Mayank Shekhar: Pleasures of being 'moderately' famous

Apr 11, 2018, 06:10 IST | Mayank Shekhar

How Soha Ali Khan's sweet little memoir is altogether more real than anything in the highfalutin genre you may have read

Soha Ali Khan (left) reads her debut book, The Perils Of Being Moderately Famous, alongside her mother Sharmila Tagore
Soha Ali Khan (left) reads her debut book, The Perils Of Being Moderately Famous, alongside her mother Sharmila Tagore

Mayank ShekharWriting about one's own life - whether anecdotes, or a full-on memoir - is simultaneously an act of humility, and arrogance. Humility, because you're generously willing to share stories from your life - good, bad, ugly, with complete truth, and absolute honesty; otherwise it won't work. And arrogance, because you think anybody gives a sh**.

"How did you reconcile with the two," I asked actor, and now author, Soha Ali Khan. She replied, with much humility, "If not my life, I suppose people might be interested in learning about those around me," namely, brother Saif Ali Khan, sister-in-law Kareena Kapoor, mom Sharmila Tagore (Bollywood superstars, all); or dad, the one-eyed cricketing legend Mansoor Ali Khan 'Tiger' Pataudi. All of whom appear on the cover of Soha's debut book, The Perils Of Being Moderately Famous.

It has to be said, however, that my favourite anecdote from her memoir concerns her grandfather Iftikhar, or 'Sarkar Abba', who was part of Douglas Jardine's English team during the infamous 'Bodyline' series (1932-33)-subsequently dropped from the squad, for refusing to field at the leg-side position. Towards the end of the contentious Ashes series, he said of Jardine, "I'm told he has his good points. In three months, I'm yet to see them." Several years later, Iftikhar's son Tiger, young student at Winchester, avenged the humiliation, by beating Jardine's long-standing school record of 997 runs in a season.

"Still raw from the eye-injury, as vice captain," Tiger got elevated to lead the Indian team, when the West Indian fast bowler Charlie Griffith cracked skipper Nari Contractor's skull so hard that Tiger swore he could hear it "all the way in the dressing room." The injury rendered Contractor unfit to play Test cricket ever again.

I recently hosted a conversation with Soha for the CII at the Bombay Stock Exchange, a rather befitting venue, given that she also defines herself as "moderately famous", based on a celebrity index in a popular entertainment daily, where stocks on famous people (mainly Bollywood stars) rise/fall every week, and she would find herself chiefly at the centre to lower-end of the ladder. How does one define fame anyway? Aren't we all famous in some ways? Maybe, at a family wedding in your case; or the local bar, in mine.

But, there's a blinding level of self-centeredness - "every success exaggerated, every failure amplified" - that sets show-business apart, in the fame seeking/receiving industry. Soha beautifully explains this with the example of the German cartographer Gerardus Mercator, who'd never travelled outside his homeland, and therefore created a map with Germany as the centre of the world. I'm not sure if this evident narcissism is any different for even relatively regular Joes, addicted to delivering hourly feeds on social media.

Soha, who spent her "growing-up years in Delhi, but grew up in Mumbai," went to Balliol College, at Oxford University (as per family tradition), and took up a corporate job in Citigroup (unlike her previous generation) - before quitting it all to become an actor. This gives her a uniquely insider-outsider perspective - something she attributes to travelling also, for the most part.

She writes, "It is not unusual for me to feel inadequate, frustrated, that no matter what I achieve, in comparison to my parents, brother, I will always fall short. But, when you are standing on the edge of the spectacular Grand Canyon, for instance, looking into its plunging depths, containing over two billion years of geographical history, you can't help but feel diminished by the world."

And, it is life's gentle lessons like these that make her memoir far more real, different, altogether more endearing than most others you're likely to read, that are often grand chronicles of riches/fame, in hindsight." The fact of being "moderately famous" liberates her, almost wholly.

Going off on another tangent: Not that Soha's non-fiction is a self-help book, but that popular genre, populating all bestseller charts in the world, you'll notice, basically concerns itself with guiding people on ways, means, and routes to becoming 'successful'. The fact though is that on a track with 10 athletes running; only one will win - nine won't, regardless. It might make sense for people to engage more effectively with how to deal with inevitably being one in a stack of nine (in life, nearly always).

Stand-up star Chris Rock, for instance, laments about going to his kids' school, where he hears children being told that they have to work really hard, and they can then achieve anything in life. That's not how it works, Rock groans. What they should be taught is: One, you gotta be good at something. Two, hope that someone hires you! True.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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