Farrukh Dhondy was born in Poona, a town on India’s Western Plateau, in 1944. His father was in the Indian Army so he travelled with his parents till school age when he returned to live with his aunts and grandfather in Sachapir Street, one of Poona’s Parsee districts. Lessons were in English, ‘though in infanthood we spoke Gujarati and Marathi and Hindi, bits of it, like our parents.’ But from five or six onwards there were many opportunities to practise the language of the old colonial regime.
College followed school quite naturally. ‘In my childhood there was tremendous pressure on people of my class to be professionals, to get some kind of engineering qualification or maybe be a doctor or a lawyer.’ This didn’t suit everyone. ‘I was pressured into going to engineering college for a year in Bombay from which I literally ran away and spent a year hoboing around doing nothing. That was the time I first met Indian writers. They were asking themselves, “Why should Indians write in English?” and “What is the writer’s role in Indian society?”.’
Eventually he took his B.Sc., working very hard to get one of the rare overseas scholarships. He chose Cambridge and took a B.A. in 1967 after two years of Natural Sciences and one of English. ‘I was appalled by the possibilities open to me if I carried on with Science so I quit.’ London offered odd jobs and cash. ‘I didn’t have the money even to get transport for my bags from Cambridge.’ Writing for journalistic agencies brought occasional ‘miraculous’ cheques for £25 or so. ‘Inflation has killed the joy of it.’
He did an M.A. in English and American literature at Leicester but ‘always the metropolis acted as a magnet because I had no roots in Britain at the time.’ It was back to painting houses and kitchen work because the many interviews brought no settled employment: ‘some said I was over-qualified, some just took a look at my face and said no.’ He had no definite career in mind; it was more “earn some money and buy a ticket back to India.” ‘Then somebody says to me, “Go and apply to the ILEA – they’ll take anybody.” I drifted into teaching, liked it, stuck with it.’
He joined a “new” comprehensive in Clapham Common called Henry Thornton, the product of amalgamating one small grammar school with two ‘almost totally Black’ secondary moderns. Named, of course, after the grammar school. Its three-site organisation made life difficult. ‘It was quite an adventure… quite a horrific experience.’ The set-up wasn’t dissimilar to that described in his story, Two Kinda Truth.
Looking back, Clyde (who tells the story) remembers, `The first day we moved to this dread school in Battersea, Bonny takes one look around the place and says, “It soft. Man could happy here.” Now, I don’t know how we could have made such a mistake. That school was split up in three. There was the main building, all new and still being built, where they kept the smart ones. They were all white and one or two Asian kids and a couple of Blacks. We were kept in what we called the “coal heap”. It was down in Wandsworth and we called it that because there was a whole heap of coal in the yard. The teachers, they called it the “Annexe”. There was only a few whites up there, most of the youths on the heap was black. We only saw the main building when the coaches fetched us to carol services or some other jive occasion and the headmaster would stand up and do he thing.’
At Henry Thornton Dhondy ‘was treated like the Asian supply teacher who’d do anything. Today I know teachers would object to travelling two miles to the Annexe to teach… they wouldn’t do it… but I didn’t know anything about the unions then. I was what you might call demoralised… scab labour… and I worked without questioning. I was very grateful for having the job at all. I wasn’t even filing for travelling expenses till someone told me that I could.’ Not surprisingly, he moved on. He went to Archbishop Temple School in Lambeth, which formed part of the new Archbishop Michael Ramsey School, Camberwell, after another amalgamation in 1974. He became Head of English and stayed there until July 1980.
Did teaching interfere with his writing? ‘Not at all, it helped. I find working nine to five helps me be disciplined. If I stay home, unless I’ve got a definite project I just waste my time. Writing stops you watching a lot of television that’s all.’ Political work also helps. ‘Fulfilling deadlines, being at meetings you don’t want to be at. That has taught me to be sort of principled.’ But he has now left teaching and needs another job. ‘You can’t make a living out of writing. I think I could make two and a half, three thousand. If you call that a living, fine; I’m used to seven, before tax. I’ll drive a van, sell onions in the East End, something like that. Just for the money. And the discipline, and for keeping in touch with people. Otherwise you become one of those writers who writes about writers. Sometimes I think I’ll miss teaching grievously, that I’m making a grave mistake but in my rational moments I know that I’ve done ten years and if I want two lives in one I have to leave.’ Isn’t Deputy Head the next step? ‘Yes, that’s why I’m leaving. Imagine me as a Deputy Head, man!’
East End at Your Feet
This collection of stories was sparked by an enterprising commission from Martin Pick, an editor with Macmillan Educational. ‘He’d heard my reputation as some kind of Black politico and he came up one afternoon after school, we had a chat and he said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I was a bit sceptical at the time – I didn’t know whether I should branch into writing short stories, especially for a series like Topliners because I thought Topliners was trash. But then I thought, “A series doesn’t necessarily damn a book.” And I have liked some Topliners.’ ‘I don’t know if I ever thought, “Now what can I write that I can use in the classroom also?”‘ Nevertheless, the stories are read time and again in schools, particularly Pushy’s Pimples (in which Pushpa is persuaded by her white friend to try sex as a cure for spots) and K.B.W. (which tells how a typhoid scare edges the racism in Devonmount flats from abuse to violence).
‘Lots of teachers want to use that to demonstrate what happens in the East End. It generates plenty of discussion.’
The Siege of Babylon
Dhondy thinks his only novel to date hasn’t had the kind of circulation it deserves. Starting as a tense thriller with three armed Blacks holding four people hostage in rooms over a mini-cab office after an attempted robbery misfires, it broadens out to show something of the three men’s backgrounds in a series of flashbacks. Not only are parts of it exciting, Siege of Babylon, like several of Dhondy’s stories, is also very moving. And it’s full of the realistic dialogue which is characteristic of his work.
The book has been criticized for ‘its sexist perception of the white woman, Edwina’, a drama teacher who has been sleeping with two of the men. ‘I’d like to take up honest debate with people who are stuck on these notions of what a book should do with sex and race. I certainly think literature should do things with sex and race but I don’t believe the demands they are making on writers or on readers are in any sense helpful. For some women, Edwina was too credible. The book is concerned with a white girl who has this puerile fascination with young black boys and allows it to determine her behaviour. There has always been a particular class of women like that in Britain. If Edwina today goes with Black youth, in the nineteenth century she would have gone with avant-garde artists… and in the thirties she might have been with leftie poets. It’s an attempt to try and describe a class of women who rely on males to draw their power. They’re a bloodsucker class and I don’t see that one shouldn’t be allowed to mercilessly portray such a person. I can see that there are other kinds of women about but I think you have to feel something about a character before you begin to write about them. If all you feel about the feminists you personally know is that they’re idiots and windbags, then you don’t want to put them in a novel. There’s no excitement attendant upon their being there.’
Come to Mecca
Like East End at Your Feet, Dhondy’s second collection of stories has been criticised for some of its subject matter and its “bad language”. For those who are enraged by such ignorance, Dhondy’s casual dismissal of these critics – as if they’re a temporary irrelevance – is instructive. It accords with his calm confidence that Britain’s working class – ‘the most sophisticated in the world’ – will eventually create a modern, enlightened socialist state.
There are those who would prefer kids not to see ‘books about working-class youth written from an informed point of view’. But where kids get to read Come to Mecca, they really enjoy the stories. Free Dinners (a white boy’s description of a ‘coloured’ girl’s progress from self-controlled first-former to aggressive fifth-year to go-go dancer to prostitute) is a particular favourite. ‘Because it seems very close to them. Teachers and people who appreciate irony like Two Kinda Truth’ which contrasts a wet young English teacher with a love for great poetry and a Black pupil who makes a success from propagandist verse. As well as the Henry Thornton experience, Dhondy used a childhood memory from Poona, suitably modified, in this piece. ‘We had this student round about the third year… teaching us poetry, from cyclostyled sheets, which we’d never seen before. We thought he’d written it. We didn’t know that he wasn’t William Wordsworth.’
Dhondy’s next book represents a conscious change of direction. ‘I’ve been typecast as one of the multi-cultural writers in Britain.’ It’s a sequence of stories set in the Poona of his boyhood, based on things that happened then and people that he knew. ‘I wanted to write about India and show a kind of India that’s invisible today because it hasn’t been portrayed in literature so much, in English. I’ll be extremely interested to see if the Multi-culturalism of progressive teachers extends to stories about India too.’
Do British kids want to read about India? ‘I think so. In fact I think the stories are probably better than those in East End at Your Feet. I tried it out on my fourth-years last year and it went down a bomb. And my kids are not keen to please, they’re so brutal! Even so, they thought the stories were better than my other work.’
‘There’s a profound conflict between me as a writer and me as a political animal, because if you write certain sorts of thing about a community, you can kiss goodbye to wanting to organise them. If I write a play about Asians which is true but offensive because it’s a truth that’s difficult to take in, I think it’s finally historically helpful to so do. But I can’t expect the allegiance of community organisations after I’ve committed myself to something which is profoundly critical.’
‘Any writer generalises from characters. You can’t say, “All white women are such” because there are so many white women in literature: Dorothea is Dorothea or Edwina is Edwina. But when you’re writing about Asians in English, British Asians, you have to be much more careful because it’s seen as the Asian novel, the Asian play, all about those people, and there is a natural historical generality that sticks to the characters you’ve created. It’s a historical circumstance within which the writer today has to work. After there are two thousand novels it will change. And so far you become the representative, the voice of some people who then say, “This person isn’t speaking for us at all” and you’re in the position of turning round and saying, “I never intended to speak for you, brother. I speak for myself. This is what I see. Just tell me if it’s true or not.”‘
Journalism. ‘I write for an Indian newspaper regularly. Called Debonair. It’s a semi-pornographic magazine; they publish political articles dotted all round the nudes, strange Bombay formula. I write occasionally about British Politics for the Economic and Political Weekly, a very serious paper in India. And I write for Race Today, the Black magazine, on education, Asian politics, everything – including reggae records.’
Drama. ‘I did an episode of Empire Road which they haven’t used yet. I did a play, Mama Dragon, that’s been at the ICA and one called Maids The Mad Shooter for the OU, out at the end of this year. And I’ve just begun another adult thing, a television play. A director has asked me to do a “treatment” as they call it. But directors are not producers, they don’t have the cash in hand. The director flogs it to a producer and then tells me to get on with it. I won’t do it unless it’s sold. I’m a bit scared of writing for adults but I’d like to do more, I think I have a lot to say.’
Another book for Gollancz. ‘I want to do something else consciously different. Gollancz have been very principled about it – they’ve given me an advance and commissioned me to do something else for teenagers.’
He’s thinking of trying another novel; if it comes off as well as the first three books, it will be setting the pace for the rest of the 1980s.
East End at Your Feet Macmillan Topliner, 1976, 0 333 19962 6, 65p. Winner of The Other Award
The Siege of Babylon Macmillan Topliner Redstar, 1978, 0 333 23705 6, 60p
Come to Mecca Collins Lions, 1978, 0 00 671519 2, 60p. Other Award. Collins/Fontana competition winner
Right, Right! Sight, Sight! in Young Winter’s Tales 8 edited by D. J. Denney, Macmillan, 1978, 0 333 21185 5, £4.95
The Demon Kite in The Methuen Book of Strange Tales edited by Jean Russell, 1980, 0 416 88350 8, about £3.95
Poona Company Gollancz, 0 575 02901 3, £4.95 (To be published on 23rd October 1980)