It was a quiet 92nd birthday at Nergis Dalal’s duplex on the upscale Rajpur Road in Dehradun on June 13. Her younger daughter Roshen was her companion. A few friends dropped in to wish Dalal a happy birthday.
Dalal had been one of India’s most well known and prodigious writers. She did not confine her writing to a particular genre; her writing range covered short stories, novels, ‘Middles’, and even books on cookery and yoga. Her output in seven decades was indeed enormous — it included four full length novels, over 125 short stories and more than 2,000 Middles, besides hundreds of articles and essays.
It were, however, her Middles that gave her maximum recognition. These short pieces, (part of a genre of articles written in a lighthearted vein introduced in the 1950s) adorned the edit pages of mainstream English newspapers such as The Times of India, The Statesman, Hindustan Times, The Tribune and many others during the five decades from the 1940s to the 1990s. The ‘Middles’ brought her much fame and made her a household name. It was, in fact, The Times of India that first introduced the Middle (a special slot in the middle of the edit page; hence this name) in the 1940s, and Dalal was one of its first contributors.
Initially, she wrote under the pseudonym of “Aries”, but when the frequency of her Middles increased, the then scholar-editor of The Times of India, Mr Sham Lal, advised her to also write under her own name. “After all, I cannot publish too many Middles from one writer alone,” he told her. It was only thereafter that she also began writing under her own name. However, writing under two different names had some funny moments; once a reader accused Aries of plagiarising from a Middle published under the name of Dalal. The generous editor was not amused. It was in the 1970s and 1980s that she was deservedly given the sobriquet of Middles Queen of India.
She was equally well known for her scholarly articles and essays. She wrote extensively on Tibetans who have large settlements in Dehradun and Mussoorie. These articles attracted the attention of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who graciously invited her to visit Dharamshala. “Meeting the Dalai Lama was a unique spiritual experience,” she says. During 1975-85, her articles drew attention to the then ongoing degradation of the Mussoorie hills owing to indiscriminate limestone quarrying. A PIL was also filed in the Supreme Court against the menace of merciless quarrying and the petitioner’s lawyers quoted liberally from her articles to prove their point.
Dalal had been an inveterate writer for over 70 years; perhaps no other writer had written so continuously for such a long period. But until about five years ago, she had kept a daily routine of regular writing. It was during that period that her collection of short stories under the title Nude was published by Penguin.
However, she has now lost her desire to write. “Why have you stopped writing?” I once asked her. She was somewhat reluctant to answer. “I am now something of a recluse,” she replied. “Don’t your fingers itch to type?” I persisted. “Not at all, I do not wish to write anything about myself or my family. I am just content now to be an onlooker and be myself,” was her brief response. Even though she has given up writing, Dalal zealously pursues her passion for reading. Apart from a couple of daily newspapers, she also subscribes to magazines.
“She has suddenly become quiet and reticent. She used to be extremely extroverted and forthcoming, but of late she has become just the opposite,” says an old friend of her.
Though she doesn’t visit her friends mainly because she feels weak at times, she is far from an introvert. Dalal encourages her friends to visit her. Some, like Nayantara Sahgal and Chanderkanta Mehta (writer-daughters of Vijayalakshmi Pandit) often call on her; others like Pom Brijnath, Rozzanna Ismail and this writer visit her more regularly.
She has three caring and affectionate grown up children. Her son Ardeshir is an academic don and has been in the US for over 35 years; he visits Dehradun at least once a year. Her older daughter Shahnaz runs a successful art gallery in Hyderabad and also teaches Art to schoolchildren. Shahnaz had spent most of her last month with Nergis in Dehradun. Her younger daughter Roshen — a well-known author in her own right — is now in Dehradun to be with her mother. She has written several books including The Puffin History of India for Children in two volumes that had become a Penguin best seller. Her other books are The Penguin Dictionary of Religions in India, Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide and The Compact Timeline History of the World published by Worth Press UK. She is currently engaged in writing a book on the Vedas that could become her Magnum Opus. Though Roshen’s plate is full with writing assignments, she is now seriously thinking of shifting to Dehradun to be able to devote more time to her mother.
“What made you take to writing at the young age of 18?” My question was naïve but Dalal replied calmly. Her mother, though conventionally uneducated, was a voracious reader. She would always goad her to read, and would borrow books from the library or buy from bookstores for her. Once she presented her a four-volume set of World’s Library of Best Books published sometime in the beginning of the 20th Century, Dalal recalled with a touch of nostalgia. It was these books that had really hooked her; thus reading had become a life-long passion.
Dalal graduated from reading to writing in a seamless transition. Writing came naturally to her; she had developed an uncanny knack of observing and discovering small incidents in and around her neighbourhood, in zoos and museums, in market place, and even in her own household. She turned these little incidents into fascinating centerpieces of her Middles.
She first came to Mussoorie in 1943 on her husband Captain Jamshed Dalal’s (Madras Engineers) first posting. It was for the first time that she came in close with nature, and fell in love with the hills. Thereafter she lived in Dehradun for many, many years at different points of time because her husband was in the Survey of India from where he eventually retired as the Suveyor General in the rank of brigadier.