Before the likes of Mallika Sherawat and Anil Kapoor headed to Hollywood, Mumbai-born-and-bred Persis Khambatta was a path-breaker and path-maker for the big Hollywood dream. In the Sixties, Persis went off to London with barely Ten Pounds in her pocket, to become a model. On reaching Heathrow, she spent Five Pounds on cigarettes and the person who was supposed to pick her up, could not make it due to heavy snow. So, trailing her big bags behind her, Persis trudged to slushy and snowy London streets to find the person’s house. She wasn’t even wearing footwear that was fit for snowy weather! Thus, were her humble beginnings in the West.
Today, if she were still alive, Persis would be 63 years old. But because of her constant smoking, life gave up on her in August 2008 and she left us for a trek from which she would never return.
I had the pleasure of knowing – and working – with Persis for a few years before she died and contrary to what people might think, she was a deeply humble and spiritual being. Yes, she did take pride in the fact that she paved the way for Indian’s in Hollywood, but she never let that pride demean those less successful or fortunate than her. She was romanced by Senator Ted Kennedy and even Sylvester Stallone (they did a film called Night Hawks together) but her heart was true to her Indian roots and being a family girl, she worried obsessively over her ailing mother.
Persis lived her life according to Zorastrian principles of “Good thoughts! Good words! Good deeds!” She was also most happy to share her birthday with one of the greatest men in history, Mahatma Gandhi. She would always tell me, “If people tell me something bad about someone I know, I either tick them off for being bitchy or I confuse them thoroughly by telling them that the other person only has good things to say about them.” More often than not, it was the latter strategy and Persis ended up mending quite a few broken friendships and relationships by being diabolically nice!
In 1997, Persis brought out a coffee-table book called Pride Of India – A Tribute to Miss India. Many years earlier, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called Persis the Pride Of India and hence, Persis decided to honour every Miss India winner from 1947 (to 1996) by highlighting their life story in a lavish tome. I was given the honour of scripting Persis’s own life-story in the book apart from helping her out with some editing work. No prizes for guessing that the book sold out and if she hadn’t passed away suddenly, she had plans to update it every five years.
Persis was supposed to work in a few Indian films and serials after publishing the book, but her life was cut short in 1998 when she suddenly passed away. She was just 50 years old. In the years that we were friends, I remember her as being a very helpful and obliging person, always wanting to reach out to people and put them at ease. she had once told me, “I’ve met the best of the best, had tea with Princess Margaret (sister of Queen Elizabeth II) and been wooed by some of the most eligible men in the world, but to me, they’re all just people!” And I knew what she meant by that – that she treated each and every person equally, regardless of their status!
Now isn’t that as Gandhian as one can get?