Rohinton Mistry, "Writer from Elsewhere"

Jennifer Takhar [takharjennifer@hotmail.com]

Post Colonial Literature in English: Canada

This essay has been translated by the author from the original French.


Rohinton Mistry is yet another "writer from elsewhere" as Rushdie might put it. Born in Bombay in 1952, of Parsi origin, Mistry emigrated to Canada in 1975. On leaving Bombay, the city which stands so tall in all his writings, Mistry confesses, in the literary journal Rungh (1993) that his departure from India was partly encouraged by the expectations of his peers, especially those of his generation:

After finishing college in Bombay or elsewhere in India, one had to go abroad for higher studies. If possible, one had to find a job after finishing a Masters or a Ph.D. in the States or in England, find a job and settle in the country. That's how success is defined by Indians. So that is why I say that coming to Canada was in some ways decided for me. [Quoted in Mehfil, November 1996.]

In 1987 Penguin Books Canada published his collection of short stories, Tales from Firozsha Baag, which together describe the daily life of the Parsi residents in a Bombay apartment block. The stories concern themselves with the tribulations and the idiosyncrasies of Bombay Parsis.

What Mistry explores in his stories are the relationships at the heart of this community, their cultural identity and the uniqueness of their community living. At the same time Mistry seeks to shed light and indeed fully embrace the syncretic nature of the diasporic Parsi experience whether that be in North America or in India. Some of the stories focus on the journeys undertaken by some of Firozsha Baag's Parsis, those who dared to leave for North America, leaving behind their "imaginary homeland." However Parsis have felt guilt after their flight and subsequent world-wide resettlement, particularly their movement towards the west; this diaspora, contrary to the Iranian diaspora, has been fulfilled in a positive way by the Parsis despite a guilty aftertaste . The story "Lend Me Your Light" contains explicit reference to this guilt and here the protagonist says with the poignancy of a modern day Tiresias, "I am guilty of hubris for having sought to emigrate from the land of my birth, and I must pay with the price of my burnt eyes: Me Tiresias, blind and shaking between two lives, that of Bombay and the one to come in Toronto." (p.180)

Rohinton Mistry is a writer who makes up a part of the Indian diaspora. Moreover, he is also a Zoroastrian Parsi whose ancestors were exiled by the Islamic conquest of Iran, putting him and his kind in diaspora in the Indian subcontinent. During India's colonised period, the Parsis were particular favourites of the British rulers. Both parties co-operated well together, and this entente has often been dubbed "the psychological diaspora" of the Parsis. After the partition of India in 1947, some Parsis found themselves (literally) toeing "the line of discontent" between two warring regions. This situation provoked many departures to England and to America, marking the western diaspora of the Parsis.

Like other Parsi writers, Mistry's work is guided by this experience of double displacement. As a Parsi, Mistry finds himself at the margins of Indian society, and hence his writing challenges and resists absorption by the dominating and Hindu-glorifying culture of India.

Mistry has also experimented with linguistic hybridity and celebrates the use of the Parsi language. In the short stories Mistry tackles those elements associated with Parsi culture:

Shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize, Such A Long Journey (1991), Mistry's first novel, manages brilliantly to portray Indian culture and family life setting it against the backdrop of the subcontinent's volatile postcolonial politics. The action takes place in 1971 in Bombay at the moment when war breaks out between India and Pakistan, over what is to become Bangladesh. This political backdrop is the canvas upon which the troubled life of Gustad Noble (note the patronym) and family is played out. He is the undisputed protagonist of the novel. Mistry expertly marries the major events in India with those in the private sphere of the Noble family and of the other important characters in the novel.

The microcosmic family dimension of the storyline is not only played upon a political background: quite the contrary, the story shows to which degree political and personal realities are intertwined and how much the microcosm echoes the macrocosm, since the lives of the characters are deeply affected by local corruption and the government's inadequacy. When it was published, this first novel earned itself the Governor General's Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the best book of the year.

In his short stories as well as in his novel, Mistry underlines both the heterogeneous nature of one community's identity and its dynamism. Traumatism in its inevitability brings change to the characters' lives which Mistry zooms in on. What he affirms is the power and resilience of the individual and that of the community in a world without a shred of pity.

In his most sombre and latest novel, Mistry, A Fine Balance (1995), we are again in India, during the mid seventies when Indira Gandhi has declared a state of internal emergency without consultation of her cabinet. The story revolves around the lives of four protagonists each very different from the next. They find themselves thrown together in the same humble city apartment: Dinabhai, a widow who refuses to remarry and fights to earn a meagre living as a seamstress; two tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash, uncle and nephew, who have come to the city in the hope of finding work; and a student, Maneck Kohlah, from a village situated at the foothills of the Himalayas. Maneck's father has sent his son to a city school.

What has already been witnessed in Rushdie's Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh, is what we again come across in A Fine Balance -- the mixture of the characters' private lives with public history. The so called "Fine Balance" of the novel's title is in fact an ideal state of being where a middle ground must be found between compassion and gullibility, kindness and weakness. The first 250 pages of the novel present the lives of the main characters and their painful past. The four characters, who keep on going despite the frequency of mourning in their lives, find their destinies come together when Indira Gandhi announces her state of emergency in 1975. The reader follows their paths until the bloody assassination of the Prime Minister in 1984.

Bibliography

Mistry, Rohinton. "The More Important Things." in The Canadian Fiction Magazine, No.65, 1989.

Mistry, Rohinton. Tales From Firozsha Baag. London, Faber and Faber, 1987.

Mistry, Rohinton. Such A Long Journey. London, Faber and Faber, 1991

Mistry, Rohinton. A Fine Balance. London, Faber and Faber, 1995.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight's Children. London, Vintage Press, 1981.

Rushdie, Salman. The Moor's Last Sigh. London, Vintage Press, 1995.

Interviews

Hancock, Geoff. "An Interview with Rohinton Mistry." Canadian Fiction Magazine No.65 (1989): 143-150.


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