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EMALAYALEE SPECIAL

Dad’s daughter; Beauty in writing (A.J. Philip)

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Unfinished: A Memoir (Penguin Random House, Pages 256, Rs 699) is a book I would not have ordinarily read, let alone bought. When the author became Miss India and, later, Miss World, I wondered what trick she did to get the coveted honour.

Beauty could not have, for I thought there were better beauties in the college I studied.

In my estimation, she came nowhere near the Vasantkunj girl, Sushmita Sen, or the girl from Mangalore, Aishwarya Rai, or the all-time great from Goa, Reita Faria. I was also not impressed by her acting in the few movies I watched.

To me, she was an average girl with average beauty and average talent who was destined to fade out as quickly as she startled the world by her crowning victory in 2000.

I know it is not fair to make such harsh comments on a highly-successful person who is today my own hero too!

Why I chose to read the book is, however, a coincidence. Less than a fortnight ago, I read my friend and New Yorker Korason Varghese’s book of essays, Valkannadi (Handheld Mirror).

There is a chapter in the book on how a petty-minded church in Kerala refused burial to Priyanka Chopra’s maternal grandmother in the church cemetery because she had ceased to be a subscription-paying church member many decades ago. That is since she married a North Indian and settled down at Jamshedpur, then, in Bihar and, now, in Jharkhand.

I felt bad when I read it, just as I felt bad when my friend Thampy Kakkanadan was not allowed to be buried in the cemetery by my own church. I wished the churches were more large-hearted and generous!

It was news to me that a portion of the blood that flowed in Priyanka Chopra’s body was Syrian Christian. She was, otherwise, a blue-blooded Punjabi. By the way, my wife knew about her Kerala connection. I did not know it, may be because she was never on my radar.

Around that time, I read a review of her autobiography 'Unfinished' and saw the movie 'The White Tiger' in which she played a significant role. I did not think twice before buying the book and reading it. Let me admit in the beginning itself, that I enjoyed reading the book.

If someone were to ask me who the greatest characters in the book were, I would unabashedly say that it was her parents. Her father was a Major in the Army on the medical side and he got her mother enlisted in the Army as a Captain soon after their marriage. They had confidence in her and they brought her up in such a way that success was hers right from the word go.

When the couple made a nameplate for the Army house they lived in, Priyanka asked them why the names were displayed. Their answer was, “Because we live here”. It evoked a question from her, “Do I not live here?” The parents were thoughtful enough to include her name in the board: “Miss Priyanka Mimi Chopra, Upper KG”! She was a kindergarten student at that time.

The parents invested heavily in her, letting her study in Army Public School, Bareilly, La Martiniere in Lucknow and a school in the US. In the process, she gained confidence that allowed her to wade through competitions.

One thing must be said to her credit — she is as frank as an autobiographer could be. No, there is no kiss-and-tell in her story.

Of course, there is a hilarious description of a handsome American boy whom she tried to hide in her dressing room when her relative suddenly returned home. The cologne he wore was a giveaway for the relative who forced her to open the room. Their furtive affair continued till she learnt that he began dating her best friend!

In the final round for the Miss World title, she was asked to answer the question, “Who do you think is the most successful woman living today and why?” Having studied in Catholic Church-run schools, she answered quite naturally: “There are a lot of people I admire, but one of the most admirable people is Mother Teresa. I admire her from the bottom of my heart for being so considerate, compassionate and kind, giving up her life for people in India”.

Little did Priyanka know that I had written Mother Teresa’s obituary in the Indian Express three years earlier. She was alerted by the Miss World management that she might be asked about her faux pas at the customary Press conference in London soon after the crowning ceremony.

She was ready with her answer that the Mother might have died but she lived in her heart as in the hearts of millions of people. Probably, no one embarrassed her.

Those who had seen videos of the ceremony would have noticed that she was so humble that she stood with her hands closed Namastaying to the whole world.

Actually, the strapless dress she was wearing, which was pasted to the body at the back, was sliding off the body. She was valiantly trying to avert the disaster by holding her dress with the back of her Namastayed hands.

She also explains why she wore a leg-showing dress while meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She happened to be in Berlin and staying at the same hotel where Modi was also staying. She sought a meeting with him and it was granted. She had been wearing such a dress since her childhood and she did not mean any offence to him. The book has pictures of her wearing such dresses in the past.

What is amazing about her is that she not only established a name in Bollywood, but she also became a celebrity in the US. What’s more, she is today an entrepreneur with at least one successful app to her credit. Her company has produced many films in regional languages, some of them getting national awards.

The Priyanka Chopra Foundation is a non-profit organisation she founded to educate the poor and to meet the medical needs of the deserving. As a goodwill ambassador of UNICEF, she has done commendable work.

She is also leading a happy married life with a person who is 10 years younger to him. Her description of the Hindu and Christian marriages was at once so touching that I was prompted to intone "Dheerkha Sumangali Bhava!"

All this is not a small achievement for a person who, like me, thought that her beauty was not all that great to take her to places. This autobiography also proves that she has another successful career ahead of her as a writer! May her future house be like what she has described in the book.

ajphilip@gmail.com

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