Study Guide

Swimming Lessons

by Rohinton Mistry

Swimming Lessons Summary

Introduction

‘‘Swimming Lessons’’ is the last story in the collection of short fiction that first brought Rohinton Mistry national attention in Canada and subsequently the United States. The set of eleven stories titled Tales from Firozsha Baag [retitled Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag when it was published in 1989 in the United States] was well received by critics in both countries. As ‘‘Swimming Lessons’’ is positioned as the last story in the collection, it has prompted many reviewers to give it particular attention. An important feature of the story is that its setting moves with the narrator from Bombay to Toronto and allows Mistry to draw deft parallels between the lives of the residents of apartment complexes in both of these crowded, multicultural urban settings. It also gives him an opportunity to explore the writer’s uses of memory and events of his past life using the commentary of the narrator’s parents, who discuss the manuscript he sends them after living several years in Toronto. While the other stories in the collection focus on the lives, foibles, and crises of the Parsi community in the Bombay housing complex called Firozsha Baag, ‘‘Swimming Lessons’’ shifts the focus to issues of the loneliness, racism, and cultural adjustment of Mistry’s Indian immigrant protagonist, a not so thinly veiled autobiographical character. While the two settings are literally worlds apart, the characters of ‘‘Swimming Lessons’’ in the end seem almost comfortably similar to their Indian counterparts in their sad, petty, and often humorous attempts to find dignity and human connection in the isolating circumstances of modern urban apartment living.

Swimming Lessons Summary

‘‘Swimming Lessons’’ is told from the author’s viewpoint except in the italicized portions that use the third person to depict Kersi’s parents’ responses to the mail he sends from Toronto. These are set in Bombay in his parents’ home as they read his communications, first letters and then the manuscript of stories, and discuss their son and his work. Otherwise, the story takes place in an apartment complex in the Don Mills suburb of Toronto, its elevator lobby, its parking lot, and, when the protagonist ventures out to take swimming lessons, the local high school pool.

But it is clear from the opening passages that there is another important setting for this story, namely the memory of the narrator. From the outset, he compares events in his new environment with those back in the Bombay housing complex called Firozsha Baag, where he grew up surrounded by his family and an assortment of quirky, colorful neighbors. In the opening scene, for example, the narrator describes ‘‘the old man’’ (he is never named) who waits for people in the apartment lobby in order to make small talk. As he plays a favorite conversational game, asking people to guess his age, Kersi is reminded of his own grandfather, who had Parkinson’s disease and sat on the veranda of their complex waving at anyone who went by.

After introducing the old man, the Portuguese woman in Toronto, and making the first italicized jump-shift to Bombay, the narrator begins to reveal things about himself. He is candid about his erotic urges as he describes spotting two women sunbathing in bikinis beside the parking lot and his attempts to get a closer look. When they turn out to be less than attractive at close quarters, he remembers the swimming lessons he has signed up for, saying he has that ‘‘to look forward to.’’

He recounts a conversation with the attendant at the pool registration desk in which he explains his ‘‘non-swimming status’’ and she in turn explains why she never learned to ride a bicycle. After this there is a long passage of memory based on incidences of swimming, water, and religious festivals relating to water in the narrator’s life before immigrating to Canada. He also discusses his newly purchased swimming trunks and...

(The entire section is 928 words.)