Interview: Farrukh Dhondy, author, Fragments Against My Ruin – “I’ve taken the risk of naming everyone”
What is this book’s title about?
I was asked by my publishers to write this “autobiography” a few months ago and undertook it on a commission, neither as a long-term project with notes etc. nor on a whim. It took me a few weeks, followed by responses to editorial requests, strictures and revisions.
The name for the book came after several rejections from my editors who didn’t want to call it Parsi Custard or The Scribbler’s Tale or indeed 20 other suggestions. They finally and enthusiastically accepted Fragments Against my Ruin – but not every incident or encounter is endowed with a resonance of ruin. I don’t think the truth, or an attempt at the truth relying on memory ever “protects” you. On the contrary, it inevitably exposes one to several vulnerabilities.
The title is a shortened quote from TS Eliot and like him (and everyone else?) a life’s recollections are all we have as time catches up…
Some of your characters are familiar from other books but their names are different. What is that about?
When the publishers first approached me for an autobiography, I asked whether I hadn’t already done that in my trilogy Poona Company, Cambridge Company and London Company. My editor and agent Priya Doraswamy said, “Yes, but that was fictionalised. We now want the “true” account and besides, in your fiction you haven’t covered your TV and writing years or your interaction with illustrious and known characters such as VS Naipaul, CLR James and Charles Sobhraj, to name but a few.” So I agreed.
In The Bikini Murders, a novel I based on my acquaintance with Charles Sobhraj, I changed the names of the characters not simply for legal reasons, but because my creativity – such as it is – would inevitably take liberties with their descriptions and actions. Fiction is the purdah for the true features.
Nevertheless, in the trilogy, I have by and large used the real names of very many but not all the characters. In Fragments Against My Ruin I’ve taken the risk of naming everyone.
There’s a chapter in Fragments which starts, “Johnny said he was going to use the four months of the summer holidays to travel overland to India …” He soon becomes an important character in the book – but there’s no indication of who Johnny is!
He was Richard John Barter Snow, and sadly he passed away in late October this year. I met him in Bombay a short while before I left to study at Cambridge. He was walking in the rain and I stopped my taxi to pick him up, and dropped him where he wanted to go. We exchanged names and he told me he was going to Cambridge, and was very surprised – at first he wondered if I was joking – when I said I was too. In my second week at Cambridge, he came to my college and found me, we went to the pub together and he became part of the crowd I moved with.
I recall writing about him getting in touch with me and us becoming fast friends. Somehow it slipped out, either during the edits or in production. Strangely, the editors didn’t pick this up and neither did two friends who read the manuscript who now tell me they assumed it was the same person I stopped the taxi for.
You’ve mentioned a retired brigadier, trustee of a well-known corporate, and an occasion on which you “blackmailed” him. What happened to the young woman he had trapped in an inappropriate relationship, did she come out of it OK?
Oh, oh, oh! Mea culpa. I never mentioned the name of the brigadier who had an affair with the young girl whose name I did not mention either. The young, dashing, very pretty lady went on to marry a very prosperous capitalist and I think lives happily ever after, but as Pope Francis said when asked if homosexuality was a sin, I’d add, “Who am I to judge?”
It was interesting to read about Charles Sobhraj and how he frequently reached out to you as someone he could make use of! Did you feel that The Serpent did justice to his story? And how does it compare with your Bikini Murders?
I met Charles Sobhraj after he was released from jail in Tihar having deliberately contrived to gain a 20-year sentence in an Indian jail so the death sentence for the murders he committed in Thailand would, through the statute of limitations in Thai law, have expired. The Serpent TV series told the story of his life and crimes in Thailand and how these were detected and led to his arrest. The series ends with a caption in the final episode which says words to the effect of “No one knows why Sobhraj went to Kathmandu in 2008 and was sentenced to life for murders he had committed there”. That caption is wrong. I do know why he went and “risked” imprisonment. The caption prompted me to write a complete account of my interaction with Charles Sobhraj. It’s a book soon to be published in the UK and available in India called Hawk and Hyena and is, unlike The Bikini Murders, strictly factual and based on what Charles and his ex-wife Chantal (whom The Serpent called “Jacqueline”) told me.
Is there a reason why Prophet of Love doesn’t feature in Fragments?
There is absolutely no reason why Prophet of Love, Black Swan, Run, Words, or others of the 35 published books I have to my name don’t feature here except that there was no appropriate story to attach to the writing of them. Now that you have pointed it out, perhaps Prophet is one of those I can recall the story of as I went to my home town Pune, to write about the new Rajneesh phenomenon for a UK weekly and ended up embroiled in an adventure with a young devotee who told me about her horrific experience in it. It did leave me wondering in the end what was true and what was lies or hallucination.
The book is a slightly fictionalised encounter with Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and characters from his ashram, and I changed all their names as the Osho wallas are oh-so-keen on suing. I wanted to call it Prophet of Sex but the publishers didn’t.
What was it like scripting the film Jinnah, which makes a hero of someone you’ve denounced for his role in dividing the subcontinent on the basis of religion, and subsequently professing surprise at the massacres that resulted?
Yes, I did write Jinnah, the film, and I’ve recalled how and why in Fragments. Yes, I did and do consider the Partition of India a tragedy. I was induced by the producer Akbar Ahmed and my good friend Jamil Dehlavi, the director, to suspend my native, nationalistic or Marxist “prejudices” and read a couple of accounts of those events, among them Stanley Wolpert’s biography of Jinnah. I read them carefully and came to the conclusion that Jinnah wanted to win an argument and got landed with a country.
Partition is still to me a tragedy, and modern nation states declaring themselves religious is, to me, a step backwards in history. I hope the film humanised Jinnah whom I portrayed as shaken to the roots by the result and consequences of what he had been the stubborn instrument of bringing about.
Fragments seems to indicate that many of your opportunities to progress as a writer were complete coincidence, why do you think it might be? Karma, perhaps?
I once heard a good friend say that blind and lame people and thalidomide babies deserve their condition for doing what they did in past lives. It put me off the notion of Karma forever.
I got the ambition to be a writer very early on in my life. That I would make a career of it and earn my living for several years through it was luck and coincidence. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, but perhaps more than that was writing things people wanted to read about.
This reminds me of something I’ve written about in Fragments, the time I was in Bangalore in 2001, and got a call from the BBC asking to speak to me on the prestigious radio programme The World at One. I asked them what about? They said, “About your friend VS Naipaul”. My heart sank. Was Vidia dead?
“What about him?” I asked. “He’s just won the Nobel Prize for Literature,” the editor said. I immediately called Dairy Cottage, Wiltshire and Nadira, Lady Naipaul, answered saying the place had gone wild with hundreds of reporters and TV cameras, and Vidia was in the middle of interviews. I said she should convey my congratulations and she said “No, if he knows you called and I didn’t tell him, he’ll be furious, so hang on.”
Vidia came to the phone and said in his usual way “Farrukh, Farrukh, you’ve heard of my little piece of good luck!”
Saaz Aggarwal is an independent journalist. She lives in Pune.