Category Archives: Rohinton Mistry

Literary potshots

In Fury, a Salman Rushdie character (Prof. Solanka) flays Hemingway, calling him the “most effeminate” of novelists, or something to that effect. It suits Rushdie, his writing leaning towards the opposite spectrum of literary style.

A few years down the line, Rohinton Mistry writes in Family Matters –

“…Yezad felt that Punjabi migrants of a certain age were like Indian authors writing about that period, whether in realist novels of corpse-filled trains or in the magic-realist midnight muddles, all repeating the same catalogue of horrors about slaughter and burning, rape and mutilation, foetuses torn out of wombs, genitals stuffed in the mouths of the castrated.”

– obvious references to Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Mistry makes up for it when Yezad is immediately penitent:

“…He knew they had to keep telling their story, just like Jews had to theirs, about the Holocaust…”

 

It is interesting to see some mudslinging between authors, through their own medium, a license to criticize one of the small pleasure’s of a writer’s life.

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry

Such A Long JourneyGustad 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.

Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry

A tale of the pains of old age and disease, Family Matters is also a reflection on ties that bind us in joy yet enmesh us in misery at the same time. It’s a statement on the pitfalls of succumbing to blind tradition disregarding love and logic, both in the matters of the family and in the bigger socio political scene.

Family Matters Like his other works, the setting is Bombay, this time during Shiv Sena rule post Babri Masjid turmoil of the 90s. Mistry brings out the brutality the Shiv Sena regime through numerous incisive remarks of his characters and portraying a Muslim victim of the riots. At times it does feel like he has adopted a populist anti Hindu fundamentalist agenda through some stereotypical characters (Mr. Kapur, his Muslim protege Husain). But really, it’s the sad outcome of any kind of fundamentalism, or orthodoxy, that the novel brings out in the end. Nariman Vakeel is as much a victim as a perpetrator. While one is touched by his tragic life, there’s also surprise and a certain anger one experiences in how an educated, rather unconventional Parsi can relent to stupid parental pressures into disavowing the love of his life. While this surprise is implicit, leading to questions on the genuineness of the Nariman character itself, the other surprise blows up in ones face. No, unfurls like a curtain is more appropriate, no subtlety there, for Yezad, the book’s other principal, is gradually transformed from an unbeliever to a staunch, orthodox Parsi. Yet, the transformation brings out in him larger human qualities, helps him understand Nariman’s pain, realize the ephemeral nature of life itself.

 

What folly made young people, even those in middle age, think they were immortal? How much better, their lives, if they could remember the end. Carrying your death with you every day would make it hard to waste tie on unkindness and anger and bitterness, on anything petty. That was the secret: remembering your dying time, in order to keep the stupid and ugly out of your living time.”

 

Undoubtedly the best lines of the book.

 

More subdued than “A Fine Balance”, his preceding work, this is nonetheless a poignant story, flowing with excellent narration, subtle wit and sarcasm, one quite difficult to abandon till the end.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: Of quotes, names and more

        I wanted to follow up my earlier post with a few things I had in mind, but could not fit in, due to lack of context and contemplation.

The first is in the name of a principal character – Dina Dalal. This is almost too perfect a nomination, yet doesn’t sound jarring or unnatural at all. In Parsi, Dina (as I found searching on the web), means judged. However, the Hindu connotation (deen) is mired in poverty or lack, just like her life. She then becomes an agent, or a dalal, for an export company to counter her situation. How much relevant could it get. Nicely done!

A character I missed was Monkey Man (his real name we never know). This is the guy whose hand is seen in the cover of the book, balancing a little girl atop a pole. You’ll have to read the book to find out more of the Monkey Man’s and the little girl’s fate, but the innocence of the photograph intended to garner pathos is utterly misleading – for the hand turns out to be that of a murderer. A murderer that society created when it took away the poor man’s livelihood and forced him into things he’d rather not have ventured into. But not all wronged become murderers, means there must have been something, a streak of madness, in him to make him cross the line. Monkey Man is another of the bizarre characters that the book is littered with. Bizarre in the absurdness of what one does to earn a living, and in the extremeness of their actions. Some of the others are Hair Collector Rajaram, Shankar the Worm and Beggarmaster. Perhaps I should also include Ibrahim the rent collector and Vasantrao Valmik the proofreader turned orator turned lawyer.

I’d like to conclude with a couple of significant quotes that I spotted. Both are from Dina’s younger life, in the earlier parts of the book (since I got too engrossed later to jot down any specifics).

 

 

The first is an excellent use of a metaphor:
There was no such thing as perfect privacy, life was a perpetual concert-hall recital with a captive audience.”

 

The second is after the untimely demise of Dina’s husband, when she’s trying to regain her foothold on life:
The road towards self-reliance could not lie through the past.”

I think I might hang this one up in a frame in my study.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

If you missed the Introductory bit…

A Fine Balance Dukhi, the father and Ishvar and Narayan, fed up of the oppression of lower castes, sends his sons to his friend Ashraf, so he can train them as tailors, breaking away from the erstwhile caste dictated professoin of chamaar. Narayan then returns to the village, setting up his own enterprise, his son Omprakash being sent to join his unmarried uncle Ishvar and Ashraf chacha, to train as a tailor. But Om loses his entire family when a vindictive upper caste landlord burns Narayan’s and Dukhi’s homes, decimating them. Following the annihilation, Ishvar and Om go to Bombay, to make some money before returning, planning to set up their own tailoring business.

After much searching, they finally land a job with Dina Dalal. Dina has herself fallen into bad times. A widow for sixteen years, she was managing to keep up with her home based sewing business, until her eyes began to falter. To pay for her rent, she plans to take up a paying guest and also run a tailoring business – both with her friend Zenobia’s help. Zenobia gets her in touch with a friend of their schooldays, Aban, who now lives in a faraway hill station, her son Maneck studying for a diploma in Refrigeration and Air Conditioning in Bombay. Maneck’s search for an accommodation, in the face of hostel ragging, turns out to be an opportune moment for Dina. She simultaneously receives a contract with Au Revoir exports, to stitch garments for them based on paper their patterns. All she needs is a couple of tailors, whom she finds in Ishvar and Om, themselves desperate for a job. Circumstances thus bring the quadrangle together.

Maneck and Om, despite their huge differences in backgrounds, become good friends. For a while everything goes smoothly – the orders are delivered in time, Maneck is relieved to find a new place, Ishvar and Om find a settlement, and Dina no longer has to beg her brother Nusswan for rent money. Then police drive Ishvar and Om out of their homes, their chawl destroyed under the city beautification scheme. Dina’s tailoring work suffers, but still limps along, as Ishvar and Om find a makeshift dwelling in the streets, under the awning of a pharmacy. But they are soon rounded up and driven out of the city along with a bunch of beggars, to provide cheap (free) labour to an irrigation project – another outcome of civic beautification scheme, wherein pavement dwellers were strategically eradicated. Dina’s work comes to a standstill. When Ishvar and Om return after their many travails, she is willing to give them accommodation in her own flat, letting them sleep in the verandah. Maneck, an idealistic boy, who does not believe in needless social divisions, is overjoyed. What starts for Dina as a survival strategy, to keep her business running by not losing her tailors, metamorphoses into her compassion for the destitute uncle nephew pair. Superficial customs fall apart as the four share the same food, the same bathroom, plates and glasses. Maneck is joyful in Om’s company, the two enjoying their teenage escapades.

Things however take a drastic downturn when, at the end an year of successful business and bonhomie, the tailors decide to take a vacation to their native place, to visit Ashraf chacha and to find a bride for Om, whom Ishvar is desperate to get married off. Maneck too, at the end of his diploma, decides to spend some time at home, before returning for his degree. Dina, alone, awaits their return in the hope of resuming her business, missing their presence. She remains waiting. Dreadful things happen to Ishvar and Om back in town. When they return to the city, broken and invalid, Dina has already lost her flat to her oppressive landlord. She’s back to staying with her brother – her will broken, freedom taken away. Maneck, instead of returning to Bombay, is sent to Dubai by his father, for a job. Their camaraderie is disrupted for good, with the heartbreaking fate of the tailors.

However, there is more heartbreak in store in the epilogue. A word of warning: If you feel, like me, that the book is sufficiently complete before the epilogue, don’t bother delving into the epilogue. It will depress you further, to encounter more deaths and the deeper revelation of the Ishvar and Om’s horrible fate. I’m not willing to disclose it here in my review.

Coming to the characters, Dina is the one most complete of the four. We see her as a young girl, growing up under Nusswan’s strict vigilance. The guilt ridden, puerile Nusswan, though critical at times of Dina, ultimately wants her well being. He’s always there for her – when she needs that extra money to pay her rent, and in the end when she is evicted from her flat and has no place to turn to. In some ways, Nusswan reminds me of Arun, Lata’s snobbish brother in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Both are caring towards their sibling(s), although in their own obnoxious ways. Dina’s marriage to Rustom is beautifully captured, the essence of their love disregarding the entrapments of wealth. Dina, though having become more skeptical in the hard times, has a heart of gold, as Maneck discovers in the gradual melting away of her hard outer shell, much to his delight. She is strong and independent, turning down the proposas that Nusswan brings after Rustom’s death, urging her to remarry. She remains in their old flat, braving the accompanying challenge of earning her own living, rather than succumbing to a more sated lifestyle she could have easily chosen. In the end, it is sad to see her crumble, her resistance giving way to a strange kind of peace that comes right off the pages, a sort of acceptance of defeat, a kind of tiredness in the face of insurmountable injustices she has witnessed. “I have seen enough,” she seems to say. “I don’t care anymore of what happens to me and world around.” Nusswan himself is surprised, missing the old Dina and her confronting habits.

Maneck’s character seems underdeveloped. Although we do get a sense of his isolation and depression on being away from his home and due the rift with his father, it also appears that he is a rational man, more mature than his years – from his sense of respect for Dina and from his modern ideas of marketing to resurrect their dwindling family business. This does not justify his final outcome, at least in the manner portrayed. There seems to be wide gap between his year in Bombay with Dina and the tailors, to his return nine years later (in the epilogue…there, I’ve already told you some of it!). The years in between are vital to his transformation and of which there’s simply not enough.

The Ishvar and Om characters are sufficient. One is moved almost to tears in the atrocious events befalling their cursed lives. At the same time, Mistry is successful of casting in them a philosophical wisdom, especially in Ishvar, a sense of detachment in the face of all adversities.

A few things are overdone, like the entire beggar entourage including their Beggarmaster, whom I found quite implausible. The haircollector turned psychopath turned holy man is also much too surreal. There are some mouthpieces – in Vasantrao Valmik and the Sikh taxi driver in Delhi (again, in the epilogue) – who shed some light on the emergency and degenerating political scene of the country thereafter.

The book has a prologue and an epilogue. While the prologue is very relevant and sets up the tone, unobtrusively introducing us to all the four principals, the epilogue, as I mentioned earlier, could be curtailed, without affecting the depth or completeness of the work. The one thing the epilogue does is to drive home the pain a few notches further.
Mistry’s style is extremely fluid and I’d rank him above the formidable likes of Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh in that department.

The work is substantial, over five hundred pages, or was it six hundred. Not once however it is ever tedious.

Swimming Lessons and other stories from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry : Part III

Continued from Part II:

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.

 

Concluded

Swimming Lessons and other stories from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry : Part II

Continued from Part I

Through two other stories, Kersi tells us more of his life. In “Of White Hairs and Cricket”, we see a silent, growing rift between him and his father. Every Sunday, Kersi’s father asks him to remove white hairs from his head using a pair of tweezers, a task that Kersi detests. He recollects earlier days, when Sunday mornings meant his father taking the Baag children to play cricket in the Marine Drive maidaan. Kersi remembers how his father had “taught him to be tough”, how once he had cheered Kersi’s valiant fielding on stopping a ball from reaching the boundary with his bare shin, how he — rummaging among classifieds — dreamed of getting a new job, how Kersi had wanted to give him a hug when his father had suggested him to go to America, saying “Somehow we’ll get the money to send you. I’ll find a way.” Disillusioned, Kersi walks out on his father, shunning hair-plucking duties. Later, overcome by guilt on seeing his friend’s (Viraf) discomposed father, a remorseful Kersi notices for the first time his father’s vulnerability, how he looked “tired, shoulders drooping and with a gait lacking confidence”. The illness of Viraf’s father opens his eyes. Yet he is unable to express his love and gratefulness to his father. This is the first of the three stories narrated by Kersi.

In the second, the title “Lend Me Your Light” inspired by a Tagore poem, Kersi is a little older, having freshly immigrated to Canada. It’s a story of degeneration of childhood friendship between Jamshed and his own brother, Percy. Jamshed, from a wealthy family, is in a socially different class than the brothers. He immigrates to the States around the same time as Kersi goes to Canada. The friendship between Jamshed and Percy, built in childhood on the shallow foundation of records and toys, cracks under the differentiating weights of their social outlooks on growing up. Jamshed turns into a crass bourgeois, venomously critical of India in a showy, superficial way. Kersi wonders why this is so, why Jamshed refuses to enjoy his visits to Bombay although his situation in life had changed. Percy grows up to be a social worker, devoting himself to community work in a small village. He is no longer keen to meet Jamshed, whose presence irritates and embarrasses him. Kersi, to whom Jamshed was merely a childhood acquaintance, is himself thrown off by a scathing letter from Jamshed criticizing Bombay after his visit. Later, during his own visit to Bombay, Kersi is unhappy to discover the truth about Bombay, that it indeed was “dirtier than ever”, just as Jamshed had mentioned. He had become unused to it. He compares it to a soldier’s experience in the trenches after being away from the lines for a while. But he does not understand Jamshed’s disdainful attitude. Eventually, the brothers sever all ties with Jamshed, unable to bear his “soul sapping” presence in their lives.

Part III