Farrukh Dhondy (right) after his talk with Pembroke Politics Felix Esche

“E.M. Forster said: “I write to win the respect of people I respect.” George Orwell said: “I write because I want to know what I think.[...] I started wanting to write because I couldn’t play football, cricket, hockey or boxing.” But don’t feel too bad for Pembroke alumnus Farrukh Dhondy, because he’s done just about everything else. From first-generation immigrant at Cambridge, to socialist activist, to Channel 4 executive, Dhondy has been on both sides of the establishment. He has always used his position to challenge race and class divisions.

These days, Dhondy has countless novels, plays and television scripts to his name, but he had to shelve his writing dreams in order to emigrate from India to England. “The only reason one could get out of India on a scholarship was to do something that would lead to either science, engineering, or a profession.” Dhondy completed a Natural Sciences degree at Pembroke in 2 years, then switched to English, doing 3 supervisions a week in his summer holidays to catch up. Pembroke was the place to study English in the Sixties — every aspiring author wanted Ted Hughes’ former room, and the late critic and broadcaster Clive James would “sit around in hall and pontificate about every damn thing.”

According to Dhondy, sixty years ago there were no second-generation immigrants in Cambridge. None of the non-white students were British-born, so, with their homes halfway around the world, Dhondy and other international students stuck together. They were “kicked out of college for the holidays [...] so we were put into wherever we could find digs. So I was living in an attic in Fitzwilliam Street.”

“The battles that we fought have resulted in both blacks and Asians getting access to the meritocracy”

Dhondy’s “socialist leanings” determined his next move — the Atomic Energy Commission of India offered him a job, but as “Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister at the time, was making an atomic bomb” he chose to teach instead, while working as a freelance journalist. Dhondy soon recognised that in schools, “the way the black kids were treated was not right.”

“Each year was divided into ten divisions, so the third year was 3-1, 3-2, 3-3, 3-4, 3-5 … and then 3X and 3Y, for all the kids who they said had misbehaved in the other classes [...] And it was all whites in the top and all blacks in the bottom.” Despite saying that he didn’t really experience racism at Cambridge, throughout our interview, Dhondy drops clues that show how deeply racism was embedded in English society. He studied for a Master’s degree in Leicester, during which time his local pub was “The Pack Horse” and all too matter-of-factly, Dhondy says, “of course they called it The P*ki Horse”.

Dhondy’s socialist leanings and awareness of racial injustice led him join to the British Black Panthers. He quickly mentions that, unlike America’s Black Panther Party, the BBP was nonviolent, and only “gave itself that name to attract young blacks and Asians.” Dhondy also belonged to the Bengali Housing Action Group, helping South Asian immigrants avoid eviction. Despite not using violence, Dhondy became the target of violence when his flat was firebombed.

The bomber, who was never caught, attacked four other black and South Asian houses that night, and Dhondy’s flat, he explains, was bombed because it was above a Black Panther bookshop. “I woke up choking, and I thought someone was putting a pillow on my face. There was nothing there, just smoke.” Mercifully, Dhondy escaped with only cuts on his legs from the glass of his exploded window.

Dhondy identifies clear parallels between the black British experience and the British Asian experience: “the kind of discrimination one used to face in the access to professional jobs, for instance. The resistance and the battles that we fought have resulted in both blacks and Asians getting access to the meritocracy.” He jokes, “the simplest examples are Rishi Sunak, Suella Braverman, Priti Patel, for God’s sake, Kwasi Kwarteng — I’m not proud of that.”


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Later, Dhondy worked for Channel 4, and soon became their Commissioning Editor. “Channel 4 was given a remit by Parliament to do things that nobody else had done before,” namely, multicultural programming. Dhondy wrote for Black on Black, a news programme aiming to counteract the largely negative news coverage of black people. He also wrote sitcoms such as No Problem!, featuring a Jamaican family, and Tandoori Nights, set in an Indian restaurant.

Even in this enlightened climate, Dhondy faced obstacles. Dhondy believed that, for black and Asian communities to “join the national conversation”, they had to be represented by journalists who belonged to their communities. He set up a documentary programme called The Bandung File, and included esteemed journalists on his team, but until he introduced white executive producers, Channel 4 wouldn’t give the green light.

Socialism and antiracism course through Dhondy’s veins, but he also argues that, for television audiences, there’s a time and a place. “A television audience doesn’t want to listen to lectures — why should they?”. To Dhondy, the best television strikes the balance between message and entertainment. “If you’re writing a sitcom, write in the situation, with some bloody com in it!”