Sunday, August 24, 2008

Musical Mama’s Many Memories

(A series on childhood memories)

Taking loads of change as pocket money and singing for actor Dilip Kumar were some of the highlights of the childhood of singer Usha Uthup

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Whenever I would ask Appa for money, he would always say yes,” says singer Usha Uthup. “His weakest moment was when he was getting ready to go for work.”

Vaidyanathan Sami would do his shaving, while sitting in front of the dressing table. “The left-hand drawer would be full of change: four annas and one annas,” says Usha. “I used to say, ‘Appa Appa,’ and he would reply, ‘How much?’ I would say, ‘Four annas!’ And he would say, ‘Take it!’”

Vaidyanathan would open the drawer, and Usha would take a pile of coins, much more than the four annas she had asked for. When she would walk to the St. Agnes school at Byculla, in Mumbai, she would keep telling herself, “God, I am sorry, I will never do it again.”

After a week, Usha would do the same thing. “I just could not resist taking the money,” she says. “My father never made me feel I was doing something wrong.”

For years, Usha was wracked by a sense of guilt. One day, when she was 32, and Usha was staying at her parents’ house in the Mumbai suburb of Worli, she broke down, and said, “Appa, I am so sorry. There were so many times I stole from your drawer.”

Vaidyanathan laughed, and said, “Usha, did you think that I did not know? Whatever I earned, it was all yours.”

Usha grew up in Byculla, where her father was a senior officer in the Crime Branch. Eventually, he retired as deputy commissioner of police, crime branch. She was one of six children.

Her elder sisters, Indra and Uma, were more than ten years older than her, then there was Shyamu, Thyagaraj (Babu), who was just two years older than Usha, and Maya, who was six years younger. Usha was closest to Babu.

The Samis lived in a large bungalow and there were numerous banana trees at the back. “Babu would always tell me that at night the banana trees would come up to you, if you harmed them during the day,” she says. “I told him, ‘They don’t have legs.’ And he said, ‘When you cut it, it does not bleed, but it gets hurt. So, when it walks, you cannot see.’ Ever since, I have always had this fear that the banana trees can walk up to you at night.”

On the other side of the garden there was another bungalow where the Pathans lived. S.M.A. Pathan was also a senior police officer. Usha would go often to their house to play with their daughter, Jamila.

One year, when Id was coming up, Usha went to a Muslim card shop near her house and bought a card, which was written in Urdu and gave it to Mr. Pathan. He read it and laughed. “Soon, he called the family and they read it and laughed and laughed,” says Usha.

Jamila told her what had happened: On the top of the card, it was written in Urdu: ‘Mere Mehboob, Id Mubarak.’ “It was then I realised it was a lover’s card which I had gifted to Pathan saab,” she says, with a laugh.

It was also at the Pathans’ house that Usha saw film stars like Dilip Kumar, Madhubhala and Meena Kumari. “Both Madhubala and Meena Kumari looked far more beautiful in real life than in reel life,” she says.

Years later, when she met Dilip Kumar, she prodded his memory and he remembered her. “You were the one who sang a lot,” he said.

“Dilip Kumar!!” she says, and shakes her head in amazement. “I have had a great life.” At the Bubble Café at the Taj Residency, at Kochi, waiters hover around her, as she orders coffee and toast. “I enjoy the attention,” she says. “I enjoy being in the limelight. All artists crave to be appreciated. And these people have been so good to me.”

She sips her cup of coffee and continues: “One of my most unforgettable memories was when my father went to arrest the robber, Anokhi Lal.”

On May 13, 1950, four men, led by Anokhi Lal, entered the Flora Fountain branch of the Lloyd’s Bank of London and decamped with Rs 12 lakh. Vaidyanathan solved the case. “One day, my father just drove down to Pune, met Anokhi Lal, and told him, ‘We know you are the thief. There is no escape. It is better you come with me.’”

Anokhi Lal allowed himself to be arrested and spent several years in prison. “The day he was released, he met my father and had a cup of coffee,” says Usha. “Appa called us children and said, ‘Do you know who this is?’ We shook our heads. ‘This is Anokhi Lal,’” he said. “Later, when my father passed away, Anokhi Lal came with a 6’ long garland, the same height as my father, and placed it on Appa.”

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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