LIFE AND WORKS OF ROHINTON MISTRY
Rohinton Mistry is a writer with great honesty of imagination. He does not attempt to follow fades and fashions. His writing suggests sensitivity to the beauty and the fragmentations, the failings and the cruelties of his world. Much of Mistry’s fiction works with the humanistic premise that the universal lies in the ordinary. This is the trajectory he has chalked out for himself in the course of his brief but meteoric literary career.1
Mistry has enjoyed acclaim from critics both at home and abroad. Many put him on a par with Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Joyce, Thomas Hardy and Chekhov.
‘Rohinton has emerged as a significant literary figure during the 20th century. He is a socio-political novelist who has emerged as a formidable writer on world literary scene.’2 Mistry, a great novelist and short-storywriter, was born into a Parsi family on July 3, 1952 in Bombay (now Mumbai), India's biggest city and heavily populated place in the world. Now as a naturalized citizen of Canada, Mistry lives in Brampton, Ontario. He grew up as a member of middle class Parsi community of Bombay. His father, Behram Mistry, worked in advertising and his mother, Freny Jhaveri Mistry, was a housewife. Cyrus Mistry, his younger brother, is a well known dramatist and short story writer.
Mistry earned a B. A. in Mathematics and Economics at the University of Bombay. In his late teens he joined a music school to learn music theory and composition. Music was the link that led him to meet his future wife Freny Elevia. In 1975, at the age of 23, he immigrated to Canada. Soon after going there he married Freny who had moved there a year before. ‘Mistry Chose this self exile because he felt that there was not much of a future in India, for persons like him, who were poor in economy and also an alien by culture and community. Soon after his arrival in Toronto, he started working as a clerk at the Imperial Bank of Commerce’3, but, after three years, he and his wife, joined studies at the University of Toronto, and earned his graduation in English and Philosophy.
In 1983 he began his literary career. Encouraged by his wife, he set out to win a university literary contest by writing his first short story One Sunday. He devoted several days to the story, entered it in the University of Toronto's Hart House Literary Contest and earned first prize. The same prestigious award he also won the following year for his short story Auspicious Occasion. He became the first person to win two such prizes. He still worked at the bank. Despite his status as a relative novice, his literary stature continued to rise when he won The Canadian Fiction Magazine's Annual Contributor's Prize for 1985. Afterwards, with the aid of a Canada Council grant, he left his job to become a full-time writer. Two years later, his collection of eleven short stories, Tales from Firozsha Baag was published by Penguin Books Canada in 1987. Later on it was published as Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag in the United States. This work was short listed for Canada's Governor General's Award for best fiction.
Mistry’s contributions to literature include Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987) or Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag, Such a Long Journey (1991), A Fine Balance (1995), Family Matters (2002) and The Scream (2006). His novels and short stories have been widely appreciated and are bestowed with numerous awards and recognition. His debut novel, Such a Long Journey, is the story of a Bombay bank clerk who unwittingly becomes involved in a fraud committed by the government. It won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and the Governor General's Award, and was short listed for the Booker Prize. His second novel, A Fine Balance deals with the State of Emergency in India in the 1970s. It also won many prestigious awards, including the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book; the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction and the Giller Prize, as well as being short listed for the Booker Prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Irish Times International Fiction Prize. In fact this novel is considered to be the best work of Mistry.
Mistry’s Third novel Family Matters tells the story of an elderly Parsi widower living in Bombay with his step-children. It was short listed for the 2002 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. His work received its broadest exposure, however, when Oprah Winfrey selected Family Matters as her Book Club selection in December 2001. Mistry was a finalist for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, which recognizes an author's entire body of work. In October 2011, he was awarded the 2012 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. He has a rare achievement to his credit. He is the only author, all of whose novels have been short listed for the Man Booker Prize. With just only four works Mistry has gained immense recognition as a literary figure.
Mistry practices Zoroastrianism and belongs to the Parsi community. The Parsis are a petite religious community in India. They are descended from the religious followers of Zoroastrianism who fled from Iran to avoid forced conversion to Islam. The unpopular position of the Parsis at the end of British rule in 1947 influenced another Parsi Diaspora, this time to the West. Mistry’s literature reflects his position as a member of a twice-displaced people. His Parsi roots have had a strong influence on his growth and development as a writer and his works mostly deal with the pathos and culture of the Parsis in India. His writings give a glimpse into the life of the people of his community and their experiences as a minority in a highly diverse society.
Mistry’s writings are markedly nostalgic. They deal with the streets of Bombay, the Parsi way of life, the people of the city and even the politics of India. They depict the diverse facets of Indian socio-economic life and culture as well as the life, customs, and religion of the Parsis. They start with a family and gradually widen into the social, cultural, and political backdrop. The characters change and develop subtly. They have a remarkable capacity to survive. The details of their experience are chronicled with a painter's sensibility. Their interweaving narratives are totally engrossing. A Parsi himself, Mistry for the most part has set his fiction in India, and has focused on the aspirations, heroism, weaknesses, and marginality of the Parsi community with sympathy, humour, and love. Critics have praised Mistry's ability to present a fresh perspective on his native land. Jagdish Batra is of the view:
While choosing the time-tested method of conventional story-telling, Mistry could very effectively communicate his point of view on the intractable complexities of life in India.5
Tales from Firozsha Baag is Mistry’s first collection of eleven interrelated short stories. It was warmly greeted by critics and general readers alike for its insights into the complex lives of the Parsi inhabitants of Firozsha Baag, an apartment building in Mumbai. This collection examines the nature of communal and personal identity from a Parsi perspective. A narrator presents the events and details of the characters' struggles to find their identities in the postcolonial India, as well as immigrants' attempts to adapt to their new worlds in places like Canada. These stories cover a broad range of subjects and tones: from poignant to surreal; ghostly to hilarious. Nandini Bhautoo- Dewnarain observes:
Most of the stories in this volume are marked by the use of dialogic narrative modes as they introduce the voices, tones and rhythms of the community’s language and its social practices. These multi-voiced and dialogic narrative modes enable multiple perspectives within each of the stories, thus effecting a potentially post modernist explosion.6
Here ‘Mistry uses the narrative technique of memory and remembering.’7 In short, this fantastic collection is ‘a study in human relationships. Although the community living within the precincts of the building is Parsi, yet this fact does not deprive the stories of their universal character. Besides, there are also inter-faith and inter-race dealings.’8
Mumbai is the background of Rohinton Mistry’s debut novel Such a Long Journey. The citizen and the nation, the public and the private spaces of identity, the family and the political corruption are the major themes of this novel. It is loosely based upon a series of real events that took place in India during the Indira Gandhi administration in 1971. It deals with basic and serious issues of life. It gives extremely detailed description of the lives of Gustad and his family in their apartment in Bombay. It is an intricate tale of ‘a few middle class characters in the contemporary India.’9
In Such a Long Journey Mistry narrates a pathetic and rather gloomy story of the protagonist, Gustad, who is a bank employee. ‘Though he has to confront hardships in life, he has some dreams about the future prosperity of his family’10. He has three children. Sohrab and Darius are his sons. Roshan is his daughter. The name of his wife is Dilnavaz. This bank clerk with the members of his family lives happily at Khodadad Building. Gustad’s happiness does not last long. A series of tragic events take place in his life. The sudden disappearance of his bosom friend, Major Jimmy Bilimoria from Khodadad Building, Sohrab’s refusal to enroll himself as an IIT student and Roshan’s illness upset him. He has to face problems at every stage of life. His dreams are shattered. The end of the novel is symbolic. It symbolizes a new beginning: ‘Much of the noise from the road was shut out, save the persistent crunch of gravel. He stood upon the chair and pulled at the paper covering the ventilators. As the first sheet tore away, a frightened moth flew out and circled the room.’11
A Fine Balance is Mistry's masterpiece. It explores the effects of the state of emergency on the lives of ordinary people in 1970s India. Set in Mumbai, this novel is a powerful and painful examination of a humanity beset by social and political repression. It poses the question of the possibility of the existence of atrocious acts and beliefs in the face of the world’s beauty. In A Fine Balance India's social injustice appear as the villain.
This fantastic composition is the tale of four strangers forced into sharing an apartment in 1975 Bombay. It shows how these four main characters, Dina Dalal, Ishvar Darji, Omprakash Darji and the young student Maneck Kohlah, come together. Despite the social, religious and many other types of barriers, they develop their relationships. The story of the novel revolves around Dina. She is a widow who refuses to return to the home of her domineering brother after the death of her husband. She allows two tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, to share her apartment. Their homes have been burnt by the government because of their attempts to rise out of the caste of leather workers. Maneck is a Parsi student. He suffers from alienation from his family. His family has lost its property during the partition of India in 1947. He also joins the apartment as paying guest of Dina Dalal. The narrative deals with their background and the hardships they endure. One critic called the novel India's version of Les Miserables. It seems apt enough. The opening of the novel is interesting: ‘The morning express bloated with passengers slowed to a crawl, then lurched forward suddenly, as though to resume full speed. The train’s brief deception jolted its riders. The bulge of humans hanging out of the doorway distended perilously, like a soap bubble at its limit.’12
In 2002, he published his third novel Family Matters. It again has Mumbai as its background. This new novel takes us to Bombay in the mid-1990s. In this wise and compassionate novel, Mistry has once again created a beautifully realized world. As his unforgettable characters confront situations over which they have no control, their tragedies and their triumphs ultimately become our own. Family Matters has all the richness, the gentle humor, and the narrative sweep that have earned Rohinton Mistry the highest of accolades around the world. It focuses on the past and present life of a retired professor, Nariman Vakeel, and his difficult, complicated familial relationships.
At the centre of the book is Nariman Vakeel. He is a seventy-nine-year-old Parsi widower and the patriarch of a small discordant family. He suffers from Parkinson's disease and haunted by memories of the past. He lives with his two middle-aged step-children, Jal and Coomy. They are children of his wife’s first marriage. Coomy is bitter and domineering and her brother, Jal, mild-mannered and acquiescent. Coomy hates Nariman whom she considers the cause of her mother’s suffering and death. When Nariman's illness is compounded by a broken ankle, Coomy plots to turn his round-the-clock care over to Roxana. She succeeds. Now Nariman begins to live with Roxana, her husband, Yezad, and their two young sons, Murad and Jehangir. Roxana, Murad and Jehangir love and take care of Nariman. It is only Yezad who feels that Nariman is an additional burden on his family. ‘By the time Nariman dies, his death appears ‘natural’ and timely, both in terms of the people around him and the narrative. His is a life lived fully, having traversed love, rejection, grief, guilt, generosity, disease, desertion and redemption.’13
The Scream is the most recent offering by Mistry. It is a novella. It is narrated by an aging, isolated resident of a Mumbai apartment building. The story plumbs its protagonist's struggle with aging and isolation. The 48 pages cover an old protagonist’s sometimes touching and at times comic whine on his neglect and repulsion by his own family.
There are some controversies related to Mistry. In 2002, Mistry cancelled his United States book tour for his novel Family Matters because he and his wife were targeted by security agents at every airport he visited. They thought that he is a Muslim. The humiliation was unbearable to him. Another controversy is that his novel Such a Long Journey was allegedly against the Mumbai University. The Shiv Sena's student wing lodged complaint against this book to the Vice-Chancellor of Mumbai University and burnt copies of this book at the university gate. The book was eventually withdrawn by the Mumbai University owing to the vigorous protest.
Critics have frequently focused on the similarities and differences in the writings of Mistry and Rushdie. Both are part of the Indian Diaspora, a term used to describe the growing number of Indian-born authors who write about their native land from abroad. Whereas Rushdie's work is often surreal and cast in fantastic tones, Mistry's writing is characteristically grounded in firm, sometimes glaringly harsh realities. Rushdie’s magic realism is Realism with a capital ‘R’ in the works of Mistry
Rohinton Mistry, no doubt, is an exceptional writer. His ability to present a fresh perspective on his native land has been appreciated. His work examines a side of India not often seen elsewhere in literature.His style of writing is simple, direct, refined and conventional.
1. Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain, Rohinton Mistry An Introduction (New Delhi: Foundation Books, 2007), p. 2.
2. Jaydipsingh Dodiya, Perspectives on the Novels of Rohinton Mistry, (New Delhi: Sarup& Sons, 2006) p.29.
3. P. Selvam, Humanism in the Novels of Rohinton Mistry, (New Delhi: Creative Books, 2009), p. 16.
4. Jaydipsingh K Dodiya, ‘A Fine Balance Between Hope and Despair Through a Long Journey: A Critical Study of Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey and A Fine Balance’, The Novels of Rohinton Mistry, A Critical Study, ed. Jaydipsingh K Dodiya (New Delhi: Sarup& Sons, 2004) p. 2.
5. Jagdish Batra, Rohinton Mistry: Identity, Values and Other Sociological Concerns (New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2008) p.7.
6. Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain, Rohinton Mistry An Introduction (New Delhi: Foundation Books, 2007), p. 5.
7. Jaydipsingh Dodiya, Perspectives on the Novels of Rohinton Mistry, (New Delhi: Sarup& Sons, 2006) p.31.
8. Jagdish Batra, Rohinton Mistry: Identity, Values and Other Sociological Concerns (New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2008) p.49.
9. Jaydipsingh Dodiya, Perspectives on the Novels of Rohinton Mistry, (New Delhi: Sarup& Sons, 2006) p.47.
10. Ibid., p.47.
11. Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey, (London, Faber & Faber, 1991), p. 399.
12. Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance, (London, Faber & Faber, 1996), p. 3.
13. Nandini Bhautoo-Dewnarain, Rohinton Mistry An Introduction (New Delhi: Foundation Books, 2007), p. 39.
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