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Authors: Naseeruddin Shah

And Then One Day: A Memoir

BOOK: And Then One Day: A Memoir
Naseeruddin Shah
A Memoir


‘All that David Copperfield kind of crap’

The boy from Sardhana and Shah Tandoori, London

St Joseph’s Film Institute, Nainital

Heroes, villains and dolls

Cricket, my second, er... third love

Through the looking glass, sort of

Mr Shakespeare and St Anselm ride to the rescue

Back to their roots

The girl in the tent and the miracle at St Paul’s

The road less travelled


The Aligarh University absurdists

The woman with the sun in her hair

Heeba, gift of God

School of drama, tragedy and heartbreak

The penny drops in super slo-mo

Film, only a director’s medium?

Zoo story

And introducing...

The churning

Of admen and film-makers

Breeng the shit

New wave or old hat?

Poor theatre, moneyed film

Search for a voice

Finding my spot



Preface and acknowledgements

Follow Penguin


For my sons Imaad and Vivaan, the only two my family who don’t appear in this book...

... and for Dulha bhai and Apa bi, who might finally have understood.

‘... and then one day you find
ten years have got behind you,
no one told you when to run,
you missed the starting gun’

— Pink Floyd, ‘Time’,
Dark Side of the Moon

‘All that David
Copperfield kind of crap’

was born in
Barabanki, a small town near Lucknow, in July of the year 1949 or maybe it was
August of the year 1950. No one including Ammi (Farrukh Sultan, my mother) was
later ever quite sure which. Her saying ‘tum ramzaan mein paida hue
thhe’ wasn’t much help in figuring it out either. Smallpox then was
a scourge, typhoid a killer, malaria and cholera rampant. Children often never
made it out of their infancy, or more frequently lost a year or two on falling
ill or on failing their final exams; so a child’s date of birth was
invariably amended, and registered at school time as being a year or two later
than it actually was. To provide for either eventuality or perhaps simple
absent-mindedness made Baba (Aley Mohammed Shah, my father) register my year of
birth as 1950. Why July 20th was altered to August 16th, however, is a mystery
and I’ve had quite a bit of fun with the wise ones who took it upon
themselves to figure out my astrological chart. Consequently, I am whichever age
it suits me to be on any particular day. While it doesn’t make me feel a
whole lot younger, it just seems like something to do.

Baba had had a peripatetic life before finally
settling down to serve the British government in the Provincial Civil Service
when Freedom’s dawn, Independence and Partition hit the country. Not
wanting to take any chances, he stayed on in India. Two of his brothers left, as
did several of my mother’s siblings; he had seven, she had ten. My oldest
brother Zaheer was two, the one after him, Zameer, newly born; and I
hadn’t yet arrived so we didn’t have much say in the matter, but
doubtless we would all have backed the decision: none of us has been much of a
gambler. Apart from the fact that Baba possessed no property in India and thus
could not in any conscience claim any across the border, leaving a secure job
and starting a new life when somewhat past his prime must have been less
appealing to him than staying on in this newly independent ‘Hindu
country’. He was never one to rock any boats and he figured we’d do
all right here. As it happened, he was not wrong in his assessment of our future
chances in India.

As an
infant I seem to remember travelling continuously by car down tree-lined,
practically empty highways. Provincial Civil Service officers saw a fair amount
of road on their ‘inspection’ tours to places not yet connected by
rail, and lodged in ‘dak’ or ‘inspection’ bungalows
built for that purpose. These once splendid mansions, alike in their sprawling
colonial isolation, all featured mirrored hat-stands and battered cane furniture
on gloomy, pillared verandahs overlooking unkempt gardens and lawns. And I still
know the smell of those places: the musty drawing rooms (I always puzzled over
why they are called ‘drawing’ rooms—until a chance visit to
Blair Castle in Pitlochry explained it; they were the rooms ladies would
‘withdraw’ to while the men drank their brandy and threw bread rolls
at each other) with the then ubiquitous mounted- head tiger/leopard skins strung
over dead fireplaces, ancient copies of
Reader’s Digest
undusted mantels. Insipid food in cavernous dining rooms with Ammi not cooking
or serving, and looking pretty unsure about it all. The odour of damp and
peeling plaster everywhere, and fetid air in the thickly curtained bedrooms.
There were also frequent transfers from town to town in UP necessitating long
train journeys, always including endless hours of sitting on our luggage at
strangely deserted railway stations awaiting our connection.

The earliest thing I can recall
doing is sitting in someone’s (not either of my parents’) lap and
watching a performance which I couldn’t identify then and still
can’t, but which was probably a ‘nautanki’ by an itinerant
theatre troupe, or a Ram Leela, the kind of show performed in the open or in
makeshift tents. What has stayed burned into my mind is the thickly painted face
of a person up there I got mesmerized by— dancing on top of a very high
platform, his face alight, his eyes darting like agitated snakes. A singular
rush of excitement coursed through me whenever, body contorting and eyeballs
slithering, he looked towards me, which seemed to be most of the time. I
remember absolutely nothing else from this day, I must have been about two, and
I sometimes do wonder if this is a memory I have invented. Even so, it’s
become absolutely real and given me a great deal, but something tells me it must
have happened. It could even have been a circus and he a clown, but at that
moment he seemed to be touching the sky. It was only of course my own minuscule
size at the time which made me perceive him as such, but this vision has stayed
stuck in the forefront of my consciousness, because that day this man, whoever
he was, handed me the most valuable thing I’ve ever received: the gift of
wonder—complete terror combined with the deepest fascination and envy. I
wanted to be up there with him forever, I knew that for sure. Mr Yann Martel in
his hallucinatory hagiography of the boy Pi puts it the way I wish I could:
‘first wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fits in the impression made
by the first’. Perhaps that’s why in my mind I connect actors and
clowns very closely, and sometimes the distinction blurs with great

I also remember
standing on the balcony of one of these inspection bungalows and peeing on
someone reading a newspaper below, feeling pretty sure he’d never know
where it was coming from. As it happened, he not only figured out where it came
from, he also turned out to be Baba’s superior. I sometimes wonder if this
was one of the incidents that made my father reassess my worth. For some reason
I also remember a guy puking all over Baba’s gun case on a bus ride down
from Nainital to Haldwani. The stain remained on that canvas cover for years,
until Baba sold the gun, stained case and all. There is also a memory of riding
pillion on a bicycle on a deserted stretch of road and being asked to move aside
by two uniformed cops on motorcycles, Zameer getting a fishbone stuck in his
throat, and Baba smashing a couple of plates at the dinner table because they
weren’t clean. Funny, the kind of things that stick in one’s mind,
like ‘dust on honey’ as someone said. And then there are things
unforgettable like getting butted to the ground by a baby goat I was trying to
be affectionate to, or running to the handpump to replenish the almost empty
bottle of lemonade with water, tripping and carrying the scar of that on my left
palm still, or Zaheer driving Ammi’s sewing machine needle through my
finger after assuring me it would get stitched.

I was always told I was my father’s
favourite, words that would come back to haunt me later. Ammi gave birth to five
sons, the three of us survived. Baba often confessed that he dearly wanted a
daughter. He was never to have one. So when it was my turn to arrive, he must
have fervently prayed and hoped, only to be disappointed yet again. He probably
overcompensated by indulging me greatly for the first few years of my life. When
I awoke he would carry me on his back to the bathroom and tend to me. Evidently
I was spoiled rotten at that stage; Zaheer once received a dressing down because
I had told on him. In fact looking at some photos of myself at that age I
suspect I must have been something of a pest. Baba’s large elegant hands
and tapering fingers had a warmth I can still feel and I loved his short prickly
Hitler-ish moustache scraping my face, but as it happened he and I touched each
other less and less in the years that followed.

In an age when girls were married off by fourteen
and were expected to start bearing children within the year, Ammi stayed unwed
many years longer than was normal. She and Baba were from different branches of
the same family, spawned by Agha Syed Mohammed Shah, a soldier of fortune from
Paghman, near Kabul, who arrived in India sometime in the first half of the
nineteenth century, fought for the British in the 1857 War of Independence and
was rewarded with the estate of Sardhana, near Meerut, and the title of Nawab
Jan Fishan Khan. My parents had been engaged to each other for a while until
Baba, who was then in Kabul, embarked for England. Why exactly he went to either
place has never been fully explained, but ostensibly it was as English tutor to
the daughter of Amanullah, the exiled Afghan king. My brother has a theory that
it was a romance of some kind, something I find intriguing but irreconcilable
with my memory of the man. Anyhow, Baba was one of the entourage the king took
with him when he had to flee. These royals never even fled without an entourage.
The engagement was broken off and Ammi was then assigned for life the role of
serving her parents, a somewhat woolly-headed couple unwittingly presiding over
the final fall of feudalism in the house of the Sardhana Shahs. She performed
the role of selfless daughter to perfection, until Baba fresh from England and a
disastrous marriage to a lady he never ever spoke to anyone about, but with an
enviable government job as ‘nayab tehsildar’, re-entered her life
and asked for her hand. He was about forty, she close to thirty, ages at which
they should have been grandparents not newlyweds.

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