March 10th, 2011
In the beginning, she was just a voice on the telephone. A voice that was different. When she called it was as a contributor asking for editorial advice where I worked at the Economic and Political Weekly, but I had never before heard a voice that could sound so alive and warm even over a telephone. When she said who she was, I listened on with awe. I had read and been deeply moved by her book, Tara Lane. But writers were remote, unapproachable beings, and Shama didn’t seem so.
One day I called her back on impulse, and that began a strange relationship where she became my teacher in many ways. She offered to read my manuscript. Most writers will hesitate to do that, especially for someone unpublished and untested. A new writer is the most unbearable of creatures, and I had all the symptoms of being over-eager, of over-writing, of being sententious and at times, losing the plot altogether. Yet Shama never lost patience, and she helped me not to lose faith either, for of course the rejections when they came were quick and unstoppable.
For over a year, Shama and I exchanged mails. She wrote long gentle emails, pointing out things in my manuscript and even now, I remain amazed and moved by how kind she was. ‘You can’t say a thatched roof looks like a dog’s unbrushed coat? Readers must relate to the metaphors you use.’
I learnt as much from her emails as from her books too. Tara Lane is a moving account of a young girl in a Muslim family and the sudden difficulties that confront the family when her father’s factory is shut down by a strike. In the shamefully short time I knew her, a little less than two years, I read more by her. I learnt of her grace, the amazing and direct simplicity with which she chose her words, and ability to get to the ‘heart of the matter’ in no time.
She had a great range of interests as her reviews and short pieces for newspapers show.
And while her oeuvre may seem small when compared to other prolific writers, she wrote of abiding values and things that mattered. Reaching Bombay Central was a plea for religious tolerance and to do away with slotting people into stereotypes.
But more, I still treasure her emails written to me for nearly a year till she passed away in December 2003. She bore her illness with fortitude, and grace and I miss her more every passing year. I remember lots of things about her, but moments when I lose confidence, the lines she wrote at the end of her short piece, ‘On Writing’ that appears in the collected, ‘The Right Word’ always come to mind. Shama talking of the need for writers to really understand ‘failure’, wrote, ‘ … when young people ask me how they can learn to write, I would say, if I dared, “Only learn to live’.”
This story is from the forthcoming publication ‘Be Inspired: Personal Accounts from Women Agents of Change’ produced by the Commonwealth Foundation. The publication contains stories of four women who have been influenced and inspired, not by powerful politicians or business leaders in their cases, but by friends, family members and role models who don’t even know they are. And in writing their stories, these women have gone on to inspire many more through their own creative achievements. They are past entrants and winners of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition and their stories illustrate how inspiration, and inspiring women, can be found everywhere.
In Memoriam: Shama Futehally
More on Shama Futehally : http://www.sawnet.org/books/authors.php?Futehally+Shama
First published in the Economic & Political Weekly, 18 December 2004. Reproduced here (http://www.sawnet.org/articles/shama_futehally.html) by permission .
Shama Futehally transcended her role as a writer in English. Her novels reflected her wider political concerns; she was also a teacher of western drama while her translations of Hindi and Urdu poetry have been widely acclaimed. For writers just beginning, she was an ever-present source of encouragement.
Shama Futehally wrote her first novel, Tara Lane, in 1993. Its publication coincided at a time when debate still raged as to what really defined Indo-Anglian writing while the term Indian/s writing in English (IWE) was yet to slip into popular usage. Shama Futehally’s work, however, stood somewhat apart, not just quite what constituted mainstream thinking on these issues. What Shama wrote about would have been immediately familiar to the Indian reader, brought up in an ‘Indian’ milieu and thereby familiar with issues she raised subtly in her novels – in both Tara Lane and Reaching Bombay Central (2002). In that sense, she was an anachronism – her writing, unlike most IWE, did not seek to explain India to the outside, in most instances the western reader, but instead in a manner, gentle and with that touch of exquisite irony, sharp in its observations of character and the nuances present in everyday situations, she reminded her readers of things common and yet lost somewhere in the recesses of memory. In her writing, there were moments of drama, as for instance, the clear delineation of a character, and others that gave cause for reflection, in observations delivered in an aside or as afterthought.
Shama Futehally was born in 1952 in Bombay, the child of what she herself described as a ‘privileged, sheltered life’. A vignette of this life appears in her novel, Tara Lane, where the protagonist soon learns to grapple with everyday realities of ordinary people – when she sees her industrialist father having to stand in a queue for a much-needed authorisation. The one common theme of this novel that was also addressed in her next, Reaching Bombay Central, was that of corruption. Corruption, intentional and otherwise, and how it transforms lives of those around. In Reaching Bombay Central,Ayesha Jamal’s husband has been suspended for unduly favouring a fellow Muslim. Ayesha in turn sets off on a train journey to Bombay hoping to convince her more influential uncle, Zahid Mamoo, to put in a word that will save Aarif. In the space of a few hours that the journey takes, Futehally’s characters, the four passengers in the compartment, come to life, reminding readers at once, of the new hierarchies that have come to roost in post-independent India – a politician, a brash upstart journalist, two liberal educated women. But while Futehally makes no allusion to religion, except perhaps by the names she gives her characters, it is starkly apparent from the onset that the novel is set in troubled times – a Right-wing party is in power and minorities are very conscious of their position and thus insecure. Thus, Ayesha hesitates over her clearly identifiable name, while the hint of recent riots and killings is a mere mention away, as is the sudden abandonment by ‘friends’, almost expected in the circumstances.
Such writing, that appears to focus more on the smaller, more intimate details, that is, on those insignificant details that make up a woman’s concerns, and hence have little to do with matters of greater import, is often seen as characteristic of women’s writing. The work of Shashi Deshpande, arguably one of the foremost writers in the language, who lives and works out of Bangalore, has at times been simply slotted as such (for instance, see editorial, Indian Review of Books, May 16, 2000). Shama Futehally’s literary output did not do justice to her talents, but both her books are intricate works of craftsmanship with every minute detail fitting into the main narrative. For instance, Reaching Bombay Central is concerned with religious tolerance and her protagonist worries about its ephemeral and contested status in present day India, which is a theme other writers too have grappled with.
In one of her early short stories ‘Portrait of Childhood’ that formed part of an edited collection, In Other Words by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon (Kali for Women), Shama portrayed a childhood world full of innocence, unintended privilege and where ‘secular’ values formed wholly and quite naturally a part of a child’s existence. Identity then was more amorphous, and values not given but somehow assumed. Perhaps that was also a reason why Shama also devoted much of her time to translations, in an effort to preserve something that was in danger of getting lost, or of familiarising alien English readers to hidden gems. Her In the Dark of the Heart: Songs of Meera was widely acclaimed. And her translations of Urdu ghazals, including poems by the mystic Siraj Aurangabadi, Ghalib, and more modern poets such as Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi, are due to appear shortly.
In an interview, Shama once said, “literature represents that dangerous area where it is impossible not to go too far” (in Tense Past, Tense Present: Women Writing in English, Joel Kuortti (ed), Stree, 2004). Perhaps her most hard-hitting work was the one she was working on even as she lay ill – a novel that she herself described as ‘political’ centred on the Uphaar cinema tragedy. This was also perhaps her genteel response to criticism that she only wrote novellas or long short stories.