: “We were poor but we would support each other, share our paints, our food, and our rum – and even our patrons. We met almost every day. We talked about art, life, lovers…Picasso. Today, when artists meet they only talk about the art market. And, they don’t even meet that often.”

Well, from ‘All for one and one for all’, as Alexandre Dumas’ musketeers would have it, it’s now as another French person must have said: Chacun pour soi: everyman for himself.

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