Arundhati Roy, Tyeb Mehta, Michael Jackson, Kipling, Rushdie, Jinnah, Leonard Cohen, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, East India Company, Namdeo Dhasal, etc

Monday, March 3, 2008

Remember Nikki Gandhi Bedi?

The Sunday Times of India, Times Review, March 2, 2008

Nina Martyris meets her in a rehab called time

Nikki Bedi is vacationing in Mumbai after an epic gap of two long years during which so much has happened. Ex-husband Kabir Bedi has acquired a new girlfriend, schoolmate Elizabeth Hurley has married a chiselled Bombay mannequin, and there are far too many Indian blondes around now. The diminutive 41-year-old, with the loud, cut-glass diction of a British chat show host, has taken these scattered changes in her stride—Kabir’s girlfriend, Parveen, is described with gushing warmth as “simply fantastic”, the fake blondes are dissed, eyes rolling, as “declassé”, Liz Hurley doesn’t trigger any early schoolroom memories.

On a February morning that has no redeeming winter nip, Nikki has set out from the Intercontinental Hotel for her power walk. By eight o’clock it is boiling but she has already rounded the salty curve of the seafront and conquered the steep shoulder of Walkeshwar to finally halt at a deeply personal public shrine, a standardissue shiny black municipal plaque etched in gold lettering with the name Sumant Moolgaokar Chowk.

Her late grandfather—the legendary Tata chief after whom it is rumoured the Sumo was named—lived at Mayfair Apartments, easily one of Malabar Hill’s most distinguished addresses. This is where the young Nikki spent her holidays, chasing cousins and siblings up and down the broad corridors, while Dadu with his Hasselblad and meticulous eye captured it all on film. Nikki is in Mumbai this time to “water her roots”. She has spent the afternoon in Juhu with Kabir and Parveen, and his daughter Pooja Bedi and her children (there’s a lot of watering going on here).

She asks permission to light up a Gudang Garam, throwing in that she had given up in May and should probably give up again. Life in Birmingham is demanding. She runs a radio show (Asian Network) and a TV show (Desi DNA), and this means reading at least three books a week, watching two films, and if there’s a band on the show, downloading and listening to all their music, “legally, may I add”. She is obsessive compulsive when it comes to research, she says, and though she has a team, prefers to do the slog herself. There is a research ban on Wikipedia for its sometimes dodgy information—for instance, on her page, her first husband Sunil Vijaykar is described as an economist, when in fact he is a food stylist or, at a stretch, a food economist. And when she googles, she does a “reverse google”, beginning on Page 9 rather than Page 1 because that’s how you’re more likely to get some obscure nugget.

This thoroughness was self-evident at the benighted Kitab Festival where she stood in quite expertly for several anchors who had pulled out, and had only a day or two to read a minor pile of books before interviewing authors Indra Sinha, Matthew d’Ancona, Sarfraz Manzoor and Julian West in a back-to-back Sunday session. In a stylishly quiet hessain dress with glittery paisley detail and skyscraper croc shoes, and wired on endless cups of coffee, she was sharp as a tack, friendly, and did her best to lighten what would otherwise have turned into a graveyard shift. When Sarfraz, who has written a book on growing up Muslim in Britain, commented on the curious mix of tradition and broadmindedness in India, citing that while there is a, there is also a for the divorced, she slipped in ingenuously, “And what about for people like me?”

On her shows back home, she has what she calls a Total Fat Ban. “No, it’s not to do with people of different sizes. It’s a Fatuous Ban. So I will never have Paris Hilton on the show, and Posh Spice is out too.” They typify “celebutard ephemera”, retarded celebrities who live for their 15 seconds of limelight. The other thing she doesn’t like while on air is to be told when to stop asking risqué questions. “I don’t like being censored either,” she says firmly, and now one can feel the ghosts of Nikki Tonight beginning to circle. “I don’t like being safe. It doesn’t make for good TV.”

Many years ago when she interviewed Bal Thackeray on Bombay Chat, she asked him if he was anti-Muslim ( he was protesting the green coat of paint on Bandra Station, his reply was unclear and later he drew a cartoon sketch of her eyes); when Tisco’s Russi Mody boasted that he had seen Winston Chruchill naked, she asked, “So was he well hung?” (the answer was yes); Omar Sharif was asked if his Egyptian actress wife had had a cliterectomy (the answer was yes, in drawling bass) and followed up with, “And what did it look like?” (“I knew I was crossing the line there, but I am a gynaecologist’s daughter, so there was some medical interest...’)

She was much younger in 1995, and politically gauche, when Nikki Tonight went on air on Star World, “to fire counter-culture missiles into people’s living rooms”. She asked her guest, gay rights activist and journalist Ashok Row Kavi, why he was still stuck editing Bombay Dost when his colleagues had all moved on to bigger newspapers, and Ashok grumbled on about how, years ago, he had written an article for the Illustrated Weekly where he had called Gandhi a “b***** Bania”, and “that irresponsible bugger Khushwant Singh printed it and screwed my career” (at which point, she says, she gasped and laughed at the Khushwant reference). Since it was a reminiscence, the editors in Hong Kong didn’t think that it was remarkable enough to expunge, and focused their energies on editing out other broad hints that the guest had dropped about the sexuality of several actors, industrialists and politicians that would have had them libelled out. Then the show was aired.

“My driver came to me the next morning, shocked, with a Gujarati paper that had my picture next to Gandhi’s with the offending quote printed. He thought I had said it. I was monstored by the press. Tushar Gandhi led the charge. I needed to have bodyguards and was advised to leave the country before TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act) was used against me. Rupert Murdoch had gagged me, so I couldn’t give my side of the story and say that I had laughed at the Khushwant Singh bit and not at what had been said about Gandhi. But I suppose we were manna for the media and I was the foreign hand (her mother is British). I couldn’t come back to Bombay for years.”

This black farce reached its nadir when Ashok Row Kavi was beaten up, not for the Gandhi bit but for saying on the show that “Sharmila Tagore’s wig had boochies (lice) in it or something”. If the show were to go on air now, says Nikki, in today’s post-lib, liberal Mumbai, no one would bat an eyelid. Sadly, that’s not true.

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