Farrukh Dhondy is an exceptionally successful immigrant. He occupies a unique eminence among other creative South Asians — Dom Moraes, Ved Mehta, Tariq Ali or Sasthi Brata — by operating as much in Britain as in his original homeland, witness the weekly column “Of Cabbages and Kings” that he has written for this newspaper since the 1990s.
Not having regular access to the column, I can’t say how much of the writing is tongue in cheek. But some of the more dazzling episodes in the autobiography of a man whom the movers and shakers of the world constantly sought out with lucrative offers do place some strain on credulity. Did Ronald Reagan really think after seeing Attenborough’s film that Indira Gandhi was the Mahatma’s daughter?
We know about his jellybeans and dozing off. But as I reported in Waiting for America: India and the US in the New Millennium: “Discovering that his chief responded best to visual aids, Judge William P. Clark, his second national security adviser, obtained a “profile movie documentary” … Reagan found it “far more interesting to see a movie on Mrs Gandhi covering her life than sitting down with the usual tome the [CIA] would produce”.
He was then preparing for the White House, months before the Cancun summit where he and Mrs Gandhi had a “surprisingly cordial” 45-minute meeting. But what is truth, as Jesting Pilate might ask. If miracles are events that create faith, quoting Shaw, facts must be created to support a case. Dhondy is a raconteur. He is also a wordsmith who delivers such gems as “soap-addiction which has nothing to do with cleanliness” and “Much Urdu about nothing”! The first referred to TV soaps, the second to a rumpus over invented English names like “Rosemary Marlow” which when mispronounced might sound like risqué Urdu. His sauciness is not always so laboured. Dhondy claims to have told Prince Charles that Parsi numbers are dwindling because of their “sexual inclinations” and snubbed Julie Andrews with: “You teach me Indian politics, and I’ll teach you acting!”
Since Dhondy’s title Fragments Against My Ruin, taken from The Waste Land, has been interpreted in many ways, one can’t be sure of his precise meaning. But the fragments of his own credentials are formidable enough not to suggest any of the wreckage of the First World War that haunted Eliot. Dhondy won a scholarship to Cambridge, another to Leicester University and — more enviable than either — was for 14 years a commissioning editor for Britain’s Channel 4 television. That brought him fame, power and important global connections even if it technically limited his scope for writing under his own name.
Seemingly slight, the book can claim a serious core in the early conviction that “despite its imitative appearance and boy-scoutish membership, [the British Black Panther Movement] seemed to be a serious, incorrupt and politically engaged entity”. That is not to say this is in any way an ideological treatise. Even personal assessments and associations are not measured by a political yardstick. V.S. Naipaul, whom the author revered, was an apolitical writer desperately in search of cultural roots. Although C.L.R. James was a committed Marxist, Dhondy’s involvement with him seems to have been not to work for world revolution but to serve the modest aim of ensuring a fairer deal for Britain’s Afro-Asian settlers.
It’s possible to discern three books in these 306 pages. The first is what Naipaul might have called the “enigma of arrival” — Dhondy’s refusal to admit any culture shock as he discovered a new life in Britain. The second is the more confident but all too familiar activism of the engaged young immigrant who betrays his insecurity by avidly taking up the cudgels for every minority and coloured cause.
The last section testifies to the maturity of a successful global sophisticate who prizes his special friendships (including prolonged interaction with the serial killer, Charles Sobhraj), savours complex business relationships in Britain and India, and from time to time reflects deeply on life and letters.
Somewhere along the line, Dhondy decided for reasons that are not clear to rewrite history and place James Callaghan, Labour Prime Minister from 1976 to 1979 in the Conservative Party! Perhaps he was carried away by his not entirely objective diatribe in the previous paragraph against Enoch Powell. Perhaps he assumed that only a Tory Premier would be so insensitive to coloured sentiment as to impose restrictions on East Asians with British passports. It’s the fashionable sense of post-colonial entitlement.
But much can be forgiven someone who also fell early under the spell of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, wrote for Race Today (although I did so when the editor “was a genial and gifted white British Anglican priest” whom black activists ousted), and was (also like me) a contributor to Forum World Features. Familiar names leap out from the past. I had no idea Dileep Padgaonkar’s distinguished career began with fake news in what was then Poona. Brian Lapping was a friend when he was working for a plucky little weekly called New Society. I interviewed Pakistan’s Zia Mohyeddin in 1960 when he was selected to make his West End debut in A Passage to India, but The Statesman of Kolkata, then British owned and edited, didn’t dare run it for fear that the closet Hindutva-wallahs in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet might be upset.
England was for me an avocation. Farrukh Dhondy made it his vocation. And a triumphant one too. This is the very readable report of a highly successful migrant’s relocation.
Fragments Against My Ruin: A Life
Context; Rs 699; 306 pages