Elder sister told me one day that waiting at the doctor’s, Leela Naidu had said to her, I want to be as slim as you. Someone wanted to be slim like my sister? I picked my bike and rode off. Neither slimness of girls interested me nor some Leela whoever.
Then one day this woman in a red saree, her gray hair stylishly swirled back in a French roll looked out of the pages of some Femina or Illustrated Weekly, advertising kitchen appliance or food. Sisters whispered, ‘elegant-elegant’. I was transfixed by her beauty and air of quiet dignity.
Jerry Pinto who I admire for his writing and for his heart in the right place, its ‘Leela-shaped hole’ and all, the SRK of writing in so much that I haven’t seen another writer blow such effervescent ‘I love yous’ at his audience, collaborated with her on this. So ‘Leela - A Patchwork Life’ by Leela Naidu with Jerry Pinto was picked up with much gladness.
The Foreword by JP was a letdown. Leela was among the world’s ten most beautiful women and he had the good fortune to know her intimately but the way he runs down other journalists when they have to write about her and ask him to share/whet/correct/fill-in disappoints. Our stray-loving, bucket-bath-bathing-to-save water journalist-teacher I expect to understand the job of journalists better. His tone is almost of a kid holding a doll close to himself refusing to share it with other kids. But otherwise he chooses his nuggets to write about well and is at his evocative best. So I will not hold it against him. People evolve.
Leela takes over and draws us into her wonder-full life lived in Bombay, Geneva, Paris, London. Beginning with the sensational story of her grandmum hosting a naked Count – the Count Yousoupoff who was among those that killed Rasputin presumably; she tells us how her aunt Sarojini Naidu handing her a box of chocolates and a bunch of gladioli, sent her off to the outhouse to ‘see Mickey Mouse’.
‘I knocked on the door and was called in...sitting on the bed was Mahatma Gandhi.
“You are not MICKEY Mouse!” I said.
“No?” Gandhiji asked.
“Your ears are big but they are not big enough.”
“Is that all?” he asked and turned around to put on the side light.
“And you don’t have a tail.”
He laughed at that and put on the light.
“So I am not Mickey Mouse.” Gandhiji said, “but who am I?”
“You are Gandhiji,” I said.
I put the flowers down and gave him the chocolates. He took them and began to eat them immediately, as happy as a schoolboy with a box of tuck.
“How do you know who I am?” he asked.
I don’t remember if I had explained....But I do remember his strong arms around me as he hugged me.’
Her tone is friendly, the descriptions candid. The men! Oh the men! Roberto Rossellini suggests a doctor for her; she’s ‘adopted’ by Jean Renoir and his wife, M Cartier gets her rani haar restrung when it breaks suddenly sending the beads rolling in the hotel lobby, Salvador Dali sketches her and takes her to a private showing of his sketches... and none of this seemingly affects her! The ‘men’ come first and the ‘discovery’ of who they are later.Overall it isn't quite where my other idol’s memoirs are – A Princess Remembers, Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur – with JP’s ‘collaboration’ and all. Written almost as if for academic reading – chapters as ‘facets’ of Leela Naidu –the translator, the Editor.. film maker.
She does come across as very intelligent, witty and full of the milk of human kindness, never able to stop herself from standing against injustice, confronting the wrongdoers but there is no mention of Leela the wife, the mother... personal joys and heartbreaks. She’s most often a victim of cruel, self-centered people. The skips and jumps do not make it a fluid read. That got a little tiresome. If she had started as she ended, telling JP that the book, ‘would have nothing to do with my life. ...It’s only about the funny anecdotes and sad historic ones I came across.’ I would have been less disappointed.