Thought Box

Ritu Nanda’s memoir by Sathya Saran

Ritu Nanda’s memoir by Sathya Saran

by Vinta Nanda November 1 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 35 secs

Being Ritu Nanda: The Unforgettable Story of Ritu Nanda was released recently, here’s the writer Sathya Saran in conversation with Vinta Nanda, along with an excerpt from this terrific biography published by Harper Collins Publishers India.

A memoir of Raj Kapoor’s daughter Ritu Nanda takes a closer look at her life and also the varied roles she played, including a celebrated insurance advisor and creator of the popular Niky Tasha kitchenette range. Written by Sathya Saran Being Ritu: The Unforgettable Story of Ritu Nanda released on Saturday the 29th October 2021, coinciding with her birth anniversary.  

I had a chat with the biographer and since I had her captive, decided to ask her questions beyond the book itself. Everybody knows who Sathya Saran is – in her vast career as a journalist and then the Editor of India’s most popular women’s magazine Femina, she’s probably written about every woman we’d like to know – but there’s little about the journalist, writer, author and biographer herself to be found. So over to her…  

Where did this journey to write Ritu Nanda's biography start? What made you want to do it? 

The book idea was suggested to me and I was told the family was spearheading it. I knew a bit about Ritu Nanda. We had carried a story on Niki Tasha and her role in creating the product and brand while I was with Femina. As someone who has delved into the lives of women throughout my career, I felt it was something I should take up and could do justice to.

How did you go about bringing all the pieces of her vast life together? 

With a lot of help of course - it would have been very simple had she been alive, but I was writing this as a tribute. Nitasha Nanda, Ritu’s daughter, was super helpful, and spared no effort getting office staff to send out emails, collate them, and to organize interviews, too, with family members and her mother’s close friends. Of course except for Nitasha and Nikhil, and Ritu’s siblings whom I met in Bombay, all other interviews were on the phone or online. It robbed me of the warmth of conducting one-on-ones face to face, but that was beyond our control. The book started and was completed during the pandemic. The numerous interviews gave me a pretty good insight into Ritu’s personality and her philosophy of life.

What are your own impressions of Ritu Nanda - the woman, the wife of a very successful man, the daughter of a legend and the legends wife Krishna Raj Kapoor - she stood so tall and dignified through her lifetime - sister to super stars and mother to two great kids? 

As I continued with my interviews, and they included doctors, friends, children of friends, cousins, aunts, and of course the siblings and spouses of siblings, Ritu started coming alive. The stories that I gathered from them were real and not just words of praise for someone gone too soon. There were sad stories, happy ones and some really funny ones too. Neetu Singh’s account of how Ritu arranged her engagement or how Ritu would watch her favorite films sitting in the aisles were gems that may never have come to light if the book had not been initiated. My only regret is that I never got the chance to meet this wonderful, inspiring woman.

Believe me when I say, I learnt quite a bit from her, about caring, reaching out, and being there for others, and not just living lost in my own world.

Do tell us about yourself, your experiences (an anecdote or two) working with film personalities, stars and exemplary women during the time you were editor of Femina, to now that you're Consulting Editor with Penguin Random House India, and teaching Fashion journalism at NIFT Mumbai, Kangra and Srinagar. It's a large universe you've travelled. 

Hey that’s enough for a full book; that will of course never be written. I think if I unlock my memory, everyone who has been a woman worth knowing will feature in the stories. But one of the stories I treasure is of my meetings with Rajmata Gayatri Devi. I met her for the first time when De Beers arranged an interview with her. I was to quiz her about her love of her diamonds, and ask her for stories about her heirloom pieces.

To my delight and their chagrin, the Rajmata took off on a nostalgic story about how she had been secretly presented with her emerald ring, a token of his love, much before she could marry her husband. And, how she would hide it from her mother’s sharp eyes. She was coaxed to talk about diamonds again, and was halfway through a story, when she remembered a priceless necklace she had given in safekeeping to some relative and never got back. Again, it was about ‘my favorite emeralds.’  

We met again later, when I interviewed her for Vogue, Germany, in her flat in London. And we had a good laugh over how she had refused to toe the line and given the De Beers representative a clear signal that women of her ilk do not jump through hoops to please any brand. 

The Dark Side reflects your love of the short story and the biographies you’ve written, Years with Guru Dutt: Abrar Alvi's Journey, Sun Mere Bandhu Re: The Musical World of SD Burman and Baat Niklegi toh Phir: The Life and Music of Jagjit Singh, bear testimony to your love for cinema and music. Your last book Hariprasad Chaurasia: Breath of Gold was another experience altogether for you, you have mentioned once. How does it feel at this place that you are? Some tips, too, from a biographer about how to go about writing biographies? 

I feel privileged. Blessed. Each of these biographies was written with integrity and love - some were easy and others made me sweat blood. I think the experiment of writing SD Burman’s biography in the format where I knitted many strands, and at times put myself in his place to imagine how he composed a song, was the toughest, and took nine months to complete.

Hariji’s biography, I believe, took shape through the inspiration I got from him, through understanding his personality and listening to his music. In fact the blessing in writing about each of these wonderful artists was that I spent hours listening to their creations, watching scenes, and immersing myself in their life stories. It’s an amazing experience. 

The only advice that will be effective is, one must be true to the subject, and let it sparkle. And the writer is not important, being only the glass through which the light passes. Fiction is another world all together. If a first line presents itself to me, the story writes itself. Often, I am surprised. 

We don't know about Sathya Saran the child, the young girl, the woman behind the work that she does - where were you born, where did you grow up and how did you arrive upon journalism as a career, which has brought you to this place? 

Oops! I’m very mixed up. I’m a Tam Bram who has never lived in the south, and I love Calcutta and Assam, the hills and the rivers - thanks to the Brahmaputra that we drove along to reach school every morning. My idea of play used to be to scramble up a hillock after school. But I became a city girl when I joined Femina. And love the throb of the city. I love the stage, and some of my best moments were when I was part of Veenapani Chawla’s theatre group and plays.

I arrived at journalism by accident, going for what I believed was a ‘mock interview’ to a newspaper office, to relieve my friend who was scheduled to migrate to Canada but was not being released from duty until the boss had found a substitute. I got the job, found it to be a lot of fun, and journalism crept into my blood. 

Destiny led me to Femina, and I spent 26 years with the magazine talking to and writing about Indian women. 

Teaching at NIFT is my way of giving back. Our generation saw sea changes in lifestyle journalism, from the Linotype to digital printing - and everything in between. It’s important to share these stories and this learning.

Lastly, the writer, biographer and author - how do you pack in so much? What drives you? 

Writing is writing. One never asks a cook how she or he manages to make barfi, sambar, biryani and Dahi wadas - they are after all versions of the same skill being applied. I think it’s true of writing too. I write because I must. And, anyway I know little else as a means of keeping myself happily occupied. 

And here’s an excerpt from the chapter Pyar Hua Ikrar hua of the biography of Ritu Nanda:

Everyone who was present at the simple engagement ceremony that took place in the drawing room of the Kapoor home has vibrant memories of the occasion.

The photos of the event are in black and white, the memory of the pink sari, not her favorite chiffon, but a heavier chamois satin, that Ritu had draped herself in, is full of color. As are the details of her hairstyle, where her single plait was transformed into a bouquet of curls high at the back of her head, showing off her slender neck. According to Nitin Mukesh, ‘Everyone said she looked like Elizabeth Taylor.’
Her neck and ears were bare, unornamented, and when, in a motherly gesture of acceptance, Rajan’s mother took off her own diamond and pearl earrings and placed them on Ritu’s ears, adding a matching necklace, the moment was rich with emotion. Cousin Anu Kheta, who was still a gawky girl at the time of her cousin’s engagement, remembers that ‘she looked like a princess; she was blushing, her face pink, and she never looked up even once.’ 

There was one moment of confusion as Kuppy came out carrying the thaali for the ceremonies, followed by Ritu’s mother, but it was cleared up when the heroine of the day walked in. Of course, rings were exchanged, hands meeting where eyes had not; and as a ritual rupee was placed in Ritu’s palm, the sacred bond of kinship through marriage linked the two families.

The Kapoor family was, of course, ecstatic. This would be the first wedding of the generation. Uncle Shammi, with whom Ritu shared a special bond, threw a huge party for the couple to mark the engagement. ‘There were endless parties,’ Daboo adds, ‘we Kapoors need no excuse to celebrate, but then, at that time, we had a real reason and made the most of it.’

The Cupid Factor

No one really knows what magic worked between the two young people, but it was not long before the trunk lines between Delhi and Bombay were busy carrying words, even sweet nothings, to and fro. It must not have been easy. Anyone who has had to book a trunk call and speak through the static over the phone in the 1960s will know how frustrating it was, and that holding a decent conversation was almost impossible. It was definitely not the best forum to conduct a courtship, but Rajan, ‘seriously stricken by his fiancée’s beauty’, would call at every opportunity.

More than just her looks, he now realized the ‘gorgeous’ looks went with brains too.

At one of his visits to the Kapoor home, when Ritu had sported a mild rash, and there had been some worry about it being measles, she had turned around and jokingly told her mother that if it had indeed been measles she should have sued her for child negligence. The retort won a round of laughter, and convinced her beau that he had made the right choice for a partner.

But to go back to the frustrating telephone calls. Did they indeed go beyond the usual ‘hello, I can’t hear you’ statements? At some point they did, for a kind telephone operator stepped in. Perhaps curious about the regular traffic between the two numbers, one of which belonged to a film star’s home, the operator possibly eavesdropped. And to give Cupid a helping hand, offered to give them a clear line, free of cost, every night. ‘They spoke for hours, I don’t know what about,’ Kuppy remembers. The operator, Soodesh, would remain in touch, and Ritu would help her with her daughter’s wedding, far in the future.

The calls ceased on weekends, as the young suitor would take himself off to Bombay. For almost the entire year, he would present himself on every weekend, prompting Raj Kapoor to ask him once jokingly if he did any work at all as he was so often in the city. The young couple, duly chaperoned by Kuppy, would often go out, or drive to the Kapoor farm at Loni, or dine out. It was as if the stars shone brighter and rainbows arched over their heads in blessing, while they waited for the wedding mahurat to be announced.

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