Shobhaa De has lost her voice. Literally, not metaphorically. And De―usually outspoken, often outrageous, with no filters, but with a dollop of the De earthiness―has had to cancel a lit fest appearance and sit at home quietly. “I have never been voiceless before,’’ she says. “In all these years of being a writer and a columnist, to be voiceless, in physical terms, is doubly painful.”
Insatiable―My Hunger for Life is an addition to her list of bestselling memoirs at various milestones in her life. At 75, De continues to be dauntingly prolific. But more than that, she continues to be relevant. There have been memoirs before―when she turned 60, and then again at 70. Will 80 bring another edition? “That would be an excess,’’ she says with a laugh. “Now, one year at a time. I don’t even want to think that far ahead. I want to give myself enough space inside my head and heart to just switch off for a while, even from thinking about the next book. Though I have to admit shamefacedly that I have started thinking about it. But that is just me being insatiable. I can’t seem to stop. I suppose, why should I? I remember Pablo Picasso saying in his 90s that it takes a person a very long time to actually become young. And it sounds like a contradiction in terms. But it isn’t.’’
The secret is in her book―an ode to life, love and food. It is very much a book about living with abandon. It is addictive, and crackling with this infectious zeal for life. “To keep your mind in overdrive at all times, thinking about the possibilities that the future offers―that is like a treasure,” she says. “So that is curiosity. That is the enthusiasm for experiencing whatever is available and possible in a realistic way at a certain stage in your life. And, of course, in a more lighthearted way, the mantra would be called khao, peeyo, jiyo (eat, drink, live) which encapsulates everything.”
The book is filled with her interactions with the world. From her refusing Padma Lakshmi a seat next to her boyfriend, Salman Rushdie, at a party so that De could talk with him, to her friendship with a Kashmiri shawl-wallah, to M.F. Husain’s addiction to chai (Madhuri Dixit brewed it eight times in her house till she got it right for him), De’s musings are addictive. Littered with FFF―family, friendship and food―Insatiable is an allegory for De herself. Then there is the food. From Bong khaana to dhokla and biryani, she dishes out her expertise on everything, and it is hard not to binge while reading the book. (Though maybe her suggestion of pairing gobi manchurian with vanilla ice cream, which she made to a Michelin chef, might be a tad too experimental).
Insatiable may offer a ringside view of her life filled to the brim, but it is also about hunger. She describes her early thirties as the “toughest period’’ of her life when she was alone. “You have brought this upon yourself,” said hostile family members, who refused to open their doors to her. At her darkest moments, De found comfort in boiled eggs. Her staple meal was two eggs a day and a chilled bottle of Aarey milk. “These are crossroads, particularly in the lives of urban women who have to make difficult choices,” she says. “Whether it involves relationships or careers, haven’t we all come to that point at some stage? Some are fortunate and blessed that they have not faced that one egg a day situation. But having lived through that, I can never forget what that one egg a day taught me about myself. Those days were dark. And they were disturbing. They were extremely painful. But that I still managed―and I did not let that keep me down―is something that, looking back, I feel good about. I did not ask for favours from anyone. I used all the skill sets that I possessed. I used my intelligence and my practicality. And I pulled myself out. So here I am. And yeah, I think a lot of women have that capacity and do it.”
It is Valentine’s Day. So far, her husband, Dilip De―who makes an appearance in her book, often exacting, especially with Bengali food and his views on chopping ‘pui saag’ (Malabar spinach) and choosing the right ‘maach’ (fish)―has not made a grand gesture of romance as yet. But it is coming. There is a whirlwind holiday planned for her birthday to South America. Plus, after all, the day is still young, says De. And so is she.
INSATIABLE: MY HUNGER FOR LIFE
By Shobhaa De
Published by HarperCollins India
Price (hardback) Rs699; pages 304