The only time I get indigestion is when I am forced to eat my words,” the inimitable Shobhaa De, author extraordinaire, writes in her latest book, Insatiable: My Hunger for Life. You can love or abhor her writing, but you can’t deny how addictive her books can be for their racy plots. Her words are raw like sushi, which can either be consumed as a delicacy or make you squeamish. Her no-frills personality and sharp sense of observation lend her pages a wit that makes you chuckle with delight or ponder in silence. Devoid of pretension and the need to embellish her books with highfalutin words, she writes from the heart and shares intimate nuggets from her personal life.
As the title of her latest work suggests, Shobhaa, at 75, has an insatiable appetite for life, with an endearing humility that belies her phenomenal success as an author. HELLO! has a sunny side chat with the determined, fashion queen bee of journalism, delving deep into her passion for life, cuisines, travel and the fulcrum of her existence, her family.
HELLO!: For your first date with Mr De, you wore a haldi yellow silk sari with a kumkum border. What else do you remember from that day?
Shobhaa De: “I can recall the strangest of things. Mr De’s strong yet endearing ‘Bong’ accent. His overt sentimentality. An old-fashioned approach to courtship. An openness that’s rare. Like all Bong men, he was extra-loquacious. I was terribly self-conscious; he wasn’t. I liked his confidence. He was comfortable in his own skin. And undisguisedly smitten! What was there not to like? And yes, he had pre-ordered fondue and a superb white. Two bottles later, the fondue remained untouched! And the venue shifted to The 1900s, the swanky nightclub at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, where Mr De was a founding member.”
Photo credit: Bharat Tiwari
H!: You’ve highlighted your husband’s personality all through the book and also confessed to keeping mum on certain things. Is that the key to a successful marriage?
SD: “Ours is a marriage of equals — volatile and argumentative. But neither of us qualifies as a doormat. It’s important to pick your battles in a marriage, keep politics out. In our marriage, my keeping mum during a heated political charcha is definitely the wiser choice. I’m not there to convert anyone to my way of thinking. Politics is a landmine, and all politicians are the same. So why take sides and ruin a relationship? On all other fronts, keeping mum — as traditional societies instruct women to do in amarriage — is nothing short of mental cruelty. Women must speak up! Why take politics to bed with you when there are far better options?”
H!: You call your ‘brood’ of six children your strongest support system. Who’s the most vocal critic, and who’s your biggest fan?
SD: “Fan? Are you kidding? It’s easier to extract a tooth than a compliment out of The Brood! I behave like their chamchi! It’s me who grovels and craves for their approval! But behind all their tough talk and attitude, I’d like to believe they like me! I know they always have my back. They are all vocal and self-declared critics. I call them my censor board. I am terrified of their censure!”
H!: You seem to have a soft spot for your firstborn Aditya Kilachand. Agree?
SD: “Honestly, I don’t play favourites. But with those melting brown eyes of his, I often weaken. Besides, he’s the sole man in our ‘girl gang’, so his perspective from a male point of view is invaluable to me when I’m trying to resolve sticky issues, both personal and professional. He’s practical and always finds a simple solution that’s escaped me. And yes, The Brood does make absurd concessions for Aditya at times — he’s the platinum card holder in this club!”
H!: Women camouflage their decision to cover up their greys due to shaming and sexist remarks. Your thoughts, please.
SD: “I pay zero attention to that sort of juvenile shaming. Sexist remarks have no age restrictions. Women learn to cope with cruel personal attacks from the age of seven or eight. These never go away! Not even when a woman turns 80. I have made myselfimpervious to all such barbs over the years. To colour one’s hair or not remains a personal choice. Of course, there’s vanity involved; which woman doesn’t want to look the best she can at whatever age? Just as Judi Dench has made her silver hair a stylish fashion statement, I like myself with a colour that flatters my personality. And that colour is definitely not grey. I’m no silver fox. I’m a mink!”
H!: In your book, you’ve gone into detail about the relationship women share with their bodies and their obsession with their breasts. From where do you think the insecurities stem?
SD: “Our mixed feelings about our breasts are pretty natural. I don’t know of any woman who is 100 percent pleased with her breasts! She will always find something that’s less than perfect, not merely the size of it. It could be the nipples that are a little off. Or there’s a small difference between one side of the breast and the other (breasts are never equal in shape or size). In an ideal world, this would be a non-issue. But when we look at the statistics for breast augmentation or reduction, it’s obvious how preoccupied women are about their breasts. Add to that the anxiety of breastfeeding and losing the old contours! Agreed, a woman’s self-worth ought not to be as closely linked to the size of her mammary glands, but the horrible truth is that it is!”
H!: It’s no secret that you’re a passionate gourmand. And in Insatiable, you have taken us on quite a culinary voyage. Is there a food memoir in the offing?
SD: “I’ve had an enduring love affair with food for multiple reasons. I see food as a metaphor for life. My palate has always been adventurous and curious, ready to try new tastes and enjoy exotic flavours. My relationship with food is deep and respectful. I dislike the word ‘foodie’ since it trivialises the joy of eating and reduces it to a flirtation. I also want to clarify: a food lover like myself is not a glutton, neither do I call myself a gourmet. I appreciate food! Period. And no, I’m not looking at a food book down the line, even though I find food erotic. Each meal is sensuous since it involves all five senses. The sixth sense is our imagination. The permutations and combinations in the universe of food remain infinite and exciting.”
H!: Like all of us, you were shocked about the assassination attempt on Salman Rushdie. Have you ever feared for your own life?
SD: “A writer should never ever live in fear of what he/she says in the public domain. If you are scared, don’t write! I take all my freedoms for granted, as every citizen is entitled to, thanks to what’s enshrined in our Constitution. As long as I’m not breaking any laws, as long as I’m not writing irresponsibly or inciting riots, as long as my writing continues to underline the message of unity, as long as I raise my voice against injustice, divisiveness, religious intolerance and hate, I believe I’m doing the right thing. So to answer your question, I’m not scared. I have a spine. I have a voice. I rely on both. Silence is not an option. Freedom of expression is non-negotiable.”
H!: You’ve written about losing good friends to divergent political views. Is political alignment vital for a successful marriage, too?
SD: “A lot of contemporary marriages work on the good cop, bad cop construct. If a friendship or a family relationship is that fragile that politics can tear it apart, then it isn’t worth investing in. Yes, I have moved away from a few people who behaved like propagandists for a political party and were over-aggressive about their views. One can have diametrically opposing political views, but there’s no room or justification for being rude or name calling. Similarly, there were those whose negativity, hostility and cowardice were getting to me. I’m glad I ‘curated’ my list of so-called well-wishers. I’m even sure that they are happy to be excluded!”
H!: Among all the actors you’ve met over the years, what makes Aamir Khan the special one?
SD: “Aamir is pretty unique. He thinks beyond his films. He has a world view. He reads a lot. He does not live in a small Bollywood bubble. He’s individualistic in the choices he makes, professional and personal. Unlike 99 percent of movie stars, he’s a good listener! He shuns the standard trappings of Bollywood stars and is the most ‘normal’ superstar I know — happy to hang out and chat over chai, laugh and joke just like regular folk.”
H!: When you talk or think about entering the last phase of your life, does the journey ahead frighten you?
SD: “What’s frightening about age, apart from the standard concerns around health? This is such a liberating phase! One has nothing to lose but everything to gain! I plan to make the most of these years, starting with a long-postponed trip to Brazil and Argentina, organised meticulously by Mr De as a gift for my 75th birthday!”
H!: The last line of your book — ‘Anuradha is finally where she wants to be’ — alludes to the name you were first given. Could you elaborate on what you’ve written?
SD: “Aha! For that, you may have to wait a bit. I’m getting to know Anuradha myself, taking it one day at a time!”
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s February 2023 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!