“I didn’t know how one bought a ticket at Liverpool Street station…” This upfront confession sets the tone for Farrukh Dhondy’s memoir (fictive and otherwise) of university life in the England of the sixties. Arriving from Pune on a JN Tata Endowment scholarship, Dhondy was to discover soon enough that life in good old Blighty was very removed from what the Endowment’s Director had led him to expect. His initial encounters with students, the college porter, and his twitchy-eyebrowed, sherry-dispensing tutor established, life moved on in the manner characteristic of the Oxbridge experience. It was part idyll, part rude awakening, olde worlde stuffiness commingling with new age informality, and frequent reminders that one’s colour could and did matter in the world outside academia.
Life before Cambridge blends into his life there, especially when his sweetheart has to be smuggled into England via a contrived marriage to an English buddy and Dhondy in turn grows used to the far from glamorous pecuniary realities of being a Tata scholar. Dhondy has long been known for his versatile engagement with the arts, moving deftly from writing (fiction and drama) to screenplay to commissioning for independent television. So it is perhaps inevitable to find Cambridge Company brimming with references to its thinly-disguised narrator’s forays into journalism (syndicated pieces for an unnamed agency to earn money), theatre (directing, writing, acting), poetry readings and even, once, some vigorous between-the-scenes romps with the set’s designer.
The clash between the old world order and the new, public school and grammar school, at a time when young men and women from the latter were making their way to Oxbridge in greater numbers, is detailed at some length as is the resultant conflicts of ideologies and the narrator’s own struggle to identify his position. To his credit it is the plebeian “donkey jackets” that win him over eventually as does the rhetoric of Paul, an Irish “scholarship boy at the public school” whose mission it was to “abolish the system that afforded him charitable emancipation on the grounds that he was smarter than the rest of the boys he played with.”
The Sixties were the era of not just the Mods and the Rockers as the blurb says, but of campus revolts around the world. In Oxbridge these often took on a laboured if essentially idealistic flavour: protests against the wearing of “subfusc”, the sit-ins at Clarendon, marches to London to protest American imperialism, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, apartheid (picketing Barclays even if one secretly banked there). Dhondy/the narrator had apparently been an atheist by the time he was 13 and a Communist in spirit at 14, a reaction to the “poverty…, famine, flood, earthquake and drought” in India that killed the poor and left the rich untouched and which was all attributed to the work of God. In the seductive climate of Oxbridge radicalism nearly everyone who wasn’t a Tory was left-wing, and it comes as no surprise to read how several of those who people Cambridge Company were to “turn leftish and even virulently Marxist” and “profess to be the most dedicated of Bolsheviks or Maoist disciples” of Joan Robinson (what is surprising however, is that while these virulent Marxists don’t merit even a glimmer of irony Joan Robinson is actually described as a “Sinophile”).
Watch more: Farrukh Dhondy on literature and criticism
Episodic and vividly detailed, the memoir zips through scenes from university life, be it the grand European theatre tour which ends in near disaster, the rejection of racist landlords who won’t rent to wogs, or the all too familiar experience of being an Indian in Cambridge at Christmas: “I suppose I must have known about Christmas vacations, but until they crept up on me, I had not realized that the natives would go home, the colleges would be deserted and that a handful of Indian and Pakistanis would survive the winter in friendly nationalistic groups at hostels and boarding houses.” Dhondy’s refreshing irreverence homes in on, among other things: waiting outside King’s for a glimpse of EM Forster; having old college friend “Jumpy Irani”, now with the Indian consulate, rescue him from custody in Iran; being gullibly propositioned by a gay man; being thrown out of his digs when his girlfriend stays the night; and the must-have experience of inebriated punting on the Cam after a May Ball. In that final scenario, where a woman is photographed wearing nothing but her knickers and a hat, the narrator absurdly strikes a deal to write a feature called Cambridge Madness and agrees to go fifty-fifty on other articles, including one on a pop group with a strange name: “Don’t know what it means,” he is told, “but that’s pop bands for you. They call themselves Pink Floyd.”
Cambridge Company is what is generally described these days as “a good read”. Dhondy occasionally touches on the incongruities of situations but stops short of actual analysis. When he goes the extra mile one gets heartbreaking cameos like the account of the woman who tutored him in Middle English and Chaucer and who wanted no payment, only everything he could tell her about the theory of karma. This bizarre request conceals a commonplace academic tragedy, her affair with a Professor that went horribly wrong, leaving her with a son and guilt at the pain she’s caused her lover’s wife. At her funeral after she dies of cancer Dhondy reads what she had wanted him to, a passage from the Gita and twenty specific lines from Chacer’s Wife of Bath. Large, blonde Catherine, her “usually unkempt hair bunched and tied with a flamboyant ribbon near the end” jumps out of the pages in a way the other characters don’t. Real life people whom most Mumbaikars and Puneris would be familiar with, they remain incidental, mentioned now and again but never really fleshed out.
Vrinda Nabar is an author, critic and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.