In the late seventies, as my waist lost inches and my hips stretched a little more, I could have competed with Scarlett O’Hara. I believe I owned a 17-inch waist. Such observations, however, were wasted on Daddykins, my late father, who measured beauty by a formula. He believed that a combination of height, weight, classical features, symmetry, and then, a certain charm—what we now call the “x-factor”—was what set people over the edge into the unattainable land called beauty. While I met only one of his stipulated requirements, the tenuous thing that he called charm or “grace,” the thing he couldn’t really explain or quantify, it seemed that the late actress Sridevi had that and more.
During my childhood in Chennai In the late sixties, Sridevi was the common uncommon presence on cinema; her pretty face, two years younger than I was at the time, pulverized the silver screen. While I grew extra teeth—they were called “lion’s teeth” in Tamil—and really didn’t grow at all length-wise even though my father plied me with a tonic called Vidaylin which made me grow along horizontal lines, Sridevi grew tall and gangly under the light of the camera until she could grow no more. It seemed she halted her growth at that perfect height and weight where she could have chosen to be a model, a dancer, a flight attendant, or an actress, professions that I always thought were out of reach for me because I was out of reach for them, height-wise at least, although beauty-wise, too, apparently, I was not sculpted for any of them. Daddykins, always said that I had a little bit of everything but not enough of anything: “You have decent eyes. Your nose is a little too short and your mouth is just a bit too wide. And your face, long by most standards except, say, those of a horse, does not make you a classic beauty.” But Daddykins always reassured me that no matter what I was charming: “You have some grace although for the life of me I cannot put my finger on it.”
Against the backdrop of my questionable charm, I weighed Sridevi’s gifts. Her face was so round that it could only have been drawn by a compass. Her eyes, shaped like California almonds, were set at a perfect distance from each other. Her brows too were classically arranged by our maker whereas mine had to be fixed every time I went to the beauty salon. The beautician, thread wedged between teeth and fingers, tried, in vain, to build an arch out of a dotted line.
But what I remembered most about Sridevi was her guilelessness and an effortlessness in her art. She entered every story and made it her own. Her gift was there for all of us to see because she was both pristine and consistent—like Yosemite’s Half Dome at sundown, or a blue Hawaiian sky, or the cylindrical idli on banana leaves served at Kamat Lokaruchi in Mysore. And it was that quality, in people and things, that elevated a thing or a moment to virtuosity. It was why a cherry blossom in bloom was heartbreakingly beautiful, why we watched the roar of a waterfall in silence, and why we lamented the loss of something special when we knew we’d see it no more. It was also why we recognized it, right away, when we saw it again in another clime, another form and another thing.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. To read more about her, go to http://kalpanamohan.com.