What Parveen Taught Me

I found this article about Parveen Babi this morning and was struck by its melancholy air. Not that it wasn’t consistent with almost everything that’s ever been written about the actress in the past few decades.

For those of you unfamiliar with her, Parveen Babi was a huge Bollywood star in the 70s and 80s when I was growing up in India. Not only was she utterly beautiful but she was beautiful in a way that I’d never seen an actress be beautiful on the Indian screen before. Definitively sexy and unapologetically westernized but also a ‘good girl’ with cartloads of spunk. Maybe I was seeing what I wanted to see, but she had this entirely unique brand of self-possessed, non-needy attractiveness that seemed mildly amused at the fools men made of themselves over her.

Then through my teenage years she disappeared to America leaving behind a cloud of whispers about cults and general bohemian debauchery so alien in my sheltered middle-class world it multiplied her appeal into an elusive legend.

In 1994, I got to meet her when she interviewed me for an internship while I was in Architecture school. She had returned from America and started an Interior Design business. Her decade of absence had only thickened the smog of rumors that surrounded her. She’d gained weight and acquired an even heavier stigma of a paranoid schizophrenic diagnosis that was discussed unabashedly in the media by the very powerful men she’d had affairs with.

I remember my meeting with her in almost embarrassingly vivid detail. Maybe it was the fact that she was Parveen Babi, or maybe it was the surprise of how different she was from anything I could have expected.

She exuded a form of open hearted kindness that can only be described as active. Not only was she actively kind, she was almost impishly wry and sharply observant.

“Opulence and luxury are entirely different,” she said to me, wrinkling what had to be the most perfect nose I’d ever beheld. “Luxury is about comfort, layer upon layer of comfort. Everyone deserves comfort.”

I had very little interest in luxury or opulence at the time, my head filled with half formed ideologies of Form following Function and Design ameliorating life, etc. and I never did end up working for her.

But she was one of the first people who called me smart while making it sound like just another attribute that would sit there, if I didn’t do something with it.

Her home was covered from floor to ceiling with books, more books than I’d ever seen outside a library. Her mind, despite what people said about it being ill, was sharp as a whip and filled with not just information but understanding.

In those few hours, she gave me a glimpse of a woman who had lived a life so large, it expanded my own horizons in a flash. One of those moments when you reach out and touch the curtain that shields you in your little bubble and you become conscious of the great beyond.

I remember vibrating with energy for weeks after. I remember the amusement of my friends and family. “But hasn’t Paveen Babi gone crazy?” they asked, recognizing that I was a little star struck and needing to drag me back to earth as those closest to you feel the need to do.

“She’s actually quite brilliant,” I remember telling them, wanting so badly to share this tiny piece of truth I had discovered for myself. A lesson of a lifetime taught in less than two hours. To meet and know a person without preconceptions and prejudice is the greatest of gifts. And that thing they say about how people will remember you not by what you did but by how you made them feel. It’s absolutely true.

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