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Squared Away

Padmini Mongia

By Farrukh Dhondy
Harper Collins, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 142, Rs. 186.00


Farrukh Dhondy’s delightful collection of linked short stories, Poona Company, was initially published in 1980 and has been reissued in the Harper Perennial Modern Classics series. Largely centered around a cast of characters that hangs around Sarbatwalla Chowk in Poona in the 1950s, the book takes us back to a time that seems far away: its fifty years since the fifties. The collection also takes the reader back to an earlier moment in the now flourishing domain of contemporary Indian writing in English, a time when a handful of writers wrote and were published. For this reader, both journeys to the past were very welcome. Since Dhondy’s father was in the army and travelled extensively, Dhondy lived with his grandfather, just a short distance from the chowk and its two Irani cafes. Young Farrukh, known as ‘nalha’, or small one, is initially outside the life of the chowk.After the age of twelve, he begins to pass by on his bicycle to and from school. Slowly he is initiated into the life of the square and its motley crew of characters: his friends; Kolmi, the bookie; Samson, the large but poor man who bears the corpses of Parsis to the fire tower; the blind man and his black dog and other such distinct and quirky characters. Farrukh grows up through these stories by lying to his grandfather, befriending a gambler, admiring a journalist. Some of the characters from the chowk are also peers in Farrukh’s school. Their stories are centered in the school and college that Farrukh attends, before, as in the last of the nine stories that make up this collection, he wins a scholarship to the UK where he will study and eventually become a teacher, a writer of stories, novels, biographies, and screenplays, and commissioning editor for BBC Channel 4. Very much a boy’s coming of age story, women and girls are only marginally present in the collection. As Dhondy says, the chowk ‘was the hangout of everybody who was able-bodied and male in the neighborhood’. Barring Zeenat, the daughter of a rich businessman who nips his daughter’s romance with Confession in the bud and Rani ki Jhansi, the beloved of Chamak, these stories are stories of boys and men and of the things boys and men do: gambling, drinking, tinkering with mechanical things, fighting. Stereotypically male as these activities may be, these are ...

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