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Shama Futehally (1952-2004)


Shama Futehally, writer, translator, critic and teacher, died in Delhi on December 2nd. In the twenty-odd years I knew her, she juggled the demands of writing, family, students and friends. This was the bond between us. Year after year we called each other for a quick consultation on the work in progress, a book review, the children’s latest crisis or achievement, or our sadness at the erosion of values we had grown up cherishing. In short, we assured each other that what we were in the middle of was no foolhardy enterprise; that it was possible to be equally committed to the joys and responsibilities of writing, child-rearing, and living in our times, in a city like Delhi and a country like India. Our lives as writers, mothers and citizens came together when we co-edited a collection of children’s stories in the bewildering months after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. As a writer, Shama’s gift was a gentle but incisive prose. This prose, so close at its best to poetry, made her early short fiction luminous. Perhaps it was this poetry, never too deep under the skin of the prose-writer, which made her translations of Meera’s songs work for the reader who has no access to the originals. In her fiction, Shama used her elegant sentences to hint at the little, almost secretive ways in which people and lives change. Simplicity in a writer can be a powerful weapon. In Shama’s hands, this power was tempered with affectionate knowledge of the people she wrote about. Her two novels, Tara Lane and Reaching Bombay Central, as well as her short fiction, indicate that she preferred to write about what she had seen first hand. This defined the size of the canvas she had at her disposal, but it also left no room for pretension. Once I told her she should take more risks in her writing, venture more into worlds she didn’t know intimately. In return, she told me I should guard against imposing on the reader with the ambiguous; that readers, just like writers, want to “acquit themselves with honour.” Her third novel, based on the Uphaar Theatre tragedy, was, I suspect, carrying her forward into less personal themes and ideas. She was responding to her growing confidence about claiming experiences outside herself and refashioning them into fiction, all the while keeping in ...

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