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Dilip Kumar Made Me Do It – An Excerpt from Ways of Being Desi

Ziauddin Sardar, the author of Ways of Being Desi boldly says that his identities draw on antecedents from all parts of the subcontinent. From the beauty of Bharatanatyam, to the poetic genius of Amir Khusrau and Faiz; from the universes created by Dilip Kumar and Guru Dutt to the untranslatable, indescribable taste of a perfect golgappa.
Here is an excerpt from his book, from the chapter titled ‘Dilip Kumar Made Me Do It’.

On my twelfth birthday, I was burdened with two responsibilities: one was a chore, the other a pleasure. In the early sixties, the British Asian community was still in an embryonic stage of development. In Hackney, my part of East London, there were neither halal meat shops nor cinemas that showed Indian films. So every Saturday afternoon, I took a bus to Aldgate East to buy the weekly supply of halal meat. On Sundays, I took my mother to either the Cameo Theatre in Walthamstow or the Scala at Kings Cross to see ‘two films on one ticket’.
The weekly visit to the cinema was a full day affair. My mother would start her preparation for the ritual early in the morning. The latest issue of the Urdu weekly Mashriq (now defunct) would be scanned to discover the current offering at our regular theatres. Should we opt for the latest Dilip Kumar double bill at the Cameo or see Guru Dutts’ Payisa once again at the Scala? The decision was never an easy one; but the strategy followed by my mother was always the same. First, she would try and coax my father both to join in the outing and take a lead in making the decision. This ploy seldom worked. Next, Mrs Mital and Mrs Hassan, the Asian families of the neighbourhood, would be consulted. Intense discussion would follow on the merits of the offerings, minds and positions would change frequently, before a consensus was reached. We would leave for the cinema at around twelve, my mother carrying a bag laden with sandwiches, stuffed prathas, drinks and a generous supply of tissues. Sometimes Mrs Mital, or Mrs Hassan, or both, would be in tow. The long wait for the bus, often in bitterly cold or relentlessly rainy conditions, would be rewarded by an equally long wait to get inside the cinema. I would queue for the tickets while my mother and our neighbours would eagerly look around for faces they could recognise. They had made numerous friends during these weekly excursions; friends whom they saw only at the cinema and chatted to only during the intervals. I would always return from the ticket office to discover that my mother had bumped into a veritable horde of friends and that they all wanted to sit together. The logistics of finding the appropriate seating pattern in the midst of hundreds of similar networks with identical aspirations would have truly taxed the ability of a beach master at the Normandy landings. The performance started promptly at two o’clock and while my mother and her friends watched the films with rapt attention, most of the men in the audience would participate in each film, expostulating vociferously with hoots or hisses as circumstances demanded. During memorable dance sequences, notably those involving Helen, the participants would hurl money at the screen. And like a throbbing tidal undertow to the film’s dialogue and music, and breaking through the hubbub of the audience, would rise and fall the inconsolable heartwrenching gasps of sobbing women. In the midst of all this I would intersperse avidly watching the film with servicing my mother, Mrs Mital and Mrs Hassan with a generous supply of tissues to staunch their unending tears. We would leave the cinema somewhere after eight-thirty in the evening, exhausted, emotionally drained but thoroughly entertained.
Yet all this was only the prelude, the day was far from over. On her return, my mother would insist on telling the stories of both films to my father. His protests would have no effect on her; locking himself in the bathroom was ineffectual; stuffing his fingers in his ears brought no relief: she just would not rest until she had related the narratives of the films in all possible detail. Then came the moment we all cherished: once she had the narrative off her chest, my mother would move on to the songs. She would hum the lyrics to us, taking great pleasure in reiterating the poetic imagery of the songs. At this point, my father would forget that he was tired, that he loathed films, and would sit up at full attention. ‘Wah, wah’, he would exclaim. ‘Repeat the first verse’. ‘Umm! The second verse does not do justice to the first’. This would go on for a while before my father would jump up in excitement and declare that the first verse would become the basis of our next mushaira.

Ways of Being Desi is a brilliant, provocative and deeply honest exploration of the ingredients that make us who we are. For more posts like this one, follow Penguin India on Facebook!

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