Had I seen the cover of this book in Hindi, I would never have picked it up. Typically reminiscent of the lurid, racy pocket books sold in book stalls at railway stations, this cover features an image of the sultry, sensuous Urmila Matondkar with her hand raised, transposed on to the jazzy blue background so that it conveys the impression of her trying to reach for the painted moon above!
But that was not to be the case. Instead, I came across Give me the moon lying unnoticed in a corner in the Sahitya Akademi stall at the World Book fair a couple of months back. The English translation is a tome with a black colour with a lot of red, yellow and orange on it. While the cover did not exactly catch my attention, I was intrigued by the short blurb. The blurb indicated that this story was of a small town girl who defies her family and the existing societal norms and becomes a renowned Bollywood actress. Not a very original story line, yes, but I was intrigued by the fact that the author had written a 800 page book on it and that it had been awarded the Sahitya Akademi award in 1996!
I picked it up rather half-heartedly earlier this week. Half-heartedly because there is a particular book I am dying to buy, but my conscience is instructing me to get done with the pile of unread books. So the conscience won, and I read this.
And to my utter surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. No, it is not a racy story about a young girl who runs away to Bombay and becomes a BW heroine. Instead, it is a story about a young introspective, sensitive girl who tries to uplift herself from the drudgery around her and lead a life more meaningful than what it would have been, had she let her parents decide for her. It is a story of a woman who fights for her independence, and in the process alienates her family and those around her.
We are introduced to our main protagonist, Yashoda Sharma, daughter of Shri Kishan Das Sharma, a poor Sanskrit teacher in a primary school in Shahjahanpur. Sharmaji has five children of whom Yashoda urf Silbil is one. She is introduced to us along with her elder brother Mahadev Bhaiyya, an elder sister, Gayatri and two younger siblings, Kishore and Gauri (Jhallee). Mahadev Bhaiyya works for the State Roadways and has been transferred to Pilibhit and besides Sharmaji, is the only other member who contributes to the income. Gayatri is waiting to get married, helping her mother with the daily chores in the meantime. Amidst the evident poverty and drudgery, Silbil stands out like a sore thumb – a sensitive, touchy and an unwilling occupant of the Shahjahanpur house. Longing to get away, she takes her first step towards independence by changing her name from Yashoda Sharma to Varsha Vashisht. This unprecedented step causes a mini storm in the Sharma household, the first of many to come. At this point in Silbil’s life is the entry of Ms Divya Katyal, a teacher who turns out to be a friend, philosopher and guide for life. It is under this teacher’s wings, that she blossoms into an actress – first in college plays and then local theatre. Her rebellion and subsequent alienation from her family continues as she applies and gets through National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi. The book follows Silbil/ Varsha’s journey from Shahjahanpur to Mumbai via Delhi as she becomes an award winning actress of national and international repute and explores her individual growth through various relationships (be it with Divya, Anupama, Shivani or Harsh) through varied experiences.
Interspersed with loads of literary references, and lots of poetry, the book is a delightful read. The author delves into this introverted, sensitive girl’s psyche and explores what she feels and thinks during each of her myriad experiences. It is truly a feminist book as it understands her choices and her one basic desire – to be truly independent. And there is no sob story involved – despite the sensitive Varsha/ Silbil often comparing herself to an ‘abla naari‘, she is in no way one! She takes a few risks and is lucky that things work out the way she wants it to, especially in the professional sphere. But then since ‘kabhi kisi ho muqammal jahan nahin milta’, neither does she! Her personal life remains a bit muddled and she is in the end lonely (purely by choice). Or as she often puts it – “”If any wish is left unsatisfied then your faith in life remains.”
All the characters have been etched by the author with much empathy and sympathy. They are human beings first and foremost, with their flaws and positives equally coming through.
I loved the way the author juxtaposed Varsha’s reactions and specific events in her life with detailed descriptions of the roles she played. So there is a lot of ‘drama’ in this book. References from Sanskrit, Russian and British drama abound. Almost each character and role, Varsha essays as an actress is described in detail and we understand what part of her own life experience she touches upon for inspiration. Almost all the characters in this book share a love for poetry and literature, so they are shown to recite or think about couplets/ poems at various stages. I liked that the translator has left the original poem/ couplet intact and has provided the translation next to it in several places. Since my mental block is with regard to reading Hindi in Devnagari script and not in the Roman script, this added to my overall reading experience.
Not too sure about the quality of translation, as there were certain places, where the text read and sounded awkward and it was a struggle to get through. Plus, the proofreading should have been better. Incorrect spellings get my goat and there were several in this book. However, this did nothing to lessen the sheer reading pleasure I derived from this lovely work of literature. Much recommended.
P.S: Yet another Hindi novel added to my list of Hindi-works-to-be-read-in their original!
P.P.S: There was a TV serial titled Mujhe Chand Chahiye that aired on Zee TV in the late 90s / early 2000’s that seems to be based loosely on this work. According to the synopsis on Wikipedia, it follows the life of Varsha from Shahjahanpur as she becomes a Bollywood superstar. The Wikipedia page also adds, “But in her attempts to become the queen of glamour, she realises how shallow the glamor world is. At this point, she starts to realise that her family values, though old, were fulfilling. Now she is afraid to go back home, because she believes that her family might not accept her. The question remains: Will she be able to leave the world of glamour?” Thankfully, this does not happen in the book. Yes, Varsha realises that the glamour world is shallow; but in no way does she want to go back to her old life. She has earned this life and savours every moment of it. Also her uneasy relationship with her old-fashioned father continues, but she has not been disowned and there is no melodrama about her being or not being accepted! Varsha continues on her chosen path, opting to be an unwed mother.