Gustad Noble, indeed a noble man, struggles through the crises besotting his life. His eldest son spurns IIT, leaves home to avoid the bitter squabbles with him. His best friend disappears, then entwines him in a mysterious scheme with suspicious money. His daughter falls sick. Another good friend has cancer, dies. War breaks out with Pakistan over Bangladesh. Despite his vicissitudes, Gustad is triumphant at the end of a ravaging, tiresome journey.
Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ prize in 1992, this was Mistry’s first novel, after his Swimming Lessons short story collection. As a first, it is understandably sharper and more pungent, like the first works of many other writers. It also appears slightly more plot inclined than his later works, reminiscing occasionally the elements of a good detective story. At the same time, there are some jagged edges, like needlessly overwrought metaphoric embellishments and language display. These however, do not disfavor the writing, which is top notch, or the story, which is engrossing.
Mistry’s scathing observations unravel the pretensions of a fledging democracy and the hopelessness of a defunct civic system. There’s also humour, with Dishawji’s lewd jokes and antics and Peerbhoy Panwallah’s yarn spinners, domestic conflicts between Gustad, Shorab and Dilnavaz that will touch a familiar, disturbing chord, and deeply moving bonds of friendship between Gustad and his two closest friends – Jimmy Bilimoria and Dishawji.
Mistry reflects on death, and details of the Parsi rituals of last rite. He handles the theme of death and loss more poignantly in “Family Matters”, but here too it is not insubstantial. There is also classical music, a recurring theme in all his novels – Dina’s husband’s violin in “A Fine Balance”, the ground floor violin player who likes practicing in the nude in “Family Matters” (I forget her name) and who plays to Nariman’s request in his death bed, and Gustad’s old friend Malcolm in this novel, a music teacher fallen on bad times having to take up a far more pedestrian job. Mistry conveys music’s eternal charms that outlive human frailties, a suitable backdrop soothing distraught lives. Such a long journey also has a bigger dose of the arcane supernatural than Mistry’s other works, as Dilnavaz begins to rely more and more on Mrs. Kutputia’s magic spells to overcome her ever growing woes.
The story is set in Bombay during the early seventies, at the time of India’s second war with Pakistan, in the days just before Indira Gandhi’s infamous emergency. Mistry portrays Indira as a power hungry statesman, a dictator in the making with police tactics and nepotism to champion the cause of her incapable son Sanjay.
An intriguing tale that mixes politics, love, espionage, friendship, and fate, Such a long journey is also a profound, insightful outlook on the many troubles plaguing modern India. A fascinating read.