How Post-Partition Amritsar Nurtured a Stylish Artist

When I was asked to review Deepti Naval A country called childhood, surprisingly, I found myself saying yes without hesitation. I rarely do reviews and have been a vocal critic of how ‘memoirs’ of dishonest movie types to make a quick million, commissioned by lazy, unimaginative and bedazzled 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 sheer thesping we had the one-two combination of Patil-Azmi was Deepti Naval who personified that ineffable quality we call charm. Go see (or see again) Chashme Buddoor, Katha, Kisise Na Kehna for confirmation. Madame Naval was the incandescent girl-next-door (if you were a resident of a suburban paradise), who could never contain that glint of mischief in her eyes, no matter what role she played. So when she said in a recent interview “People see me as this adorable character in a lot of movies. That’s not me at all,” I felt like telling her, “I know, I know, Mrs. Naval, I’ve always seen a lot of that more’.

And, boy, am I glad Naval’s nearly 400-page journey through his childhood didn’t disappoint. To say Naval had a rich life would be an understatement. Growing up in the historic city of Amritsar, that one too, recalibrating yourself after the score, on the material level, on the level of experience, would be a gold mine for any artist. It was the kind of moment, I would go so far as to say, that could make anyone an artist. And, having read her book, I can say that the Deepti Naval we saw and loved was quite the creation of the time, place and this place at this time.

In this labor of love, Naval, who clearly possesses a mind like a steel trap, and the literary weight required to make the everyday interesting, takes us down the halls of his childhood in exhaustive, sometimes exhausting detail, chronicling the storms of dust, the rains, renegade snakes, real and imagined bogeymen, movies, crushes, best friends, and a buffalo called Black Velvet.

While time and place played an important role in the making of Deepti Naval, the influence of her rich background cannot be ignored either. The father, an English teacher, the modern mother for the time (artist, amateur designer of her daughters’ dresses from patterns borrowed from Woman & Home), which Naval aesthetic sense obviously inherits, a fiercely Hindu successful lawyer grandfather who has a crisis of faith, his fiery wife with opposing political views, another group of grandparents forced to flee their home not a but twice in their life… all embellished with beautiful b/w photos.

My only cradle on the book is not about the writer at all. This is how indifferent publishing is to this lovingly produced and seemingly prestigious tome from a reputable publishing house. There are exclamation marks in almost every page! Two and three, sometimes. And words that we wouldn’t use today without explanation or warning, like ‘gollywog’ and ‘prostitute’, for example. In short, unfortunately, the editors haven’t done their job: give us the best and most polished version of Naval’s beautiful authorial voice.

If you have Rs.999 to spare, I invite you to buy this book. If you love movies and cinephiles because you care about what makes people creative, sure. If, on the other hand, you love movies because you want to know who is Maldivian with whom and which actor has big toe fetish, I heard 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


pp.388, Rs.999