CHENNAI: A film critic, biographer and journalist, Bhawana Somaaya has spent more than four decades in the showbiz, documenting the lives of several Bollywood stars. But it is her newest project that has been the talk of the town. Her book titled Letters to Mother — a translation of the Gujarati book Saakshi Bhaav, which is a collection of letters by Prime Minister Narendra Modi — is releasing today.
The book features letters penned by a young PM to the Mother Goddess, whom he addresses as Jagat Janani, and explores his innermost anxieties, thoughts and observations. “Journalists can get sensitive about certain people they write about. There comes a point when we are told to stop being sensitive, as if being sensitive is a crime. But here’s a man who is overflowing with sensitivity, not worried about being judged, and being vulnerable.
In fact, after I was done reading the book, I couldn’t believe the amount of intensity in it, how he had laid himself so bare,” Bhawana tells Kaveree Bamzai about the PM’s letters, during the recent edition of Indulge Time Pass. The author and cultural commentator, who has written sixteen books, explored several other relevant issues during the engaging chat.Excerpts follow.
At the time of translation, when I would take a break and switch on the TV, I would wonder if this is the man I’m writing about. Even when I was working on a book on Amitabh Bachchan, meeting him or watching his movies was so distracting for my process. Translation is far more difficult than writing, because when I’m writing I’m only responsible for myself, but this is a dual responsibility. Though Gujarati is my mother tongue, I had never studied Gujarati; I just know it sufficiently well.
Also, I have to sync my voice — a female voice — with the PM’s voice, a male voice. I’m damned if I do this book, I ’ m damned if I don’t! It’s releasing today; not many people have read it, but I really don’t care about what people think, I have never sought feedback, even from the people I write about. I’m not a political journalist, it’s not a political interview that I’m documenting. I’m translating a book…that’s it. There were many lines in the book that moved me.
So, when the language became too complicated, I took the help of some friends to understand it better. There was a line, which he used to describe the sea and river; it felt beautiful. In fact, I felt it got lost in translation. I think if there is a Gujarati actor with a great voice who could read these out, it would be lovely.
On nature and politics
Mr Modi addresses different experiences and subjects in his book — from talking about the planet, to his mother’s emotions for him. When he talks about nature, the way he characterises nature, the details, the river, the moon, the constant dialogue with nature…I was introduced to his minute observations. His imagination is overwhelming and he uses it to camouflage his sensitivity and address broader issues.
If I have to ask the PM one question then I’d ask him — why do so many people love you and why do so many people hate you? I was very curious to know more about 1986, the politics, his life, about RSS. I’m pretty familiar with the emotions of success and nonsuccess so I could switch it on accordingly, but this was a new world to me; his suffering is constant. He is not throwing his suffering away; it’s collective, calm and meditative and used productively, and had been put into these passages. It’s the same for anybody who overthinks, he’s never at peace.
I would hear stories about him, of course, of how he would fast for the goddess during Navratri. All of us have one god who we relate to; for him, it’s the mother goddess. Even in cinema, Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan always addressed Shiva, Meena Kumari always cried before Krishna, female protagonists in cinema have talked to the mother goddess because she’s Shakti. For the PM, I think it’s the early influences that shaped him because the idea of goddess arises from our mothers for most of us.
In 40 years, I have not experienced anything like this, it’s become so messy. I’ve never encountered junkies or parties of this kind; maybe I’ve lived through a different world. I applaud Jaya Bachchan for what she said in the Rajya Sabha. But for a few rotten tomatoes, you can’t blame the whole basket. Be it crime or suicide, it happens everywhere; it’s not just the film fraternity. My friends are questioning if this really is a world of sin, but this is such an exaggerated perception.