Rohinton Mistry Tales from Firozsha Baag

Rohinton Mistry Tales from Firozsha Baag Essay - Critical Essays

Tales from Firozsha Baag, Rohinton Mistry

Introduction

Tales from Firozsha Baag Rohinton Mistry

Indian-born Canadian short-story writer and novelist.

The following entry presents criticism on Mistry's short story collection Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987) from 1989 through 2001.

Published in 1987, Tales from Firozsha Baag is a collection of eleven interrelated stories that explore the lives of several residents in a Bombay apartment complex. In the volume, Mistry particularly focuses on the Parsi, or Parsee, community, a small religious minority that traces its roots to Zorostrianism and ancient Persia. By examining the Parsi culture through a combination of sympathy and criticism, Mistry analyzes the conflicts that arise among Parsi individuals both in Indian society, where they are often excluded by the predominant Hindu and Muslim populations, and in Western nations.

Plot and Major Characters

Tales from Firozsha Baag chronicles the experiences of the residents of a Bombay apartment complex known as Firozsha Baag. In “The Exercisers,” the young protagonist defies his parents and their spiritual advisor by dating a woman who is not a Parsi, while Dualat of “Condolence Visit” shocks her neighbors by departing from religious custom and refusing to mourn her husband according to Parsi tradition. To suggest each character's mental anguish, Mistry incorporates elements of mysticism and surrealism in his stories: the lonely Parsi maid of “The Ghost of Firozsha Baag” has a sexual relationship with a spirit, while a mentally unbalanced woman imprisons her neighbor's child in a bird cage in “The Paying Guests.” A few stories in the volume explore the immigrant experience. In the final story of the collection, “Swimming Lessons,” one of the children mentioned in an earlier story, Kersi, has grown up and emigrated to Canada. A budding writer, he has written a book of stories about his childhood in Firozsha Baag. When he sends his book back home, his parents are upset by his perspective on Indian life and worry that he is not happy in Canada. In fact, Kersi is lonely, reminiscing about his childhood, and having sexual fantasies about the women taking swimming lessons with him at an indoor pool.

Major Themes

Tales from Firozsha Baag largely focuses on the cultural identity and challenges of faith experienced by the residents of Firozsha Baag. Several characters in the collection reject Parsi tradition and embrace secular, more modern customs, as in “The Exercisers” and “The Condolence Visit.” Others struggle to maintain their faith in light of religious doubt and other formidable challenges. In this way Mistry explores a community torn between the old ways and the new. He also illuminates the relationship between the sexes, which is often determined by religious and cultural conventions. In stories such as “Auspicious Occasions,” women are relegated to subordinate roles in relationships and are forced to sacrifice their own autonomy and ambitions in favor of societal approval and harmonious familial relationships. Alienation is another thematic concern in the stories, particularly in those that focus on the diasporic experience. As Kersi, the protagonist in “The Swimming Lessons,” has trouble adjusting to his new life in Canada, he feels dislocated from his Indian heritage as well as from the modern Canadian culture around him. He turns to nostalgia and fantasy to assuage the loneliness and alienation he feels. In “Lend Me Your Light,” the protagonist feels guilt for leaving his family and his homeland after moving to Toronto. Moreover, the Parsi residents that reside in Firozsha Baag are separated by their religious beliefs from the greater Indian community. As a small religious minority, the residents of the housing complex often experience conflict with Indian society, where they are often excluded by the predominant Hindu and Muslim populations.

Critical Reception

Tales from Firozsha Baag garnered significant critical attention at the time of its publication. Reviewers regard Mistry as a gifted storyteller and a distinctive voice in Canadian literature. They also praise the intelligence, wit, and compassion of the stories included in the collection. Some critics claimed that because protagonists of several stories in Tales from Firozsha Baag play such minor roles in other stories, the book's emotional impact was lessened; others have praised his use of recurring characters. Mistry's short fiction has been favorably compared to such prominent Indian writers as V. S. Naipaul and R. K. Narayan, as well as to James Joyce's seminal collection of short fiction Dubliners.

Principal Works

Tales from Firozsha Baag (short fiction) 1987; also published as Swimming Lessons, and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag, 1989

Such a Long Journey (novel) 1991

A Fine Balance: A Novel (novel) 1996

Family Matters (novel) 2002

Criticism

Keith Garebian (essay date April 1989)

SOURCE: Garebian, Keith. “In the Aftermath of Empire: Identities in the Commonwealth of Literature.” Canadian Forum 68, no. 780 (April 1989): 25-33.

[In the following excerpt, Garebian contends that with Tales from Firozsha Baag Mistry has provided a significant short fiction that expresses a Parsi sensibility.]

Indian fiction in English has long passed out of its nostalgic and nationalistic phases although its truths, as V. S. Naipaul has frequently complained, have tended to be rehearsals of old myths—perennial answers to perennial questions. But with the advent of such excellent writers as Salman Rushdie and Anita Desai, the province of Indo-Anglian fiction has acquired a sophistication based more on technical accomplishment than on sociological or thematic stakes. With Midnight's Children and Shame, Rushdie redrew the Indian literary map (as the New York Times asserted), showing on the one hand, a marvelous epic sense and feeling for contemporary history, and on the other, a robust, baroque style which, while buoyantly in the tradition of Grass, Borges, and Marquez, never lost sight of its debt to earlier literary masters such as Sterne and Dickens. Desai proved with her most recent novel, In Custody, that she could more than rival R. K. Narayan in satire, while telling a more piquant truth about human comic agony.

The past year, however, has belonged to the expert Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and two relative newcomers, Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry. The Golden Gate (Random House), a novel wholly in verse, has raised immense publicity in the United States, where Vikram Seth is or was working on a Ph.D. at Stanford University. Setting himself in a tight formal frame-work—sonnet sequences of unrelenting rhyme—Seth manages to invest his satire with many moments of stylish wit. His story follows the fortunes and misfortunes in San Francisco of a lonely young protagonist who, despite his outward composure, well-groomed appearance and corporate success, finds his life going to seed. Johm, an anxious neurotic, finds true love, loses it in the course of several strange configurations of fate, and then finds spiritual consolation when he makes peace with his ex-wife whom he has lost to his former best friend.

Elements of comedy, romance, and tragedy mix surprisingly easily in Seth's sonnet sequences. Imagine a Dennis Lee with adult imagination and substance, a Browning with more variety, or a Pushkin with easy wit. The literary audacity is shown by an implicit faith in feminine rhymes, enjambment, and the well-tried molds of Eugene Onegin. In a digression well into the book, Seth reveals the advance misgivings of his professional colleagues: “Professor, publisher, and critic / Each voiced his doubts. I felt misplaced. / A writer is a mere arthritic / Among these muscular Gods of Taste.”

Although Seth's tone is occasionally a mite too “cute,” self-conscious, and coy (particularly in the homosexual scenes) for unalloyed pleasure, his verse remains jaunty, and his frequent caesurae do not appear to affect the spirited tempo. The rhymes do flatten some of the dramatic effect of the more solemn moments and reduce the scale of events. The initial surprise at Seth's ingenuity yields to a slight tedium with the metrical grid. However, this is not to deny that the book has marvelous moments of comic fertility and satiric perception. There is a high entertainment quotient in Seth's cast of characters, from the WASP...

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Peter J. Bailey (essay date December 1989)

SOURCE: Bailey, Peter J. “Fiction and Difference.” North American Review 274, no. 4 (December 1989): 61-4.

[In the following excerpt, Bailey underscores the originality and distinctiveness of the stories in Tales from Firozsha Baag.]

At the end of Rohinton Mistry's story, “Swimming Lessons,” the protagonist, an Indian who has emigrated to Canada, sends the manuscript of a collection of stories he has written while in his new land to his parents back home in Bombay. Although delighted with the work, his father nonetheless anticipates a problem. These stories about his son's boyhood in India, about the apartment complex he grew up in and the eccentric people who...

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Ajay Heble (essay date summer 1993)

SOURCE: Heble, Ajay. “‘A Foreign Presence in the Stall’: Towards a Poetics of Cultural Hybridity in Rohinton Mistry's Migration Stories.” Canadian Literature 137 (summer 1993): 51-61.

[In the following essay, Heble provides a stylistic and thematic exploration of the migration stories in Tales from Firozsha Baag.]

1. FOREIGN PRESENCES

The title for this paper finds its origin in a short story called “Squatter” by South-Asian-Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry. This story, from Mistry's collection Tales from Firozsha Baag, is, for reasons which I hope will become apparent a little later, a story within a story, and it comes to a...

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Robert L. Ross (essay date spring 1999)

SOURCE: Ross, Robert L. “Seeking and Maintaining Balance: Rohinton Mistry's Fiction.” World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 239.

[In the following essay, Ross traces the development of Mistry's fiction and praises his compelling depiction of a Parsi community in Tales from Firozsha Baag.]

The title of Rohinton Mistry's second novel, A Fine Balance, suggests a worthwhile way to explore his fiction. Even Mistry's biography constitutes a kind of balancing act. Born in India in 1952, he grew up in Bombay and received a degree from the University of Bombay in mathematics and economics. In 1975 he immigrated to Canada, working in a bank to support...

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Rocio G. Davis (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Davis, Rocio G. “Negotiating Place/Re-Creating Home: Short-Story Cycles by Naipaul, Mistry, and Vassanji.” In Telling Stories: Postcolonial Short Fiction in English, edited by Jacqueline Bardolph, pp. 323-32. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

[In the following essay, Davis considers the importance of place and home in Tales from Firozsha Baag, V. S. Naipaul's Miguel Street, and M. G. Vassanji's Uhuru Street.]

The negotiation of place and the attempt to re-create a home through memory and writing has been a common undertaking for many writers in the new literatures in English. V. S. Naipaul's Miguel Street, Rohinton Mistry's Tales From...

(The entire section is 3671 words.)