Ex-socialite, ex-art dealer, ex-cokehead, ex-con and ex-magazine editor-publisher, Farah Damji has written a memoir. Michael Gross considers her half-confession, half-plea for understanding ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Memoirs typically promise of a tale of transformation and redemption. At the end of hers, 40-something Farah Damji, expat Indian-Ugandan, ex-socialite, ex-art dealer, ex-cokehead, ex-con and ex-magazine editor-publisher, hasn’t changed; she’s still as dangerous a woman as she was half a life ago. Then, though, she was mostly dangerous to herself (and also to two fairly respectable married Englishmen ). Now, she’s proved she is also dangerous to most of those she met before.
Her book, "Try Me", should really be called "Take No Prisoners". That’s a bit unfair. In her telling, Damji did have several stalwarts, such as her solicitor, Imran Khan. But precious few emerge unscathed from this riveting story of how a troubled child became a Chanel-clad, sex-bomb, socialite con-woman and then a somewhat contrite mother and promising writer.
Calling her an ex-con is accurate, yet this hardly describes her short but full life in petty but persistent crime. As most literate Brits with a taste for low gossip know—and as I found out as I read what seems like a half-confession, half-plea for understanding—Farah managed to get herself into a hell of a lot of trouble, and some tabloid headlines, too. She has been imprisoned in both America and Britain for stealing or perverting the course of justice; she has cosied up to mafia bosses and neglected her children. But she has pulled herself out of her self-made pickle, picked up a pen and tried to make sense of it all. The story of this world-class drama queen makes for highly dramatic reading.
Damji’s family are not among her favourites. An Indian raised in Kampala, Uganda, where her grandparents settled to help supervise the building of African railways, Farah was raised in relative privilege, she tells us. But that did not protect her from the exigencies of either family strife or geo-politics. Kassam Damji, her grandfather, was an advisor to the Milton Obote government. Amir Damji, her father, became a wealthy businessman. But in the growing unrest before Idi Amin took over the country in a 1971 coup, Farah, then three, was kidnapped, and their African idyll ended. Shortly after she was released, unharmed but not unscarred, her family fled for England.
“The Mother country, which had reluctantly taken us in, had yet to bear the weight of dependency which would come with the prodigal foreign progeny,” Damji writes, "the offspring of ill-conceived flirtations in far-flung places when we came clamouring to the Sovereign Nation in our hour of need.” But hers is no mere immigrant’s complaint. Many of her problems came to England with her.
“My father was away a lot,” Damji begins her third chapter. “When he was at home, he wasn’t there.” He was inside a bottle of scotch, too remote to protect Damji when a cousin from Nairobi began to regularly sexually abuse her. Her sex life, like her sense of identity, would ever-after be fraught. A statutory rape at a school dance followed. Her mother heard about it from a schoolmate’s parents. Damji had been wearing a skirt of her mother’s when it happened. “I saw her look over her skirt carefully,” the author recalls. “Her skirt wasn’t bloody; surely it would have been if anything like that had transpired…That was when, in my world, she started to die.”
The years that followed were spent looking for love and finding chaos, albeit of the sort that is soaked in champagne, clad in expensive finery and decorated by divine degenerates, darling. "Try Me" switches to high gear when Damji arrives in Manhattan and soon finds herself walking its razor’s edge, running a string of high-class hookers while ignoring her studies at New York University. She hung out at high-life haunts, from uptown’s La Goulue to downtown’s Milk Bar, and was soon whiling away her evenings with the likes of Margaux Hemingway, Peter Beard and Bianca Jagger. She recounts a string of lovers too numerous for anyone without a scorecard to keep track of.
But no matter how high or drunk she was, no matter how many friends she betrayed or credit cards she stole, Damji never spun free of her mortal coil. Apparently she was keeping track, keeping score, maybe even taking notes. In the engrossing mess she made of her life it took her years to find herself—but she did.
As "Try Me" ends, Damji has returned to her two children and is facing the daunting challenge of recreation. “My life had become a lot smaller,” she writes in her last lines, “my needs a lot simpler. But it was my life…Another half a life to live.”
"Try Me", by Farah Damji, The Ark Press