Review: A Country Called Childhood by Deepti Naval
Sober and sweetly-textured, Deepti Naval’s memoir of her childhood in a typical post-Independence Punjabi household succeeds in making the reader grow nostalgic for their own early years
Millions of circumstances and situations might arrange themselves in an intimate pattern to shape an individual. A majority of these circumstances are beyond the person’s control and their cumulative influence is perhaps too complex to understand. Revisiting childhood and writing about it could be both amusing and exciting provided the simplest events are looked at with a bit of whimsy to make them interesting, allowing the ghosts to finally rest in peace between the pages. In her beautifully written memoir, the actor Deepti Naval succeeds in making her childhood immensely relatable, even inducing the reader to grow nostalgic for their own.
With its distinctive sights, smells and sounds of a bygone era, the sober and sweetly-textured A Country Called Childhood presents a childhood in a typical post-Independence Punjabi household filled with love, adventure, mystery, tragedy and joy. Naval writes about everything from the experience of having her ears cleaned periodically to coming of age and her first kiss; from bunking classes and watching movies to lying on the terrace watching stars. Many of the subplots from that vanished world may seem dated, but these were important in shaping what the author eventually became – a sensitive actor, a talented director, an accomplished writer and a multifaceted personality. Readers who pick up this autobiography to learn about her work in life and in films will not be disappointed as Naval examines the events in her early life that led her to portray “sensitive and close to life” roles in some 100 films in a career spanning four decades.
Some of her unforgettable on-screen characters drew from the experience of growing up in a close knit middle-class family. This is especially evident in her characterization of a sales girl in the classic comedy Chashme Buddoor (1981). Unlike the detergent, its brand name “Miss Chamko” has lived on as Naval’s nickname. Her measured performance as a young woman selling detergent in a bachelors’ pad effectively brought to mind the parental injunction: “Put your head down; no need to look around”.
Though the author grew up idolizing two mainstream Hindi film actors, Sadhna and Meena Kumari, this book is very different from the usual celebrity memoir. Naval captures the visual imagery of an earlier time and records simple experiences with eloquence and each character comes alive through rich prose. Though she burnt her diary containing her “deepest thoughts and emotions” when she left Amritsar, her memory has served her well in the writing of this engaging, enriching, and entertaining narrative that doesn’t brush aside even the smallest detail.
The author’s experience of blackouts during the Indo-Pak war, the shock of her mother’s near electrocution, and her father’s daily ordeal during his first year in the US will be particularly familiar to Punjabis of a certain generation. Her writing, imbued with the cultural context of the local language and practices, reminds the reader of such long-forgotten sensory experiences as the kaliewallah’s utensil-polishing smell, the cotton fluffer’s trademark twang-twang, and the sight of lice-picking sessions in inner courtyards. Naval’s story-telling is suffused with empathy and the featured characters – her family and friends – come alive. There are some surprises too – like the clearly accurate portrait of a young Kiran Bedi.
A Country Called Childhood is a memoir of extraordinary brilliance with the author valuing her childhood more than perhaps her screen achievements. For her, these are the “stories that make my world come alive”. Insightful and reflective, this engrossing narrative also presents a case for retaining and recalling childhood memories. People are often livid about their growing up years and accord little purpose to the struggles, challenges, fears and sadnesses of the period. Most do not know how to relate to childhood memories. This is not the case with Deepti Naval who perfectly exemplifies the aphorism that you are never too old if you carry your childhood with you.
Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic
The views expressed are personal