I look at her with awe, amazement, respect and admiration; can anyone who has led such a rich life be so disarmingly humble? Not once does she boast about her achievements. She doesn't even mention that she has been awarded the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan, besides the Sangeet Natak Academy Award. She corrects me gently when I make a mistake in recounting an episode in her life. She asks me about my life, expresses genuine disbelief when I answer her question about my age and 'tum kahaan kii ho bete (where are you from?)....par tum itnii achhi Urdu aur Hindi kaise bol letii ho"? And this, from a person who is a polyglot herself! And doesn't look a day beyond 70 years.|
And yet, she is going to be 100 years old in a few days. Her daughter is bringing out a book about her mother, the Prime Minister's wife, Gursharan Kaur, who Zohra says "main unhe apni betii maantii hoon" will be present at the celebration.
Her eyes well up when she talks to me about her children. "All one can ask of one's children is love and affection and I have got that." And that priceless humour. I ask her if she has any regrets in life, she replies, "Yes, of course I have regrets, I would have liked to be six foot tall, blonde, blue eyes, big bust, slim waist." The philosophical: "Of course I have made many mistakes in life, I have been very naughty, but I won't recount them, (winks at me)...neki batana to shekhi hotii hai."
She quotes me a couplet that Prithviraj Kapoor, who she calls Papajee, used to recite quite often, "Duaen de mere baad aane vale merii vehshat ko, bohat kaanten nikal aaye mere hamrah manzil sey (may those who come after me bless me for my frenzy because a lot of thorns have come out of my way)....if my life can inspire some, it would have been a life worth lived."
Zohra was a path breaker in many ways. She came from an aristocratic family, yet she became a dancer and a theatre performer in an age when these careers were frowned upon. She tells me how she met the famous dancer Uday Shankar in Berlin and found him to be quite pompous initially, but was taken in by his dance form. She joined his theatre group and travelled the world.
Many times in the interview she mentions that she was aware that she was not a great beauty and had to work harder than others to be taken seriously. Zohra, the free spirit, was not tied down to domesticity and a humdrum life. With the able support of her husband Kameshwar Sehgal, she moved home several times, travelled while he handled home and kids.