Parikshat Sahni Strange Encounters – Adventures of a Curious Life includes essays on what the actor calls “an unraveling of random memories” from his youth to later years, “assembled as they came to me in my moments of contemplation, arranged in a crazy design…”
The book includes chapters on the popular TV series Gul Gulshan Gulfam, in which Sahni played a Kashmiri boathouse owner, mentions some of his film roles and his years in Russia, where he studied cinematography and would have settled down had it not been for a meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru. The edited excerpt followed is from ‘Encounter with Nehru’.
‘What are your future plans?’
“You are the son of Mr. Balraj Sahni,” the ambassador told me. Your face looks familiar! I have already met you? he asked affably.
I was too amazed to say anything and mumbled a few inconsistencies.
“So what are you doing here in Moscow and what are your future plans?”
I told him that I was studying cinema and that I was considering moving to Russia because there was no future in India for cinematographers or anyone else. ‘somewhere else. A black shadow crossed his face. He stared at me as I spoke. And suddenly he lost his temper; Nehru was known to run out of fuse.
He looked at Mr. Kaul, his face turning red, and shouted, “Why did we have to go back to India from England? We could have stayed there and lived a comfortable life and made a lot of money! And you, he said turning to me, your own father worked at the BBC in London during the war years, didn’t he? Why did he come back to India? Why didn’t he continue working for the BBC?
Nehru was furious. For a moment, I thought he might hit me with the truncheon he always carried in his hand. But within seconds, Nehru calmed down and became normal and calm again.
“So you’ve decided to adopt a new mother. No doubt your new mother is beautiful, rich, with blue eyes and golden hair. But remember, she will always be your mother-in-law. Your real mother is the “India. Yes, she is old, poor and ugly. But even if your mother is leprous, a mother is a mother! Saying this, he got up and left; the ambassador, Mr. Kaul, gave me a grim look. and followed him.
No sooner had I crossed the Mayakovsky metro station than I came across two drunks, dressed in heavy winter coats, engaged in a violent fight. One of the men was bleeding from the mouth and the other was beating him mercilessly. I sported a resplendent beard at that time and most Russians took me for a Cuban, a country they revered and loved because it was one of their closest allies. When the brawlers laid eyes on me, they stopped short. “Ah! A brother from Cuba!” cried one of them.
“Move on! Don’t stop,” said the other guy, bleeding from the mouth, in a drunken drawl. settle our accounts in peace.
“But comrades,” I said. “It is not good to fight among ourselves. We are all working class people and brothers.
This seemed to anger them. One of them showed me his bloody teeth and shouted, “Fuck the working class, Cuban! Move on and leave us alone…before we knock out some of your working-class Cuban teeth! Nobody plays with the Russians,” and they started punching each other again.
“I’m not Cuban,” I shouted. “I am Indian.”
The two stopped in their tracks.
“Indian?” One of them mumbled shyly and moved closer to take a closer look. He put his gloved hand on my shoulder and smiled benevolently, blood running down his chin. “India! Raj Kapoor! Nehru!” Suddenly he hugged me tight and then, smelling horribly of vodka, kissed me, as is the custom among Russians, full on the mouth. It’s a Russian custom that I never understood.
I was disgusted and pulled myself out of the bear’s embrace with some difficulty. The man was very strong. “We love India,” he said hugging me again, “and we love Raj Kapoor and Nehru!”
The other Russian rushed towards me, rocking from side to side and, fearing that the guy would also show his affection by kissing me, I retreated hastily, shouting: “Peace …peace and friendship…and victory over communism!
“KHUI S KOMMUNISM! shouted the other (“Fuck communism!”). “Long live Nehru! Long live India! Give me a hug, brother!
I fled the two Russians as fast as I could. When I looked back, as I turned the corner, they were singing “Awaara Hoon”, the theme song from a Raj Kapoor movie. The drunk man was right, of course; with enough vodka in their innards, Russians could go absolutely nuts.
I walked all night, and in the early morning I reached Komsomolskaya metro station. It was crowded even at this early hour. I was hungry and I was tired. I bought myself some piroshki, a kind of brioche with jam inside, and a cup of coffee. I sat down on a bench and watched the crowd surrounding me.
What Nehru had said got me thinking, and I was torn between settling in Russia or returning home to India. In the end, I opted for the latter course. The incident with the drunken Russians that night, and so many other experiences besides, had made me realize to some degree that no matter how familiar a place might seem, it couldn’t be my home. . Nehru’s passionate words had made me a sort of patriot. I liked the idea of returning to my “real mother” after so many years spent abroad.
But by the time I returned to India in 1966, Nehru was long dead. A few years after his death, people had begun to knock him off the pedestal on which they had placed him. In the end, I found he had to meet the same fate as so many other politicians.
Excerpted with permission from Strange Encounters – Adventures of a Curious LifeParikshat Sahni, Simon & Schuster India.