An extraordinary father, an extraordinary daughter

NICE NOSTALGIA: Neelima Dalmia Adhar... frank words, frank ways. Photos: S. Subramanium.  

HOW DO you write about a woman who charms you with her candour, disarms you with her honesty in the very first meeting? A woman who is unreservedly lively and irresistibly pleasant? How do you discuss a book that was conceived in a beauty parlour and ended up as "a therapeutic exercise" for the author, a trip she undertook to discover plenty of nostalgia, stoke up old memories, revive old intimacies? And dare one say, old wounds? Pray, just how do you pick up a book from a first-timer who has no literary track record to recommend her? Never mind. The answer to all these questions is simple. And easy if the work happens to be Roli Books' "Father Dearest: The Life and Times of R.K. Dalmia", penned by his daughter, Neelima Dalmia Adhar.

The lady has a way with words, some proof of it is given in this quite readable 250-odd pages biography which almost never touches the level of a eulogy. And plenty comes forth as she speaks with ravishing desire about her life, her book, her father, her family. She needs no encouragement, nor shows any inclination to exercise circumspection when subtlety might be in order. Sitting at her Shantiniketan residence in South Delhi, she endears herself as someone deficient neither in humour nor in ways to express it. It is R.K. Dalmia's birthday - April 7 - and the lady for a good hour or so speaks animatedly about everything about her father she shared with 17 other kids and a man her mother had to share with five others. It is later, much later, that this lady with ready smiles, little rancour - never mind if there is plenty of it in the book - remembers it is her late father's birthday. "We did not get to see him in the last couple of years of his life," she says. If she is wistful, she does a good job of hiding it.

An extraordinary father, an extraordinary daughter

You need not have read the book from cover to cover to be her partner in pleasure. She may seem occasionally disrespectful to her father, often cold towards her peers and even critical of her mother, yet it is merely because flattery with words is not her forte. "This book is tampered with nostalgia. It has revived some happy childhood memories; some old intimacies have been stoked up."

It might occasionally seem disrespectful to the old man, one of the biggest industrialists in independent India and the first Indian owner of The Times of India, but you can't accuse the lady of putting him on a pedestal. Not often. "My father was a fathomless man. There were shades of greatness, magnanimity in him. At the same time he could be very cruel, vindictive, complex. He was a completely bi-polar man, very shocking. He lived in a capsule. He had great libidinal energy. He was emotionally primitive; there were vestiges of infantile emotions. Yet at the same time, he was a trendsetter. In this book, I have just pulled one strand of his life. If you take a book of 100 great personalities and take their character traits, my father had them all in one personality. Among his many things, his mind was the most fascinating."

Yet this lady who admittedly had "a repressed childhood" does not hanker for the deprived joys of the years of innocence, years which anyway ended early - she had her first brush with sexuality when all of five and gives a frank account of watching her parents in the bedroom. "I realised what it meant to have an absentee father when I started interacting with friends of my age in college. I would go to their home, usual nuclear families, and then realised what I had missed." Incidentally, hers was a huge joint family with one clear-cut rule laid down by Dalmia - the brothers and sisters were not to meet their stepbrothers or sisters.

She might have found father too busy for her, mother "another bi-polar" character, but there is no wallowing in self-pity either in the book. Or in life. "This book is a family saga. It was a difficult home to grow up in. I had to fight for my share of affection. My mother was biased towards boys, father did not have the time. However, the book did not start off on a note of rancour. I myself did not realise that I had so much within me or that my parents had so many angularities. Suddenly when I started writing, all the anger came out and many questions that needed to be addressed were expressed. It is like everything was within and simmering and somebody only had to press the access button - which Namita Gokhale did at the beauty parlour. But I did not have to structure the book... . All about repressed childhood, denied liberties... our house was like a boarding school... father's presence interrupted with our playing. Everything came through naturally."

But natural for a woman who was a bit of a firebrand when quite young, a little girl who discovered her moment of truth when riding a horse, a kid who thought she could do what boys did. "I still am a rebel. I am a bit of an oddity. Ordinary people and things don't attract me. I say this not in a pompous fashion but as an unconventional being. I broke all the rules when I was a child. I did not fit into any prototype of a Marwari girl. I am still defiant."

An extraordinary father, an extraordinary daughter

Yet the lady insists that love, not anger is the underlying message of this book. She even talks fondly of her stepmothers. "All my stepmothers in their own right were or are exceptional women. Unfortunately, we are fragmented, everybody living in his own web of misery."

"Some have called the book `a daughter looking for love'. I have talked about my mother being very possessive but I think it was the greatest error of judgment on her part to have been in a relationship with a man she had to share at many levels. However, after all this, writing this book has been a therapeutic exercise and with it I have said that filial love is such a strong bond that it transcends every other emotion. When I think of my father, all his virile bonds, his pettiness fade away. He was too big to be held back by those emotions. Love empowers, vengeance weakens."

And who is to argue that with a woman who possesses inscrutable charm, and now a book which has given her "so much power"?