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, novelist and translator, died recently in Delhi after a long illness. Educated in Bombay and Leeds, England, Shama Futehally always figured as one of the earliest in a now flourishing tribe made up of ‘India-based’ women writing in English. This group included contemporaries, Shashi Deshpande and Githa Hariharan, and also younger writers such as Anuradha Marwah-Roy, Anna Sujatha Mathai, Lakshmi Kannan and others. Futehally, however, transcended this identity – for she was also an adept translator. As she said, being a writer in India, one consciously lived in two worlds, in two languages, and translating was an effort to bridge the two worlds. When she set to work on her translations of Meerabai’s poetry (In the Dark of the Heart: Songs of Meera), she improved her Hindi so as to understand them better.
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.
Shama also wrote shorter pieces for newspapers and magazines. With her writing, she also successfully managed a career as professor of western drama at Delhi’s National School of Drama, and also a family that included her husband, Jawid Chowdhury, who recently retired from the IAS, and two children. She will be much missed by her family, her students and her readers. Those who knew her will miss her grace, her quiet courage, and her undiminished cheerfulness even in pain. Her readers will miss her self-deprecatory humour and her gentle and astute observances of human behaviour. In the acknowledgments to Tara Lane, she thanked “supportive friends who, have told me firmly that you can write a novel without having been to St Stephen’s College. Therefore any merit and all faults are to be laid at their door”.
For many others, especially younger writers, who were encouraged, by the recent fillip Indian writing has received since the 1980s, to put pen to paper or merely to ‘finger exercise’ on a keyboard, Shama Futehally was an ever-present, unfailing source of encouragement. In this way too, she was different from writers, published and well established who were too self-absorbed or engrossed in their own writing. In the world of Indian writing in English, where a rigid glass ceiling – decided on the basis of works picked up by foreign publishing houses and literary agencies, of huge advances, of life divided between ‘here’ and abroad (in so-called ‘exile’) – divided writers from those merely aspiring or the strugglers, Shama Futehally somehow stood apart. An astute judge and critic, Shama played the role of a guiding light to younger writers. She was always a phone call or email away, an ever present source of support in the indifferent world of writing, in which success can sometimes and too easily appear a function derived from good marketing and hardsell.