A few days ago, Milind Soman ceased to be cool because in his autobiography, Made in India: A Memoir, the former supermodel, shared his experience of attending a neighbourhood Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Shakha for a couple of years as a young boy.

In addition to being one of India’s best-known models, Soman is also a former international level swimmer, who won the senior men’s title at the national swimming championship for four consecutive years between 1984–87 and completed the Ironman challenge in his first attempt at the age of 50. Considered one of the most difficult one day sporting events in the world, Soman at 50, swam 3.86 km, cycled 180 km and then ran a 42 km marathon in a little over 15 hours.

You may all recall him from the video clip of Alisha Chinoy’s ‘Made in India’ if not from his few Bollywood flicks.

But it’s not about his athletic feats or so, that I am writing about, it’s more to do with my experience working with him as an Art Director for a photo shoot campaign. I remember seeing him for the first time, and feeling at home, for I saw someone like of the same skin tone as mine. For once, I wasn’t too dark for a Mauritian with a Delhiite toga nor too fair (as a matter of fact, am not). The guy in front of me was like a God, with height, chiselled features, feline look, scrumptiously dusky and an awfully soft voice. Throughout the briefing, trials, etc, it was a refreshing breeze to work with him. Unlike, many models who believe they are celebrities and keep an arrogance which does not do justice to their portfolio, he was very polite and gentle. But that wasn’t all.

Milind can talk at an intellectual level. Which was a rare feature in the model(dom). No offence intended. Needless to mention, that he was intrigued to be directed by a young Art Director in a grey pair of jeans which had not been washed in months, and who mostly found her words in French before English. We had a few informal chats, and exchanged our ideologies. During that time, I was living with my uncle who was the Secretary General of the RSS. Although I was never interested in any of his meetings at home, I still helped and welcomed the guests with copious samosas and teas. Thankfully, he respected my stand and never imposed the RSS ideology upon me, except on the number of hours I could watch TV.

Today, I recall those days when I saw his aged face and grey hair. He is still bursting with honesty and has no false claims or hypocrisy unlike many who navigate the industry. And still so down to earth, with no frills and dead handsome.

In his memoir, Soman talks about how he is “baffled” today when he reads all the subversive, communal propaganda the media attributes to RSS shakhas should give a hint about the difference between an idea and an ideology.

Milind Soman is the kind of person that no one in their right minds would associate with RSS for he was the one who had (in)famously posed nude with his then-girlfriend, Madhu Sapre, for an advertisement for a footwear brand. Whom I had to say had all the oomph and beauty in one blob. She was too a dusky beauty which at the time was quite rare, apart from Meher Jessia, who was a light version of duskiness.

There you go, a man who has achieved so much and stood with his own beliefs and yet proved to be a thorough bred of Modern India. I was very privileged to have known this kind and gorgeous soul. The reason am sharing this snippet, is because he reminds me of our Mauritian-ness. Steeped in tradition, hanging on to find a real identity, and yet brazen for who we are at the crossroads of cultures. We wear our bindis, and sarees, and yet will speak French and have incorporated in our lifestyle, nothing less than someone in London or Paris. It’s that sophistication which Milind has with an interesting Indian-ness at heart.

Please read his book, if you can.

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Dr Shakun Harris

Knowledge Management Specialist, UX Designer, Global Communication in International Development, Art Historian (Strategist, SE Asian, Indian & Diaspora)