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Monday, Sep 30, 2002

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An irreparable loss indeed

Menka Shivdasani

As an actress and talk-show anchor, Priya Tendulkar has left an indelible mark on the audience's minds.

Sometimes, in the chaos and confusion of daily life, you meet a person who makes perfect sense to you, someone you would like to get to know better. You promise to get in touch again — someday. Then, you battle your deadlines, your work, your home, the million ordinary things that you need to do, and in the middle of all this, you remember that wonderful conversation you had many months earlier and remind yourself you have to make that phone call.

Last week, just a couple of days before I saw the headlines, I had been thinking this of Priya Tendulkar. "You must come over again," she had told me as we said goodbye at her home near Powai Lake in Mumbai. It was supposed to have been a rushed meeting on a busy day, but somehow, talking to Priya long after the formal interview was over, more than three hours had slipped past, and she had invited me to stay for lunch. "If I wasn't enjoying this conversation I would have ended the meeting a long time ago," she said, with characteristic candour, when I hesitated.

It was a simple meal — karela (bitter gourd) that she had cooked herself in a kitchen remarkably devoid of gadgets. "I wasn't expecting company for lunch today," she told me, a little apologetically. "Next time, I will make you a proper meal."

Priya had spoken of many things that morning — of how she enjoyed cooking, including making bhakris on a choolah, because it helped to "untie the knots" in her mind; how she liked her privacy and space, and her three-bedroom home in which one room was reserved for her books and computer, another for gods from every religion.

"I won't call myself religious," she had said, "but I believe in God. I have this love-hate relationship with him. I think He's a friend with whom I can fight." She spoke of her love for agarbattis and mogras — how she put them on her air conditioner so the aroma would spread right across the room.

She spoke of how, if she "had the time", she would like to build herself a large house close to nature. Perhaps she knew, even then, that she did not have much time, but if so, then this was the only hint — and one that I did not pick up.

Priya's on-screen image had never really appealed to me — "strident" and "arrogant" were the words that came to mind — but that was the way she had to be, in her capacity as a talk show host who demanded answers from people not necessarily known for telling the truth. Close-up, as I discovered that day, she was a warm and completely down-to-earth human being — elegant in her purple T-shirt and beige jeans, very beautiful, and with no airs whatsoever, the sort of person who could — and did — buy a sofa off the roadside near Powai Lake after beating down the price from Rs 15,000 to Rs 3,500 over a period of five days.

"People may recognise me on the street," she told me, "but that does not make me a celebrity. When you appear on TV screens in people's bedrooms and drawing rooms, they may recognise your face, but that does not make you a star. A star is someone that people will pay good money to see in a theatre. In the TV industry, no one is a star and no one is irreplaceable."

There are people who will agree that Priya Tendulkar is irreplaceable. From her television debut in 1986 as Rajni, the housewife who fought for her rights, to her talk shows where she had participants squirming, to her bit roles such as the dead wife speaking to her husband from a photograph in Hum Paanch... Priya Tendulkar was a survivor. Who would have imagined that she would be called away so quickly, with so much still left to do?

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