So , why an autobiography?
I believe that by telling my life story, I can illuminate the people I’ve crossed paths with and our experiences shared and apart, which in turn will highlight the influences and lessons imbibed. My sense of wonder and joy for a life well lived is only multiplied in its sharing. Truly, in life, kucch bhi ho sakta hai! (Anything can happen!) This would later become the title of my autobiographical one-man play, which premiered on 8 August 2005, but the first instance of this truism presented itself on 7 March 1955, my entry into this world, in room number 3 of a 95-bed Lady Reading Hospital. This hospital is now called the Kamala Nehru Hospital, in Bemloi Estate, below Oakwood, which was once the summer residence of the Maharaja of Patiala (now in Punjab, India) but is presently Himachal Pradesh chief minister’s official residence in Shimla.
I was born at 9 p.m., the eldest offspring of my parents. My cherubic features very typical of my ancestry, peaches and cream Kashmiri skin with an angelic smile that evidently not only charmed my mother, but also enchanted the attending nurse immensely. Having taken quite a fancy to me, the nurse lost no time in asking my mother, in a clipped British accent: ‘Is this your first child?’
My mother, then only 19, was an illiterate traditional housewife and hence, totally unfamiliar with the spoken English language. She looked at the nurse, nonplussed; having no understanding of what the nurse was saying or asking. Apparently, in her bewildered state, she gave a gentle nod of the head, prodding the nurse to communicate another way. Instead, the nurse took this as an affirmation to go further, and in an excited tone stated her desire in a low, gentle and courteous demeanour: ‘My dear, you are so young, just 19 . . . and so beautiful . . . you can . . . and I am sure you will have more children . . . I request you with folded hands . . . I beg of you to give me this child . . . please let me adopt him, as I don’t have any child of my own . . . I can’t have any’.
Obviously, my mother could not understand a word of what the nurse was saying but her sixth sense cautioned her that something was apparently not quite right. Somewhat tense, she called out to my father (who was waiting outside the room) for providing ‘translation facilities’.
My father who also only had a meagre grasp of the Queen’s English, somehow managed to figure out what the nurse wanted. Pleased and surprised at the quality of his product, he was also taken aback by the request since it was the first time he had witnessed a Britisher plead in such a manner. Initially, he did not know how to react for he just couldn’t believe that a Britisher was requesting him, a commoner—for a favour; something totally unexpected, something that was happening at least to them for the first time . . . and that too a boon that only he could grant.
In that perplexed and puzzled state, he slowly translated for my mother the nurse’s request to adopt their firstborn. With tears in her eyes, my mother, an otherwise meek, gentle, easily imposed upon young lady, mustered enough courage that day to categorically shout a firm ‘No . . . Never . . . not even for all the riches in the world’. The nurse walked away.
I don’t know if my mother really loved me more than ‘all the riches in the world’, though I have a sneaky suspicion that at the back of her mind was the prediction of an astrologer she had once met and the forecast she had taken to heart: ‘Your first-born would be a son who would solve all your problems . . . He will be the one to bring joy into your life!’ Probably that was the reason why she was always very patient with me. When I say to you kucch bhi ho sakta hai, you’ll understand that I truly mean it!
After the agonies of childbirth had subsided, the English nurse on duty handed me over to my mother who looked at me and proclaimed: ‘Mera Bittu!’ (My Bittu), as she hugged me and with eyes filled with tears of joy planted a tender kiss on my forehead. The pet name ‘Bittu’ stuck to me and for the family and those close to me I am Bittu to this day.
It is not in my nature to look back or indulge in what-ifs, but just imagine what if I had been adopted by the Britisher; I could have become the Prime Minister of Britain or a guard outside Buckingham Palace or even a British actor.
My life lesson has always been there is no point in thinking of what could have been—for I lay great store by John Lennon’s quote: ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans’. But one thing I know for sure, I would not be narrating this story to you about how sought after I was from the moment I was born.
This excerpt from Lessons Life Taught Me, Unknowingly: An Autobiography by Anupam Kher has been published with permission from Penguin Random House India.