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After Monisha Unni's death

Getting a grip on grief....

By Bala Menon

Reality hit Sreedevi Unni when she floated out from the haze of pain on a Bangalore hospital bed. Her left side was numb - because of a pelvic fracture, spinal cord trauma, facial injuries and bruises all over - after being thrown out of a car in a horrific accident on a Kerala road.

The date: December 5, 1992. Dawn was breaking through the palm trees along the winding roads of the pretty Shertalai town just as the car carrying Sreedevi and her beautiful daughter, top South Indian filmstar Monisha Unni, was approaching Cochin from where they were to catch a flight to Bangalore.

A heavy - duty truck hurtled across a turn, crashed into the car and pushed it along a considerable distance before coming to an ear-shattering stop.

Crowds began to gather, faces zooming in and then Sreedevi started screaming for Monisha. "My daughter was asleep with her head on my lap in the back seat of the car when the crash occurred." People scrambled tot he wreck and lifted her out. The driver and another passenger on the front seat were dead.

"As I cradled her in my arms, however, I knew it was the end. She did not utter a word, but her eyes were open, reaching out to me, and she was breathing. But there was blood, blood everywhere, coming out of her nose, her mouth, her ears. And the back of her head had been crushed in…..", Sreedevi's voice trails off, describing the horror.

"The whole world was moving in a sort of slow motion; there was a sense of dj vu. We did get her to hospital but there was no chance of saving her."

Monisha Unni was only 21 years old when the gruesome accident ended her brilliant acting life. Film-goers still fondly remember her versatile performances in a parade of hit films beginning with Nakashatangkal, for which she won the Urvashi award, the highest accolade for  Indian actresses, conferred by the President of India - when she was just 14 years old and an eighth grade student.

Her delightful portrayal of an adolescent servant in her debut film was followed by outstanding roles in some of the top-grossing films - Kamaladalam, Rithubfedaam, Adhipan, Aryan and several others.

Monisha's niche in Malalyalam cinema has been difficult to fill, although many clones made their appearances  and prospered. But her memory is being kept alive by her devoted family - with Monisha Arts, a society registered in Bangalore and founded to discover and nurture artistic talent among teenagers in Kerala and at Mount Carmel's College in Bangalore where she studied.

The family has already instituted awards for the best Bharathanatyam performer in the Kerala Arts Festival.

Monisha's mother Sreedevi, is now in Dubai, visiting her son, a Jebel Ali based businessman. She has almost succeeded in filling the vacuum in her life and bring back some of the bubbling enthusiasm which had made her a noted Mohiniattan dancer.

Articulate and very determined about getting on with her life, she says, "for months after the crash, I kept drifting in and out of fantasy. It was as if nothing had happened, that my daughter was still with me, lighting up my family's world with her smile, her mischief, her spontaneity."

Then the depression hit, and life was a cocoon of self pity, "This went on for months as I underwent physiotherapy and surgery, but the imaginary world of fun and laughter was just alongside, in another dimension, which I could just reach out to and enter."

The easiest way for her was to accept the fact of death. "I became spiritual, even fatalistic, what must be, must be, says Sreedevi. "of course, I blamed myself in the beginning, Monisha was shooting for a Malayalam film cheppadividya ( instant magic) and we had a dance performance scheduled in Bangalore. We thought it would save us time if we took a flight from Cochin instead of waiting for some hours and taking off from Trivandrum. It was as if death was pulling my daughter towards Shertalai."

"Monisha however, had lived her life and achieved stardom. Her funeral in Bangalore was like a state affair, with fun carriage and other trappings."

Happiness for Sreedevi became a will o'wisp. The only time she was happy was when "I was with teenaged girls who reminded me of my daughter. To interact with her generation became an obsession, my only activity during my waking hours."

Recuperation then came easy. From hospital bed to wheelchair to crutches and then back into real life. "My son and daughter-in-law helped me a lot. They went on with their lives as if they have never suffered in any way, hiding their sorrow so that I could become normal again."

"We had a massive inventory of clothes belonging to Monisha and thought it would be good if they were given away to girls her age. But then the stocks exhausted themselves pretty quickly, so I started designing clothes with Monisha in mind. Sreedevi had prior experience with designing. Her husband owns a thriving leather product factory in Bangalore and she had helped him in creating handbags and other fashion accessories.

"And somehow I knew what the youngsters wanted." A friend had some handlooms and Sreedevi got to design sarees as well for mothers of young girls who thronged for her fashionable clothes. "I thought this would be another way to keep my daughters name alive and Monisha Fashions was born."

Monisha Fashions presents hand-created sarees in silks and cotton, each exquisite in texture and one of a kind. There is also an abundant selection of beautiful handlooms. The idea is to encourage female artisans in and around Bangalore to create designs and products and for Monisha Fashions to market them- with the proceeds going again for the welfare of young women. "it's a type of social work that I immensely enjoy today."

Sreedevi also intends to hold full exhibitions of her clothes under the Monisha Fashions banner.

And also on her agenda is the making of short documentaries on little known facets of Indian culture under the aegis of Monisha Arts. Scripts on several subjects are being planned before the project takes off.

"Yes, my daughter Monisha lives on……."

1999, Bala Menon

This article was first published in Gulf News, Dubai, in 1996

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