Grandma began by looking out for Suraiyya’s car and the minute she spotted it at the gate she’d open the front door and stand at the entrance to greet the actress on her way to the second floor where she lived. Gradually Suraiyya began to take notice started acknowledging her presence. Initially she’d just smile at her but soon a “Namaste Maaji” followed. My grandmother was all praise for the lady. “ How very modest” she’d say. “Who would believe that she’s a famous actress earning in lakhs!” Her only regret was that due to her lack of proficiency in Hindi she had never seen her on screen. “What difference does it make?” she’d say. “ I get to see her in person almost each day and she never forgets to greet me”. She now resorted to sign language to ask Suraiyya if she was okay or why she was late. The two of them must have communicated well enough for one fine day Suraiyya invited my grandmother to her place for tea.
Smiling at Suraiyya and talking to her in sign language from our entrance was fine with my grandmother. She did not mind going to her place but was hesitant to have anything to eat. Her orthodox mind did not permit her to ‘break bread’ with any one outside our immediate circle and community but at the same time she did not want to let go the opportunity of getting to see the interior of Suraiyya’s house. Like an expert Bharatanatyam dancer specializing in abhinaya mudras she pointed to her baldhead and white sari and indicated that her widowed status did not permit her to eat outside. Suraiyya must have understood since she finally convinced my grandmother to have milk and fruits at her place. By then the two of them had become good friends.
The onus of accompanying my grandmother to Suraiyya’s apartment on the second floor fell on me. My mother made me wear a party dress and instructed me on good manners before sending me off. I was annoyed at having to sacrifice my playtime and secretly hoped to find reasons to leave early. After according us a warm welcome Suraiyya took us to her living room. We were initially in awe of the luxurious settings of the house but managed to settle down soon enough. We looked around to see a life sized photograph of a beautiful young girl. There were other photographs of the same girl receiving awards as well as in the company of eminent persons.
“ Who is this?” my grandmother asked a servant who brought in milk and sweets. “Suraiyya” the servant replied.
“How silly of me not to understand.” Said my grandmother “Of course it is Suraiyya. See what make-up does to a person. She looks so young and fresh!”
Just then Suraiyya who had gone inside to instruct the servant came back.
“Ask her when she plans to marry” my grandmother asked me to translate. I repeated her question.
“Why do I need to marry?” laughed the lady.
“You cannot remain single all your life,” said my grandmother. You need to have someone to look after you.”
The lady looked confused.
“But I’m already married and I…….”
She had not finished the sentence when the door opened and the beautiful girl in the photograph walked in looking absolutely stunning - like an angel who had descended from heaven.
“Ah child! I see that you are back early. Meet our tenants from the first floor. Major Viswanathan’s mother and daughter.” Turning to my grand mother the lady continued. “Meet my daughter Suraiyya. She normally does not return before 8 at night but it looks as if her shooting schedule has been cancelled for some reason. This is an unexpected luxury”.
My grandmother almost fainted. After the initial shock that left her groping for words my grandmother regained her composure. We had a pleasant evening and when we finally left Suraiyya – I mean the real one gave my grandmother 2 postcard sized photographs duly autographed by her. I was too young at that time to understand the comedy of errors but the story of Suraiyya’s mistaken identity is one that we enjoy repeating whenever we get together as a family!