In all the celebratory notes that marked her 74th birthday last week, reputed playback singer Asha Bhonsle heard a rather discordant one. It was a source of discomfiture for the singer who had broken rules in personal life and displayed courage in her relationships decades before young girls were flaunting their live-in partners or younger men for husbands. The cause of the discord was her mother-in-law, 92-year-old Meera Dev Burman, mother of star film composer, the late R.D. Burman, and widow of the equally iconic Sachin Dev Burman.
Asha would have liked to keep her mother-in-law's recent months a secret, but that was not to be. Old and ailing Meera was more or less confined to bed soon after her son's death in January 1994. She had a full-time attendant to look after her daily needs. Visitors to the Burmans' sprawling suburban apartment in upmarket Khar recall that she was perhaps not in full control of her senses even then, and suffered from an old-age affliction. It was expected that Asha would care for her, particularly so because she treated R.D.'s apartment as her own, maintained it, even preserved his music room in his memory and used it for her riyaz.
This she did till late last year. Then, Asha had her mother-in-law taken to a home for the aged in Vashi, Navi Mumbai, some 90 minutes drive from Mumbai. Sharan, the old age home, cared for her till some days back when she was, once again, shifted. Officials at Sharan say they released Meera and all her belongings "just a few days back when media interest in her condition got too much, but she had been there for almost nine months". They say she had an attendant who had come with her and used to take care of all her needs, but that Meera herself was quite unaware of her surroundings and condition. She was perhaps not even fully conscious of her own identity and what was happening to her.
Meera was moved back to R.D.'s suburban apartment. But that she could be packed off to a home for the aged in the first place has bothered many. And that Asha could dump her mother-in-law in this fashion has upset those in the know, but they won't speak out for fear of repercussions in an industry that respects sycophancy. "Meera Dev Burman was an accomplished singer and dancer herself and, from what one hears, was a source of great inspiration and support to Sachin da. To think that Asha tai could not allow the lady a room in her own son's house and keep a full-time nurse is terribly upsetting, but then these are family issues," says a veteran film journalist.
Asha herself would not clarify the situation, but her son Anand refutes it all as a rumour that someone is spreading out of jealousy. "R.D. Burman died in 1994 and my mother has looked after her (Meera) ever since. You think she would have made it to 92 years of age if my mother had not looked after her," asks Anand. "She has Alzheimer's. My mother spends more than Rs 25,000 a month to look after her, with two maids caring for her 24/7." However, he accepts Meera Burman had been shifted to the Sharan old age home but insists that it was only for some 45 days.
"We put her in Sharan only for one-and-a-half months because my mother was going on a tour to America and I was going with her. There would be no family to look after her, and the maids would not know whom to call in case of some medical situation. In fact, the doctors advised us to put her in an old home. And Sharan is a top-class home run by the Rahejas, not some run-of-the-mill place. The next time my mother is touring, we might put her there again," says Anand. Officials at Sharan, though, are categorical that Burman spent close to nine months there.
If Meera had for the past 13 years been living largely confined to her room, in bed, with an attendant round-the-clock, what prompted Asha to take the drastic step of moving her to an old age home, even if it sparkles like a four-star hotel? Surely, she could have continued in the apartment. Those in the know suggest property row as a reason, others say that the 92-year-old ailing woman was not desired in the house by Asha's family who wanted to occupy it. She and her family have been living in the legendary Prabhu Kunj apartment in South Mumbai's tony Peddar Road area; where other apartments in the building are occupied by her siblings, including Lata Mangeshkar. But in her R.D. years and after, Asha has been shuttling between the Peddar Road and suburban apartments.
Asha and R.D. Burman with her in-laws
However, her son apparently wanted admission for his young child in a reputed suburban school and suggested moving to the suburban apartment with his family so as to be close to the school. The old and ailing Meera's presence, albeit in her room, would have been uncomfortable for the Bhonsle family. "They must have thought we can send her to an old age home and no one will know, but God has a way of straightening things out," says a source who has known Asha for years. "I don't know if she herself wanted it this way, but her son can be extremely money-minded and ruthless. Maybe he pushed her into it. But I know that the family has been living in the suburbs for some months now. If I call her at the Peddar Road house, I am given a number for the suburban apartment," adds the source.
Days after R.D.'s death, there were stories of how Asha had cleverly managed to get control over most of his assets, how some bank lockers in his name had been emptied out and so on. Filmmakers and lyricists who had interacted with R.D. in his last days did not have a good word to offer about her and suggested that R.D. had naively trusted her—in fact, trusted her too much.
Against this, Meera being moved to an old age home fits the pattern. She may have languished there but for the Tripura state government that tracked her down because it wanted to present her a state award. When her address—a 10 x 12 ft room in an old age home—was conveyed and some sections of the media played it up, it appears that the Bhonsles had second thoughts about her continued stay there. "When news of her being R.D. Burman's mother and Asha Bhonsle's mother-in-law spread, she (Meera) became a spectacle here, though she was totally unaware of it all," says the old age home official. "It wasn't good for the family either. Maybe that's why they took her back." The perfect plot for our saas-bahu serials?