“Meena-Maut Mubarak Ho!”

They were successful, beautiful and had the world at their feet. Yet they lived lonely, sad lives and died even lonelier deaths. Is it that when a woman gets fame, wealth and power, she also gets the curse of loneliness and bad relationships? Why can’t a woman have it all? Why did Nargis Dutt congratulate Meena Kumari on her death in a letter that was published in an Urdu magazine called Shama and collated in a book titled “Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai” by Yasir Abbasi?

Nargis wrote”
“-Happy Birthday
-Wishes for your wedding
-Happy Diwali
-Eid Mubarak

I have often offered as well as received these wishes on numerous occasions.
“Congratulations on your death”
I have neither heard or said this earlier.
Meena, today your baaji (elder sister) congratulates you on your death and asks you to never step into this world again. This place is not meant for people like you.

Meena Kumari

I gave Madhubala her last bath; the hands that placed the shroud on her were mine. I was holding his hand when filmmaker S.U. Sunny breathed his last. I have seen many people- from the film world and otherwise-pass away before my eyes, but no instance can match the profound effect that Meena Kumari’s death had on me. I was intensely moved despite the fact that I wasn’t present with her during her last moments-neither did I give her the customary final bath, nor did I put the shroud on her body-and I couldn’t see her depart on her final journey. I was in Jammu on the day that Meen Kumari died. Somehow, I was restless since I woke up that day and bad thoughts kept crossing my mind. It seemed as if something terrible was about to happen, and indeed it did-a tragedy so huge that I will never be able to forget.

After arriving in Bombay, I went to the graveyard where she was buried. I cried more at her grave than I did at the death of my mother. I could gain composure only when my ears could almost hear Meena ask me to stop crying.
One day I received a call from my husband who was away in Madras shooting for Main Chup Rahungi . Since it was going to be a long schedule, he asked me to come over with the kids. I reached Madras with Sanjay, who was two and a half years old then, and Namrata who was barely two months old. We stayed at Hotel Oceanic and Meena’s room was close to ours. Accompanying Meena was her sister Madhu and Baqar Ali. We met for the second time here. She greeted me as soon as she saw me and said, “I have great regard for you and I hope you won’t mind if I call you ‘baaji’. An instant friendship developed between us.
Once, Dutt sahib wanted to go out for Chinese food and an invitation was extended to Meena too but she said that she was tired after the day’s work and had already eaten early. She also offered to take care of the kids while we were away.
When we returned at 11 o’ clock, the kids’ nanny informed us that both the children were still with her. Entering her room quietly, I saw both of them asleep on either side of Meena, who has gently placed a hand each on Sanjay and Namrata. The nanny told us that Meena had duly tended to all the duties-from taking Sanjay to the toilet to changing Namrata’s nappies and from preparing their feeding bottles to singing them loris, she did it all on her own.
I could see the glow and contentment on her face. I felt that it was indeed a misfortune that though she was a woman and also a wife, she wasn’t a mother yet, and how complete her life would be once she’d become a mother.
I couldn’t meet her the next day. We didn’t meet for several days after that but one night I saw her walking in the garden of the hotel. She was panting and when I asked her the reason, she said, “Baaji, I eat tobacco and sometimes that results in palpitations.”
“Meena, this is not due to tobacco,” I told her. “You look very tired. Why don’t you rest for a while?”
“Baaji, resting is not in my destiny. I will rest just one time.” Her eyes turned to the ground as she said that.
I asked her, “Meena, don’t you want to be a mother? Don’t you feel like having kids?”
She replied, “There is no woman who doesn’t want to be a mother.” Her eyes welled up- the tears perhaps conveyed the story of her life.
That night there was some noise in Meena’s room- sounds suggestive of violence. Next day we came to know that she wasn’t feeling well and would not report for work.
I caught hold of Kamal saheb’s secretary Baqar and spoke to him in direct terms, “Why do you want to kill Meena? She has worked enough for your sake. I know how an actress feels and how mentally exhausting things can get. For how long is she going to feed you?”
Baqar saheb replied, “Baby, why don’t you understand? When the right time comes, we will rest her.”

Kamal Amrohi and Meena Kumari

After that I saw Meena hiding herself to cry. Just a look at her eyes and one could sense that the tears would roll out any moment, but she never let that happen. I said to her, “I can understand your pain. You have to be brave and crying like this is of no use. You’re like a younger sister to me and henceforth I’ll call you ‘Manju’.”
We couldn’t meet for a long time once were back in Bombay, though one kept hearing stories about her. One day, I heard that she had walked out of Kamal saheb’s home and had started living in Mehmood’s house. Meena had a showdown with Baqar on the sets of Pinjre ke Panchhi and matters got so turbulent that she did not step into Kamal Saheb’s house again. I never broached this subject with her.

Kamal Amrohi with Meena Kumari

Soon enough, the excessive consumption of alcohol had weakened her liver and she was down with jaundice. When I visited her at Saint Elizabeth Nursing Home, I was careful that I didn’t mention anything that could embarrass her or hurt her. Referring to the yellow tinge on her skin, I said, “This shade of yellow is so pretty. Manju, you are free but of what use is such freedom when you are bent upon killing yourself?”
She replied, “Baaji, my patience has a limit. How dare Kamal saheb’s secretary raise his hand on me? When I got the incident communicated to Kamal saheb, I thought he’d come running and immediately fire Baqar, but he said, ‘Come home and I will decide things here.’ What was there for him to decide? Now it’s me who has decided to not go back to him.”

Dharmendra and Meena Kumari

Then, a new person entered Meena’s life- Dharmendra. She was so happy- it was almost as if she had got hold of the entire wealth of the world. This was the most beautiful phase of her life and made her feel thoroughly blessed. However, the good times are short-lived as a misunderstanding resulted in the two of them drifting apart. Dharmendra walked out of her life and left her heart-broken. Shen couldn’t cope up with the loss and hit the bottle.
She would say, “Baaji, solitude is my destiny. I do not pity myself and neither should you.”
Slowly, Meena started to inch towards death. I couldn’t bear to see her like this and advised her to forget the past and begin her life afresh.
I got a call from Meena on 3rd February -the day of the premiere of Pakeezah.
“Baaji, the film that you got me to work on is being premiered today. You have to come.”
When I reached there, she stood up and embraced me. I had to leave after the interval because my husband was down with fever that day. I promised Meena that I would tell her my opinion on the film once I saw it in its entirety. I don’t know if that will ever happen- I haven’t been able to gather courage to watch that film since. I can’t even bear to listen to the songs of Pakeezah on the radio now, how can I pull my self together to view the film?
How Meena resumed work on Pakeezah is a story in itself. Kamal saheb wished to have Dutt saheb in the film and wanted to sign some other actress for Meena’s role. Dutt saheb mentioned to me if Pakeezah was made without her, the film would lose its allure. I met Meena and told her, “Manju, if this film remains incomplete then it will be a great calamity. Tired of waiting for you to come back, Kamal saheb has now started looking for another actress. If you agree, I can talk to him and facilitate your return.” She just said, “I’ll do as you say.”
I couldn’t go to her during the next few days. Then, I left for Delhi and to Pathankot and Jammu from there. Before leaving, I passed on a message informing her about my travel and that I’d meet her after I come back on 1st April. She asked her sister Madhu to tell me that she wouldn’t be around when I return. Madhu did not convey that to me. Had she done so, I would’ve never left Meena.
Not too long before we last met, there was a preview of her film Gomti ke Kinare at the mini-theatre in our house. The story of the film was the story of Meena’s life as well. Though she bore pain and hurt herself for others, no one could realize her worth. Left with no one who could lover her back or who she could call her own, she lost the will to live. A woman doesn’t need a friend-she yearns for a family. There was a void in her life that never got filled. No one really cared for her-all were like indifferent strangers. She wandered around looking for a drop of love but her thirst for it remained unquenched. She writhed in torment, lived a lonely life and eventually died a lonely death.”

Nargis and Meena Kumari

-(Meena -Maut Mubarak Ho!,published in Shama- June 1972)
(Excerpts from “Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai” by Yasir Abbasi)

To be continued…

This article by Shailaza Singh was published in Rashtradoot Newspaper’s Arbit Section on 19 April 2022

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