Parikshat Sahni’s Strange Encounters – Adventures of a Curious Life comprises essays on what the actor calls “an untangling of random memories” from his youth to later years, “put together as they came to me in my contemplative moments, arranged in some mad design…”
The book includes chapters on the popular television series Gul Gulshan Gulfam, in which Sahni played a Kashmiri boathouse owner, mentions of some of his film roles, and his years in Russia, where he studied cinematography and would have settled down in were it not for an encounter with Jawaharlal Nehru. The followed edited excerpt is from ‘Encounter with Nehru’.
‘What are your future plans?’
“You are Mr Balraj Sahni’s son, the Ambassador tells me. Your face looks familiar! Have I met you before?” he asked affably.
I was too wonderstruck to say anything and mumbled some incoherencies.
“So, what are you doing here in Moscow and what are your future plans?”
I told him that I was studying cinematography and planned to settle down in Russia because there was no future in India for cinematographers, or anyone else for that matter. A dark shadow crossed his face. He looked at me sharply all the while I was speaking. And suddenly he lost his temper; Nehru was known for being short on the fuse.
He looked at Mr Kaul, his face turning red, and shouted, “Why did we have to return to India from England? We could have stayed on there and lived a comfortable life and made a lot of money! And you,” he said, turning to me, “your own father worked in the BBC in London during the war years, didn’t he? Why did he come back to India? Why didn’t he continue working for the BBC?”
Nehru was in a rage. For a moment, I thought he might hit me with the baton he always carried in his hand. But within seconds Nehru cooled down and became his normal, composed self again.
“So, you have decided to adopt a new mother. No doubt your new mother is beautiful, rich, blue-eyed and golden-haired. But remember, she will always remain your stepmother. Your real mother is India. True, she is old and poor and ugly. But even if your mother is a leper, a mother is a mother!” Saying this, he got up and left; the Ambassador, Mr Kaul, gave me a baleful look and followed him.
No sooner had I crossed the Mayakovsky Metro Station than I came upon two drunks, dressed in bulky winter coats, engaged in a fierce fist-fight. One of the men was bleeding from his mouth and the other fellow was punching him mercilessly. I sported a resplendent beard in those days and most Russians mistook me for a Cuban, a country that they revered and loved because it was one of their closest allies. When the brawling men set eyes on me they stopped in their tracks. “Ah! A brother from Cuba!” one of them shouted.
“Move along! Don’t stop,” the other fellow, bleeding from the mouth, said in a drunken drawl. “You know how we Russians are! We are mad. So, move on and let us settle our score in peace.”
“But Comrades,” I said. “It is not good to fight amongst ourselves. We are all working class people and brothers.”
This seemed to anger them. One of them bared his bloodied teeth at me and shouted, “Fuck the working class, Cuban! Just move on and leave us alone…before we knock some of your working-class Cuban teeth out! No one messes with the Russians,” and they got back to punching one another.
“I am not Cuban,” I shouted. “I am Indian.”
The two stopped in their tracks.
“Indian?” One of them muttered sheepishly and came up for a closer look. He put his gloved hand on my shoulder and smiled affably, blood streaming down his chin. “India! Raj Kapoor! Nehru!” All of a sudden, he hugged me and then, smelling horribly of vodka, kissed me, as is the custom with Russians, squarely on my lips. That is one Russian custom that I have never understood.
I was disgusted and extricated myself from the bear hug with some difficulty. The man was very strong. “We love India,” he said, hugging me again, “and we love Raj Kapoor and Nehru!”
The other Russian rushed to me, swaying from side to side and, fearing that the fellow would also show his affection by kissing me, I beat a hasty retreat, shouting, “Peace…peace and friendship…and victory to Communism!”
“KHUI S KOMMUNISM!” the other fellow shouted (“Fuck Communism!”). “Long live Nehru! Long live India! Give me a hug, my brother!”
I ran from the two Russians as fast as I could. When I looked back, as I turned the corner, they were singing ‘Awaara Hoon’, the theme song of a Raj Kapoor film. The drunken man had been right, of course; with enough vodka in their innards, the Russians could become quite mad.
I walked all night, and in the early hours of the morning I reached the Komsomolskaya Metro Station. It was crowded even at this early hour. I was hungry and tired. I bought myself a couple of pirojki, a sort of bun with some jam inside it, and a cup of coffee. I sat down on a bench and looked at the milling crowds around me.
What Nehru had said made me think, and I was torn between thoughts of settling down in Russia or returning home to India. Eventually I decided upon the latter course. The incident with the drunk Russians that evening, and so many other experiences besides, had made me aware to some degree that no matter how familiar a place could feel, it could not be home. Nehru’s impassioned words had turned me into a patriot of sorts. I liked the idea of returning to my “true mother” after so many years abroad.
But by the time I returned to India in 1966, Nehru was long dead. Within a couple of years of his death, people had begun to bring him down from the pedestal they had set him up on. In the end, I found, he was to suffer the same fate as so many other politicians.
Excerpted with permission from Strange Encounters – Adventures of a Curious Life, Parikshat Sahni, Simon & Schuster India.