14. On Writing, Friendship and The Mangrove with Farrukh Dhondy

An iconic writer, author and political activist. A friend to literary figures that have influenced civil rights movements and world leaders. An integral spoke in a wheel of influence – Farrukh Dhondy

Farrukh’s career achievements are self-evident. A diverse body of work that spans decades to a rich set of acquaintances that he holds so dear.

After graduating in Natural Sciences at Cambridge he was presented with a moral dilemma. A default career path would have directed him towards India’s atomic weapons programme. However, this wasn’t aligned with his developing political inclinations and ideologies.

Farrukh course-corrected and found direction in writing. This change in career trajectory came at an inflexion point in the history of the UK civil rights movement. Farrukh was well-positioned, well-educated and ready to nurture a craft that could help balance the scales of social injustice.

His timing – like everything in his life – had him at the right place, at the right time, with the right skills and with the right people.

Farrukh reported on the trial of The Mangrove 9. This watershed moment in the UK civil rights movement thrust institutional police racism into the limelight. Farrukh alongside the Mangrove 9 defendants went on to form the UK Black Panther movement. 

Farrukh is often engaged in consultation for major TV and film productions. Guerrilla – by John Ridley – and the recently aired BBC series Small Axe – by Steve McQueen. Both have Farrukh’s fingerprints all over them. Stories, historical insight and characters that are integral to these productions were sourced from Farrukh’s own experience as a founder member of the panthers.

This movement would introduce Farrukh to formidable characters such as Darcus Howe, CLR James, Barbara Beese, Althea Jones and the Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipul.

Farrukh’s activism and writing would eventually diverge into the realm of theatre and TV. The Black Theatre Co-Operative was a gateway into creative roles as editor and writer for Channel 4, the BBC and numerous independent productions. Whilst at the same time crafting an immense body of literary works.

This conversation navigates Farrukh’s career via a collection of stories based around friendship. He shares intimate conversations about – his house guest – CLR James and his encounter with Trotsky. Memories of his friendship with Darcus Howe. And the influence of Althea Jones and Mala Sen – his first wife and author of the book that became the Bandit Queen.

  • Mangrove 9 Trial - Newspaper Clipping

We also explore how a turbulent set of encounters with the Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipul turned into a lifelong, close personal friendship. And how he was the only reporter in the room when The Beatles met the Maharishi in 1967. Oh Farrukh also hangs around with Pink Floyd at some point during the conversation too.

For me, this a personal interest story. In 1952, my grandfather emigrated to the UK from Punjab, India. I never paid attention to his stories about fermenting racism. And the labour movement that was pivotal in shaping immigrant rights. I didn’t have the insight or inclination to ask questions. Now, I wish I had.

New years eve of 2020 – when this dialogue took place – was my opportunity, to start to appreciate the political atmosphere. To understand the actors who were the architects that shaped my life of privilege. For which I now appreciate the debt of gratitude I hold towards the activists and socialists that rose against systematic oppression.

This is a conversation about social justice, friendship, nurturing relationships and being present in the moment. Upon reflection, I later realised that Farrukh doesn’t care much for legacy. We are often consumed in strategising to create a legacy as opposed to being present in what we do. But Farrukh reminds us that we simply get on with life. Embrace moments and be present in those moments. Support those around us and give our time and attention to others. 

I was in complete adoration of Farrukh’s achievement. A man of incredible accomplishment. Farrukh made me reflect on my own relationships and the purposefulness of my own body of work.

I do this to improve myself. To learn, to widen my lens and hope somewhere a message or conversation has some sort of social or personal impact. To me, that is Farrukh Dhondy. Truly an honour and privilege to have spent time with a legend. A moment in my life that I will truly treasure and a newfound friendship that I hope to nurture.

A special thanks to Naina Redhu for contributing to the artwork for this episode. A hyper-talented photographer and artist out of Gurgaon – India. Link to Naina’s various social media profiles in the links below.

Warning: This episode contains explicit language.

QUOTES

I was a peacemaker, a communist and whatnot, so I told them I don’t want to help make Indira’s Atomic bomb. – Farrukh

Scientific exploration is the way forward for humanity.” – Farrukh

The kind of poverty I grew up around, convinced me that there was a connection between irrationality, superstition, even religion and that degradation of humanity” – Farrukh

The poverty was crushing, you saw people starving in the street.” – Farrukh

The audience for multi-cultural writing exists, but multi-cultural writing doesn’t exist.” – Farrukh on meeting his first publisher.

I don’t like that Dhondy fellow, he doesn’t believe in anything.” – Farrukh on V. S. Naipul’s first impression of him.

Things are not just relative and subjective. There is an objective truth. There is an objective way of looking at books and poems. I believed all that.” – Farrukh

CLR James used to say that America is a country closest to communism. Which is a very strange thing to say. But the democratic qualities of America will eventually lead to some form of equality.” – Farrukh

Darcus was full of insight into a situation. He could gauge an audience and address their concerns without resorting to what he read or cliché. He could address an audience exactly how they wanted to be addressed. It was a great gift. Some of it was rabble-rousing, but with a tight harness.” – Farrukh

“I learnt more about India’s economic policy by looking at an auto-rickshaw. More than anything I could read in a book.” – Farrukh quoting Darcus’s observation on the economic governmental monopolies of India.

RESOURCES

Farrukh Dhondy: LinkedIn | Bookography
Naina Redhu: Website | Instagram | LinkedIn | Twitter | YouTube | Facebook
New York Times: Worldwide Propaganda Network Built by the C.I.A.
New Yorker The Shattering Double Vision of V. S. Naipaul
NPR: Remembering Nobel Laureate And Author V.S. Naipaul
The Guardian: 12 Years a Slave: the book behind the film
The Guardian: Landmarks in law: when the Mangrove Nine beat the British state
BBC: The Mangrove Nine – BBC Feature
Prospect Magazine: For all his flaws, VS Naipaul was a pioneering genius
New York Times: Obama, the Best-Selling Author, on Reading, Writing and Radical Empathy
The Guardian: Leila Hassan Howe: ‘My life was made hell. You’d just hear a tirade against immigrants
Royal Gazette: The New Cross Fire (January 18, 1981)
New Yorker: The Strangeness of Grief – Augustus the Cat
New Republic: V.S. Naipaul on the Arab Spring, Authors He Loathes, and the Books He Will Never Write
Brixton Blog: Brixton figures in BBC Black history course
Refinery29: The Untold Story Of The Women Who Led Britain’s Black Panther Movement
Our Migration Story: Communities in action: the Indian Workers’ Association
Rolling Stone: ‘It’s About a Certain Kind of Blackness’: Steve McQueen on the Making of ‘Small Axe’
BFI: “These are the untold stories that make up our nation”: Steve McQueen on Small Axe
Bustle: Where Are The Mangrove 9 Now?
Stylist: Remembering Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the UK’s forgotten civil rights activist
Vulture: Guerrilla’s Critics Say John Ridley’s New Show Erases Black Women Activists
Indie Wire: ‘Guerrilla’ Review: John Ridley’s ’70s London Black Power Drama Tries to Show All Sides of a Revolution
Open Culture: V. S. Naipul on Barack Obama’s Summer Reading List
Beatles Bible: The Beatles meet Maharishi Mahesh Yogi
Unfinished Histories: The Black Theatre Co-Operative
Left Voice: C.L.R. James and Leon Trotsky: A Negro Organization
BlackHistoryMonth.Org: West Indies Federation
British Library: Intelligence report on the Indian Workers’ Association
Warwick University – Research Paper: Towards a History of the Indian Workers’ Association
Edinburgh University Research Explorer: The Ethnic Roots of Class Universalism
Nobel Prize: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2001 – V. S. Naipul
Andrew Whittuck: Pink Floyd Photograph Portfolio
Film: Bandit Queen
YouTube: Mala Sen speaks about her book Bandit Queen
TV Series: Small Axe on BBC One
TV Series: No Problem
TV Series: Tandoori Nights
TV Series: King of the Ghetto
Book: Darcus Howe: A Political Biography
Book: East End At Your Feet by Farrukh Dhondy
Book: India: A Million Mutinies Now by V. S. Naipul
Book: India’s Bandit Queen
Bookography: V. S. Naipul
Bookography: Sukhwant Singh
Bookography: CLR James

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