There’s a group here from Bombay called IPTA, staging a play, Kanak di Balli. I hear that the actor Balraj Sahni is performing tonight,’ he said.
I lit up at once: Kabuliwala?
‘Would you like to see it? But there is very little time, we’ll have to rush!’
Piti was still speaking when I had already darted into my room. I had to quickly grab something warm to wear since it would to be cold out there in the open . . . and my . . . my autograph book! I rummaged through the Green Room. God! Where had I kept it? It was here in the drawer in my writing desk—and my socks, my socks—I leapt from my room on the terrace back to the gate, and before my father could finish saying what time the play would start . . . I was all set, in my socks and shoes, and bottle green blazer over my frock, breathless, and ready to go!
The youth festival at the Gandhi Ground was the big event in Amritsar every winter and would last a good ten days. People thronged to it from all over Punjab, sitting out in the open-air auditorium during the fog-filled nights, munching peanuts and jaggery cakes as they watched a medley of music, dance, and drama competitions. The participants would perform on a makeshift wooden stage, displaying their talent before a raw, curious, non-judgmental audience.
When I finally encountered Balraj Sahni, it was love at first sight, a different kind of love, for this very gentle, well-groomed man who stood looming over me. And me, down there somewhere, holding out my autograph book, looking wide-eyed at this amazing creature—an actor! An actor who created magic on the big screen every time the lights in Adarsh Talkies dimmed for the matinee show—a face that ignited euphoria at first sight and then remained in your heart, forever!
I have little memory of the play though. Having reached the grounds late we could hardly see Balraj Sahni, even though Piti repeatedly showed the ushers the seat numbers printed on the tickets. But then, this was Punjab. There were no rules. First come, first seated.
I had imagined myself sitting in the front row watching Balraj Sahni perform at close quarters, but now I had to be content just listening to his voice over the loudspeaker. His voice was all that came across to me even though I stood on my toes for the whole hour on the seat, to get a clearer glimpse of the actor on stage.
But once the play was over, my father nudged his way through the crowd towards the back of the tented stage, holding on tightly to my hand. A crowd of rowdy boys had already thronged the backstage, wanting a one-to-one encounter with the star of the show, to speak to him, to touch him, to check if he was real, as he hurriedly stepped out of the makeshift green room. It was whispered that the actor was apparently in a great hurry to dash off to the railway station where he was to catch a train, the Frontier Mail, that left Amritsar at nine-thirty in the night. There was no time. Tearing through the crowd, Piti prodded me up ahead so I could at least get his autograph.
Tall Jats loomed all around me. My neck craned to get a glimpse of the star, to somehow draw his attention. It was difficult for me to find my way up to Balraj Sahni as he stood engulfed in the vociferous madness. My father and I managed to inch our way through the crowd and finally when we reached him, to my horror, I saw he was already turning around and rushing towards the exit.
‘Can you give me an autograph, please . . .’
I pleaded in a voice, which couldn’t possibly have been heard by him above the din of the Punjabi language. I looked back at Piti. His expression, looking at my face, was one of great empathy. It was gone, my chance, I could see. The crowd had flowed between my dream man and me.
But then something altered; a turn of destiny. The loud voices around me dropped to a low drone. People started to look back to where I stood. Through the knot of human faces, I saw Balraj Sahni turn around and walk back towards me. I could not believe my eyes! He had heard me! He was actually coming back, for ME!
‘Auto . . . gra . . . aff . . . ’ I mustered something like a voice again. The star now stood before me, looking down, way below, where I stood, wide-eyed, gaping at him. Then slowly he lowered his arm, taking the autograph book from my hand, and without looking at me, said: ‘If I keep signing autographs, my dear, I’ll miss my train!’ Then looking into my eyes, he smiled.
‘My dear!’ he had said, hadn’t he? ‘My dear’! See? I knew it! He was someone my own! He had spoken directly to me, singling me out in the entire crowd. He had addressed me, looked at me, signed my autograph book, with his own hand! I gazed at him, then at my notebook, where he’d written on the green page in blue-blue fountain pen ink, his name—
B a l r a j S a h n i
When I looked up at him again, the jostling crowd had already flooded in and torn us apart, the pandemonium of voices reaching a crescendo once again as the bright star disappeared into the winter night, the rabble at his heels. As for me, I remained trapped in that moment, when it had been just him and me.
I still have that blue plastic-covered autograph book. I was eleven then, an eleven-year-old who knew what she wanted to do with her life when she grew up. And I promised to myself . . . I’d be graceful like a Balraj Sahni . . . subtle like a Balraj Sahni, and no matter which role I played, I would be genuine like a Balraj Sahni, when I grew up to be an actress.
Yes, it was as early as age eleven that I had made a decision—I will be an actress. And if that doesn’t happen, I’ll become a nun.
This excerpt from ‘’A Country Called Childhood- A memoir’, by Deepti Naval has been published with permission from Aleph.