How do you measure a life? In the case of a writer, by the girth of his ‘complete’ or ‘collected’ works.
Farrukh Dhondy’s The Fifth Gospel: Complete Short Fiction testifies to a life (thus far) well spent. It brings together all his published shorter works, from East End at Your Feet, a collection of short stories about the Indian community in Southhall (London) to Janaky and the Giant, a book of stories for children. It’s cliched to use the phrase ‘something for everyone’, but that’s precisely what’s in store for readers here.
The immigrant narrative has become fashionable now, thanks to the success of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri and Hanif Kureishi. Dhondy, however, refuses to stay confined within the Indian community, and ventures out to spin tales of disaffected black youth (The Siege of Babylon, his novella, being a great example), ethnic tensions within the diasporic Southall community as well as tales written from ‘white’ perspectives on an increasingly incomprehensible world.
Dhondy’s ‘immigrant’ narratives seem to circle back to one theme: the absolute lack of understanding between any two communities. Despite all attempt to build some kind of relationship—romantic, platonic, educational—there is an aura of unknowability that falls over characters, a veil that keeps them from truly connecting, no matter how ‘good’ the intentions. For instance, here is Edwina, a young white woman, reflecting on her relationship with a group of black men:
“She knew that in speech, she insisted on talking about black people, white people, anybody, as though they were the same, knowing that in reality there was a world of differences between them. She had learnt…that she must not try to deny or abandon her ‘whiteness’.”
Race, ethnicity—these are facts that cannot be denied or blithely, utopically ignored in Dhondy’s world. ‘Coloured’ schoolchildren perplex their white, traditional teachers, rub their ‘otherness’ in their faces; romantic interests flare up and die away because the white British man cannot ‘figure out’ the brown women they eye. In a world that seems continuously riven by ethnic and religious conflict, Dhondy’s stories are a chilling reminder of the gulfs that remain between us.
Not all his tales are so dire, of course. Stories like ‘Pushy’s Pimples’ and ‘ Lost Soul’ are surprisingly comical, where the typical dramas of east meets west and old meets new are played out to hilarious effect. Dhondy even abandons the realist frame altogether in tales like ‘Trip Trap’—a surreal, science fiction vignette—and the eponymous ‘The Fifth Gospel’, an Indiana Jones-like mystery tale about the possible burial site of Jesus Christ.
Dhondy’s style is simple, his characters hewn with few words and a great deal of precision. He immerses his readers in a world already half familiar and puts a new filter on it. His characters are immediately recognisable figures—the teenage girl nervous about her first sexual encounter; the angry boy who finds courage in Bruce Lee’s movies; the confused black revolutionary, uncertain of where to find meaning in a world of shady dealings and even shadier ideals. The collection has an answer to every mood, and whatever the genre he chooses, Dhondy makes sure to deliver stories that are thought-provoking, tightly bound and, above all, contain protagonists who are, whatever be their race, age, politics or profession, comfortingly human.