“It is the unknown that fascinates me the most”: Deepti Naval


Poetry & Prose Book Reading Draws Erudite Gathering

By Geeta Goindi – Special to India This Week

Poetry & Prose Book Reading Draws Erudite Gathering

By Geeta Goindi – Special to India This Week

Rockville, MD, January 7 – Creating a profound impression on an erudite audience, Deepti Naval was in true form at a book reading organized by Ceasar Productions and the Network of South Asian Professionals (NetSAP). She dons many hats: actress, director, writer, photographer, and painter. But, on a pleasant Saturday evening, she was poet and author, reading excerpts from her works, ‘Black Wind and Other Poems’ and ‘The Mad Tibetan: Stories From Then and Now’, much to the delight of the gathering. It was a heady combination of poetry & prose!

The event was coordinated by Manoj Singh and Geeta Anand of Ceasar Productions at The Universities at Shady Grove. The book reading was followed by a candid question-and-answer session and an intimate dinner at the nearby Spice Xing restaurant.

Deepti Naval, acclaimed actress, poet, director and painter, is seen with members of Natya Bharati, the pre-eminent theater group in the Washington area, at a program organized by Ceasar Productions and NetSAP, in Rockville, MD.

At the outset, what came across clearly was Naval’s simplicity, an endearing warmth and a great deal of humility! No room for airs or graces or pretensions here. What you see is what you get!

She told the audience, “It is the unknown that fascinates me the most, and the quest for what is yet to be discovered. That keeps drawing me back into living. And like I always say, ‘To each his unknown’!”

Born February 3, 1957, in Punjab, Naval attended the Sacred Heart Convent in Amritsar. “I am part Himachal, part Punjab” is how she describes her roots. Upon completion of her schooling, she migrated to the US and received a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts at Hunter College, in Manhattan, New York.

She made her film debut with ‘Ek Baar Phir’ (1979) and has acted in a number of movies since then, including ‘Chashmebadoor’, ‘Kamla’, ‘Mirch Masala’, ‘Ankahi’, ‘Main Zinda Hoon’ and more recently, ‘Leela’ and ‘Freaky Chakra’.

Now, with ‘Black Wind’ and ‘The Mad Tibetan’, Naval is an acknowledged poet and author!

In her collection of poems, she highlights themes and situations which stir the senses: broken relationships; abortions; communal rights; and lives of the mentally challenged.

We, at INDIA THIS WEEK, queried her about her favorite poem in Black Wind. “There is a poem called ‘Brilliant Streaks of Light’, she replied, and proceeded to read from it. “It is a very personal, intimate moment that I am trying to describe in that”, she explained. “It is one of my favorite poems. It is neither dark nor joyous”.

Deepti Naval, acclaimed actress, poet, director and painter, at a book reading organized by Ceasar Productions and NetSAP, in Rockville, MD.  Naval read excerpts from her books, ‘Black Wind and Other Poems’ and ‘The Mad Tibetan: Stories From Then and Now’.

A member of the audience wanted to know what inspires her. Naval pondered before answering: “As a child, I was a complete introvert. I had lots of things happening in my head and I would not express them, but I would write. I would scribble lots of jottings here and there. I was always worried that my mother should not see anything”, she said, with a candor that appealed to the gathering.

“I think the need to express myself has been very strong”, she stressed. “I think it is just a strong urge to interpret life. What I live, what I go through, to somehow share that, somehow say it: this is what I felt; this is what happened; this is what I saw. Maybe, if I had done 250-300 films like my colleagues, I wouldn’t have had the need to say so much else in other mediums”.

Naval divulged that she has been inspired by western poets which led Mrs. Manjula Kumar, who introduced her at the event, to ask if there was a conflict between her cultural context (Indian) and her medium of expression (English).

“I think I had a difficulty”, she admitted. “When I was going to college here, I was going through a phase when I felt why should I write in English? Humari apni zabaan hai (We have our own language). I have my identity. I am an Indian girl. I want to write in Hindustani”. The result was ‘Lamha Lamha’, a selection of poems in Hindi, published in 1983.

Later, she outgrew any complexes which arose from the medium of expression. “I didn’t see it as our language and their language”, she said. “I just thought language is language. When I wanted to write ‘Black Wind’, if I had tried to write this in Hindi, I would have sounded so heavy-duty and so loaded and so uncomfortable. With English, I feel you can say the hard part and kind of get away with it. It’s easier to say and move on. With Hindi, ek, ek lafz, shabd, woh bahut bhaari padta hai” (each word weighs very heavy).

It was clear that Naval is articulate, well versed in both languages. At the event, she recited a soul-stirring poem in Hindi, drawing much applause from the audience.

“Hindi came to us from Hindi films”, she explained. “And Punjabi was what we heard all around us. My mother was convent-educated from Burma and she didn’t know any Hindi. So, she just ended up speaking all the time in English, especially when she would be angry”, she said, on a humorous note.

Deepti Naval signing copies of her poetry and prose books at an event organized by Ceasar Productions and NetSAP, in Rockville, MD.

When asked if she preferred poetry or prose for expressing her thoughts, she replied, “I’m still figuring that out. I’m not sure. I have written two books in poetic form and one in prose. I think I don’t get restricted in prose. There is more flow in my thought. Poetry makes you think and re-think the words you choose. You have to be a minimalist. In prose, I can see the same thing from three different angles and I can show you all the angles. There is more fluidity”.

There are eleven stories in her maiden collection, each conveying the visual and emotional impact of a film. While ‘Thulli’ elucidates the sordid life of a prostitute in Mumbai, ‘The Piano Tuner’ tugs at your heart with music. ‘Ruth Mayberry’ is so full-of-life and yet lonely. ‘The Mad Tibetan’, ‘D’, ‘The Morning After’, Bombay Central’, ‘Premonition’, ‘Sisters’, ‘Birds’, ‘Balraj Sahni’ – all evoke a gamut of emotions from hope, love, longing and joy!

Naval explained that the title of the book “comes from a story I wrote about this man I encountered in Ladakh during a trek. I do a lot of trekking in Himachal and Ladakh”, she said. Having studied photography for a year in New York, she put that knowledge to good use on her treks.

“I was not happy with the roles that were being offered to me, especially after ‘Saudagar’”, she admitted. “I’m not going to do that”, she vowed. “I’m going to live my life. I’m going to get more experiences. Rather than just putting on makeup and going to the studio and doing the same thing over and over again. I don’t want to do that. I want to receive more”!

So, one fine winter in 1998, Naval drove from Mumbai to Ladakh, only to realize that she was the sole tourist in the area. At that time, there was no winter activity. “I lived with a Ladhaki family”, she recalled. “I would take my camera and walk around the whole day. I didn’t know what I would get out of the landscape, but I would just walk a whole lot”. It was then that she encountered a man living at the riverbank, after whom she named her book.

Acclaimed actress and author Deepti Naval with Dr. Suma Muralidhar (left), a gifted theater artiste of the Washington area.

“Something about the Tibetan fascinates me”, she writes. “The lean, agile figure now starts to do things strange and startling … The Tibetan lifts his arms, swings them around, turns, looks up at me again and begins to dance … Like a dervish, he twirls, the exultant spirit, laughing, his flaming red robe flailing about him”. She keenly observes and captures his shenanigans as well as the wild land around her. “It is one of my most elevating stories”, she told the audience.

On a lighter note, Naval read passages from a story delineating a childhood encounter with Bollywood film actor Balraj Sahni. The setting is the 10-day Youth Festival, a big event in Amritsar every winter, drawing people from all over Punjab.

The author recalled “sitting in the open air auditorium during fog-filled nights, munching peanuts and jaggery cakes, allured by the medley of music, dance and drama competitions, a whole range of histrionics. The participants would congregate on a wooden, makeshift stage before a raw, curious, non-judgmental audience”. Naval was all of nine years old when she met Balraj Sahni at the festival.

“It was love at first sight with this tall, gentle, very groomed, handsome man who stood looming before me”, she writes. “An image got embedded on a young mind, an image called ‘Someone like him’”, she said, to much laughter.

Courtesy: "INDIA THIS WEEK" – Washington D.C. based Newspaper