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‘I write well about sex unlike a lot of my contemporaries who are clumsy with it’
Tête à tête

At times a cross between a Madonna and a Rakhi Sawant, Shobhaa Dé has constantly reinvented herself like the first and is as in your face as the other, her six decades just a spur.

“Surprising” is the word she picks thoughtfully when asked which one word describes her at 60. “The reactions have been very surprising to me,” she explains. “Society tries to impose certain rules on a woman’s life since we do live in a very sexist and ageist society. I don’t know what people expected of me — that I would get transformed into this meek mild lady of this vintage and play the role assigned to such vintage. So the reaction to me was more surprising than anything else. But I refuse to conform, refuse to turn invisible and shrink into myself.”

Dé is hardly likely to do that. She lives at a “scorching pace” and remains “very greedy, very hungry for newness, experiences and people.” She has just published her 15th book. While previous works include an autobiography, several novels and non-fiction titles, Superstar India, which releases this week, is about, what else, the emerging powerhouse. “India and I are both 60 give or take a few months; it’s about me in a cute way,” she says, indefatigable ambassador of Brand Shobhaa Dé.

We are in her commodious flat overlooking the Arabian Sea. It is an enviable art gallery, the walls dripping with Bikashes, unusual Jaminis, Souzas and Husains, including one of Husain among a group of nimble Saraswat Brahmins, a work commissioned by Dé for her shipping millionaire husband Dilip’s 50th birthday. There is also Shobha by Husain, an atypically faithful likeness of her, dated ’86, long before she had added the extra ‘a’ to her name. The boisterous copper Afghan hound, Kiara, seems just as priceless.

The quality of her writing may have detractors but she can thumb her nose at them as Penguin India’s largest selling author. How many copies has she sold? “Who knows, but clearly they have been impressive enough to make me their highest selling author,” she points out fairly. Socialite Evenings was her first and favourite book, but Starry Nights has been the most successful.

She already knows the subject and characters for her next novel — which she promises will be the steamiest so far. “That’s because the subject itself is provocative but also because I write well about sex unlike a lot of my contemporaries who are clumsy at it. I find it very liberating when I write about sex, and I enjoy writing about sex,” she says. Does she enjoy sex? “What kind of question is that!” she asks, so flustered she blushes. “I refuse to answer that! No-no-no. First you tell me I am shy, and then you ask me this.”

She is genuinely embarrassed: there is no diversionary retort or even a no-go flag. I am genuinely confused: why should a novelist who celebrates her defiance of sexism, ageism and stereotypes be so thrown for a loop?

Ms Dé comes across as a blend of brash and bashful. Of middle class roots and elite diva. Of friendly charm and watchful reserve. As the living room fans whirr while the sea breeze takes a siesta, Dé in person is slim with full hips and it’s obvious her genes have cheated time. Long celebrated for her looks, the lofty cheekbones, the warm brown eyes and lips as sculpted as Shah Rukh Khan’s are accessorised with a boulder of a ring on the left hand and Japanese tattoos on her right arm. Her days of looking like “a jock or Hiawatha” live only in her memory.

We had begun with the good questions. “You mean there are bad questions,” she had countered. Er, interesting ones. “That’s what I say when an artist whose work I detest asks me what I think of his paintings,” she laughs. If I wander into no-go areas, she assures me, she will tell me: no go. So questions about an early French boyfriend are met with “No, absolutely not. I am not going to comment.”

Dé is full of surprises — she even agrees that she can be shy. “It’s my own little private secret. In private dealings I tend to be very reserved, almost aloof.” And no, men don’t hit on her. “You think anyone would dare?” Boys, and later men, interested her only marginally. “They have never played a significant part in my life. But there is not a single relationship that has left me with a sense of bitterness.”

Both Mr and Mrs Dé were previously married, he a widower with two children when they met, she with her two from a previous marriage. Her two children with spouse Dilip complete her brood of six. “For me, my family is my core.”

Married now for 24 years — six short of the 30 that it takes to know a person as she wrote in Spouse — Dé says the “marriage remains vibrant although I am so prosaic and he is so passionate about everything. He’s very nurturing and very much the person in charge.”

Her brother and she are ‘honorary Bengalis’ by virtue of their spouses being Bengali. “Both our partners don’t speak a word of Marathi but we speak fluent Bengali,” says Dé, whose ranna ghor is “full-on Bengali.”

Dé, nee Rajadhyaksha, was born in Satara, Maharashtra, in 1948 where her father — who died last year — was a district judge. “It is strange. I did not acutely miss my mother (who passed away some years earlier) till I lost him. Now I miss them both in a way that surprises me. Baba was my reference library, my friend I could call and say did you see how disastrous (President) Pratibha Patil’s visit to Brazil and Mexico was. There is no one at the end of the phone now.”

She moved with her family to Mumbai when she was 10, schooled at the Queen Mary in Mumbai and then majored in sociology at St Xavier’s College. “There I definitely was a backbencher.” The youngest of four children, she was “wired” to buck the system. A state record-holder athlete, she modelled to earn her pocket money. “Not then, not now have I ever taken a handout. I can live on two rotis but I have been and always will be financially independent.” Instead of becoming a doctor, banker or engineer, like her siblings, she chose to follow a creative muse with journalism.

And Dé, of course, went on to launch the trailblazing film gossip magazine Stardust and gave print legitimacy to Hinglish argot. “Hinglish is now mainstream,” she says proudly.

Speaking of Marathi and her beloved Mumbai, what does she think of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s anti-migrant plank? “It’s the so-called outsiders who have made the city what it is but I know Raj Thackeray. He is very intelligent. Even his think-tank is full of educated people. I have not discussed the issue with him but I think it is a one-off. He is doing it for votes with the elections coming up. He does not believe in it.” Isn’t such manipulative politics worse? “Yes, but it is also not self-sustaining.”

Dé also discounts the violent history of the Shiv Sena, Raj’s previous political party. “That was way back in the 1960s when they went against the south Indians. They are no longer like that.”

Just to make it clear that she is “not an activist and has no agenda” her wish list of interviewees, unsurprisingly, consists of Mamma Mia, Behenji and Amma. Her vote for the politician who has done most for her beloved city is “(BJP-Sena’s Nitin) Gadkari, the man who built the city’s flyovers”.

Now she is looking forward to the sealink that will reduce travel time between downtown Cuffe Parade where she stays and the airport. Environment concerns, one mutters, and she rolls her eyes: “Look at the number of cars and taxis that are coming into the city every day. Mumbai does not have an underground (public transport) system like Calcutta or Delhi,” she says dismissively.

There is a pause. “Aar ki. Bas. I am tired,” she sighs.

Columnist, editor, scriptwriter, sari designer, chat show host. She’s been there, done that. Her daughter is to marry next month and the next avtaar Dé is looking forward to is that of grandmother. “I sometimes look at my time as chewing gum, and I stretch it to the maximum extent possible.” In the swinging sixties, she is having a field Dé.

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