Her Motherís Daughter
October  1,  2012

Dear Farida, I find myself writing, even though I know she will never read this. Dear Farida, I have just seen your daughter, and she is marvellous. You would have been so proud.

Farida Pedder was a joyous gazelle of a woman, an actress, model and dancer, long and lithe, with luminous eyes through which her intelligence shone as brightly as her humanity. I didn’t know her when we shared a city; we both grew up in Mumbai in the 1960s, a few miles apart, and never met.

But years later, in Singapore, we did connect, and established an instant rapport. My wife Minu and I became good friends of Farida and her travel executive husband Jamshyd Sethna, making it a point to spend evenings with them whenever we visited Mumbai. Farida and I had, at different times, been proteges of the indefatigable doyenne of Mumbai’s English-language theatre, Pearl Padamsee; other friendships and mutual interests strengthened our bonds.

We discussed theatre, of course, but also literature and photography, Gujarati food and Chinese culture; we exchanged books and gifts, and always parted richly satisfied with the conversation, the company, the meal, the paan. And we promised to pick up the threads again the next time, whether a year later or two, as if nothing would change in the interim.

But as too often happens in this fast-moving world, the ‘next time’ stopped coming. My peripatetic life took me across the oceans; my parents’ departure from Mumbai meant we had less reason to visit the city; addresses and phone numbers changed, and we lost track of each other. I was sure we would connect again, at some point, somewhere; the cliche, ‘it’s a small world’, had proven itself over and over so many times in my life that I never really considered the friendship lost, merely in suspended animation, waiting to be revived at some unforeseeable moment.

And then one day, in New York, at dinner with an old friend, Pearl Padamsee’s son, the actor Ranjit Chowdhury, I asked casually, “What news of Farida?” “Which Farida?” Ranjit asked. “Farida Pedder?” And when I nodded, he said, “You mean you don’t know?” From his expression, I realised that I didn’t want to hear what I didn’t know, but I asked anyway. And the truth came tumbling out of Ranjit like a rock in a landslide, shattering in its impact: “She died six months ago. Cancer.”

Just like that. Dead, six months earlier, from a disease that announces its murderous intent and makes you watch it carrying you away. Dead in her mid-30s, at the proverbial prime of her life. I grieved. Grieved for the friend I had liked so much and known so little, whom I had last bid farewell to a few years ago, after a laughter-filled pau-bhaji meal near Chowpatty. Grieved for her intense and sensitive husband, and for her mother, who had to suffer the greatest loss any parent can possibly endure. Grieved, above all, for her bereaved daughter, whom we had seen as an impossibly tiny baby in Mumbai soon after she was born. Maia. Jamshyd and Farida had been very particular about the spelling: this was going to be no common-or-garden Maya, no Sanskritic illusion. I wondered what had become of Maia, and what would become of her.

And now I have seen part of the answer, and my grief has given way to joy and excitement. Little Maia Sethna, barely ten years old, with her mother’s eyes and her mother’s grace, is the star of Deepa Mehta’s magnificent new film, Earth. She plays the polio-riddIed child, Lenny, through whose eyes we witness the personal and social ruptures and dislocations that tore her world apart as the country broke into two in 1947.

The part is an impossibly demanding one, for Lenny is the linchpin of Bapsi Sidhwa’s powerful novel, Ice-Candy Man (published in the US under the evocative title, Cracking India), on which the film is based. The child has to sustain the narrative: capricious and curious, perceptive and petty, Lenny is alternately loving and insensitive, a mere kid watching adults destroy the basic assumptions of the world she has always taken for granted.

Her complacency and her bewilderment are crucial to the story, as is her realisation, at the film’s shattering climax, that the old rules of love and trust have been swept aside in the frenzy, and that in her innocence she has betrayed her closest companion.

Few accomplished actresses could have pulled off such a part with such ease. Yet here, a child in her first film. A child, moreover, coping with the unbearable grief of the loss of her young mother, has done it so triumphantly. Maia Sethna is perfect in the part; Bapsi Sidhwa says she could not have imagined so ideal a Lenny. In a star-studded cast, featuring the talents of a subtle Aamir Khan, an exquisite Nandita Das, a mercurial Rajive Khanna, Maia Sethna has stolen the show.

And so, Farida, I want to say to the friend I cannot reach, I have seen the future and your daughter owns it. I feel like a cricket fan watching Sachin Tendulkar as a schoolboy, knowing that I am beholding a talent mature beyond its years, watching a gift that truly is limitless. I wish you could be here, Farida, to rejoice in Maia’s success. But you are here, because those acting genes you have passed on live in your daughter’s every gesture, in the naturalness with which she breathes life into the fiction of her part, in the depth of the gaze with which she faces the camera.

SA friend is gone, but a star has arrived.

Source: CSCS Archive

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