Rohinton Mistry 1952-
Indian-born Canadian short-story writer and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Mistry's career through 2003. See also Tales from Firozsha Baag Criticism.
Mistry has become one of the preeminent writers of the postcolonialist writing movement. Although he now lives in Toronto, he sets his novels primarily in his native Bombay, combining a natural, direct style with simple description to present an honest and loving image of India. With attention to the detail of his characters' everyday lives, his books often explore the tragic circumstances of India's desperate poor even as he balances this misery by presenting the dignity and joy they feel in simple pleasures and their extended families. Critics have praised Mistry's growth as a writer and his transparent style, commonly drawing comparisons to Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, and Thomas Hardy.
Mistry was born in 1952 in Bombay. As a Parsi, Mistry is part of a dwindling community of fewer than 125,000 people worldwide, most of whom are concentrated around Bombay. Parsis are descended from the religious followers of Zoroastrianism who fled from what is now Iran to avoid forced conversion to Islam. While India offers them a safe haven, present day Parsis are subject to marginalization as well as widely-held stereotypes, both positive and negative. Closely knit as a community, Parsis are often treated as a little-understood and foreign presence by the Hindu-dominated nation of India. Mistry grew up in this charged atmosphere in a Parsi area of Bombay.
In 1975, shortly after his graduation from the University of Bombay, where he earned dual degrees in mathematics and economics despite showing an early aptitude for writing, Mistry emigrated to Canada with encouragement from friends and family. He moved into a Parsi neighborhood in Toronto and secured employment at a bank, where, after working as a clerk in the accounting sector, he was promoted to supervisor. Despite his success in this new environment, Mistry enrolled at the University of Toronto, where he took classes in philosophy and English. In 1983 he began his literary career at the relatively late age of 31, by writing short stories in his spare time. He entered his first story, “One Sunday,” in the University of Toronto's Hart House Literary Contest and earned first prize, matching his achievement the following year, when he again took first place. Mistry's work was included in the 1985 edition of The New Press Anthology: Best Canadian Short Fiction. 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. Building upon the word of mouth generated by these awards, Mistry published his first book, a collection of short stories called Tales from Firozsha Baag in 1987, released in the United States two years later with the alternate title Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag. This work was shortlisted for Canada's Governor General's Award for best fiction.
Such a Long Journey (1991) won both the Governor General's Award and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, as well as being shortlisted for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize. Since the publication of Journey, Mistry has produced two more novels about India, A Fine Balance (1995) and Family Matters (2002). Each was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Mistry has also been awarded several more distinguished literary awards such as the Giller Prize in 1995 and the Kiriyama Prize in 2002. His work received its broadest exposure, however, when Oprah Winfrey selected Family Matters as her Book Club selection in December 2001. Now a naturalized citizen of Canada, Mistry lives outside Toronto with his wife, Freny Elevia, a teacher, and their two daughters.
Tales from Firozsha Baag contains perhaps the most acutely personal and sensitive subject matter of Mistry's books. Named after the apartment building in Bombay where many of the principal characters live, this collection examines the nature of communal and personal identity from a Parsi perspective. Throughout the eleven stories, the major characters reappear as recurring figures lending a sense of interpersonal connection among the residents of Firozsha Baag. A narrator—often considered the most autobiographical protagonist of Mistry's writings—presents the events and details of the characters' struggles to find their identities in the postcolonial ‘new’ India, as well as immigrants' attempts to adapt to their new worlds in places like Canada. In “Squatter,” Sarosh tells his family that if he hasn't completely transformed into a true Canadian within ten years of leaving India, he will return to Bombay. But after the ten years have passed, Sarosh discovers that he has become a real Canadian in every sense but his ability to use the western toilet as intended (instead perching on its rim and squatting over it)—an inability to adapt completely which shames him deeply. The book closes with “Swimming Lessons,” a tale in which the narrator mails his concerned parents a copy of Tales from Firozsha Baag. Upon reading the stories, they continue to worry for him, believing that since all the stories are about India with few details about his new home in Canada, he must miss his birthplace terribly.
Such a Long Journey is loosely based upon a series of real events that took place during the Indira Gandhi administration in 1971. Set during that year's conflict with Pakistan, the novel concerns a Parsi man, Gustad Noble, who works at a bank and becomes enmeshed by an old Godot-like friend in a scandal to secretly set aside monies from the bank into a government account allegedly created to aid in the war effort. Mistry followed this effort with A Fine Balance, focusing on the unlikely friendships of four disparate people who come to live together during the tumultuous period of Indira Gandhi's 1975 bid to retain power. In both these novels Mistry's characters exhibit a quiet deliberateness despite the senseless tragedies that threaten to overwhelm their lives. The adversities facing people in Mistry's books—events such as random death, amputation, casual murder, and a forced castration—can be difficult to read, although Mistry has been lauded for his ability to portray his characters' humanism and natural joy despite their horrific struggles. Like his three previous works, Family Matters delves into the trials of an Indian family coping with events that swirl seemingly uncontrollably around them. The plot centers on 79-year-old Nariman Vakeel who, due to the ravages of Parkinson's disease, falls and breaks his ankle, forcing a reluctant daughter to care for him. Family Matters explores the nature of Nariman's relationships with his extended family: his two stepsons, who reproach him for his betrayal of their mother, his son-in-law, who is undergoing a personal crisis and falls into Parsi fundamentalism, and the grandchildren he attempts to reacquaint himself with. As in all of Mistry's previous novels, nothing comes easily to his characters and while the resultant tragedy can be difficult to fathom from a Western perspective, Mistry's work remains a compelling examination of a culture that on the surface seems foreign, but at heart remains universal.
Commonly referred to as postcolonial, Mistry's work examines a side of India not often seen elsewhere in literature. Critics have praised Mistry's ability to present a fresh perspective on his native land. His portrayal is markedly different from that seen in the bulk of the Indian canon written in English—a canon formulated by mostly white, colonial-era writers who tend to depict a romantic and sanitized version of an India they saw only from their cloistered communities. While the Bombay in which Mistry's characters live is a dark and troubled place filled with tragedy and difficult lives, his portayal of it has been assessed as a lively and interesting picture of a city whose vivid environment is shown with remarkable clarity. Some critics, such as Australian feminist writer Germaine Greer, loudly protested A Fine Balance's inclusion on the Booker shortlist, dismissing it as “a Canadian book about India” and insinuating that Mistry's version of Bombay is an overly harsh and unhappy place. Despite this claim, Mistry has enjoyed acclaim from critics both at home and abroad, and many place him on a par with Salman Rushdie, although their styles are dramatically different in both form and content. Critics have frequently focused on the similarities and differences in the writings of these two authors. One quality they share is that of displacement and “otherness,” as both men come from minority Indian backgrounds—Mistry as a member of the Parsi community and Rushdie as a Muslim. Whereas Rushdie's work is often surreal and cast in fantastic tones, Mistry's writing is characteristically grounded in firm, sometimes glaringly harsh realities. In a review of A Fine Balance, A. G. Mojtabai wrote that Mistry “needs no infusion of magic realism to vivify the real. The real, through his eyes, is magical.” In Mistry's characteristic style, everything—from events and places to how betel nuts are prepared—is presented in definitive and careful detail, with equally close scrutiny given to the fine minutiae of even the most minor aspects of his characters' lives. Both Rushdie and Mistry are also 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. Rushdie is based in New York; Mistry writes from his home near Toronto, although he regularly travels to India while researching his novels. As a result, the qualities of displacement are particularly manifest in the novels of both men. For Mistry, the foundation of that alien quality comes not only from his status as an immigrant to Canada, but also from being a member of a tiny, misunderstood minority within the world's second-largest country. The feeling of being left out of the cultural mainstream is uniquely reflected in the way Mistry's characters are displaced and consistently searching for a new identity, whether through emigration or reinventing themselves through religious enlightenment. Critics have also examined Mistry's overt condemnation of the political forces that he believes continue to violate the rights of the downtrodden in India. In his works Mistry saves special anger for the policies of Indira Gandhi and what he believes to be the reactionist politics of the Shiv Sena party. Several reviewers have pointed out that in casting his novels in some of the most turbulent periods of India's modern history, Mistry is able to effectively appropriate historical fact for his own fictional needs.