Book Review | Naval playing field: How post-Partition Amritsar nurtured an elegant artiste

If the time and place played a significant role in the making of Naval, one can’t discount the influence of her rich antecedents either

When I was asked to review Deepti Naval’s A Country Called Childhood, surprisingly, I found myself saying yes without hesitation. I rarely do reviews, and have been a vociferous critic of how ‘memoirs’ by disingenuous film types out to make a quick million, commissioned by lazy, unimaginative, star-struck editors, have all but ruined Indian publishing.

In the ’70s-’80s, if Zeenat Aman symbolized sex appeal, Jaya Prada defined beauty (who are we to disagree with Ray), and for pure thesping we had the one-two combination of Patil-Azmi, it was Deepti Naval who personified that ineffable quality we refer to as charm. Go watch (or rewatch) Chashme Buddoor, Katha, Kisise Na Kehna for confirmation. Ms Naval was the incandescently fetching girl-next-door (if you happened to be a resident of a suburb of heaven), who could never contain that twinkle of mischief in her eye whichever role she played. So when she said in a recent interview ‘People see me as this sweet character in numerous films. That’s not me at all ‘, I wanted to tell her,’ I know, I know, Ms Naval, I always saw a lot more. ‘

And, boy, am I glad Naval’s nearly 400-page journey through her childhood doesn’t disappoint. To say Naval had a rich life would be an understatement. Growing up in the historic city of Amritsar, that, too, one recalibrating itself after Partition, material-wise, experience-wise, would be a goldmine for any artiste. It was the kind of time, I’d go so far as to say, that could make an artiste of anyone. And, after reading her book, I can say that the Deepti Naval we saw and loved was quite the creation of the time, the place, and that place at that time.

In this labor of love, Naval, who clearly possesses a mind like a steel trap, and the requisite literary heft to make the quotidian interesting, takes us through the corridors of her childhood in exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, detail, chronicling dust storms, rains , renegade serpents, bogey-men real and imagined, movies, crushes, best friends, and a buffalo called Black Velvet.

If the time and place played a significant role in the making of Deepti Naval, one can’t discount the influence of her rich antecedents either. The English professor father, the modern-for-the-times mother (artiste, amateur designer of her daughters’ frocks from patterns borrowed from Woman & Home), whose aesthetic sense Naval evidently inherits, a successful, fiercely Hindu lawyer grandfather who has a crisis of faith, his feisty wife with opposing political views, another set of grandparents forced to flee their home not once but twice in their life… all embellished with beautiful b / w photographs.

My one crib about the book is not about the writer at all. It is at how indifferent the editing is for this lovingly produced, seemingly prestigious tome from a reputed publishing house. There are exclamation marks in almost every page! Two and three, at times. And words in it one wouldn’t use today without an explanation or disclaimer, like ‘gollywog’ and ‘prostitute’, for example. In short, sadly, the editors haven’t done their job: giving us the best, most finessed version of Naval’s fine authorial voice.

If you have Rs.999 to spare, I urge you to buy this book. If you like films and film folk because you are interested in what makes people creative, that is. If, on the other hand, you are ‘into’ films because you want to know who is Maldiving with whom and which actor has a big toe fetish, I hear KRK’s book is coming out. You should be able to buy three copies for the same price.

A Country Called Childhood

By Deepti Naval

Aleph

pp. 388, Rs. 999

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