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I mourn for religious
tolerance : Shama Futehally

Shama Futehally was born in Bombay in 1952. She studied English literature at the universities of Bombay and Leeds; and has since combined writing with teaching. Her first novel, Tara Lane, was published in 1993 and her translations of Meerabai's songs, In the Dark Of The Heart: Songs Of Meera, in 1994. Her short stories have appeared in several collections. She has also written a collection of children's stories with Githa Hariharan, titled Sorry, Best Friend. She is also translating Urdu ghazals.

Shama Futehally lives in New Delhi, India.

Reaching Bombay Central is her second novel.

Your novel Reaching Bombay Central hit the stands at a time when sectarian violence has torn India apart. The profile of the aggressor has changed completely and the cause is getting more and more blurred. I quote from the book: On the little weasel-like face there appeared a leer. The lawyer leaned across the desk. 'Tell me,' he said, 'would this have happened if your name had been Rajesh Shrivastava?'

Do you, as a person, really feel that life is easier if your name is Rajesh Shrivastava and not Ayesha Jamal?

Well, 'life is easier' is a big phrase - I don't know how easy or difficult life is for the Rajesh Shrivastavas of this world, and therefore have no right to comment! But to deny that there are special difficulties for the minority community in India at the present time, would be absurd. I myself have become increasingly timid about using, with strangers, my unmarried name (Shama Futehally) which discloses my Muslim identity immediately. I prefer to use my married name, (Chowdhury) which is neutral-sounding.

Do you borrow from personal experiences here?

Entirely. Although the story of Reaching Bombay Central is concocted, the general situation and atmosphere is as close to real life as I can get.

Do you see an end to this kind of religious hatred?

Unfortunately not in the near future. But I see signs of hope, certainly - I see new political configurations forming which take into account the fact that purely communal politics have rarely brought long term gains to any political party in India. The resilience of the Kashmir voter is the most recent reason for hope - if there is a democratically elected, stable government in Kashmir it will surely be one of the most positive things possible for a strongly secular India.

You say your first novel Tara Lane dealt mainly with personal emotions; it branched out with personal and social concerns. But can you, as a writer, set aside personal and social concerns and yet create something that is close to your heart?

I'm not able to understand this question clearly, but in broad terms - there is almost no experience (whether or not is it 'close to the heart') which is neither personal nor social. If you mean, can you create something which is purely personal and not social at all - that again would seem impossible, to me at least.

You are working on what you call a "political novel" with the Uphaar cinema tragedy as its backdrop. Is it an effort to reinvent yourself? You say the book "is in many ways, an act of atonement." How?

By calling the Uphaar book a 'political novel' - wherever it was that I did so - I cannot possibly have meant that the other two are not political, or that they are not meant to be. Reaching Bombay Central is very directly and obviously so, but even Tara Lane deals with class division, which was a political issue that we were very vocal about in our youth. The Uphaar novel will only be different in that it will not foreground an individual protagonist and will not see the experience through her eyes only. It will deal with a situation which is a vortex of bureaucratic power and money power, and which causes destruction to ordinary lives; and it will see this situation from many points of view. As for the atonement part: well, I think anyone who remembers such an event, who recreates it in memory and refuses to look away from it, is atoning in part of behalf of the society which causes such harm through negligence and exploitation.

In your short story 'Portrait of a Childhood' you tell the story of a growing up girl who looks back at a world that was everything to her, a world which is no more. Do you ever look back and moan for all that is lost, especially religious tolerance?

Yes, I mourn for many things in the Nehruvian era, especially religious tolerance, and also the fact that the poor were not as completely invisible as they are today. And I greatly mourn a lost era where globalised consumerism had not taken over our world, making itself felt even in the sphere of 'culture' so called.

You have translated the bhajans of Meera. What took you there? Is there a favorite line from Meera that you would want to share with the readers?

I was first drawn to Meera when I heard the bhajans sung by Subbalakshmi in my adolescence. After that I grew more and more interested in the actual words and the very precise and evocative images which they created. I improved my Hindi so I could understand them better. The urge to bring those wonderful poems into my own world grew stronger, and the only way I could do it was to recreate them in the sort of English I speak. It's almost impossible to choose a single line, but for the moment here is one which gives an idea of the earthy directness, and yet the depth, of the poetry. While talking of the fact that she is never actually blessed with the darshan of Hari, i.e. with enlightenment, Meera says: 'When he peeps/in my yard, I'm asleep/to the truth of things.'

You are translating Urdu ghazals? Not many writers take to translation, what is your fascination?

I think more and more Indian writers are translating, since many of us have to live in two worlds and in two languages, so to speak; and translation is one way of bridging the two. Although I am not good at learning languages, I'm passionately interested in language per se - in the way it works - in suggestion, tone, nuance, assonance, speed, rhythm, metre - i.e. in all the things which make one line different from another. It is impossible to translate these things into another language but it's equally impossible not to keep trying.

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