When I met Manjari Fadnis last month, her first film had just been released. Manjari is a budding heroine who has been fighting it out in the cut-throat world of Bollywood.
Budding or fully budded, I should normally have nothing to do with a film actress, being the humble teacher that I am. But as you read on, you’ll see that this is an exceptional case. Every human being is related to everyone else in the world as they all dry their clothes in the same sun. But Manjari and I have a more intimate kinship. Firstly, she is the next-door neighbour of my friend Animesh in Mumbai; secondly and more importantly, she and my friend are served by the same domestic help. My friend took Subhadra, an orphan girl from Kolkata to Mumbai to look after his ailing mother. Subhadra also works part-time at Manjari’s house.
Recently, I spent three weeks at my friend’s place and Subhadra took good care of me. And didn’t she impress me by talking about her heroine didi? In fact, she wouldn’t let go one opportunity to mention Manjari didi: You like fruits? Didi too likes them. … You have a dog? She too has one. …But she’d be angry if you called her dog a dog. She says the pup is her daughter. …
Khuswant Singh once wrote: “I pity those who don’t know what pet love is.” (Or words to that effect.) I agree. I have also noticed that animal lovers are by and large nice fellas, although I am not sure why. I must quickly add that I’ve also met some lovable blokes who hate animals, particularly dogs. Humans are too complex a creature to fit into a stereotype, but it’s a fact that when you love your pet, you do so without expecting anything in return. (That pets give back much more than what you give them is a different matter.) Without getting into a controversy, one can say that if a girl seriously treats her pup as her daughter, she is likely to be tender and compassionate, and perhaps have a few bees in her bonnet. My friend’s wife Munmun told me a story that confirmed the first part of this sentence.
Once, Manjari asked Munmun, ‘When is Subhadra’s birthday?’
As Munmun didn’t know, Manjari said, ‘Please find out and tell me, but don’t tell Subhadra. I want to give her a surprise.’
The next day, Munmun told her neighbour that Subhadra’s birth hadn’t been recorded. She herself didn't know when she had been born.
Manjari was more surprised than disappointed. Possibly she was not familiar with a world in which human identity was so insignificant that one didn’t even have a birthday. But she couldn’t be put down by such technical problems. She said, ‘Would you mind if I gave Subhadra a birthday? … Let’s select a good day for her birthday …. Let’s make it the 14th of February.’
On that somewhat incongruous day of romantic love, when millions of dreams were realized and shattered in university campuses and elsewhere, Manjari invited Munmun for the first birthday of a girl without a past who was around twenty. She sang ‘Happy birthday …’ made Subhadra blow out candles and cut a cake, and gave her a teddy bear.
I met Manjari once on a Sunday morning, when she walked in to leave her fawn Labrador puppy with us for a wile. As I took the pup from her hands, I thought her face was as beautiful as her mind and I silently wished her well. I wished she becomes the Madhubala or Madhuri Dixit of the future. And I secretly hoped that when I had grandchildren, I’d be able to tell them that once I played with the screen diva’s dog!
Kolkata, 10 December, 2007
[I thank Ms. Manjari Fadnis for allowing me to use her name and photograph.]