Discovering Leela Naidu in a Library

Niyantha Shekar

I was in the round room of the State Central Library in Bangalore, walking along a semi-circular path created by the bookshelves, killing time before lunch with a friend, when I came across a book mistakenly placed in the Travel section. On the book cover was a black-and-white image of a beautiful woman, her shiny hair appearing to bounce off her cheek like in a shampoo commercial. The book, ‘Leela: A Patchwork Life’, was a memoir of Leela Naidu, but I didn’t know who she was. I picked up the book for Jerry Pinto, her co-author and the author of one of my favourite books, ‘Em and the Big Hoom’. I found an empty chair and started to read.

“The last time I saw Leela Naidu, she was sitting up in bed,” Pinto’s foreword began. “She had on a faded nightgown and the bedclothes, relics of a visit from one of her grandsons, sported cheerful cartoon animals. But she extended her hand with the grace of a dowager duchess in exile and smiled upon me. The room brightened and the world turned into a gracious and charming place for a moment.”

Reading Pinto’s prose that day affected me the way Naidu’s presence affected him. It brightened the dark corner of the round room I sat in, and turned the library into a gracious and charming place. As Pinto wrote about how he met Naidu and how the book came to be, he dropped hints about who she was for readers like me who knew nothing about her. That she was an iconic beauty feted by Vogue; a charismatic woman with a splendid command over French and English; a somewhat unhappy companion of the poet Dom Moraes. Details that didn’t seek to define the woman — to actually know who she was, or a version of who she was, I would have to read the rest of the book — but details to spark the reader’s intrigue.

I was so immersed in the foreword that I didn’t see the last line coming. I had forgotten, despite the opening sentence intimating it, that Naidu was no more. With the perfect final sentence, Pinto described his loss.

“There is a Leela-shaped hole in my life.”

My train of thought stopped. I sat for a moment in the silence of the round room of the State Central Library in Bangalore. Strangely, Pinto’s loss felt like my loss too.

When it was time for me to leave, I jotted down the name of the book and placed it back in the incongruous spot where I found it, hopeful that it would catch the eye of the next person browsing the shelves for a good read.

Niyantha Shekar

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Filmmaker & Writer

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