From Poona to Pune
This book is one of the most engrossing, enjoyable ones I’ve read – the kind that makes me think, “I wish I’d written that!” It’s a collection of short stories based on incidents that happened around Farrukh Dhondy when he was growing up in Poona. These are stories of life in a small town, as part of a tiny, unusual – some might even say peculiar – community. Each incident and person is carefully described – but with so much elegance that the narrator’s voice is barely perceptible and we are carried along in a magical trance of changing scenery, seeing and feeling what the magician author compels us to. As one reviewer put it, and I agree completely, “Poona Company is the work of a natural story-teller, entertaining and funny and truth-telling in a way that no lesson about other cultures could ever be.”
I walked down to Sarbatwala Chowk in Pune, a crowded little intersection which is the focal point of many of the stories, and tried to imagine what it must have been like fifty years ago. All I could manage was a two-dimensional, black-and-white image of a leafy street, men on bicycles, a tonga or two and a public bus dating from World War II, something borrowed from an INTACH album.
It was noisy and crowded. Almost everyone around me wore a surgical mask – to protect themselves against swine flu. Pune is currently the swine flu capital of India. We don’t wear helmets in Pune though the fatality and brain-damage figures for bikers in our city are terrifying. If as many people wearing the masks had worn condoms, our HIV statistics would probably be lower too. Ah well.
I called and emailed the Parsis I know, looking for someone who could tell me about those times and was lucky to find that my friend Armity Irani’s husband, Shapoor, had actually been two years junior to Farrukh Dhondy at school. “I read Poona Company in 1980, soon after I returned to Pune after a long stint abroad,” Shapoor told me. “It took me straight back to my childhood, the friends I grew up with, school life, and the days of hanging out at the old Irani joints. Yes, Sarbatwala Chowk was Ground Zero for us in those days!” Shapoor also gave me updates on some of Dhondy’s characters. The strongman Samson, who bore the bodies of innumerable dead Parsis to the Towers of Silence, tragically spent the last years of his life in a wheelchair. He had diabetes and had lost his legs to gangrene. However, Shapoor admits (without a touch of remorse), “Farrukh never cared for me much because I was one of his sister Zarine’s admirers. She was a beauty, with red-gold hair, and a lot of us would hang around near their house hoping to get her attention. Farrukh was the intellectual sort and he didn’t approve of us.”
I found this an interesting revelation because the narrator Farrukh of Poona Company is just a regular guy – a schoolboy who gets up to mischief, is terrified of getting into trouble with his elders, and has deep emotions but cannot express them. The single glimpse the book gives into his intellectual side is so casual you could easily miss it: Raje was known to me because a month before that big game he had challenged me to a chess tournament behind the pavilion in college. He had bet me ten rupees per game. I beat him in three games straight and when I reached for the money under the board, he reached for a black box he carried around. He was a medical student. Out of the dissection set came a mean-looking scalpel. “You moved when I was not looking. You touched the queen twice without shifting it.” He took the money.
This book had been out of print for years and it was like a gift to find it back in the shops.