Int: Airport: A hot sunny day. May 1996
I was waiting to receive a very special person at the Indira Gandhi International airport. The heat was depressing. The only funny thing noticeable was the information on the tele-monitor: "No power supply from DESU - air-conditioners are not working - we regret the inconvenience."
The information stayed on for long, even after the power supply was restored
Boredom pervaded the air. But all of a sudden, I saw people becoming alert and coming to life -- even hustling and sniggering. I looked around to find the reason for this sudden transformation in the ambience. Bihar’s then Chief Minister Mr. Lalu Prasad Yadav was passing by, escorted by a lady wearing a chintz saree with large floral patterns along with four other minions. People seemed so happy at the sight of Mr. Yadav, as if they had just heard someone cracking a joke.
However, I was more excited at the prospect of meeting my guest than seeing Lalu pass by. And soon she appeared -- my guest, Nadira -- the celebrated vamp of Indian silver screen.
Images of her songs flashed across my mind: Mud mud ke na dekh mud mud ke from Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420, which had become sort of her signature song.
In the realm of Hindi cinema, she would forever be remembered as the bold and the beautiful. She had immortalized herself on the screen as an actor who played spunky roles even in an era when most other heroines preferred to play the roles of a good girl and a good wife. I was there to receive her for a television talk show. It was part of my job -- and how I loved this part.
I waved at her. She was being helped with her luggage by a fellow traveller. Her eyes caught my waving hands. She responded.
Coming closer, she enquired, "Are you Zafar?"
I nodded and introduced myself. I took over her handbag and soon we were out. A car was waiting for us to take her to the studio.
Int: Cab: Continuous
Sitting with her in the car was a special moment for me. My childhood fantasies and the images of this "diva of Indian cinema" (from films such as Aan, Shree 420, Julie, Pakeezah, and Sagar) kept on crisscrossing my mind’s screen, sometimes leaping out of it and intermingling with the reality of the moment.
The car air-conditioner was trying hard to beat the heat. Nadira was sweating profusely and yet she was all smiles. Soon we started talking.
"You are very young, dear. Isn’t Delhi very hot? Do you drink?" That’s right. This is how she spoke, without a break.
I tended to agree with her first idea. The second one was a fact. The third was an unexpected clincher. I didn't know what to say.
"Yes… I do, sometimes" I managed to answer, expecting a rebuke from the matriarch. That was my bad boy phase just after the journalism school.
"What do you drink?"
"Anything Madam. But I prefer rum," I blurted out as a confession.
"Don’t call me madam. Call me mummy. Is that fine?"
"Definitely. I’d love to call you mummy."
"That is very sweet beta. I have got some good rum with me."
"Old Monk?" I showed my curiosity. This time I was more surprised than shocked.
"Yes. You like it?" She asked me in turn.
"That’s my favourite drink, mummy."
"Would you like to have it?" She enquired.
"I don’t mind." I said with a perfect veneer of being cool about it.
"Here it is," she said taking the bottle out of her bag, wrapped in a black polythene packet.
I was scared. Trouble had started brewing. Drinking in the car… with Nadira? That was the last thing I had imagined about meeting this grand lady. Moreover, we were on our way to the studio! I could not imagine myself talking to my boss in an inebriated condition. Nevertheless, I did not have the heart to refuse her offer.
"Would you give me company? How can I have it all by myself?" I said, thinking that would dissuade her from the insistence on making a good son out of me.
"No. You have it beta. You will feel good. I had some on the plane." Surely, I had lost the last chance of defending myself.
With hands trembling, I held the bottle and poured some stuff into the bottle cap. I gulped the thing down, trying to hold the liquid in the cap so that it did not fall off. After all, we were traveling on the bumpy roads of Delhi.
She screamed at me: "Are you a man or a mouse? Why don’t you drink straight from the bottle?"
I couldn’t do that. I never had done anything like that. I took a couple of gulps and that was it.
Searing heat. Traffic. Red lights. Deadlines. A trickling arrow of alcohol winding down my entrails.
"How do you feel?" she asked.
"Oh, great! Excellent! Thank you mummy," I said managing a smile but my mind was lost in solving an existentialist dilemma and strategizing the tackling of a recently thrown gauntlet: Who was I - A man or a mouse?
Int: Office: Day
The shooting went off fine. She was fabulous on the show. She talked about her loneliness and how depressed she felt being away from her relatives. Although the Jewish actress, born Florence Ezekiel, had two brothers - one settled in the US and another in Israel - she led a lonely life. She almost broke down on the show which was about life in the old age. It was a grave moment for us all.
A few days later, I received a letter from her. In the letter she had talked about her journey back to Bombay. After reaching Bombay, she wrote, she had slept for hours and hours in one single posture. She knew I wanted to come down to Bombay to work in the movies and in the letter she had even offered that I could stay with her in her flat. If anything, it showed how kind and trusting she was even towards strangers like me. I was so touched by her affection.
Unfortunately, I never could go to Bombay. I never got to meet her again.
Singapore: Day: 2006
I was reading reports about her illness for sometime now. She had been admitted to the ICU of a Mumbai hospital for suffering a heart attack coupled with a paralytic stroke early this year. She had been in coma. Yesterday when I learnt that she had peacefully slipped away into the arms of mortality, I felt as if I had lost my own mother. She asked me to call her Mummy and that’s how I am going to remember her for the rest of my life -- my Mum, a diva.
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