In her fortnightly column, the author goes gaga over a Hollywood actress
Close to our house was the Garrison Theatre of Shillong. It screened English movies. There were occasions when we were taken from school to the theatre for movies. One such outing to the theatre was for the movie Samson and Delilah, starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr.
Victor Mature, in the film, had supernatural powers preserved in his hair and he could demolish buildings with a mere punch of his fist. He became an instant figure of adoration and infatuation for us. And Hedy Lamarr! We could never imagine that a woman could be so beautiful! I liked the movie a lot, so much so that whoever would come to visit us, I would ask them if they had seen the movie, and if not, they should and take me along too. My mother started noticing this behaviour of mine, and after a few days, scolded me for it. It was considered bad manners.
Some days later, one of our friends in school showed us a picture of Hedy Lamarr in a gorgeous red coat. She was standing atop a wooden box underneath an apple tree and reaching out for an apple. Next to her was Victor Mature. The caption said the red coat had been gifted by him to Hedy Lamarr, and that the coat had been specially stitched at Manhattan in the US. We girls couldn’t stop admiring the coat.
The others said that their fathers, whenever they would travel to Manhattan, would get them a coat exactly like that. I couldn’t overcome my fascination for the beautiful coat either. But I knew that my father would never buy any such coat for me.
The picture belonged to Lesley Warner, my classmate. I was so obsessed with the picture that I borrowed it for a day from her. Once home, I called out my friend, the daughter of our cook, and showed her the picture. I planned to pose like Hedy Lamarr. We dragged out a wooden tea chest and carried it a little downhill where there grew many plum trees, big and small. I put on my coarse overcoat, the cap of our driver Nabin and stood on the tea chest, exactly in the way that Lamarr posed in the picture. My friend said that I looked more beautiful than Lamarr! We returned home, and on the way, I asked her whether a red coat would not have been better. She exclaimed that it definitely would have been…
Years passed, but that picture, that Manhattan coat and Hedy Lamarr wearing it, all of it remained embedded in my heart as a heady mix of temptation that wouldn’t be fulfilled.
In 2003, a festival of Indian writers was organised by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in New York. Many Indian writers went there along with the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, also a poet. We were put up in Hotel New Yorker, located right in the middle of Manhattan. In front of the hotel there were cinema theatres and all around the place were shops. It was like the Meena Bazar of Delhi.
One morning, I looked out of the window and saw shops auctioning clothes of earlier filmstars. The boards read “Sale”. Pratibha Ray, the Oriya writer, was in the room next to mine. She happened to be in my room at that time. I told her that I would like to buy a coat. She readily agreed to the idea and said that we would need warm clothes when visiting the Niagara Falls. But little did she know that my desire had little to do with weather! It was still the temptation of a red coat lurking in my heart since childhood!
Once our session was over, both of us set out for shopping. After nearly two-and-a-half hours of wandering, suddenly I saw a red coat in the shop! When I went near, I was shocked to see that the coat resembled the one of Hedy Lamarr! I went inside the shop, and the salesgirls began to pester me to buy it. They said it suited me a lot. I tried it and it fitted me exactly as it had fitted Lamarr in the picture. The coat also had an accompanying red cap. They said it was Lamarr’s coat. My heart said that it had to be.
We returned to the hotel, I truly contented on finally having a dream possession — the red coat stitched by a Manhattan tailor. Pratibha purchased a black coat.
In a few days we left for Buffalo, from where we were to visit the Niagara Falls. We put up with family friends of Pratibha. Throughout the time in Buffalo, it kept drizzling or raining hard. We refreshed ourselves as quickly as possible and set out for the Niagara Falls. Due to the chill, we had put on the new coats that we had purchased. On the way, we got wet a little, but while returning, we got completely drenched in the rain. I became worried. What if my new coat, and that too, Lamarr’s coat, got spoiled' But the others assured me that Manhattan clothes are good and wouldn’t get spoilt. The moment we reached home, I went upstairs to my room and put the coat on a hanger to dry. Then we were in the hall below for refreshments. After a while, I went up again, and this time with Pratibha, to check if the coat was all right. I began feeling the softness and texture of the coat, when suddenly a white tag on the inner pocket of the coat caught my eye. When I looked closely, I found that it was a tag. I pointed it out to Pratibha, and she said that her coat had no such tags. Curious, I took off the coat from the hanger, and looked even closer at the tag. And to my utter shock and disbelief, the tag said “Made in China”. I panicked. What was I supposed to do now' I didn’t know a way out! My childhood, and Hedy Lamarrr, and that urge for a red coat — that coat made by a Manhattan tailor — would all that remain forever a temptation'