Two Birds on the Tree of Life and Two Autobiographies

I enjoy reading a lot of autobiographies. A friend handed over a copy of ‘Romancing With Life’, the autobiography of Dev Anand. Dev was my childhood hero. I have watched many Navketan movies in which he acted. I also became aware that Dev Anand was always Dev Anand in any film; the characters that he portrayed in the films may be different but what you got was always Dev Anand. A man completely narcissistic, in love with himself. Dev Anand is not oblivious to this charge and he tries to answer it in his [narcissistic] way, and not convincingly enough.

The entire autobiography is carefully written to project his image as a Casanova. He writes as if he lived a life on the stage [or the silver screen] and as if he felt that he was constantly being watched by a thousand fans. Dev Anand was part of the trio: Raj Kapur, Dilip Kumar and himself that ruled the silver screen for quite sometime. But among the three he was the least important. A man in love with himself would be blissfully unaware of it and so he was.

The reader gets a serious incident or one that shows he is completely absorbed in his work, then one in which he describes his relationship with women. He describes his affair with Suraiya who was not allowed to marry him, his falling in love with Mona [Kalpana Kartik] whom he married later. He also describes that he was all set to have a serious affair with Zeenat Aman but destiny took her away from him just in time. He also describes how his daughter was conceived in Zurich! Interspersed are stories of his supporting the Janata Government after the infamous ‘Emergency’, launching a new political party [a failed experiment], meetings with Pearl Buck and R K Narayan for making of the movie ‘Guide’. Dev Anand surely confused writing autobiography for writing a screen script.

The reader does not get to know the real Dev; he does not stop to reflect on the defining moments in his life. It is Dev Anand the actor you meet, not the person.

Sometimes you are left surprised by coincidences. I also received a copy of the autobiography of Vishram Bedekar. It received Sahitya Academy Award and it is immensely gripping account of his life. It stands out because of both the content and the form. It is called ‘Ek Zad Ani Don Pakshi’ [One Tree and Two Birds]. It stands in sharp contrast with Dev Anand’s ‘Romancing with Life’.

Vishram Bedekar was a noted playwright, director and an author. He worked with some very big names in Marathi cinema and stage. He wrote just one novel [he was provoked by his wife’s retort] but it is a highly acclaimed master piece.

While Dev Anand’s autobiography shows little reflection, Bedekar begins by explaining the title ‘Ek Zad Ani Don Pakshi’. He refers to a couplet in Mundaka Upanishad [Link], the meaning of which [as explained by Bedekar] is that two birds are perched on the tree of life. One eats the sweet fruits but is sad and weak, and the other does not eat anything but he is strong and analyzing looking at the first one. The entire autobiography is written as if the second bird is talking about the author, so it is written as a third person account of the author’s life, with his thoughts and reflections on the events in his life.

This format allows Bedekar to create unusual possibilities. He describes, for instance, that he avoided participating in a debating event as a school boy. He told himself that he did it to avoid embarrassment to his close friend who would not have got the first prize if the author, an accomplished debater, had participated. The ‘bird’ analyzing the event however tells us that the author was aware of his fear of losing to his friend and that was the real reason for his avoiding the participation.

Dev Anand’s autobiography which projects him as a lady killer [you can read about how he makes love to a lady in a train and some interesting stories] suffers from the fact that we never understand how the events in his life impacted him. He mentions about his love for Zeenat but does not have a word about whether he felt remorse about being unfaithful to his wife.

Two autobiographies: One written by my childhood hero who has got everything right – it was published with a lot of fanfare, it received great reviews [!], you get a CD free if you buy a copy, but it is like a flop film. The other is also written by a person associated with films, but it is a classic, it received awards and gets the reader in a reflective mood too. Twenty three years after its publication it remains as one of the best autobiography, a classic.

Socrates has said that a life unexamined is not a life worth living. Do you get me Dev?