For the third time I try to take my leave. For the third time it is peremptorily dismissed.
“Bring nimbu-pani,” she says, “and ask a tailor to come in.”
In her “cosy room” with its cut-glass (surely it can’t be acrylic?) sofas painted gold, with sequinned cushions to match, cups of sweet coffee cool on the side tables. To one side is her gym. This is where she does yoga in the morning. Phones barricade “her” chair.
Outside, another door leads to a warren of rooms that constitute her walk-in closet. Racks are packed with hangers from which hang dresses — caftans, robes, coats — with sequins and beads and fussy detailing. A wall is hung with handbags. A mirror and chair indicate where her in-house beauty staff attend to her.
An assistant takes out several jackets, their lapels and cuffs and belts trimmed with leather cut from Louis Vuitton leather handbags. “I love matching my clothes with my bags,” Shahnaz Husain had tossed her tawny mane, “I’m Louis Vuitton’s best roving ambassador.”
Three tailors work full time for her, stitching, beading and embroidering clothes for her approval, clothes she will probably never repeat. And now, one of the tailors, trembling, is standing by to take my measurements because Shahnaz Husain has decided that she will design me a kurta.
“You must wear it,” she commands. I don’t dare demur.
Only moments earlier, she’d rung a bell to summon an assistant. “Neeche se awaaz kyon aa rahi hai?” she had wanted to know. All I could hear was a soft murmur of voices drifting up from the ground floor to the first floor.
Now she rings the bell again. “All that noise,” she is irritated, “I want the building cleared, everyone, out, out, out!”
Only a few hours ago, she had descended the stately staircase, past pillars and vases and banks of artificial flowers, a red coat with silver buttons flapping over a black dress edged with lace. Red clogs added six inches to her height. Gold gleamed on her wrist and around her ankle, diamonds burned on the slope of her nose. A photographer recorded the journey down for posterity on his handycam In the living room where I await her, the major domo lays the dining table for lunch, strewing rose petals across the glass before setting the delicate porcelain. The sofas and chairs are all white, synthetic fur draped across them, furry cushions like soft animals nuzzling into the small of the back.
In the event, all his efforts were in vain as Shahnaz Husain, huge kohled eyes dimpling behind an enormous pair of glasses, insists on a trolley brought where we are sitting. A huge feast for the guest. A minuscule but balanced meal for the host. A half-hour after looking at it several times, it is sent back.
She wants tea instead.Sweet tea comes in pretty cups and saucers that match the luncheon set. Shahnaz Husain’s cup lies untasted.
In that room with its mirrors and chandeliered lights, its Chinese vases and Italian sculpture, Shahnaz Husain is a vulnerable grown-up child, confessing to a fear of time. “I want to cling to memories,” she says, “I want to hold on to time.” In a corner, facing away from her, is a photograph of her son, Sameer, who committed suicide some months back. A decade ago she had lost her first husband. “Sharing grief with others is not possible,” she had snapped when I had commiserated her loss.
“I was married at 13, pregnant at 14, a mother at 15,” she has told practically every journalist who has set foot in her home. Now she says, “Maybe because I never had a childhood, I’m obsessed with dolls and teddy bears.” As a possible cure, she’s locked away her collection.
But there’s another facet to her compulsive behaviour that has endured. “Every evening,” she says, “I go to Barista to have coffee.” Her chosen location is Select Citywalk in Saket; in London, she’s to be found at Starbucks. She wants to open her own coffee chain, she says, called Starstruck, but Starbucks, it seems, has objections to the name. Shahnaz Husain shrugs her impressive shoulders. “Maybe I will start it, maybe they will sue me, let’s see.”
She snaps her fingers for assistance from the battery of staff gathered in the lounge outside “You know I don’t meet journalists” — snap! snap! — “I’ve told you I want you to record my interviews so you can play them for anyone who wants my views.” A tape recorder is hastily placed next to her by the assistant who has been hired to write down everything Shahnaz Husain says, all of it to go into a book that will be called — “what will it be called?” Shahnaz Husain snaps some more fingers.
“It will be called One Life is Not Enough, says the scribe. “And my blog, tell him about my blog,” the diva commands. “It’s called mylifewall.com,” says the companion who will travel with her for three months to London to record her musings. “Write about it,” Shahnaz Husain turns to me, “it might inspire some poor girl who has given up all hope.”
To the hapless girl in the room she says, “Tell him the quotation I like.” Turning to me, the assistant diligently parodies: “One day you’ll ask me what is more important — my life or yours? I will say mine and you will walk away, not knowing that you are my life.”
“That’s the way I want you to think of my work,” says Shahnaz Husain.
Her story is well known, of her little salon and the curiosity it first created in the seventies, of her making unguents and creams in the verandah of her home, the patronage of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi that got her a foothold into the Festivals of India and the headiness of selling to Ingrid Bergman, Princess Diana, the Queen Mother, Barbara Cartland and Michael Jackson. I refrain from commenting that they are all dead now, with the exception of Jackson — and look at him anyhow!
There’s no doubting that Shahnaz Husain lived up to her formidable “Princess” persona, wooing the media with her larger-than-life image, all glitter and gold, beside whom the European royals looked anaemic. She stormed into London and Paris and Tokyo. “I’m a creation of the media,” she says happily. Then, “I’m a creation of our missions overseas.”
It’s not true, I contradict her, no one else could have created her, only Shahnaz Husain could have created herself. But she is already reminiscing about packaging and media headlines and selling civilisation in a jar. Is she, I ask a little louder, a creature of the past? “I’m a child of tomorrow,” says Shahnaz Husain, “I never think of yesterday, never live in today, only tomorrow is important.”
“You cannot change the past,” she explains, “the future you can change.”
In the past, she made her first million in Yugoslavia, and that helped finance her factory. She tells stories now, of how she went by her gut against her financial department’s advice. “My husband, Mr Husain,” she recalls, “said ‘Shehnu, risk mat lo. Iska anjam samajh lena, tum maut ko lalkar rahi ho’.” His concern, she says, was the dreaded FERA regulations, but she had her way.
“When I see a wall,” Shahnaz Husain says, “I don’t walk away, I break through it.”
For all that, she couldn’t be having an easy time. It isn’t just old-timers who swear by her products, but the packaging for the domestic market is a disaster. Upstarts have taken over the market. Biotique has a fair name, and VLCC is leaps ahead in the business. And foreign brands are streaming in with lavish marketing budgets.
Shahnaz Husain, weighed down by personal tragedy, and age, is coping. “I’m launching,” she tells me, “a new range for the masses, with everything priced under Rs 100.” All because, she says, a stranger on the street told her that Shahnaz was only for the elite.
She looks pleased to be considered part of the elite. She looks pleased too to be bending a little for the masses.
Will she sell her brand?“There was a company” — she refuses to name it — “that said, ‘Princess, we’ll give you $500,000 to associate our brand with yours in India’. I asked if they would use my brand with theirs internationally. When they said no, I said no.”
But yes, she’s open to a professional CEO running the business, provided he dedicates his life to Shahnaz. “Or, I’ll have to take the last call before dying,” she smiles happily at the thought.
The “Princess” — her staff though refers to her as “Mummy” behind her back — is open to financial opportunities. “I’ve wanted to do an IPO for a long time,” she says. “Maybe the time is right now, maybe I should.”
“I would not mind if a foreign company joined us and put us at the world level professionally. A company,” she pauses, “that makes small, homegrown companies grow internationally. I wouldn’t mind that such a company should put in its finances, time and effort into Shahnaz.”
As I try and leave, yet again, she says, “I’m very irritable about details. If something doesn’t happen as it should, it causes me immense disappointment.” She adds, “Though that’s what people say about me, I don’t interfere with everything, I don’t look into everything.”
We exchange pleasantries and promises to meet again soon and I’m halfway down the stairs with the staff standing by but no one filming my escape when she calls, “You must promise to wear the kurta I’m designing for you.” Oh dear.