LONDON COMPANY By Farrukh Dhondy, Hachette, Rs 495
Things were happening in British society of the 1960s and 70s. The old order was being broken. The music of the Beatles and the Stones, and the lyrical poignance of composer-singers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, heralded a new epoch. Philip Larkin’s “Annus Mirabilis” brilliantly captures the spirit of the movement for sexual liberation — “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ (Which was rather late for me)-/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”
But to Farrukh Dhondy, an Indian youth who came to study at Pembroke College, along with his girlfriend Natasha, Britain held out a different vignette of life. Shortly after landing in London, the young couple had to encounter racism — the shabbiest and the most savage of its kind. “The white man is sealed in his whiteness, the black in his blackness”, wrote Frantz Fanon. Farrukh found these“seals” pervading all spheres of London life. The couple were driven from pillar to post for a shelter, but were refused bedsits, and even some pub owners refused to serve them.
This memoir recounts incidents that prompted many of his short stories and his career as an anti-racism activist. In a bar, the couple befriended some Indians — Hormone aka Har Mohan Singh, and Pyara Sinclair aka Pyara Singh Cooler, and others — and were pulled into a vortex of anti-racist activism. One day, a lady at Boston Typewriters, their workplace, sought permission to visit the toilet, which the white supervisor denied her. When she insisted, she was sacked. Some of her colleagues marched out in protest, and were sacked too. This led to the formation of the Indian Workers’ Association, with Farrukh at the helm of its affairs. IWA came under the umbrella of the British Black Panther Movement, which campaigned for the rights of black people. The Movement perceived black as a ‘political colour’ which simply implied non-white. Farrukh’s long association with BPM, however, gave way to disappointment. He found that the same oppressive power relations that they denounced were operative among some of their own members. He took exception to the members’ decision to evict a member from the board house because he had slept with a white girl. To him, “the personal is the political” only as long as the latter does not impinge on the former. He pulled out of the movement with three others — among them, Natasha, whom he had already split with.
The memoir, without dates and years, contains stories interwoven with — and sometimes running parallel to — other stories. Breathtaking anecdotes and stunning characters bob out of these narrative cross-currents. One incident took place at Hyde Park. Smolensky, Farrukh’s landlord, asked him to paint his house for a weekly wage. The latter went up a ladder made by tying two shorter ladders together. But the bottom half fell off, and he was left dangling from a rope. He was rescued by the fire engine, and Smolensky had a harrowing time with the police.
One of the characters that leave a lasting impression is that of a nymphomaniac poet from Jamaica, known as SHE. Initially reluctant to divulge the mystery behind her name, she reveals it after having sex with Farrukh — “Because woman is any woman to all of you. Just now, this night, it did not matter who was with you. SHE was with you. I am WOMAN, with capitals, the spirit of all.” One wonders if this is heedless hedonism, or feminist black humour jabbing at patriarchy, or a Carribean version of Plato’s parable of the egg. Be that as it may, SHE fascinates.
In the opening letter, he writes, “...history is a smoothing of ripples”. True, but only partly. It “smoothes” ripples of a past, but creates fresh ripples in the present. Didn’t William Faulkner famously say, “The past is never dead. In fact, it is not even past”?