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HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: Fragments Against My Ruin by Farrukh Dhondy

Review: Fragments Against My Ruin by Farrukh Dhondy

Farrukh Dhondy opens his autobiography with a controversial memory, one in which he kicks the wall against which his swinging baby cot is placed. Did baby Farrukh, little enough to be in that cot, really have legs strong enough to kick it away from the wall? And straightaway, before you turn to page 3, the author has given you grounds – and license – to question everything that might follow.

Through the patchwork of fragments that do follow, a surprisingly clear picture emerges. One of the clearest is of a no-nonsense man, one who over the years has given his all to causes, an irreverent, somewhat impatient sort of fellow, one who really never cared (much) for others’ opinion of him. Wondering whether Farrukh Dhondy really is like that, or just wants everyone to think he is, reminded me of the time – the only time – we happened to meet. It was February 2013, we were both launching books at the Karachi Literature Festival, and were staying at the same hotel. My husband and I plonked ourselves down at his table at breakfast, and he regaled us by recounting some of the liveliest incidents from his collection of short stories, Poona Company. When the festival organizers and PR people tried to wrench us off him, Farrukh waved them away with, “Oh don’t bother me, I want to sit some more time with these people who are from my city.” So: causes, tick; indifference to others’ opinions, tick. However, in the recounting of this book’s many anecdotes about well-known people – Kabir Bedi, Richard Attenborough, CLR James, Arundhati Roy, Jeffrey Archer, VS Naipaul, Subhash Ghai, Charles Sobhraj, Anand Patwardhan and others – while there is a relentless stripping away of vanity and a happy celebration of the ridiculous, there’s also an unswerving loyalty to friends.

306pp, ₹699; Westland

Farrukh Dhondy’s young days are depicted in Poona Company as a rather rough environment and populated with characters of doubtful morals. How could they have possibly resulted in someone who so carelessly inhabits a high moral ground? For a while I exulted in the deduction that this must be because he was an avid reader! Surely intense (and indiscriminate) reading produces role models that anyone, anywhere can follow? But then it became clear that Farrukh grew up in a family where people are valued and respected. The loveliest story of all is the one of Chandri, an orphan girl working on a construction site near their home, who was taken in by the family in 1920 (24 years before Farrukh was born), and cared for until she grew from domestic duties to those of a grandmother. When she died, it was her eldest and only (surrogate) son, Farrukh, who performed her Hindu cremation rites. Later, a student at Cambridge, one of the poems he wrote was on Chandri’s life, and it is reproduced in this book.

Cambridge was, in those days, a place where a tutor might say, “We put all the wogs in the new block because it has central heating, so they feel warmly at home”; a place where a ‘bum bandit’ can get roughed up and kicked down the stairs by a perfectly decent person. Though Farrukh, being Farrukh, and neither queer nor “desperate”, will follow him out on the street and buy him a beer since there’s still time for his (the bum bandit’s) train back to London.

And Cambridge was the place where Farrukh – who had been a writer from an early age back in Poona – graduated with a science degree. Serendipity provided the opportunity to study huge tracts of English Literature in a short time, with individual attention from Cambridge tutors. Later, his MA from Leicester was also – not counting all the hard work and natural aptitude, obviously – like a gift. Many of the stepping stones to his success arose simply from being in the right place at the right time. A chance encounter connected him to a photographer, Andrew Whittuck, through whom he received his first professional, post-Cambridge writing assignment for a German news agency. One of these was an interview with a new pop group – who rocketed to fame soon after – and some of the sentences on the blurb on the back cover of Pink Floyd’s first album were, Farrukh says, quietly ‘borrowed’ from what he had written.

Soon after this, in a flock of reporters waiting eagerly to be included in a meeting between the Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in London, it was Farrukh whom George Harrison picked as the one to pull in, and he and Andrew were the only reporters there. His report, he says, was not kind to either the Beatles or the Maharishi. (Irreverent, tick.)

Later, when MacMillan published a collection of stories he had written for a propaganda sheet and made them available to the English-speaking world, it was because one of the editors had read the sheet and made the effort to track him down. And one day, sleeping off the labours of a vegetable delivery vendor – which was how he was making his living between writing gigs – came a phone call from a BBC producer reaching into the ghetto with an offer to write for television. Even the appointment as commissioning editor of Channel Four – but wait, that’s a great story and you can read it in full in the book. Huge swathes of the prolific and super-fast Dhondy’s writing, including some Hindi movie scripts and three children’s books, was done while at Channel Four, some of it under pseudonyms as the position embargoed him from writing.

Besides his interesting life and career as a writer, a teacher, and an activist, Fragments also provides glimpses into Indian Independence, Gandhi, Partition, the Anglo Indians, the Indian National Army and why Nehru’s economic policies were definitely not Socialism, before moving on to the Britain of the 1960s and the evolution of South Asians from a battered migrant community that finds their sustenance while cowering in a defensive stance, and vulnerable to systematic racial abuse from the police.

Farrukh Dhondy (Nicky J Sims)
Farrukh Dhondy (Nicky J Sims)

It’s not surprising that the writer Farrukh Dhondy should have been the earliest to document this community. What is interesting to read about is the immigrant Farrukh Dhondy’s participation in movements to create awareness within it, and his role in enabling its people to understand that they have rights and in showing them how to claim them. He was not just writing stories about their lives – he was writing propaganda and making speeches to awaken them too. In fact, he wasn’t just writing – he was also lining up factory workers to negotiate with management; helping people claim the houses they were squatting in; participating in vigilante movements which in time would lead to a reduction of Paki bashing. With one group, he continued even after his home was firebombed by racists, all the way until the institution turned into its opposite (he points out here that Marx may have predicted that this is something that happens to institutions). When co-activists were resentful of his success as a writer, he may have felt hurt at the studied indifference towards his work, but believed that his participation was more important than his disappointment. After all, the urge for social revolutionary change was entwined with the ambition to be a writer from his growing years.

One time, at the end of a senior school disco night where he was one of 15 supervising teachers, Farrukh was beaten up by three burly men in suits, with the accusation, “Dancing with our girls? Think you’re Haile Selassie?” It was three against one, but the (racist) police called it an equal fight – because one of the assailants was bleeding too. Well done, Farrukh.

While the prejudice and bad feelings are prominent, there is no bitterness, and the incidents are often stoutly couched in positive responses: “The kindness was overwhelming”. As defender of the oppressed, it’s gratifying when the oppressed flex their muscles for him, as when he rents a mattress for his mother’s visit from a second-hand furniture shop, finds it full of bugs, and is able to get a refund when his stern-faced Black friends accompany him there. Or when his underprivileged adolescent students – also Black, and whom he guides towards literacy when he discovers that they can’t read – line up to protect him against an attack by goons.

Farrukh’s candid sex disclosures start on page 5, and continue. At college, his girlfriend is the pick of the crop – brilliant, glamorous and lovely. Some years later, when he becomes unsure of their relationship he writes, “If I was shattered, I was also resolved to see love in a more philosophical way.” Over the decades, new relationships developed. And since they were carried out within the framework of the revolutionary consciousness of the late 1960s, it was possible for Farrukh to become the father of five children over 12 years, some quite close in age, with three different women. And how is all this anyone else’s business? Never forget that this is the same person who once famously said, “I have no fear of vultures. I think we should eat them at Christmas or Parsi New Year and then they can eat us when we die and we get a merry circle.”

Saaz Aggarwal is an independent journalist. She lives in Pune.

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