Forever Curious: In Coversation with Farrukh Dhondy


December 9, 2008

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He says he still plays with equations. Farrukh Dhondy on the long journey from quantum physics to a life in literature and his latest book, The Bikini Murders. Excerpts…

Farrukh Dhondy: A life in science and literature.

Farrukh Dhondy reminds me of Angelina Jolie. In her pre-Mistress-of-Media-Manipulation days, she exuded an open aura that made her a darling of the press for all the right reasons. She was wont to tell her interviewer earnestly, “You can ask me anything.”

Dhondy and V.S. Naipaul once professed a dislike of dictaphones so I set mine up gingerly but Dhondy is quick to assure me, when in Bangalore for the launch of his new book The Bikini Murders, “Do whatever you want.”

We begin.

How is he reacting to Charles Sobhraj saying that he will sue Dhondy for telling his story in The Bikini Murders?


“I am surprised. Firstly, my novel is about a character called Johnson Thhat. It has a lot of other characters whom I don’t think you can identify in any living lines. They’re conglomerate characters. It might contain some innocent elements of Sobhraj’s life.”

That, considering even the book’s title comes from what the press called Sobhraj when his career first came to light, may seem a trifle disingenuous. But Dhondy insists, “It is not based on Sobhraj at all… Why hasn’t he sued (the authors of the two books written about him)?

“Because he can’t. There are people, and they’ve been in touch with me… there are relatives of Sobhraj’s victims, who have formed an organisation and are using modern methods to try and piece together forensic evidence of the murder of their loved ones…..and if he started raking that up…Or his French lawyer, do you know who she is? She’s married to Carlos the Jack-all; she’s the defender of Milosevic…. If I said Nelson Mandela was a pickpocket I would deserve to be sued.

“Nobody,” he adds, “knows who Sobhraj is in England. The press has picked it up here ……if I had called him Giuseppe Verdi, they would still have said Oh, this is Charles Sobhraj!”

Sobhraj has also reportedly said that Dhondy is a middleman looking for money. “I would have been happier if he had said I was a pimp,” Dhondy retorts.

There are funny moments in Bikini Murders, but you’re never laughing with the killer, who has a voice separate from the writer’s. “This is Johnson Thhat’s voice,” agrees Dhondy. He recalls reading Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, where Mailer follows real-life killer Gary Gilmore’s story “and it’s absolutely plainly written. But it’s not Gary Gilmore talking, it’s Norman Mailer changing his style to accommodate that.”

Other books have been written on murderers, from Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which have the same element of bone-coldness in the narration that Dhondy has achieved in Bikini Murders. There must have been something that drew him to the subject; does Dhondy have a cold mind, one wonders, the same that drew him to quantum physics before he turned towards the literary life? The answer is surprising.

“I was asked to write a book about Islamic terror. I have two pages to say about it, that they are crazed by ideology and if you follow a particular pattern of existence or belief it Rots Your Brain. I find now there are Hindu terrorists…what the…”

But the question, “How does someone kill randomly?” got him thinking. “Serial killing interests me. I’ve seen “Silence of the Lambs”, those are psychopaths. Serial killers are not actually mad, they are you and me. I’ve made no psychological study about Mr. Sobhraj, (although) I’ve met him several times.

“He’s completely ordinary. All this stuff about holding you in a hypnotic gaze, it’s all bollocks. (Cambridge critic) F.R. Leavis was more fascinating.”

Then, a shutter lifts, because one still cannot make the jump from quantum physics to the playwright, columnist, editor for Channel 4, screenwriter. It was, Dhondy finally says, “A reaction to India. I grew up surrounded by abject poverty, social injustice of the most cruel and visible kind, and superstition… I saw all around me shameful and pagan rites…I began to think there is a fracture in the Indian personality because people don’t argue correctly. It stimulated a curiosity about science and certainly a bias towards abject and logical rationalism….At the same time, everybody is pushing in this developing Indian world to get you to be a professional…Parsee family, doctor, lawyer, soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor…and I thought to myself: Death.”

What did he have to look forward to? Some factory in Pune, and “30 years on, what? A Fiat, two-and-a-quarter kids and an unloved wife? I thought I’ve got to get out of here. My one exit was this scientific mode of thought so I did Physics as a career and I got a scholarship to Cambridge. I still know my basic relativity, still play with equations…”

Reconciling opposites

In other words, he could have been a contender. In the play of equations, however, there also lay a deep desire to write. “So within the personality, the opposites are reconciled. I still don’t believe in goo-goo. You tell me Sai Baba, I say no, you tell me Homoeopathy, I say no, you tell me organic food, I say no. I go to the supermarket and look for genetically modified food. I know that buying it will stimulate science. People who only buy organic food are going backward and fooling themselves.”

Dhondy has completed the screenplay for Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. Although directors usually cast, he says “There would be some great Salims in Indian cinema, older actors who can be made to look young and convincing. Sendhil Ramamurthy (from TV’s Heroes) is good if we can get him.”

From heroes to what some claim is anti-hero material, Dhondy answers the perennial question: Are you anti-Muslim?

“It’s idiotic for anybody to call me anti-Muslim. If you attack terrorists they say you are anti-Muslim. I’ve just been translating Sufi Islam. I wouldn’t be devoting time to doing that if I was anti-Muslim. I wish the people who say (I’m anti-Muslim) would go to hell… Why do people say that?”

Perhaps, I suggest, because of the way he attacked William Dalrymple who commented on Naipaul’s support of the BJP in Outlook. What others say was Dalrymple’s “true scholarship” response is not the way Dhondy sees it. Does he feel the need to be an apologist for Naipaul?

In support of Naipaul

“Naipaul is not anti-Muslim. He’s anti the cruelty of Muslim conquest of India.” Dhondy went with Naipaul to a BJP cultural meeting (“isn’t that an oxymoron?”). When Naipaul emerged, there was a throng of journalists asking him if he supported the killings in Gujarat and whether he hated Muslims. Lady Nadira jumped and said, “What do you mean? I am a Muslim! The daughter he’s adopted is a Muslim!”

“I was in Bangalore doing some animation stuff when the BBC called and asked what do you think of Mr. Naipaul’s Nobel prize?” When Dhondy got Naipaul on the phone, he was met with, ‘Haylo Far-rook, you’ve heard about my little spot of good luck?’

“Isn’t that modest?” Dhondy asks.

These days, there’s no question of the 64-year-old Dhondy feeling that his creative life is over. “I feel I’ve just started,” he says. Despite the years on him, he still carries the curiosity of the scientific and literary mind. That’s the elixir of youth the ages have hinted at; perhaps the man who wants to be remembered as “a raconteur” has already found immortality.

Forever curious