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On 75th birthday, Amitabh Bachchan in his own voice

The Bachchan legend began on October 11, 1942 in Allahabad where he was born to the radical Hindi Poet Dr Harivansh Rai Bachchan and his Sikh wife Teji Bachchan. The Bachchans are kayasths, the surname Bachchan was a derivative of ‘bachcha’ meaning child. That’s how they fondly called Bachchan Sr. when he was a kid. In later years it became his nom de plume before he formally adopted it as his surname.

For the first few days of his life the first born of Teji and Harivanshrai Bachchan was called Inquilaab Rai. The year was 1942. A critical year in India’s freedom struggle. There were cries of Inquilaab Zindabaad all over Allahabad. And the Bachchans thought it appropriate to call their just born Inquilaab Rai. But the name lasted only a few days. On second thought, they decided their son needed a more conventional name. So Inquilaab gave way to Amitabh, meaning ‘eternal light’.

Allahabad days

Strange, I have been accident prone from the time I was two… a bull gored me one day and my mother told me I didn’t flinch at all, nor did I cry in spite of the two deep gashes on my head. My mother was said to have poured a whole bottle of spirit on my wounds to stop the bleeding. The doctor who attended on me is still there at the chowk, the popular market place, and I met him during my election campaign [in 1984].

I remember every moment of the days we had lived here [17, Clive Road]. My father had named our side of the house Dashadhwar, because of the ten doors. He did most of his writing here. He went to Cambridge from here. When he was away for two years, I became the man of the house, acted very protective towards my mother and Bunty [brother Ajitabh].

We had no car those days. My dad had a bicycle, but I was not allowed to ride it. I remember Dad cycling to the university from there. There were no buses, we couldn’t afford to travel by rickshaws. So Bunty and I’d walk to school. Sometimes when he felt tired, I’d carry him on my shoulders. We shared a very close relationship throughout.

I remember going to the Boys’ High School, I had a bicycle then. On the way back I used to stop to play marbles in the dust and would often get punished for it. I remember writing something on the wall of my school once with a pencil. The principal caught hold of me and caned me. Dad was very angry, he took me right back to the school on his cycle and admonished the principal for the action.

I remember Prithviraj Kapoor coming to our house quite often. His was an imposing personality wearing a white shawl. We went to see his plays like Deewar and Pathan. After the show, we would go to his room and Dad would recite poetry.

Man of the house

When my father was away in England, one night my mother took seriously ill, she suffered an acute cramp in the stomach. I was frightened. I didn’t know what to do. It was too late in the night for me to go out to call a doctor. I was only ten then. There was no telephone in the house. So I sent the servant to the doctor with a detailed letter. The doctor came at once and treated my mother. That night I sat next to her bed on a stool, lest I should fall asleep. Mother had told me that my father would sit on a stool when he had work to complete so that he did not fall asleep!

In my childhood, I was closer to my mother, though I was never a mama’s boy as it implies. But there was an intimate relationship, because she was the one who was always with us, and we went to her with our problems. My father used to be there too most of the time, yet not there. He was always busy in his study, reading or writing. We were in awe of him.

A stickler for discipline and propriety, Dad would punish us if we were found wanting. I remember, one evening, we kids had had a ‘mud war’ in the veranda and mucked up the walls. When he saw it, he flew into a rage and spanked me hard. He ordered me to clean the wall at once. I collected all my friends and got on with the job. It took hours of cleaning.

I remember our first car, a navy blue Ford Prefect, I remember the number too — UPC 3882. It cost Rs 8,200. Every morning, I’d get up early and clean it. I was 13 when I learnt driving. I could get away with it because of my height. But we were not allowed to use the car.

Childhood buddies

It was [in Allahabad] that I met Rajiv [Gandhi] for the first time. He had come over for a fancy dress party on my fourth birthday. He was two then. My mother told me he had dirtied his clothes in no time, and was made to change into the additional pair of khadi churidar-kurta the ayah had brought along. He wore a white khaddar cap.

It was Sarojini Naidu who introduced my parents to the Nehrus. She was an admirer of my father’s poetry. I remember having visited Anand Bhavan, the home of the Nehrus, as a kid, but the memory is rather faint.

My friendship with Rajiv continued in Delhi after we shifted there. Then I went to Kolkata to take up a job, He went abroad for his studies.

Aside from studies

When Dad was at Cambridge, we got ourselves photographed with all our cups and sent the pictures to him. When I won the boxing championship he sent me a book on boxing with a quote: “Good hard blows are delights to the mind.” He always encouraged us to excel in whatever we did.

St. Mary’s Convent was the first school I went to and it was there that I made my first ever stage appearance. I was about three then. I played a chick in a fairy tale on the Annual Day. Those days St. Mary’s used to be a co-ed school. I was there for my KG. When I was in Class I, they decided to throw us boys out and turn St. Mary’s into a [girls] convent. And we were shifted to the Boys’ High School nearby.

First movies

The first ever film I saw was Laurel and Hardy’s Flying Duces. In 1980 I bought a video cassette of that film in a London shop and made Abhishek see it. The first Hindi film I saw was Insaniyat, a Dilip Kumar-Dev Anand starrer. “We were allowed to see it because of the chimpanzee in it. I saw it at Niranjan Cinema at the Chowk. It used to be a prestigious theatre, with air-conditioning and all that…

Endearing influences

Both Ma and Dad were strict disciplinarians, in different ways. Ma had been educated in convent, so she had a somewhat westernised background. She had a more liberal bent of mind. Dad was a bit orthodox and very Indian in his outlook. He didn’t think of anything but education. His emphasis was always on good education and values. He wanted us to become ‘somebody’ in life. He wasn’t very impressed by games and sports. Though more liberal, Ma was equally strict about etiquette, the way we conducted ourselves. We inherited our sense of aesthetics from her. She did everything in style. The blend benefited us a lot.