Book: A Scrapbook of Memories
Author: Ashok Chopra
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 699
It is April 1977 in Bombay, and at the muhurat of Shalimar, Bollywood’s landmark international flop, Zeenat Aman and Gina Lollobrigida are fighting for supremacy on the lawns of the Turf Club. Their chosen weapons are thigh-high side-slits and plunging necklines. Lollobrigida loses out to a much younger Aman and bails out of the film in disgust, to be replaced by an “old-looking, shrivelled, passionless and temperamental Sylvia Miles”.
That’s one of maybe a hundred vintage sketches from Indian publishing in Ashok Chopra’s A Scrapbook of Memories, recalling standout people of the last four decades — from JN Dixit to Keki N Daruwalla — and memorable events like the cataclysmic Shalimar which, inexplicably, have been forgotten. One of a team of publishing professionals who hoped to turn the book version into a marketing phenomenon, he recounts how Rex Harrison landed in India with 42 pieces of luggage, to be outdone by OP Ralhan, who informed the media that he had arrived with 43. Of how Manohar Malgonkar signed on to novelise Shalimar for Vikas Publishing House, after RK Narayan declined (in shock, no doubt) because the money and perks were too good to resist. Of how those perks included staying in the same hotel as the stars and dining with them in a private room. Where Sylvia Miles flung her plate of soup at Malgonkar and stalked off, and Ralhan wondered out loud, “What did the kabutar (pigeon) say to the kabutari?”
The kabutari reprised that act years later at O’Neal’s in NYC, dumping a plateload of meat and potatoes with coleslaw on the head of theatre critic John Simon, infamous for making personal attacks on actors. The two-time Oscar nominee (for a total of 14 minutes on screen in Midnight Cowboy and Farewell, My Love) took ill last year, but probably remains capable of flinging the chicken korma at anyone who describes her as “shrivelled”.
A Scrapbook of Memories does not pretend to be a formal autobiography. Episodic, anecdotal, even whimsical, the scrapbook format highlights the situations Chopra has been in and the people he has worked with in four decades of publishing. Nonfiction trade publishing is his interest, so the writerliness that one may expect of a publisher’s memoir is not a significant feature, but there are insights into the lives of the rich and famous who do books or become their subject. For example, Chopra’s Mumbai is illuminated by stars like Shobhaa De, Lata Mangeshkar and Amitabh Bachchan. Arun Kolatkar and Namdeo Dhasal, the poets laureate of Kalaghoda and Golpitha, are invisible in this landscape.
However, Chopra refreshes with his plain talking, a rather rare trait in the world of commissioning editors, who do like to keep up appearances in order to nurture deathless friendships. He writes about the actor Raaj Kumar, who punctured Shatrughan Sinha’s “enormous, over-bloated ego” by saying that though he got a lot of applause, so did the circus clown when he entered the ring. And he writes about Shobhaa De, a prize catch he poached from David Davidar: “Her handwriting reminds me of a cockroach which, after a dip in a bottle of ink, is let loose on a sheet of paper.”
Chopra reveals embarrassing memories of IS Johar’s autobiography: “It was one sexual orgy after another. It was like a blue film on paper – enjoyable for the first few minutes or so, sick after that.” Apparently, even Khushwant Singh balked at serialising it in the Illustrated Weekly, and Johar dismissed him as a “coward”.
One wonders why the unnerving disclosures in this book do not mark a closure to Chopra’s lively career on Ink Street. In less capable hands, this would have been an act of professional suicide. What alchemy kept ostracism at bay? More questions arise because this is a publisher’s book. Why are the printer’s ornaments horrible grey inkblots in 15 per cent black? Why are the sections of the book prefaced by hardpoints or etchings of what appears to be naked people? Why are there so many typos? Who frightened off the editor?
And anyway, what happened to Shalimar, the widely publicised book which was supposed to follow on from the flop film? Chopra reports horror stories of the publishers, deluded beyond belief, printing over 60,000 copies in English, Hindi and Urdu. Until a decade ago, a print run of 1,000 copies was routine in Indian publishing and 2,000 was reported as a smash hit. Vikas had expected to move 60,000 copies by innovative marketing, using petrol pumps as sales outlets to encouraged impulse buying. Eventually, less than 100 copies were sold, making Shalimar a strong candidate for the greatest disaster in global publishing, with 99.8 per cent of stocks returned. Months later, he recalls eating salt peanuts out of a paper bag while watching The Towering Inferno. The bag was made out of a page of the disastrous book. Without Ashok Chopra’s Scrapbook of Memories, Shalimar is one of many embarrassments that we would never have unforgotten.