This is an early obituary on Shobhaa De, a writer whose work was once taught at SOAS.
Shobhaa De was a good writer. I did not know her personally. I had been reading her articles in the newspapers for 10 years (since 2008). But I had read her autobiography when I was a uniformed boy studying at a convent in Bangalore. I read ‘Selective Memory’ only to be shocked at what I thought then was gossip and scandal. My mother was the first to sow the seeds of journalism in me by encouraging me to speak like the way De wrote. De’s irrevocable cattiness was compiled with her seductive prose — catchy, simple, funny, full of oomph. I have had many good laughs when reading her brazen humour, the use of modern lingo and slang that resonates with young India. She also applied the English of my parents’ generation who spoke in their English-speaking homes an Anglo-Indian language. These men and women were part of that old Brahminical elite. They read the Classics and, ironically, spoke truth to power.
If there was a flaw in De, it was her Hinglish. Hinglish reduced her writing to such an extent that some Indians thought ‘bandobast’ was an evil Hindi word translating as fat policeman. Her social media handles did employ Hinglish — not only to her advantage but also for followers who ruthlessly trolled her in ungrammatical Hinglish. But for Hinglish, De would have won national and international awards. Her last years were spent dolling them out because of the way she had incorporated the two languages, perhaps to keep India alive.
Her blog (now defunct) remains a footprint in her internet history. Containing many of her columns till 2015, the real De shines forth in those posts, revealing that she was indeed Bombay’s literary gift who could churn out articles at the drop of a hat and without spelling mistakes. (And even if there were, it was a delight to know that readers knew De’s work better than editors.) She was an outspoken critic of all the establishments she had lived under. She was articulate at reducing politicians and parties to shreds which got her in trouble when the Shiv Sena protested outside her home in 2015 against a harmless tweet she had written. Similar to a cow in the elevator, De was a juxtaposed creature in the media world: She did not shout on TV nor was a journalist proudly displaying her frugality. She did not write reams of pretentiously secular, anti-fascist material. Instead, she had her own voice — compassionate and deeply heartfelt at times, powerful at her best, hilarious and witty during the peaks of her career. Always imbued with respect for religious life (though she was no fan of godmen and goddess-women), she was every person’s journalist.
She was seen by her generation as the female Khushwant Singh (Singh was the male Shobhaa De). Who wrote first about sex, or what sort of sex was written about in India by the likes of De before the millennials, did not matter. De would travel across the world in her books and columns. Her articles in the last months of her life were about world affairs, like they ever were, showing knowledge about the tiniest things (such as hairstyles) to the biggest (matters about sex and Modi). She was Sexy Number One, posting pictures on Instagram of herself globe-trotting.
India’s social fabric benefitted from Mrs. De. Bollywood and high society were her friends; magazine culture was her chum; and when MeToo kicked in, she lent her voice to women across the board. She therefore shaped media discourse and history, altering them forever by her puns and sardonic taste. She respected few powerful people, and when she did she did not give the game away. That she too as a powerful person could not disclose the top secrets of her world where the Ambanis and assorted Bollywood stars partied, was something she did mention in passing. Yet she stuck to her strong moral standards, sticking to the principles of Journalism 101.
She should not have gone after so long. 70 must be heaven up there.
By Dhruv Ramnath (MA Social Anthropology)