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The Insatiable Shobhaa De.

17 February 2024 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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I had the pleasure of sitting down with the fearless and fabulous Shobha De. Her insatiable zest for life is contagious; forget wanting to be like her when I am 76 – I want to be like her now. A total fangirl in her presence, typically guilty of interrupting others to get a word in, I found myself content as the listener, while simply soaking up her energy.

Surrounded by the exquisite Sri Lankan contemporary art at Colombo’s majestic Galle Face Hotel’s 1864 restaurant, my first question was, but naturally, what her impression of Sri Lanka was. 

Shobhaa: “I have been, what shall I say, a devotee, an obsessive tourist of Sri Lanka for over 40 years. So, this must be my, God knows, 25th visit. I have seen Sri Lanka through many phases and moods and loved all of it, been troubled by some of it and never stopped the fascination from drawing me back to Sri Lanka over and over again. I'm often asked to name my top three travel destinations, because I do travel a lot. And Colombo is right there in the top

Her first visit had been literary in nature, when she was invited by a young journalist, sadly now no more, Bandula, who was interested in the voices of South Asia.  The event was at the historic Mount Lavinia Hotel, and it was there that she first fell in love with the country:

Shobhaa: “I loved Colombo. I just wanted, I was greedy for more, more of all of it. The food, the people, the smiles, the aesthetics, all of it, all of it.”

Nearly four decades later, it is a literary event that draws her back to our paradise isle, namely, the inaugural Ceylon Literary and Art Festival. A veteran at such festivals around the world, it seems that Ceylon Lit differentiates itself beyond the country it is held in. Shobhaa was taken by the befitting venue for the talks, the esteemed Colombo Public Library.  I have noticed, over the years, one of the visionaries behind the event, Ajai Vir Singh’s, knack for unearthing Colombo’s overlooked gems as venues, and the library is one such example.  

Shobhaa found her two panels provocative and thought-provoking, and thoroughly enjoyed engaging with the attendees.

Shobhaa: “They've read your work. They know who you are. They ask very intelligent questions.  Doesn't happen all the time at other literary festivals. So, it makes lit fests here very special… They'll take it up five notches higher from next year, but definitely a good lineup of writers and thinkers and good panelists.”

Shobhaa was a big draw for Ceylon Literary and Art Festival, but I was curious to know who she had been looking forward to meeting at the event, and it was our very own Booker Prize-winning author, Shehan Karunatilake.  She believes he will be one of the biggest voices out of Southeast Asia, all praise for his dark, noir and original voice. She enjoyed meeting other guests from India such as Anita Nair, Shrabani Basu, Prajwal Parajuly only lamenting that she had more time to take it all in.

She also wishes she had more time to visit more places in Sri Lanka, thus far only having visited Colombo, Kandy and Galle. The middle of her country is on her Sri Lanka bucket list, with the hope that she can visit one of Sri Lanka’s breathtaking golf courses with her son, an avid golfer. Apart from travel and the literary scene, it seems she has done an in-depth culinary exploration of the country and is a big fan of our cuisine. I hope restauranters are paying attention; it seems there is a golden opportunity for scaling authentic Sri Lankan food in India.

Shobhaa: “I'm just so disappointed we don't have more authentic Sri Lankan restaurants across India or even in Mumbai, which is quite the food capital, or Delhi, which is really a gourmet city. There are two or three Sri Lankan chefs who are doing some very modest restaurants. But the food and cuisine deserve wider recognition.  I think if Michelin ever comes to Sri Lanka, then there are at least two, three or four top restaurants here which deserve to be noticed by the Michelin guide.”

In her opinion, it would be likely be Darshan Munidasa who would be the first to walk away with those honors. She dubs him a national treasure, lauding his charisma, expertise and culinary acumen. Michelin stars aside, the Sri Lankan breakfast is what delights her taste buds, no runny egg hoppers for her, but rather enjoying them with a side of braised beef, accompanied with all the sambols, the works!  

Anybody who has read her book, INSATIABLE, a book on her life, told through her musings and reflections on her meals. She clearly has an insatiable appetite; I was wondering, like many of us in pursuit new diet to follow, what she shunned to be able to indulge without packing on the pounds. She admits her palate dictates her diet, and luckily for her, she can happily shun sugar, as well as fried food, preferring anything savory or steamed.  Carbs in moderation. Nothing new here, but pearls of wisdom nonetheless!

When I ask her which camp, she belongs to regarding the ageing debate, “Botox, fillers and everything else” versus “growing old gracefully,” she answers with her characteristic sharp wit, “ageing disgracefully!” which, of course, could not be further from the truth in her case.

Shobhaa: “The notion that women are sort of to disappear into the sunset and become mild little old ladies knitting for their grandchildren, that's not me, and that's not thousands of other women across the world. So, to try and put us into the “cage of age,” I will fight that to the last breath. Would I ever go in for anything intrusive? Never, ever. If my daughters ask me, Mom, what do you think? Should I give it a shot? I really want my lips to look fuller. And I just said, bite them before you go to a party! Use a lipstick enhancer or a lip liner. But the minute any woman starts to succumb to all of this, where there's Botox, fillers and even sort of dramatic surgery to give you cheekbones and remove something from here and stretch something from there, you're going to end up looking, looking, I'm sorry to use a comparison, but you'd end up looking like Michael Jackson during his last few days, because everything then starts to collapse. Once you start, you cannot stop. You can’t say I'll try Botox once, and that's it. I'm not going to do it ever again because then you need to keep doing the same thing in order to look what you imagine is your best self.  There’s no looking back after that because you must keep at it. Anything intrusive going under the knife when you don't need to, I believe is abusing your body. So, yes, I'm from that side.”

To each his own, but in this harsh and unforgiving world of social media pressures, I am glad there is a strong and compelling voice on the other side. Now onto fashion, very friendly with one of the forces behind CFW, Prasad Bidapa, Shobhaa has attended CFW events and kept abreast of our fashion scene, Sonali Dharmawardena, Charini Suriyage, and Annika Fernando (Maus) are her current favorites, with Yolanda Aluwihare-Holms being her classic choice, one which her daughters now enjoy wearing also. Moving the conversation “inwards,” I wonder how she processes the negative vibes that may come from expressing adverse opinions, potentially offending others she may know socially.

Shobhaa: “You accept me as a friend, then this is who I am. I'm not the PR business. If you can't handle my opinions, you can walk away.  But I'm not going to change because I think that's my job, not to those friends, but certainly to my viewers and readers and followers on Instagram. I'm not there to do puff pieces, I think we all owe it to ourselves to be honest and authentic. And if newspapers trust you because of your credibility, then that credibility does not come with a price tag.”

Ceylon Literary Festival’s, Will the Last Feminist Turn Out the They Leave the Room? panel intrigued her, and she enjoyed the conversation with the moderator, George Cooke, and her fellow panelists. They approached the conversation from an academic whereas:

Shobhaa: “For me, I'm just a woman who's lived feminism.  I've not studied it. I don't have theories on it. I don't subscribe to any kind of feminist rule book.  I define my own rules of feminism. And to me, it's very simple. It's not about hating men or loving women or confronting anyone who is anti-women, because women can also be anti-women. It's just about respecting equality and respecting the other human being on equal terms. That's it.”

In today’s day and age, when hyphenating one’s name, or retaining one’s maiden name, is more common, I asked her if she had got married in today’s day and age, would she have been Shobhaa Rajadhyaksha or Shobhaa Rajadhyaksha-De and the answer was a resounding no.

Shobhaa: “Because when you commit to marriage, you commit to a new identity. I have no ego problems about that at all. I'm happy to be known as Shobha D…But I'm happy to be known by the husband’s family name. I don't think I need to assert myself by saying, oh, no, it makes me less of a person and less of an individual, because if I don't hyphenate it, I mean, who am I? No, I know who I am. It's not going to define anything.”

No matter how strong a woman she may be, like many parents, she is not spared being humbled by her children, who she seems to unwittingly vex from time to time.

Shobhaa: “And my children keep me on my toes the most. I mean, they're always ticking me off…I'm sure when they see this, it will be something they'll say, oh, God, did you have to say that? But I say it.”

Many women today suffer from what is widely known as “imposter syndrome,” and I was surprised that one of the most seemingly confident women I know, Shobhaa, sometimes suffers from it too.  She writes in her book, “insecurity has been a loyal companion” and “I’m overcome with feelings of self-loathing and guilt.”

I really appreciated her answer that insecurity is human, and that we have a choice to be derailed by it or to be motivated by it, and she chooses the latter.

Shobhaa: “So vulnerability is not a bad thing. It's self-questioning has its rewards. You cannot be complacent.”

A self-admittedly “over-involved” mother of six, a multi-career woman; she looks amazing and is seemingly everywhere. I wanted to know how she did it and literally did some serious “investigative” reporting in regard to the secret to her work-life balance. For her, it’s all about prioritizing what is important, full stop. When she became a parent, she was very transparent about the fact that her priorities had shifted:

Shobhaa: “From the time I had my first child, it was very clear to me that, hey, guys, I'm out of the marketplace.  I'm not going to be working at a job, though I was a professional Editor at the top of my game then. I opted out, I worked even harder. I just didn't report to work.

Shobhaa: “I wanted to give my children a presence at home that they could count on. And that has been my priority from 1 to 100, is to be available to my children.  Physically, not always possible now, but back then, 100 percent possible and emotionally, 110 percent. We all chose.  That was my commitment, and I'm glad, and I hope I've done a good job.”

A prolific list-maker, it is one her keeps track of all the verticals in her career, as well as all the special occasions that come to a “brood” of six children and seven grandchildren.

Shobhaa: “I've never had an Executive Assistant or a Secretary.  I’m a one woman show. It’s hard, but it also keeps me on my toes. I like that.”

My “investigative reporting” continues with my interrogation of her sleep patterns.  A self-confessed “night owl,” she does not surface before 8:30am:

Shobhaa: “But once I'm awake, I'm like boom, boom, boom.  I can keep going to two or three in the morning, quite counted. My mind is wired best at night because I believe there is a theory that if you're a night person, you're an owl, you're an owl for life. It’s just how you train yourself and your mind. I wake up almost every day, really excited about something.  Oh, has the has the hibiscus flowered in my garden outside on the balcony? If I am anticipating it, I go out to see it.

I think we all have it. We don't tap into it enough or we get bogged down with a lot of cynicism; we get sort of fuzzy about the small delights in our lives and concentrate on the bigger disappointments. We should turn that around. There, will always be disappointment; no one's life is perfect. There's always going to be something that you feel let down about, even a person who lets you down. If you're going to invest so much of your energy thinking about that rather than saying, OK, next, I then look for something happier.”

Shobhaa derives much happiness from chasing the new; be it experiences or anything else.  I wonder if leopards will ever change their spots, and if she will ever want to kick up her heels, (gasp!) retire and just enjoy the sunsets with Mr. De?

Shobhaa: “He's not looking to sit staring at a sunset, either so I would hate it if he turned into the other person saying, come on, darling, let's sit and watch the sunset together and listen to some serene music and I turn into this mushy old lady sitting and looking at sunsets; I hope it never happens.”

So, it’s settled, this insatiable zest for life will continue to propel Shobhaa De forward at this unstoppable pace.

The “Politically Incorrect” Shobhaa De

Q:  In your book, you wrote, “families have been divided and marriages broken, because of one despotic individual.” Many, in your position, would not have the guts to write something this but you write clearly in that you're not afraid. That said, do you have anxiety post-tweet/comment?

A:  I have paid a hefty price for a lot of my tweets. I faced lawsuits. Forget the trolling. I've had police protection for two and a half years for a stupid comment, which was actually not stupid. It was politically loaded, but it was not something that's going to lead to rioting on the streets or blood flowing down any city. So, it is a price that I have paid with responsibility, willingly, and won in our Supreme Court, which has become a landmark judgment. So, yes, freedom of speech is very precious to me. Freedom of expression is very precious to me. So long as we live in a democracy, I think that's my birthright. I think it's my right as a citizen is something I don’t want to take for granted. I don't want to be looking over my shoulder to say, oh, who's going to come after me, let them come off today, bring it on. I'm happy to deal with it because we still have a strong judiciary. And I know I get fought in the courts. But if someone drops a bomb at me, that's a different story. Or gets me with the bullets. No one has any control over any of that. But does that mean the fear of that happening will make me zip up and shut up and keep my peace and not say something that I feel very strongly about? Absolutely not. I speak on behalf of millions of citizens, and I think that's what I'm there to do.  So, it's fine if the establishment, whoever doesn't like me, deal with it like I will deal with whatever they bring on.

Q:  You write: “my palate is as adventurous as I am. The only time I get indigestion if when I am forced to eat my words.” Have you ever regretted anything you have written? And if so, which was the most scathing regret?

A:  Because I just felt I was giving undue importance to an unimportant person. And if it's going to lead to such a backlash, was it even worth it? So, yes. But taking on the big ones with all guns firing and I'm more than happy to do that. It's giving a lot of importance to something by making a comment, which, yes, is scathing, but not worth it.

Q:  On the panel yesterday, The Empire Strikes Back, it seemed like you had a lot more you wanted to say.  Is there anything else that you wanted to share on that subject with our viewers?

A:  Well, it was such an important topic. We were there to discuss the region and all the implications and how the region has got its own comeuppance, and we are in a far better position than certainly we were with the mindset of colonized people. I don't mean it in a boastful sense. I don't mean we should have been dancing on the graves of the colonizers or digging up history from 200 years and saying, you did this to us, you did that to us, apologize, apologize; none of that. It's just that we needed to table our concerns as much as our pride in our identities.

Q: Well, empire aside, the Sri Lanka – India bond has never been stronger.  India came to Sri Lanka’s assistance during the economic crisis. Gautam Adani is developing a port here and I could go on and on. Have you heard more about Sri Lanka on the India side, and if so, what are your thoughts about this new dimension this neighbor relationship is taking? “Bedmates” as you called us!

A:  Well, I think India is deeply, deeply invested in in Sri Lanka, in the best way. There is that important recognition that we need each other.  Strategically, we are key to one another's future and welfare; for the region’s stability. It should be a relationship of mutual respect and understanding. The future is definitely something that we need to safeguard ourselves against attempts to destabilize this region. And if we are not watchful, and if we let it go by default, then really, it's going to be a shame because like I said, it's a symbiotic relationship culturally. And in every sense, we have been connected for centuries, which is not that not true about Sri Lanka and China.  It's a much more emotional, much more psychologically powerful relationship with Sri Lanka. And we should value it as for what it is in that context. Apart from standing by one another, it's as simple as that.

Q:  We mentioned freedom of speech earlier in our conversation, and I was wondering if you were aware of Sri Lanka's passing of the online safety bill.

A:  You could put in all the legislation and the words. But today, with social media and the Internet on fire, with AI literally breathing down on the world, it's going to be very hard to implement any of it. I mean, you can have conversations around what's in the interest of the country, what's in the interest of each citizen. And I'm afraid that a sense of responsibility kicks in. But to impose it, unless you call it the China route or Russia or any of the other places which have totalitarian regimes, where they can say off with your head to a journalist or whoever doesn't play ball, they could be imprisoned and worse. Since that isn't the case in our region yet, we should take advantage of our freedoms and actually work with responsibility because there are issues like child-trafficking and so on. But they cannot be effectively managed by infusing a bill. It's got to be done on the ground level. Not through legislation alone.

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