The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 24, 2002

A journey within and without
Arun Gaur

Reaching Bombay central
by Shama, Futehally. Penguin Viking. Pages 154. Rs 225

Reaching Bombay centralAYESHA’S bureaucrat husband — Aarif Jamal — is suspended for doing "an almost flawless favour, one urged by an impeccable human being" — the treacherous Shiv Prasad Nath and she undertakes a train journey from Delhi to Bombay to seek the help of her Zahid Mamoo, an influential police commissioner, in the matter. However, before the train pulls into its destined station the futility of the mission is laid bare as a fellow traveller — journalist Ranjit Dikshit — breaks the news to Ayesha that her Mamoo has just retired and hence ceased to be of any consequence: "Only thing is, now... who will listen to him?" But this is not exactly the breaking of a news. It could well have been the final dramatic irony of the novelette, a spent force after having become exposed, but no, instead of expiring, it generates another irony from within itself thus making the defeating revelation a source of uncertain relief for the travelling lady.

Since Futehally teaches Western drama at the National School of Drama, some elements of dramaturgy have naturally crept into this novelette to form the basis of the simple plot, shorn of any undue complexity. The train coach is a veritable theatre-stage where a few typical characters are compelled to interact with their freedom of physical movement grossly curtailed although they still do have the freedom to indulge in their abstractions of thoughts and feelings. Again, for such an indulgence the characters have a severely limited time span — that of the train-journey. One has a feeling here that such a pattern is set to adhere to the classical unities of time and place. If this, indeed, is the conscious design of the work, the third unity, i.e., the unity of purpose acquires paramount significance and certainly its sustenance poses the greatest challenge for the creative abilities of the novelist. The entire endeavour of Futehally is to achieve this third unity, that of purpose. Everything in the novelette hinges on the impending doom of inquiry that is to follow the suspension of the husband — it "would be rushed through with the wayward swiftness which sometimes afflicted government." All the co-travellers of Ayesha contribute in some way to the question of suspension, inquiry, and the related issues of corruption in public and private life. It could have very well become a bland academic exercise, but it is salvaged from that horrendous blandness by the fact that the companion-travellers contribute their reflections over the central concern (or even a morbid obsession) of the protagonist without becoming aware that they are performing an act of participation. That is the irony of situation. That is the dramatic intensity, and the source of humour.


In the maze of the official circles of Aarif, Ayesha’s expectations are belied. Almost every cordial relation turns out to be a sham at the moment of crisis, too ready to display with a leer the other side of its Janus-face, taking recourse to existential human compulsions. Ayesha’s Mamoo says: "Your husband has always been a little unrealistic. After all, there are certain realities in our society." Navinbhai the turn-coat minister would not hesitate in making "an example of one Aarif Jamal, entirely in the course of duty." Prakash Taneja, the journalist, who once "whooped with warmth" at the sight of Aarif — his schoolmate — would turn alien, refusing to answer his call promptly. Mr Rastogi, the Additional Secretary, who "could battle excitedly on behalf of juniors" would himself conduct the dreaded inquiry. Jarnail Singh’s "Sat Sri Akal Saab" with "a thundering slap between the shoulder blades" would suddenly become a forgotten salutation. Only Sudarshan, the ever-fumbling typist, remains loyal, concerned, and innocently deferential to Aarif: "Thank you sir, I have taken my coffee." In contrast to this generally harsh external world the domestic circle of children, husband and even the housemaid, is a world wherein Ayesha can breathe more comfortably, at least without any dread of falling a victim to self-delusions.

More or less these characters get reflected in the co-travellers of Ayesha. There is Chhatrasingh Yadav, an ex-M.P., clad in a white kurta-pajama with an "easy elephantine gait," persistently hankering after an AC berth, and a retired High Court judge always keen to have benefits like an extension. Besides these double-dealing experienced imposters there are youthful figures of Ranjit and Jayashree. Ranjit though apparently brash "arrogantly free of coolies" — is ever helpful and in Jayashree who is prone to giving "a cheery hoot of laughter from under her sheet" at the slightest instigation, Ayesha discovers something of her daughter: "Oof! Again worry!"

Besides this close parallel in the characters, the two worlds are thematically connected. At every opportunity the theme of suspension and inquiry is picked up.

Achieved thus, the unity of purpose is a sure invitation to the doom of the art in repetitive smudge unless the art lies in a dexterous hand. And though one has to admit here that the philosophic and the artistic canvas is limited in its scope, art manages to save itself in different ways.

The dilemma of the epistemological quest, the differentiation between the surface value and the essence is presented through a different mode of imagery Ayesha encounters in the fleeting window glimpses. Thus the world of the compartment is not a mere replica of the outside world. it is different, totally different, in some ways and thereby adds its own flavour to the probings in the mind.