Two very compelling tales involve Jehangir, the “Bulsara Bookworm”. In “The Collectors”, he’s the boy whom Dr. Mody takes a fancy to. Shunned by other children of the Baag for his quiet, introvert nature, he finds solace in philatelic sessions with Dr. Mody before his ultimate disillusion on a false accusal and Dr. Mody’s untimely death. I had written about this piece in the review for “Storywallah”, which chose “The Collectors” because it is the most isolated story from “Swimming Lessons…”, not only because of minimal cross reference to other characters, but also since it introduces Jehangir and the infamous son of Dr. Mody, Pesi Padmaroo, of whom we hear time and again. Earlier, I had neglected to comment on an important aspect: a reference to the emergency during Indira Gandhi’s tenure at the helm. There’s a small yet significant incident, when Patla and Jhaaria Babu, the street vendors outside Jehangir’s school, are rounded up and thrown out of the city, as a consequence of the drastic measures of garibi hatao drive to sweep out the pavement dwellers of the city. Both Mistry and Rushdie expose the horrors of the emergency through the plight of the defenseless – Rushdie is virulent in “Midnight’s Children”, but Mistry’s elaborate theme under the emergency raj, in “A Fine Balance”, extracts its tragedy more poignantly.
Jehangir grows up, a not too confident college goer, and falls in love. He also marvels at the “Exercisers”, whose rippling muscles he desires to touch, as if to compensate for the feebleness of his own existence. He is overpowered by his daunting mother casting a jealous shadow, preening him away from his love. Yet he is not short of compassion for his mother, when he explains to the girl who loves him, his reasons for returning home at the cost of spoiling an evening – “…I’m doing it because I want to, because her life has been troubled enough, because I don’t want to add more misery to it.”
There is tenderness in the way Jehangir chooses to become the sacrificial lamb.
Mistry is a wonderful storyteller, and “Swimming Lessons…” keeps one engrossed. He slowly unfolds the joys and miseries of the ordinary residents of Firozsha Baag in an extraordinary way. We laugh at the obnoxious Rustomji, commiserate with Jehangir and share Kersi’s nostalgia, building up the jigsaw with pieces of their lives. If there’s one drawback, it’s the thematic similarity conveyed by a sense of loss in almost all the episodes (Almost, because “The Ghost of Firozsha Baag” and “Squatters” are in a lighter vein). Yet, this is not really a drawback, since it does not take away the variety in the stories themselves.