Shama Futehally and I spoke of many things in the years we knew each other, but I don't recall any conversation about E.M. Forster. Yet now, after her death, when I search for words, some phrase that captures the essence of her work and life, it is Forster's 'Only connect' that comes to mind.
I can imagine the beginnings of this need to connect in her, and its steady growth. In her novel, Tara Lane, and in a couple of her short stories, she has described with great honesty, beauty and sadness the nature of a privileged upbringing in an Indian city. The recurring image is life in a goldfish bowl. The bowl holds beauty, fine sentiments and culture, a cocoon with the 'silky safe smell of olden times'. But there is another reality visible through the glass of the goldfish bowl, the world that intrudes even into a safe childhood. A hungry, seething world, alternately inspiring compassion, disgust and bewilderment; a world that quickly teaches the most protected child that 'life'was like a cloth which was stretched too thin, so that at any moment you could discover a large hole underneath you.'
Which one of us, growing up in our comfortable if not beautiful flats, studying in our good if unimaginative schools and colleges, has not noticed this terrible gap between our lives and the world at large' Which of us has not felt the prick of the need to bridge this gap, or at least come to terms with it'
I remember, for instance, an encounter that seemed to say that to understand, to live, you have to 'connect'. I was walking down the lane from the hill where my college was, and I saw a man lying to one side of the road, bleeding. The groaning beggarly man lay curved into himself, his hand holding himself somewhere between his chest and stomach. When I stopped and touched his shoulder hesitantly, he removed his hand from his body. I froze, seeing something bloody and gut-like exposed. By now a couple of passersby had stopped too. I was anxious for help, but I couldn't help noticing that their interest sprang mainly from the prospect of a drama involving a dirty bleeding beggar and a young college girl. To this day I can remember how the expression on the man's face (and on the faces of the passersby) made me feel: judged. I could not, of course, begin to understand his physical pain or his life. But I could feel my own pain ' as perhaps only someone on the brink of adulthood can ' at the distance between what I was learning and writing up on that hill, and the messy, bloody, fragmented world below.
To take hold of this world, to look at it closely and understand the links between yourself and everything else, perhaps the first step is developing a meticulous awareness of the physical world. This was something Shama Futehally knew. 'The way in which we see the world physically is perhaps a good representation of how we see it altogether,' Shama wrote. 'If you look attentively enough at the scene around you, a crack appears in it through which you glimpse possibility.' For Shama this was not just an effective literary device; it was the way she trained herself to perceive the setting of everyday life, not always an easy thing to do. For instance, she writes with her usual honesty about a film clip she saw which evoked the lakes and fjords of Norway, and which made her feel some self-pity that she did not have access to this kind of natural beauty. She then discovered that the scene was shot at Delhi's Okhla Barrage, a place she passed routinely. More than most of us, Shama corrected this natural tendency we have to assume that what is immediate, the ordinary objects and scenes available to us, are incapable of speaking to us with unexpected visions of beauty or meaning.
In fact, she went a step further. Shama's writing not only gave the familiar physical world a fresh sheen of reality, but also linked, naturally, intimately, this external world with what is going on within the person viewing it. This is what happens, for example, every time the protagonist in the novel, Reaching Bombay Central, looks at the object, scenes and people she can see through her train window.
Beyond the physical universe, there is also the slippery man-made world of relationships, hierarchies and values. Shama's commitment to writing was made when she 'felt part of the human family'. This sense of being part of a family included her sense of location in the larger family of Indian writers; Shama wanted to share what she perceived as the natural perspective of those who write in the other Indian languages. Such a perspective, she felt, would help take the Indian setting 'for granted', not explain India, either as a glossary or a well-written tourist brochure, to a hypothetical foreign reader. This desire to anchor herself in something real, and as ordinary as the everyday demands of motherhood, teaching or the bureaucratic machinery helped Shama define who she was going to speak to through her work. She was sensibly suspicious of labels, and of the alleged international marketplace. The only thing that mattered was a 'story, a human story'. The themes she took on, then, would be whatever acknowledged what was 'humanly very, very important' to her personally. And she wanted to speak to 'people like myself, people who live here'queuing up for their rations'worried about getting their children to schools and worried about exams and worried about politics'.
The kind of politics Shama worried about included the ubiquitous possibility of corruption at all levels of everyday Indian life. She was painfully aware of the shrinking cultural spaces for Indian Muslims who are not orthodox.
And she mourned for 'many things in the Nehruvian era, especially religious tolerance, and also the fact that the poor were not as completely invisible as they are today.' Most of all, she mourned a lost era where globalized consumerism had not taken over our country, making itself felt even in the sphere of culture. But Shama was always an optimist. It was impossible for her not to see signs of hope, including signs of new political configurations that would take into account 'the fact that purely communal politics have rarely brought long term gains to any political party in India.'
What Shama hoped to do with her unfinished novel on the Uphaar tragedy sums up her deeply felt concerns, and her sense of a vital connection with the country and times she lived in. The novel, she said, 'will deal with a situation which is a vortex of bureaucratic power and money power, and which causes destruction to ordinary lives; and it will see this situation from many points of view.' It was, in a sense, to be 'atonement': 'anyone who remembers such an event, who recreates it in memory and refuses to look away from it, is atoning in part on behalf of the society which causes such harm through negligence and exploitation.'