It was a cool, breezy evening as the creme de la crème of Ahmedabad society came together for the launch of Mallika Sarabhai’s book “In Free Fall: My Experiments with Living” on Friday. The Darpana Academy of Performing was decked up for the event, with live music to greet the guests as the made their way to Natrani amphitheatre. The mood was informal, since the invitees were Mallika’s friends and family (Kartikeya Sarabhai, Archana Shah, Debashish Nayak, Indu Capoor, Abhay Mangaldas, Tushar Shukla and Pavan Bakeri to name a few) and everyone there seemed to know everyone else. The book was formally released by author and columnist Shobhaa De, and this was followed by a reading by Mallika.
Written during the pandemic, the book has its share of grief and depression but true to form, Mallika chose to read a funny passage about how she quit smoking, after going to an American doctor who unceremoniously crushed the two packets of Dunhills in her handbag and then proceeded to hypnotise her. “I still don’t know if I was really hypnotised but I haven’t had a cigarette for 40 years since then,” said Mallika.
The reading was followed by a lively fireside conversation between Shobhaa and Mallika, on topics ranging from disappointments in love and the creative endeavour to late bloomers and lady bosses.
Many women have now risen to the top of their fields, be it the arts or business. But, asks Shobhaa, is it fair to say lady bosses end up exhibiting the worst of male behaviour? Mallika’s unequivocal answer: “It’s not fair at all. It’s up to women like us to tell the world that it’s okay to be feminine and tough.”
What advice for women from less privileged backgrounds, asks Shobhaa, who want to break free of shackles and experiment with their lives? “Economic stability is important, both for men and women,” says Mallika. “My advice would be to do what’s expected of you for ten years before you take risks. There are businessmen who dream of being musicians, housewives who want to be entrepreneurs. It’s never too late to chase after your dreams. We offer a course at Darpana for those who want to learn dance at a later stage in their lives and it’s been a big success.”
While writing their memoirs, many authors tend to hold back and self-censor, for fear of damaging relationships, hurting people. “In Free Fall,” on the other hand, is very candid, which makes it a great memoir. Did Mallika have any inhibitions while writing the book? “What’s the point of writing if you’re going to be inhibited?” counters Mallika. “I started by writing about wellness, healing, but then I decided to write about what caused the stress and pain in the first place. As an artist, you learn to overcome inhibitions. For my first Gujarati film, I was asked to go all over the State promoting the film. I was scared of public speaking, my mouth would go dry in front of a crowd, but I still did it. When I portrayed Mirabai on stage, I needed to sing for the first time. I was nervous but I told myself it doesn’t matter what the audience thinks of me. I need to get the message across.”
The greatest challenge for any creative person, says Mallika, is to connect with their audience. “Before every performance, I pray that is what I pray for. If I can get people’s minds off their mundane problems, if I can open them to something new, to other truths, it’s magical.”
Mallika considers herself to be more pragmatic than romantic, but in her early years, there was an intense relationship with a young man from a business family. The subsequent break-up left her in deep depression. “It’s hell when you’re going through it but in retrospect, it was good for me. Deep sorrow leads to self-discovery. After the break-up, I found dance.”
The fireside chat concluded with Mallika singing two lines from a Mira bhajan at the request of one of one of the members of the audience.