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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Friday 29 May 2009

The enigmatic and alluring Farah Damji

by Suzan Abrams

This is an older blog. For a kinder arrangement of this interview, please go to my new Wordpress site.

An Interview with Farah Damji

The need for a fix of a sweeter kind; nothing more than the aromatic flavour of a good coffee roast is what spurs present-day writer, renowned socialite and *ethical fashion designer, Farah Damji, to wake up with a renewed zest at her Central London Westminster home every morning.

Of course, she could always settle for alternative sensual pleasures. The legendary Julie Andrews’ flamboyant rendition in My Favourite Things from the absolutely merry Sound of Music may have done well to have encountered some of Damji's own assortments comprising a swift Chanel No.5 whiff, her childrens’ laughter and the shy scent of her little daughter’s hair and the very idea too, mind you, of “drowning” as Damji succinctly puts it, in her “son’s eyes.”

Then there are the simpler women magazine choice favourites like a row of plants sprouting up out of their window boxes, the happy sight of fresh flowers on a table, the smell of baking cakes, the feel of silk and perhaps most relevant of all, the satisfaction of a finished book.

At the end of the day, Damji will look forward to being surrounded by her family, children, good friends and fresh flowers. Think parrot tulips for a moment. Damji adores their “weird organic shapes” and the strange way they completely “freak out” after a full bloom.

Damji also loves Nitin Sawhhney and is a faithful listener of Belle Humble, a North London-based singer whom she suspects may seriously give Lilly Allen a run for her money even if the former hasn’t yet achieved her breakthrough.

Naturally, Damji can afford to be contemplative and daring in her thoughts. These are after all, exciting times in the socialite's life pictured in an ironical upside-down fashion; very much if you like, the calm after the storm.

Damji has come through and survived unscathed a series of traumas, international scandals – some of them unjust - and accompanying crimes; not a pretty story but nevertheless, old demons must still be faced and conquered so there you go.

Now, the Uganda-born former editor and publisher of a once stylish magazine in London, is to reveal all, in her sizzling brave autobiography Try Me to be published by the Ark Press in early July. Fifteen percent of the author's royalties from the sale of each book will be religiously donated to Madonna's charity, in the Raising Malawi campaign which helps over 400 000 orphans annually.

"...I don't see myself as a catalyst for justice truth or ointments but simply as a woman who wanted to tell her uncut, uncensored story. Writing was the first most direct way to do that."

Hers is described as a revolutionary story and a study in paradox by the charismatic writer and columnist Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal. The plot stays devoid of the usual soppy melodramas that habitually tail the Indian immigrant nostalgia – a quality of formula writing that many South Asian writers may have happily settled into, like a pair of old bedroom slippers.

In this instance, Damji who uses her love for writing as a “passionate bug”, begs to differ.

“Writing is the most effective means to convey a message,” she explains. “It's longer lasting than TV, more efficient than radio, it's forever. I don't see myself as a catalyst for justice truth or ointments but simply as a woman who wanted to tell her uncut, uncensored story. Writing was the first most direct way to do that."

At the moment, a writing ritual is confined to the controversial Damji as to just where the mood “takes her.” She is re-reading Naipaul where she may convince herself yet again on the brilliance of the Nobel Laureate’s writings. Simply put, her logic is simple. “He captures the heart of the exiled and is not for the squeamish.” she enthuses.

Damji who holds VS Naipaul. JM Coetzee. Boudiccea. Lady Godiva and Modesty Blaise to great admiration, is also reading Rumi translations, another literary endeavour that resonates the senses, but not those by Coleman Barks.

To any reader, who opens up to the first page of Try Me, Damji would plead, “Keep an open mind and an open heart.” And please. There is good reason for this.

It didn’t help matters that both the Google search engine which may prove overly-efficient at the worst of times and Wikipedia who labelled the once convicted lady an “international fraudster” may have also offered no help at all in soaking up fabricated, deeply exaggerated and in many cases anonymous accounts of what really went on in Damji’s life some years ago.

Now, the fair-minded observer can expect more than just what promises to be a riveting read of homespun truths designed to knock the socks of many.

With Damji’s devil-may-care attitude, the dangerous thrill of scintillating gossip in American and European high society and this promptly laid in contrast with the sharper somber aptitude of deep reflection that summed up daunting prison life first in New York and then England, awaits like a burning summer read.

Be warned that Try Me will be all about the book you can’t put down or won't want to.

Besides the autobiography, established filmmaker Farrukh Dhondy of Lucid Pictures will adapt Farah Damji’s book for the screen. The screenplay is currently a project in the making.

Here now are candid answers to a delicious interview on the necessary personal things the web forgot to record on the real Farah Damji as you may not know her. The simple, everyday things that beg to hold no judgement or puritanical hauteur

With her caustic well-humoured wit, the answers below reveal truth carefully wound into one individual’s resurgence of a new life in the making.

In my own erratic conversations with Farah Damji, let it be known that I have found the writer to be on occasion easily forgiving in that old-fashioned and warm-hearted, "never mind, don’t worry about it" way.


On Writing and Publishing

Explain your current working day.

“At the moment, I’m still focused on getting my life back on track. At this stage, I work a lot on my book and help formulate marketing ideas with my publisher who is also my public relations consultant. We do this quite a lot together.

“I’m also talking to bookshops with the possibility of doing book readings and author signings. I’m lucky that I do have a lot of autonomy with my publisher on subjects like paper quality for instance, which I may not have had anywhere else.” – FD

Who publishes Try Me?

"The Ark Press in July 2009."

How did you discover your publisher?

“I didn’t. They discovered me. And it was a perfect fit. I dumped a “big book deal” because I was put with an editor I couldn’t stand. A young British Asian girl was handed my manuscript to work on. She thought the contents too shocking and insisted I edit out huge chunks of my life. I refused to do this.

“This was after promises made that they loved the book, loved my writing, were fully behind it etc. What they really wanted was to package it and add it to the inane silly Indorbit chick-lit books out there that hold a limited audience and an even more limited world-view.

“Then came Mme. Amita Mukerjee of Revenge Ink who again loved it, wanted it etc etc but had her own agenda.

“Amita and I parted ways in March when it became clear to me that she wasn’t capable of publishing Try Me.

“So when The Ark Press got in touch to ask if I would like to be their first book, I jumped at the chance. Because they too are new, this stays an important title to both parties and I am getting all the attention I could only dream about.

“The Ark Press’s next title is to be Holy Bull; a work of non-fiction that discusses fraud in Indian history. It is written by the historian Roddy Matthews, who challenges the East India Company's version of history as perpetrated by the unfortunate bastard children of the Raj, Willie Dalrymple, Salman Rushdie etc.

“Apart from the general destruction of Dalrymple's perspective Matthews points out ludicrous errors. For example, he writes that William Fraser left Calcutta and sailed down the Ganges in a steamboat for Delhi in the reign of Shah Jehan in 1704. He might as well said he took EasyJet because there were no steamboats at the time. Their other books include an unpublished monograph by VS Naipaul and Farrukh Dhondy's brilliant book, The Bikini Murders, which he denies is based on the true story of Charles Sobraj. I’m in excellent company.”

I remember an anonymous page and one easily visible on the web where the contents stress that you had “dumped” Mme. Mukerjee as she turned out to be nothing more than a vanity publisher. At the same time too, RedHotCurry.com mentioned your supposed online war with a publisher.

“I have nothing to do with Amita Mukerjee anymore. I wish her luck in anything she attempts but I don’t wish to be involved with vanity publishing. RedHotCurry.com never spoke to me.”

How would you accord discipline with writing now that time and freedom are your own?

“I waste far too much time and then I kick myself for doing it. But people around always tell me they can't believe how much I get done. Little do they know...”

What do you expect the reaction to be towards Try Me? What do you stay prepared for?

“Incidentally, I didn’t write it for a reaction. The truth might be painful but can be instructive, cautionary and might assist people to assess others more accurately.”

What would you say to any stubborn observer still sceptical of all your experiences and brutal reflections?

“I don't care. Maybe I should but have never lived my life worried about what people think. .I am not the sum total of the opinions and reflections of me, I have, finally some sense of who I am, devoid of all the hype and hysteria and hate.”

How would you view diaspora Indian writers in Britain or worldwide? Think Jhumpa Lahiri in her new contemporary literature as opposed to the views you held in 2004?

“People like Jumpa Lahiri write Green card misery memoirs. If they hate it so much why don't they go "home?" I think Indian diaspora writers are expected to write a certain way, the men will always be compared to Salman Rushdie, the women to Arundhati Roy although in reality both were one-hit wonders. What people like Rushdie do is make a joke out of degraded civilisations. I don't think that it is funny, I think it is sick.

"Why should we be dictated to about what we can write? Why should we produce simply formulaic books? But there are women breaking out of the mould.

“I admire Naseem Rekha's style and I like what I have read so far from her book, The Crying Tree. She sketches this from a global perspective especially about "dark" issues such as murder. But then I am not up to date anymore with what these "DIASPORA" people are writing.

“I tend to read what I know I am going to love and that tends to come from recommendations. Life is too short to read a book I am going to think later "God, what a waste of time." I want to read books about people whose vision I want to peek into, a bit like a peeping-Tom, so there has to be something there in the first place to attract me to them or their writing.

On Damji’s Autobiography Being Turned into a Film

You said earlier on the web that you were working on a film proposal. Can you tell us more?

“It's being packaged by Lucid Pictures in the UK who are also doing Naipaul's Bend in the River and Howard Jacobson's Kaluki Nights. There are producers attached, Farrukh Dhondy is the Executive Producer (his credits being Bandit Queen, The Rising & Red Mercury)”

How do you reflect on the very idea of your controversial story being turned into a film?

“I love it. Who wouldn’t?”

How do you expect the film on the story of your life to define truth in a way that would be obviously different to the writing craft?

“I think films based on biographies are just a facet of the truth, in the way books are another facet of the same truth.

“I see the book as a launching pad for the film and not a line-by-line interpretation of what happened. All the book does is offer themes but a good writer and director will work to make these interesting to a viewing audience and to keep their attention for two hours at a stretch.

“A book is a different engagement, it's a longer commitment of time and energy in a way. You expend more of yourself by reading a book than by watching a film so it takes a different set of skills to be able to make a great film than to write a good film.”

Who would you in a surreal dream have liked to have directed a film based on your autobiography?

"There are too many great directors out there but two favourites are Guy Ritchie and Stephen Frears.”

Who would you like to play you in a cinematic version of your life so far?

“Angelina Jolie.”

How great a participation would you expect to hold in a film made from Try Me?

“If Farrukh is packaging it, then none. He is a control freak but also my best friend and the most ruthless writer and honest critic I know. I trust him, which is why the film went to Lucid Pictures.”

Are there particular films you enjoy for their execution?

“Dangerous Liaisons, Doubt, Rocknrolla, and Damaged. All cleverly written and directed to leave a gap for the viewer to come to their own conclusions about morality, betrayal, family, society. "

On Signing Off

With adventure, drama and experience in your hand, what do you consider to be the most over-rated virtue and why.

“Discretion: which I see as a coward’s way out.”

How do you view yourself as an individual today?

“A work in progress.”

Besides the film proposal, what stays your next writing project or have you already started work on another book?

“Just thinking right now about a second book, which would be a novel. Mine is a two-book deal so I have to come up with something pretty fast!”

Have you thought about returning to edit a magazine? Especially that once before you were recognized for this.

“Been asked but not interested. Dead Wood Media is approaching extinction. With print-on-demand and news websites giving us the information we want at our fingertips, who needs them anymore?

“Of course there a few magazines left worth keeping around. Vanity fair, Harpers Bazaar, The New Yorker but they exist to continue their own legacy and are supported by those who live / subscribe to the dream. It's a very different world.


*Farah Damji is the owner of Moksasurya.com. Please click on link to be impressed by what is said to be the world's first luxury eco-brand in fashion.