I mourn for religious
tolerance : Shama Futehally
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.
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
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
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
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