A Bouquet For Sridevi
(This post is based on real life incidents. All characters, including self, Sridevi - yes, the Roop ki Rani of hindi movies - and their names, are real. This is dedicated to Narayan Raja, whereever he may be these days, in honor of his fine sense of humor, even when it came to the RSS and Palvayanteeswaran.)
When a bunch of us decided to splurge one afternoon and pig out at the Residency restaurant of Madras Sheraton hotel, who would have thunk that even Sridevi, the drool-inducing perfection of female specimen, the Nagina of several male hearts, the Miss India of Mr. India, et cetera et cetera would have thought of the same thing ?
It was unbelievable as she walked in, with a bodyguard in tow and with absolutely none of the 'sahelis' and 'chamchas' hanging on to her churidar. She sat down just three tables away - it may have been five tables away, but as I tell and retell this story, she seems to be getting closer and closer to me. The bodyguard sat on an adjacent chair, avoiding peering at her, just trying to be functional.
"Ramesh, why don't you walk up to her and tell her that the Chicken Tikka today is really terrific and that today's lunch is on the house for the madam. Tell her that you are the owner of the restaurant. After all, my friend, this restaurant probably has the best buffet in Madras and this is the best chance you will ever have in striking up a conversation with her." My friend egged me on. My mouth was still open ajar. It was truly unbelievable. It was like many, many of my dreams coming true. Somebody, just anybody, please pinch me. Hasn't she been always on my mind? Heck, I had even mentioned her name in some of my posts.
"What if I walked up to her and introduced myself and then she says, 'No, I am not Sridevi, although people often mistake me for her'. That would be truly embarrassing." I asked my friend.
"No sweat" replied my friend "In that case, all you have to say is 'Madam, actually, I am not Ramesh Mahadevan either, although people mistake me for him.'"
It didn't sound very funny when my own male ego was involved. By this time, the waiters, who were all dressed like minor kings of yestercenturies, were beginning to whisper that Sridevi was around. Whatever little crowd there was in the restaurant was staring at her pointedly. Fortunately, there was no one sitting in the beeline between her table and ours and I had an uninterrupted vision of her. She got up and loaded her plate with Tandoori this and Tandoori that, perhaps still fresh from her Afghani memories. She still had the 'Khuda gawah' hair, shampooed the heck out of, glowing with a phony brownness. She was dressed in a beautiful blue churidar-top, with a silk shawl around her. Beautiful, very beautiful. And she had a remarkably young, baby face. I could swear that she looked hardly a day older than twenty.
"That's all because of the heavy make-up." dismissed one of the women in our group. "Look at her. She is so big, she must be at least 5' 9" and over a hundred and forty pounds. And she has such a disproportionately small head she looks like some kind of a dinosaur."
I dismissed such uncharitable comments. I summoned our waiter. I thrust two hundred bucks (rupees, that is) in his hand. "Quick, get a bouquet from the Florist. I want to give (it) to Sridevi across the hall and introduce myself." My heart was pacing very fast. My buddies, Rajeev Jayaraman and his wife Barathi (of Silicon Valley) who were with me, were tickled to death by my impulsive behavior.
Sridevi came for seconds and perhaps even a third and a fourth time, but time stood still. The bodyguard followed her two steps behind, each time she got up. He must have done a hundred years of penance in the Himalayas, hanging upside down, in his previous birth ... I was getting more and more disoriented and stared at her cute eating self. She must have eaten almost twice as much as I did and relentlessly chipped away at the desserts and cakes. When she came around the dessert table one more time and shoveled a chunk of cheescake on to her plate, she was within five feet of me and her halo almost knocked off my beer mug.
We waited and watched, savoring every minute of it. The bouquet took horribly long to arrive. Who knew that in India bouquet makers took their job very seriously and made bouquets into an expression of art ? And then the dagger pierced my heart. Very suddenly, without even flushing down her lunch with a coffee or tea, Sridevi got up and left with her bodyguard. I rushed out of my chair and tried to catch her on the way to tell her that a damned bouquet was coming, especially for her. But she just disappeared, too fast for me to catch up. I became just one more in the meaningless statistics, one more in the long list of males in real life and in the movies, to have been jilted by Sridevi. Story of my life and deja vu all over again. And the worst part is now she would never know, ever, that I had taken such troubles of ordering an expensive bouquet.
My friends consoled me. I tried to make a joke out of it. Ironically, the bouquet too arrived five minutes later and looked really pretty. What could I do with it now ? I could always take it home, but my mother might kill me for splashing money around, especially if I told her the whole story. I mentally went through the list of my friends. I could always drop in on one of them and present them the bouquet. I hadn't visited many of them on my current India trip and it was almost time for me to return to the US. It was around the New Years time. So a bouquet would be really appropriate.
I finally decided on Chakravorty and his wife Preeti. They are a sweet couple with two really adorable kids. Ironically, they too are in the movie industry. Chakru is a director, with a clutch of TV serial episodes and minor movies to his credit. He even used to teach Direction at the Movie Institute and is still waiting for that 'big break'. He is the kind of guy who would analyze Satyajit Ray or Bergmann, frame by frame. His wife Preeti, is a dancer, dabbling in everything from Odissi to Bharatnatyam. Unlike Sridevi, they live barely above the poverty line, moving from project to project. More than anything else, it was the unsteady nature of their occupation that weighed them down. The income was always good one month, bad two months. Never enough money to feel comfortable. Despite their struggle in a dog-eats-dog industry, they are still fun people to spend an evening with and I always prefer to hang around with people who are in a vastly different profession than I am. It would be fun telling them about Sridevi and the bouquet.
When we entered their house the littlest one opened the door with loud greetings. Chakru and Preeti were just hanging around and when I gave the bouquet to Preeti, she was simply speechless. She had not seen such a beautiful bouquet in a long time. Perhaps never in her life. "Thanks Ramesh" she managed to mutter, still staring at the bouquet in disbelief. "You need not have done this. I am sure this bouquet would have cost you quite a bit. Thank you all the same. How are things in old Yankland ?"
She quickly went into the kitchen, got a pot and converted it into a makeshift flowervase, unwrapped the bouquet ever so gently and arranged the flowers in the pot. She still couldn't get over the wave upon wave of her joy. "Thank you." She whispered one more time, not even taking her eyes off the flowers to look at me. Suddenly, I didn't have the heart to tell her the Sridevi story and that the bouquet was actually meant for Sridevi and not her.
Chakru told us that things were not going too good for them. He was fired from a TV project due to 'artistic differences' with the producer and he was replaced at the last minute in a Telugu production (incidentally, in India, you don't need to know the language to be able to direct a movie in that language) and a relative of a friend of the producer bagged the contract. "It is who you know that matters" Chakru complained, lighting up his cigarette, while Preeti had quickly managed to get us chai. "Fortunately, Preeti's role in theatre is putting food on the table. By the way, she and I are also writing movie reviews and so forth. Did you read her review in the Frontline last week ?"
I was still in a daze. Just moments ago we were at the Sheraton and I was ogling at Sridevi. Now I am listening to somebody's life struggles. God, where is reality when I need it ?
The seven year old came up to Preeti and asked "Mom, can I have a rose ?".
"Sure Malavika" replied the mother "Ramesh uncle has brought such a huge bouquet it is filled with roses."
"Mother, can I have a rose too ?" asked the three year old. "Sure honey" replied the mom "And don't forget to say thanks to uncle."
I got a baby thanks. I never realized that a simple gesture of bringing a bouquet to a family would bring so much of joy to them. Perhaps, given that they were going through hard times, such acts were highly therapeutic and added cheer to their to lives. I guess we all occassionally manage to touch other people's lives in our own small ways. Maybe next time, I should learn to do such things on my own and not because a Sridevi ran out on me in a restaurant.
After the tea and the usual discussion about movies and life, in
India and in America, (and after a mandatory reading of a highly
technical movie review written by Chakru) we got up to leave. As
we were exiting, Malavika, the seven year old, thrust something
in my hand. It was just a New year card she made herself with
crayons. "Happy New year, Ramesh Uncle" it said. Following that
line, in equally kiddish, scratchy handwriting was a heartwarming
"Thank you for the Rose - Malavika."