Posted by: gdevi | December 17, 2013

A Thing of Beauty

We were not Christians, but we celebrated Christmas like everyone else when we were growing up. We also celebrated Ramzan (or Ramadan as it is known in the west) and Eid. Our Christian and Muslim neighbors used to ask us to store their extra food in our refrigerator when their own refrigerators ran out of space. Mother made room in our fridge for the special beef biriyanis, chicken curries, pathiri, incredible fruit cakes made with real brandy and other delectables. It was very tempting not to pilfer from the neighbor’s incredible portable feast.

Life always presents you with these opportunities, doesn’t it? I distinctly remember the temptation I felt to read someone else’s letter when the letter–and it was an important letter too–was in my possession for a few days. It was back in 1984. I was eighteen years old. My whole family had gone to the beautiful hill station of Munnar and Mattupetty in the Western Ghats, where Aravindakshan mammen was filming his movie Chidambaram. My other uncle was visiting us from New Zealand and Gopi mammen wanted to spend time with Aravindakshan mammen while he was shooting the film. Aravindakshan mammen always had relatively unknown actors in his movies, but Chidambaram had one of India’s most famous actresses, Smita Patil starring in it. Smita Patil had approached Aravindakshan mammen and told him that she wanted to act in his film. So all of us went to Mattupetty–my parents, Appu and I, Gopi mammen, and my aunt, Lila ammai.

I was totally thrilled at the thought that I would meet Smita Patil. In Mattupetty, we were staying at this beautiful rest house that belonged to the Indo-Swiss Dairy farm; my parents knew the director of the outfit and we all had incredible accommodations. So anyway, lila ammai and I got this lovely room and we were sleeping soundly, when one of the rest house staff came and knocked on our door and woke us up. It must have been after midnight. The staff told us that Smita Patil had arrived just then after driving all day and night from Bombay or Madras–I can’t remember now–anyway, from somewhere far, and that her room was not ready yet, and could she and her assistant have our room, because that was the nicest? We said sure. The staff found a nice, slightly smaller room for ammai and I. I was walking towards our new room when I saw Smita Patil walk towards me. She was very tall for an Indian woman, and had an upright bearing. That was the first thing that struck you. Her long hair was down, and she wore a simple maroon salwar-kameez and a black batik shawl. She was very beautiful. She must have been in her early thirties then. She smiled at me and asked me, “what is your name?” I said, Gayatri. She asked me “Are you Aravindan’s daughter?” I said, No, I am his niece. Then she saw my aunt, and she had met them before, so she walked over to Lila ammai and clasped her arms and told her how glad she was to be there and to be acting in Aravindakshan mammen’s film. She was very lovely.

The next few days, I would hang around Smita Patil when we weren’t watching the shoots. Chidambaram is an incredible movie, really. So anyway, I would watch Smita Patil’s aayi–her assistant–put make-up on her and transform her into this rural Tamil bride for the film. Smita Patil would ask me things about the university, what I studied, what I wanted to do, why I liked literature, what Kerala was like–she was from Maharashtra–and so on. She had a very sophisticated mind and she respected Aravindakshan mammen greatly. We were there for four or five days, and on the day that we were leaving, Smita Patil asked me if I would mail a letter for her when I reached Trivandrum. I said sure. Mattupetty was sort of rural and mail takes longer from there to the rest of India. Just before we left, Smita Patil gave me four or five sheaves of paper loosely thrust into an open envelope. I looked at the address on the envelope and I was stunned. The envelope was addressed to Raj Babbar, an actor with whom Smita Patil was having a relationship. Raj Babbar was married and the whole country’s media had sort of turned on Smita Patil when they admitted their relationship. The media had briefly dubbed her the homebreaker etc. I was holding in my hands Smita Patil’s letter to Raj Babbar in an open envelope. I have to admit; I was tempted to read that letter, but I didn’t. That is only because I am fundamentally and temperamentally unable to be tempted. I am immune to temptation. I mailed the letter when i reached Trivandrum.

Shortly after completing Chidambaram, Smita Patil married Raj Babbar; he divorced his wife. I think Smita Patil and Raj Babbar were married only for a very short time; maybe it was less than a year, perhaps. She died while giving birth to their only child. She had told us in Mattupetti that if she ever had a child and it was a girl, she would name the child Shivakami, her character’s name in Chidambaram. She and Raj Babbar had a boy. I think he is also an actor now. Now, when I think back on it, it is all so strange.

That was a digression. What I originally meant to write was about the St. Joseph’s Press in Trivandrum, across from my old school, Cotton Hill, where we all went to buy Christmas cards. Christmas cards were very big when I was growing up. In my school, for instance, we collected these cards with their pastel baby Jesuses and little Josephs and Marys with their halos around their heads, the candle in the wreaths, the berries and mistletoe etc and stuck them in those long geography lab books, which functioned as scrapbooks. There are no berries and mistletoe in Kerala. There are no candles in wreaths either. And our Jesus does not look anything like the Jesus, Joseph and Mary of western lithographs. So it must have been for purely aesthetic reasons that we scrapbooked these cards. The paper quality of these cards was not very good; they were very thin, and sometimes Jesus, Joseph and Mary looked paler than usual. It must have been the ink.

Not all Christmas cards were religiously themed. My cousins and I had a contest of sorts going on as to who had the greatest number of the “flower” cards. Like the Jesus cards, these cards were also thin and pale, but the flowers looked beautiful. They were not like any flower that grew in our backyards, nor were they realistic. There were long blue lilies with orange pollen in them. But like the Jesus, Joseph and Mary cards, these flower cards, like Christmas itself, brought a welcome break with our tangible dusty and dense day-to-day lives. It was a thing of beauty. Completely non-representational, of inferior production and design quality, really, but nevertheless, a thing of beauty.



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