Deepti Naval’s home in Versova in Mumbai is being remodelled, which means that she’s living mostly out of her bedroom these days. This room is also where Naval shut herself away during the coronavirus-induced lockdowns in 2020, completing her memoir A Country Called Childhood.
The 70-year-old actor, poet, painter and photographer had been working on the book for the past five-and-half years. A Country Called Childhood is not a classic autobiography but an intensely remembered chronicle of Naval’s formative years in Amritsar, where she was born and raised.
Suffused with poetic passages, humour and vivid descriptions of even mundane events, the book follows Naval’s previous volumes of poetry (including Lamha Lamha and Black Wind and Other Poems and a collection of short stories (The Mad Tibetan).
A Country Called Childhood’s slant is best captured by Naval’s introductory note:
“When I started to write about my childhood, I thought of it as not just a regular book where I tell people about all that I lived through. Rather, I wanted to recreate my childhood for the reader. I wanted to take you through those corridors of memory, setting up things the way I remember them. In that sense it is not a typical memoir – it’s is more like a screenplay. This book could simply be titled, ‘Stories from my Childhood’. And it would be apt. Because I feel life is all about stories; that I am the sum total of all the stories that impacted me since I was a little girl, stories from my early days.”
Naval covers a great deal of ground: her grandparents, her parents and their individual and joint trajectories, the adventures that accompanied her school and college years, her early interest in cinema, her friendships and impressions of political events. Some of the most evocative writing centres on an inanimate object: the Naval family house named Chandravalli, behind which lies a mosque. Naval writes:
“To my child’s eye, the house in Amritsar had a strange character; there was something mysterious about it. From time to time, when you least expected it, it changed in shape, colour, texture, even in the way it felt. When I think of the house, I feel I am looking at the artwork of a wacky set designer. Some of this was no doubt due to my hyperactive imagination but a lot of it was also because of the eccentric and novel way in which it was built. There were staircases hidden everywhere, eight in all, going down and across like a crossword puzzle. There was one right outside my parents’ room that led nowhere, the passage in which it ended having long been locked and abandoned since the tenants moved in upstairs. Sometimes when I’d be upset, I would go and crouch in its dark end.”
In 1971, Naval relocated to New York along with her mother Himadri, sister Smiti and brother Rohitaashv to join her father, Uday Chandra Naval, who had moved there the previous year. Deepti Naval writes movingly about her father’s struggle to establish himself in a strange land, working as a librarian and security guard before he found a teaching position.
In 1977, after studying fine arts at Hunter College, Naval returned to India. Her breakthrough role was in Sai Paranjpye’s romantic comedy Chashme Budooor in 1981. A host of celebrated films followed, marking Naval as one of the best-known actors of her generation. However, the book stops at 1971, when Naval takes off for America.
Might there be further volumes that explores Naval’s memories of America and her experiences as an actor? How much of A Country Called Childhood is remembered and how much is recreated through the act of remembering? Naval spoke to Scroll.in about her creative process and explained why writing, rather than acting, is on her mind at the moment.
You began working on the book over five years ago but had you been writing it, in one sense, throughout your life?
I have been retaining those memories of my childhood, knowing that I wanted to put them together one day. I had forever been making notes so that I wouldn’t forget. The process of jotting down had started 20-odd years ago.
My childhood was such a fascinating time of my life. Lot of memories were very happy, but there were some associated with angst and pain. I wanted to visually recreate it.
I grew up in such a diverse environment – the Sisters of the Sacred Heart Convent run by Belgian nuns, the walled city with all these people, the presence of the mosque and the azaan that made life in the Chandravalli house so beautiful. The juxtaposition of things was what I thought was very interesting.
These impressions are recorded in letters to friends. There’s a very interesting letter to Munni, my childhood friend. Whatever I recalled when I was writing this book – when I go to the terrace and how the monsoon comes and the city is water-colour washed into the grey skyline – all that was written to Munni in my letter from 1971 when I landed in America. I was telling her what all we left behind.
I found that letter much later after writing my chapters. It corroborated what I had put down. Perhaps moving away and looking back helped me see the dynamic quality of what things were like during my childhood.
When did the book actually come together?
David Davidar [the founder of Aleph Book Company] moved into the project some five-and-a-half years. I had already written four chapters. These were 50-odd pages. I sent David the chapters. I was very restless with myself. Why was I not getting on with my book after having written four chapters? I needed a little prodding. I had to have a target in front of me.
David was an old friend. He had been wanting me to write a book for so long.
I wanted to write about my life. He initially wanted me to write about the film industry. I said, why should I write about other people?
So I emailed him the four chapters, and he replied the next morning to say, we would be delighted to publish the book. There was no going back, no escaping it.
That’s when the real work started. One memory triggered another memory. A string of memories started appearing on the screen of my childhood stage. So much that had gone into cold storage reappeared, the hidden memories in the background.
You have written, ‘That which actually happens, is real, and that which happens only in the mind, what would we call it – reality, or fiction? How do we decide?’ Parts of your memoir read like a novel.
As a writer, I used to see my father sitting at his typewriter typing away. He wrote many short stories, which he unfortunately didn’t carry with him to America.
I wanted to do a memoir, but not the usual stuff. I wanted to do creative writing. An autobiographical account of what you did with your life is hardly creative writing. It is a record, where you catalogue everything. I thought, what could I do where my skill as a writer came across? Everybody know what I did as an actress.
It’s strictly a memoir, but written like a novel, in which I have recreated scenes from my childhood. It’s like watching a movie, where you’re with me.
What stands out for me, from what happened, is the way I remember it. My sister might not remember things the same way. Part of that recedes in the background while part of it comes into the foreground, but the incident is the same. You choose what to focus on.
I also did a lot of research over the years. I cross-checked incidents with my mother and relatives. I would beg for photos. They must have been sick of me by the end.
I made several trips to Manali, where I have a house. I was always travelling with my laptop. I would write while waiting for a flight.
It was like a big production, and it was tough. It became tougher because during the process of writing, I lost my father [in 2013], I lost my mother [in 2017], I lost Munni to Covid [in 2020]. These people won’t get to see my book. The biggest tragedy is that my parents cannot hold my book in their hands, that I cannot tell them what a beautiful childhood I had because of them and who they were as people.
Luckily because of the lockdown, my book got finished. I locked myself in my bedroom to finish the book.
The book is filled with insights and revelations. For instance, you ran away from home when you were 13 because you wanted to go to Kashmir. You write, ‘This was because I’d seen a series of movies shot in Kashmir in the period before I set off on my great escape.’
I have been a private person for a very long time. I haven’t really voiced my opinion on things. I think with this book, people will get to know me a little bit.
It’s not because I feel I am a celebrity. There was always a writer in me. That writer in me wanted to share all that she had found fascinating in the life she had led.
If I wasn’t a film person, if I were a housewife, I would still have written the same book because I would have had the same dreams. If I hadn’t become an actor or a painter, my writing would have been the same. Writing has been my secret desire from my school days.
The book’s working title was Once Upon a Time in Ambershire, which is what I called Amritsar. In one of the passages I describe the house as ‘the country I grew up in, a country called childhood’. The publisher picked it up and said, this is the title of the book.
I never actually finished the book, they snatched it from me. I am still thinking of including chapters in the new edition, if I can. I could easily put in 240 more pages.
Your admirers would have liked to know more about your years in America, your acting career.
I spent six years in America, where I studied fine arts at Hunter College. If I do write about my later life, my years at Hunter and Manhattan will come in. But I don’t want to do another personal account. I want to get away from the ‘me’. I will do something else in between. The next book may not be ‘Deepti Deepti’ but a travelogue perhaps, about other people.
I would like to write about things that mattered to me. I will share what I feel like sharing. I don’t want to touch cinema for the next six months. I don’t want any questions asking about my films. When I wrote about running away, I wanted to tell the whole world what a buffoon I was, especially since people think I have a good reputation.
Some of your public image is a result of your film roles, in which you often played soft and sunny-natured women. Have any of your films captured the wistfulness and volcanic inner life that we read about in your memoir? Or did you keep this side hidden from the world?
No film has captured that wistfulness, the inner life. Writing elevates me. I would rather now work from within myself than portray something somebody else has thought will suit me, reiterate the same role again and again.
This side of me wasn’t invisible at all. My friends know me very differently, for instance. Fear is not inherently planted into my psyche. This element of my personality has never been captured in my roles, the spirit that I am. For instance, taking off to Ladakh in 2004 and walking over the Zanskar River for eight days with two porters, which I write about in the book of poems The River of I.
I suffered from the fact that my spirit never came into any role. I never got a chance to be what I felt inside me. I never got to express myself in the films. The emotions were always supressed.
There were exceptions, such as the films Panchvati, in which the character is very strong. She doesn’t take rubbish, she quietly walks away from her husband. In Main Zinda Hoon, she becomes a breadwinner for her husband’s family. Films like Mirch Masala, Ankahee, Yeh Ishq Nahi Aasaan, Memories in March were about quietly strong women. These films were closer to who I am.
Some of your recent roles are departures from your screen image. In B.A. Pass, your character hires a male sex worker. In NH10, you play a sarpanch who orders an honour killing.
Imagine a housewife who needs somebody to talk to and could go that route. Her husband is in a coma and she has no friends, so she hires a sex worker.
For NH10, I got my first Screen award – the Best Negative Role of the Year. I wanted to totally work internally on the negativity. She too is a victim of her circumstances, which is such a pity.
Apart from personal writing and poetry, have you written film scripts too?
I lost sight of writing for years together because I was too mentally occupied with films. I wasn’t writing formally, but was scribbling stuff all along.
I directed the television serial Thodasa Asmaan and the film Do Paise Ki Dhoop, Chaar Aane Ki Baarish. I have four scripts. There is a story I have developed into a screenplay, based on a story by the writer Prem Prakash. Let’s see if I can float those ideas for a screenplay to be made into a film.
Ideas get changed around. There are many considerations, like budgets and whether people will accept those ideas. But as a writer, there is total freedom. I might convert one of my scripts into a novel.
Deepti Naval at the movies: Single-screen theatres, Rajesh Khanna and ‘Mera Naam Joker’