Lectures on poetry, commentaries on textbooks on cheese-making, emails about the inside deals in publishing houses, marketing strategies and businessmen gigolos–these are some of the varied subjects encountered in Farrukh Dhondy’s Adultery and Stories. Adultery, is actually a novella about an poet Sufi and his views, poetry and life, main characteristic of this collection is established right from the start—Dhondy’s rapid and sometimes confusing shift of perspective from one character’s point of view to the other. Whether the perspective is that of Sufi’s, or his wife Joannas, there remains no doubt as to whose story is being told. Sufi remains the central protagonist, we are constantly coerced into seeing things from his position. Trying to live his life remaining true to his own ideological stand, Sufi is alienated not only from his immediate context, but also from his relationships. Abandoning his wife for a sexual/romantic adventure with a young American student, Sufi is soon enough abandoned by his paramour when she meets bigger and more successful literary celebrities.
As Dhondy embarks on the first of his literary ‘turn-arounds, Joanna, Sufi’s long-suffering wife receives the long overdue and unexpected pay-off for Sufi’s poetry and goes to India to look for her ancestor’s grave. It is here that the story takes on an interesting trajectory. The class divide in India, that we as urban readers take for granted, is presented in a remarkable way. Defamiliarization, almost in the Eliot mould takes over as we confront the upper echelons of the Indian Administrative Service and the ways of the Bureaucracy and the Government through the eyes of Joanna.
One of the most interesting aspects of Adultery as in the ‘Other Stories’ is the irony with which Dhondy reveals various aspects of life/culture that we face in our daily lives, yet seem to not acknowledge. The IAS officer who offers quotations from Wordsworth, Sufi poetry, or Eliot at the drop of a hat, talks with immense sensitivity about the need for preservation of the environment and history has no compunctions about exploiting his status to enjoy free hospitality at five-star holiday resorts or accepting bribes from builders to erase the very history he is sworn to protect
This irony pervades all the stories—the delightful ‘Say Cheese’ where a small town Maths Tutor discovers a new mission in his life—of making cheeses he has never ever tasted in his life and in the process, almost ruins his career which he has painstakingly built over many years. ‘Cent per Cent Balkar’ loves Kraft cheese, but when it becomes unavailable thanks to raids on Bombay smugglers, the suppliers of the contraband, he and his employer Miss Gunwallah decide to make their own Kraft cheese. After many trials, Balkar finally makes a successful batch—unfortunately, it has nothing to do with the flavour or texture of Kraft, rather it is the ‘closest thing’ to Camembert that any other country has produced. Balkar, thrown out by his rich ‘partner’ finds his life’s work destroyed, while not only does Miss Gunwallah go on to make millions thanks to Balkars recipe, but Amul succeeds in making their processed cheese, very similar in taste and texture to that of Kraft—every Indian’s definitive understanding of ‘real cheese’.
The book publishing industry is not spared Dhondy’s pen — ‘Emailwallahs’–an epistolary story alternates between the high technology emails exchanged between Bloomsbury Publishers and their Indian agent, and the ‘professional’ letters written home by Shyamalan, a migrant labourer in Bombay. These diametrically separated lives touch briefly but significantly when Shyamalan finally employed as a vendor of pirated books, is arrested in a raid organized by Bloomsbury and their representatives in an attempt to secure their own market. As always, inevitably, the poof and ignorant Shyamalan is the one in trouble. Shyamalan is caught in a nexus of which he remains ignorant till the very end—he is abandoned by his self righteous family as well as his employer who ‘naturally’ evades the police trap. And Dileep Dilawar Singh, Bloomsbury’s agent makes holiday plans with Sandy, his friend in Head Office.
Repeatedly Dhondy exposes the different laws that operate in society—one for the rich and well connected, the other for the poor and marginalized. In the story ‘Short-Stemmed Judas’ we see the shifting equations of power between poor farmers, rich multinational companies selling seeds in Third World countries and the environmental activists of the West who stand up against the multinationals, bur are not necessarily standing up for the poor farmers they claim to represent. Again the narrative alternates between the environmentalist point of view, accusing the multinationals of coercing poor farmers to buy their ecologically destructive seed and bribing those who could give testimonies against the rich corporations. The plight of the peasant woman in Rajasthan, whose husband was seduced first by the environmental activist then by the multinational company, the poor families who have a choice between present prosperity and future ruin is ignored by the warring factions. The real issues lie unarticulated by all the characters, each of whom is concerned only with their own personal battles.
The double exploitation of the rich and poor, the coloured and the white is the main theme of ‘Jig-Jigolo’. Again in epistolary form, this story follows the emails between Patsy an elderly American widow and Suresh Khanna, family and businessman, ex-gigolo on the verge of bankruptcy. Patsy wants to meet Suresh again, twenty years after he helped her recover from her husband’s death, to rediscover her youth. Suresh responds, hoping to gain some financial advantages that would help him salvage his business and life. In the final twist of the story Dhondy reveals the extent of bitterness and hurt that human beings can inflict on one another.
Exploring various aspects of need, Dhondy covers a wide range of experiences and relationships. All operate on the basic principle of the stronger winning over the weaker. However inevitable the end of each story might be, the narratives strike a chord as the reader wonders if there just might be a way out of this relentless process of hurt and need and exploration.
Angelie Multani is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, at the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi. Her areas of interest include Gender Studies and Indian Writing in English. Her: Ph.D. thesis was on the performance of English Language and Adapted Theatre in India. She has published widely on theatre and on Indian English literature.