THERE'S a difference between autobiography and extended diary, hard to define but one that you know when you see it. An autobiography is perhaps individual without being idiosyncratic; it speaks of experiences that have some meaning for the reader beyond their mere happening to the writer. Perhaps self-exploratory rather than self-celebratory, it's the telling of a life that goes beyond the narration of lived events.
This autobiography of Saeed Jaffrey will, of course, interest anyone thirsting to hear of all that happened to Saeed Jaffrey because it happened to him. But a reader not particularly interested in reading his personal diary stretched over 300 pages is likely to be disappointed. This book, sadly, is heavy on occurrences, but quite devoid of any meaning in them; a flat report, not a resonant story.
But here you have the man behind the act. Follow him if you like from one production to the next, and for a long while through the book, from one woman to the next. "Another Anglo-Indian girl blew into my life around that time..." begins one story. And so, in so many words, begin many more. "Ann Roberts, a Cordon Bleu chef, blew into my life in a typically Sagittarian way and blew out of it about a year later...." Again: "My stay there was enlivened and enriched by an eccentric young English sculptress who blew into my life, briefly and suddenly. And just as suddenly blew out of it, having been seduced by an elderly Jewish violin-maker from New Jersey." And again: "When I had finally found a room in Lancaster Gate, another young girl was to blow into my life, very suddenly and totally unexpectedly...." Jaffrey makes a precise record of these blowings-in and blowings-out.
With embarrassing frankness, Jaffrey writes of how he sees women. Listen to his narration of the supreme compliment he received from a woman. Back in Allahabad, he writes: "I was paid one of my best compliments by a young and beautiful girl." This was a servant girl who used to bathe where he could see her. Jaffrey writes: "Now comes the compliment! She started timing her baths to coincide with my arrival from the university. Not only that, knowing that my non-voyeuristic, and non-lustful eyes were watching her, she devised a way to reveal every inch of her body to me." Yes, this was the compliment. Or think of this encounter with Shama, daughter of Atia Hussain who wrote Sunlight on a Broken Column: "I remember one morning when I was strolling down the Fulham Road, Shama, who was passing in a bus, suddenly spotted me and tripped and nearly fell off the bus trying to catch me. I must admit I was quite flattered by this incident."
Jaffrey sees himself as more seduced than seducing. At parties in New York's ad world, for instance. Jaffrey writes of the women around him: "Quite a few of them pointed towards a slim, slightly exotic-looking, but very English-sounding and humorously articulate young actor called Saeed Jaffrey who must have been a novelty for the advertising world." They wanted to seduce him, of course, but friends would intervene "to bail me out" and "the attempts at seduction would cease". Saeed Jaffrey is a man many women would want to seduce no doubt; but serialising these attempts hardly makes outstanding autobiography. The stories of seduction go on. "A tall, blonde and beautiful friend of Mischa's met me afterwards, came back to the motel with me, obviously to try and seduce me. " But he was in another room "while the poor hopeful thing waited for me in my bed in the motel room....poor unfulfilled and frustrated soul, she was gone in the morning when I woke up."
For a man who quite boasts his English ways, Jaffrey is far from adopting the self-deprecatory tone that the English consider mandatory in discourse through life. It might have been okay to live like a peacock, but it doesn't do to write like one. To write that a woman somewhere "saw me and made a beeline for me" is possibly true, but not the stuff of greatness you might want to read about. Take his encounter with Chitra who had "decided that she would seduce as many white men as possible." But that wasn't all. "The other naughty habit she had was to try and seduce most of Mike's men friends, like me for instance." Since Mike was a friend, Jaffrey declares, he honourably said 'No' to her. But in a film by Mike titled The Perfumed Garden, she conspired to play Radha and had Jaffrey cast as Krishna. "She thus got her own back, had her revenge on my having refused to get involved with her. We had to roll down a hill in the film, totally naked, and then kiss passionately and make love." Poor man.
And a poor book. The chronology of sexual encounters gets a bit pointless—at times this begins to read less like the autobiography of a man than the biography of a penis. Jaffrey names almost all the sexual partners he writes of—Ann, Mary, Shiela, Karen (who he comforted after Kennedy was shot "by making love"), Hilary.... One of his few "more serious" girlfriends was, he says, a Jewish girlfriend of Ravi Shankar "or at least one of his many gopis in the Brindaban of America." Again, as Shankar was a friend, Jaffrey declares he left her alone on principle. But "God moves in myste -rious ways" because he saw her at a bus stop one day and gave her a lift to her apartment, "eventually ending up in her warm bed making love to the rhythms of Ravi's raaga". He writes of this as a somehow Hindu experience. "The experience was unforgettable, and for a moment we were both transported to another age, when in the Brindaban gardens, Lord Krishna would make love not only to his favourite beloved Radha, but to all the milk-maidens who adored his loving manner and beautiful blue image. All Christian, Islamic and Judaic feelings of guilt and shame were absent, we were transported to a liberated Hindu mythological realm."
Jaffrey writes inevitably of the break-up of his marriage with Madhur Jaffrey. And makes some surprising admissions. Madhur, who he refers to as M through the book, told him one day that a black actor had grabbed her and kissed her lips. "I knew the incident was through no fault of M's and it was courageous of her to share it with me, but some perversely selfish part of me considered it a breach of loyalty, a shattering of our illogical concept of faithfulness.... I can't remember what I said to M, but I remember one quite illogical part of me whispering to me, 'This frees you now'." He then had a relationship with a visiting Indian dancer but hid it from Madhur at first. "With the utmost difficulty I kept denying any involvement. I knew that if I told the truth, she would never be able to forgive me, and our emotionally fragile marital house of cards would collapse...." But he was caught out, and that was the end. Later he writes after finding girlfriend Hilary in bed with another man: "Even though I had been unfaithful to Hilary on so many occasions and not felt guilty about it, my pride—Mughal, male, Indian, actor's, whatever—could not stomach Hilary's infidelity. "
The autobiography is not all sexual diary. There's much in it of his career as actor, laced with remarks on how wonderful both the world and he found himself. "People were amazed at my professionalism," he writes. Or begins a story of a new production saying: "The other landmark in my career was...." The stories of his well-known roles, and the far too lengthy accounts of his small parts in forgotten productions stretch tediously and, soon, tiringly. Far too much trivia of the past here, in language soaked far too heavily in self-congratulation. There's something wrong with an autobiography that says, Come and see the irresistible genius that's me. Even for the seriously theatre-inclined, there is little here about acting, the experience of theatre, of cinema in itself. Instead, Jaffrey offers stories of his contacts leading to plays and performances leading to parties, then more contacts. After some time you don't particularly want to know. It all gets a bit dull as it goes on, then more than a bit as it goes on and on.
ON four occasions, Jaffrey writes, he was given a black eye—three times because he was punched, once in an accident. And this story comes as a blow-by-blow account. You can admire the actor without wanting to know the date, time and place of the
several black eyes. Or where he went for dinner, and what was for dinner. Or of all the nice things that nice people said about him. Jaffrey suffers from being too ardent an admirer of himself, and this autobiography suffers as a consequence of that admiration. And with the autobiography, he. The less this autobiography is read, the better for him.
It isn't just the tone of his story or what he narrates that are embarrassing to him. Through the book he lets slip a good deal. Like praising an Anglo-Indian girl who "defended me in a manner that I shall never forget." And the defence? 'Oh, Mummy, what are you talking, mun! I swear, put him behind a curtain, and hear him speak. You'd swear he was an Englishman!'. Jaffrey, who writes of some experiences at the hands of white racists, is pretty racist himself in speaking dismissively of letters he received as a boy "from the darkest and ugliest boy in our class." After Madhur left for England, he writes, she acquired an accent. "She broke my heart when she told me how very Indian I sounded! I decided there and then that I should leave India very soon, join her in London and ask her to marry me."
The book does include a few—but too few—interesting accounts, particularly of the struggling years as actor, when he worked as bartender, salesman, anything. The man had the nerve, the strength, to stick it through difficult times for a long time. There is much in his life to admire, if he could present it in a less self-admiring manner. Saeed Jaffrey has clearly a good memory for compliments. He recalls one from a professor at Allahabad who saw one of his stage performances: "You were probably not the best student of History, but I knew that one day you would make history!" Saeed Jaffrey has—as an actor on stage and on the screen. But hardly with this book. This has, if anything, given him away. The act is so much better than the man.