Author, designer, mother, wife, Shobhaa Dé has a way of challenging stereotypes and reinventing her persona. At 60, having just published her new book, Superstar India: From Incredible to Unstoppable, she says life is still full of possibilities.
And the change that we are seeing, such tumultuous change in the last decade, to be a part of that change, to be able to chronicle that change and to be in a position to comment on it, the good, bad and ugly, for me was a key decision. My own perception now as a global Indian has moved along with the country’s and the speed at which it has evolved has kept pace with the change and evolution of the country. In a way I feel I am the change.
She feels women have a chameleon-like quality that allows them to adapt to any situation. It is perhaps this very quality that makes author, designer, mother, wife (not necessarily in that order), Shobhaa Dé change her roles ever so frequently. Like Madonna, Dé too has that something which makes her challenge stereotypes and reinvent her persona to do something that she wants to. “I refuse to be a kindly granny fading into oblivion. I want women to know that it is possible to live life at 60. Sixty, my dear, is the new 40,” says Dé, tossing her mane. Or, as Meryl Streep famously remarked in “The Devil Wears Prada”, ‘Everybody wants to be us’.
Known for her rather provocative style of writing, Dé who has so far written only fiction, much of it based on the glamour of Bollywood, has switched gear and written a book based on India and its 60 years. It is no coincidence that the book is being published in her 60th year too. “India and my journey has been together. I was born in an independent India and I want our young generation to invest in this country. That is my mission,” remarks Dé. In a freewheeling interview, Dé talks about her book, Incredible to Unstoppable, her own life, politics and, of course, women. Excerpts…
Did you have the younger generation in mind when you started work on the book?
Very much so. Because, with more than 50 per cent of one billion Indians under 30-35, it’s important for them to understand brand India in the true sense of the word, not just as a marketing gimmick. It’s not that I want to sell more books. I’ve been there done that. I want to sell India. I want to be able to convince the younger Indian that it’s worth staying invested. In my generation there was such a “go West young man” kind of feeling and a lot of my contemporaries thought they would get a better deal by moving to the West. Somehow, for whatever reason, it has a lot to do with my father and my upbringing, I never ever lost faith. I stayed a believer all through; instinctively I felt that this is where I belong and this is where I want to be. So, with my books it was the same thinking; I’d never tried to cater to a Western audience because I was very happy with my own domestic readers. This doesn’t mean that you look at things in a very jingoistic or a very inward thinking way, but I feel it’s very important to restore lost pride and we went through many years where we didn’t have that confidence, we were always apologetic about our identity. Now we seem to be getting our groove back, you can see it in the body language of the younger generation. So the whole idea of writing the book was really that.
This book also coincides with your turning 60. How do you see your life as a journey with India?
It’s completely interrelated. I really believe it’s a chronicle of two lives. India’s and mine at many levels. I was born in a free India so I never knew what it was like not to be in a country where you can take democracy for granted — the stories I heard from my parents were important to get a perspective of what it was like at that time… And the change that we are seeing, such tumultuous change in the last decade, to be a part of that change, to be able to chronicle that change and to be in a position to comment on it, the good, bad and ugly, for me was a key decision. And I know that in so many ways the changing India has changed me; raising children in this new India has been a special challenge. My own perception now as a global Indian has moved along with the country’s and the speed at which it has evolved has kept pace with the change and evolution of the country. In a way I feel I am the change.
In your book, you have touched on almost every aspect of Indian-ness. For how long have you been mulling over this? It isn’t something to be written overnight. It’s almost like it’s been ‘cooking’ for a while...
It’s got to be cooking but more than anything else it’s got to be felt. For me, it’s a very passionate book. It’s not that I’ve ever kept notes and it’s not a research-based book in that sense. But it’s written from the heart. All the things that have mattered to me growing up in India, all the things that I have witnessed, that I’ve observed, participated in, it all came like one big gush — like a dam had broken.
Incredible to Unstoppable — Does it make India sound like a huge juggernaut rolling on regardless?
Well, regardless unless there is some kind of an overwhelming set of circumstances, if we were nuked or there is a natural disaster of some kind, over which we have no control, then of course the story changes. Other than that our fundamentals are so good right now that at least for the next 50 years we can sit back and actually see the country attain its old, lost glory. There is no reason why we should not be able to leverage all that we have built up to and being just sixty, it’s really a very, very young country.
You’ve talked about the paradox of how Indian men view women. Do you think that the men here are ever going to outgrow this?
I saw an ad which really struck me. Five years ago no one would have thought of writing copy which says what it says. It’s an ad for HSBC which says, ‘He stays at home while she globe trots’. I thought it was a very significant statement but more in the area of wish fulfilment. It’s not really as rosy a picture as we’d like it to be. Women are working because they really have no bloody choice. Not that suddenly the men have become so accepting; it’s just that they can do with the extra money. A lot of women work when they would rather be homemakers. They are stretched too much. Society itself has not changed sufficiently to accommodate those pressures. So actually you’re doing triple shifts and playing multiple roles without the benefits and spin-offs. The rewards simply are not there or they are not enough. Men are not in a hurry to change the status quo because why should they? This way they get the best of everything. It’s like three for the price of one.
As Indians, we have a obsession to appropriate anybody who has done well in their lives as one of us. Even those who have a remote connection with the country. Why do you think this happens? Is it because we have such a few credible role models?
Not just that, we haven’t outgrown the need to win the approval of the West. Which is why we run after the Oscar, we run after the Booker, we run after anybody from the West. Mind you, an award from Japan won’t be the same thing; an award from an African nation won’t be the same thing. We want approval from Europe and the U.S. And therefore any one of Indian origin doing well there, we’re dying to claim the lot, whether it’s an Indira Nooyi or Sunita Williams who keep saying that they are American. But we will grab them by their collar and insist on the Indian connection no matter how tenuous. But I feel the younger generation will be happy to acknowledge success no matter whom, but they will not be so desperate to genuflect in the presence of anybody.
Politicians — you have mentioned them in the book too, but I notice you haven’t been too kind to the younger generation in politics.
The Gucci boys?
Yes. What is it you feel that is not quite right with them?
I think they are in it for the wrong reasons. They see it as a glamorous career option with very little of actual investment in the country. I also see them, the current lot, as just pampered, privileged…the “baba log”; they haven’t really got there by working towards a specific goal but it’s because of perpetuating the whole dynasty politics and still being stuck in something that I find almost medieval, this thing of passing down your kurssi to the next generation. The younger generation of politicians has not delivered. What have they done for their constituency? Precisely nothing. They have no concept of the ground realities, they have not even made an attempt to understand the ground realities. There is no sincerity of purpose; there is no vision for India. There is nothing except a great surname. Sorry. But I don’t think we should be endorsing such fellows. And perpetuating a system that we should have thrown out a long time ago. Whoever is there, should be there because they have the merit, the qualities that it takes to be leaders. None of these guys do.
You are a multi-tasker. What is the secret mantra that works for you?
I believe that women the world over are natural multi-taskers. You go to our villages, you will see those women performing the most incredible feats of balancing their economy, their homes, the crops marketing, managing kids, in-laws, managing community. They don’t know that they are multi-tasking — that’s a word that the urban Indian woman has grabbed and believes she has invented multi-tasking but it’s not so. I think we are just programmed to do it. I also think women are conscious of time, people and money, so some make a career out of it, others merely plod on. I’ve never stopped to think about it. I’ve just done what I’ve enjoyed doing, with a lot of passion behind it, a lot of hard work, frustration at times too. But I’ve enjoyed every moment of it and wouldn’t have it any other way and also the cage of age, for women in particular. I’m there to break the mould. I’m saying I’m 60, I refuse to turn into a harmless little old granny staying home to mind the babies. I will be what I am and I’m proud of it. I want other women to feel that there is life beyond 60 and they don’t have to conform to society’s expectations which are to make them invisible. It’s a one-point mission of my 60th year — to tell women, don’t let society make you apologetic about your age and 60 really is the new 40.
By SUCHITRA BEHAL
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