Book Reviews

Review Published in THE LITTLE MAGAZINE

Of Indian English and Other Sins

Navtej Sarna

ADULTERY AND OTHER STORIES By Farrukh Dhondy. Tara Press; 2003; Pps 236.

The enticing title story of Farukh Dhondy’s latest book makes for more than half of it, so one may as well start with it. The theme is familiar and as old as the hills. An ageing, sexually insecure poet/teacher/ novelist looks for egoistic rehabilitation in the tempting attraction of a much younger woman- sexy, challenging, intellectually inclined and finally, poisonous. Adultery, or a clumsy, half-hearted attempt at the dangling apple, is the result. Hurt, guilt and disappointment inevitably follow. To make matters worse, the spouse reacts predictably- with a fling of her own. And predictably, it is a more successful fling. In this story, Sufi, an aging and failed poet, uses the morbid and sepulchral charm of Thomas Grey’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard to entice a young American beauty and walks out on his wife. His beauty is soon on the arm – and in the bed- of another, and more successful, poet and Sufi is out in the cold, with the pieces of his delusion in his hands. Unknown to him, a half forgotten song that he has written back in the seventies suddenly begins to yield royalties that fall, like providential sweet revenge for his attempted infidelity, into the lap of his spurned wife. She encashes the cheques, picks up her India file and like many a memsahib, sets out to India to seek out the grave of her great, great grandmother only to find that the Indians really do not care about old English graves, that there are greedy real estate developers who would rather make money off the land than preserve these crumbling cemeteries. Then she runs into the suave Harish, who seems to be different, who seems to know and seems to care. Thus the story proceeds for more than a hundred pages, the narrative voice alternating from Sufi to his wife and back, chugging like a lazy steam engine through the Indian landscape until it reaches its denouement (where else?) at the moonlit Taj Mahal.

The other stories are relatively short, that is if you can call thirty odd pages short and not even half as interesting. Emailwallahs is told entirely in a series of emails between two publishers in UK and India, obsessed with making money out of Harry Potter, because “Indians don’t know England except as exactly THAT. They will read the book and immediately think this is for real. There are old farts in the Delhi Gymkhana who still think that P.G.Wodehouse is true!” Dhondy mixes up these emails with equally irritating letters written by a poor bookseller at the traffic lights to show the destructive impact that issues of big time publishing and intellectual property rights have on his innocent life. Except that these letters are written in the Indian English that some people in England seem to think most Indians still speak (“My excitement, sir, is overtaking” and so on). Poor illiterate Indians do not write such English, they use their mother tongues and if they get letters written by others then these are usually written in what may be rudimentary but is usually not “funny” English. But I suppose such realities should not be allowed to hamper the style of some expatriate Asians staying and writing in England, who would rather that the mother country be peopled with thousands of Massey Sahibs forever more. Another story traces the unlikely transformation of a man who is devoted to teaching math to school students for four decades. He is suddenly obsessed with the idea of making all kinds of fancy European cheeses- without ever having tasted one- and actually succeeds in doing so using the investment of a rich Parsi woman who too hasn’t ever gone beyond Kraft cheese. In the process, he ends up spoiling his record of a hundred percent success rate for his pupils. All very touching but somehow not the kind of thing that is likely to happen to you or me, and in fact even less likely to happen to a man dyed deep in the teaching habit of four decades. A couple of other equally indifferent stories round up the book. Dhondy’s narrative is loosely structured, lit up only by occasional flashes of wacky humour and inspired lines (“Adultery is what adults do”). But the end result is not satisfying and one cannot help feeling that this is one of the books that one picks up at the railway station, tempted by the title- and then tends to forget on the train. But perhaps that is because this reader happens to go to Delhi Gymkhana and also thinks that P.G.Wodehouse is great.