Rohinton Mistry Tales from Firozsha Baag Critical Essays

Introduction

(Short Story Criticism)

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.