India's Girl Next Door

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ANTHONY SPAETH1991. It's a sultry afternoon in Bombay, capital of crumbling skyscrapers and broken dreams, and newly best-selling author Shobha De has just gotten comfortable on her tiger-skin rug. Adjusting her tiara and sipping from a freshly filled champagne flute, she thumbs a well-known U.S. newsmagazine--and suddenly freezes in horror. There on the page is a photo of her, well-chiseled cheekbones and all, and a write-up dubbing her the Jackie Collins of India. The crystal shatters in her grip, and blood--red with passion, hot with fury--drips across the tiger's frozen face. I will get revenge! she vows.1998. The latest in the Shobha De franchise, Selective Memory: Stories From My Life, hits the bookstores. In it, she rails against the Jackie Collins label, which proved far more durable than the rhinestones and hair lacquer it suggested. That's how it works with foreign correspondents, De seethes. Once an image is set ... it sticks, and no amount of aggressive denial can get rid of it.That passage on page 71 is marked in my copy partly because I happen to be the ink-stained cliche-mongerer who penned the objectionable comparison. But it's noted for another reason too: De's memoir is an aggressive, 531-page attempt to distance herself from Jackie, Joan, Barbara Taylor Bradford and the other pulp authoresses for whom glamour is a sales tool as thickly applied as Vaseline on a camera lens. As De tells it, she stumbled into India's universe of glitz--through modeling, editing a film magazine and then as the country's best-selling, best-looking novelist--but it's a world alien and largely repugnant to her. She lives not in the realm of champagne-fueled orgies but with a brood of demanding children, a dog and endless deadlines. The secret to her success: a middle-class work ethic and limitless pencils and legal pads.That may sound like a standard leaf from the Protest-Too-Much genre of memoirs. In fact, De is one of the hardest-working writers on the subcontinent. (Aside from her yearly books--India's biggest sellers since the Mahabharata--she writes three nationally distributed columns a week, plus the scenario for Swabhimaan, one of the country's longest running, five-day-a-week soap operas.) Selective Memory gives the rest of her defense, and after 500 pages of intensely personal details, a reader marvels at the contrast between the ethereal beauty on the book's cover and the woman described within: work-driven, self-critical, wickedly funny, undeniably lucky. As a writer, De has delivered her best portrait--of an ordinary girl pitched into strange and often unpleasant celebrityhood--and probably her most successful book. 
The first half of Selective Memory deals with her upbringing as the youngest child in a no-nonsense middle-class family. De was talented at both sports and getting caught wearing forbidden lipstick and shorts. Behind her parents' backs she started modeling. Out of the blue came an offer to edit a new gossip magazine, and De's 10 years at Stardust provide tales of the rich and famous that will propel this book off retail shelves.The second half of the book, her own tale, is more compelling. She abandoned a first marriage and left behind two children--the details are scanty, except for her guilt--and then picked up again with a new husband and his children. There is reconciliation with her eldest two and two more babies. With a new surname, Shobha De the literary queen was born, as were some truly hilarious encounters. She recounts having her hair pressure-cooked and ironed for a shampoo ad; the boor in the restaurant who calls across the room, Exactly how old are you? My daughter and I have taken a bet on it. And there is rich material in her family's reactions to her image and steamy books. Her father, the stern patriarch of the book's beginning, turns confidante by its end, telephoning her one night to observe, I've noticed that in surveys about sexual attitudes, it's always the men who are asked questions on frequency... Women are rarely asked this. Meanwhile, son Aditya, after one of her early talk-show appearances, asks why his mother can't just sing and dance like other TV artistes.The passage in Selective Memory worth the book's price is De's description of the death of her mother: a painful chapter filled with the guilt of a daughter, the dignity of her newly widowed father and the kind of poignant details found in the very best fiction. We were taught early in life, De summarizes, that nothing comes easy, nothing is delivered on a platter. That saved me. And Selective Memory might get her reputation off the tiger skin for good.