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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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

Such a Long Journey (novel) 1991

A Fine Balance (novel) 1995

Family Matters (novel) 2002

Amit Chaudhuri (review date 4 April 1991)

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SOURCE: Chaudhuri, Amit. “Parsi Magic.” London Review of Books 13, no. 7 (4 April 1991): 19.

[In the following review of Such a Long Journey, Chaudhuri writes that Mistry's unique experience as an Indian expatriate writing in English allows him to form an image of India as a magical but real place.]

The Parsis of Bombay are pale, sometimes hunched, but always with long noses. They have a posthumous look which is contradicted by an earthiness that makes them use local expletives from a very early age; and a bad temper which one takes to be the result of the incestuous intermarriages of a small community. The Parsi boys in my class had legendary Persian names like Jehangir and Kaikobad and Khusro. Their surnames, however, can be faintly ridiculous in their eloquence, like ‘Sodabottleopenerwalla’.

A Parsi writer I have read from boyhood onward is Busybee, the columnist. His real name, Behram Contractor, was kept from us like a secret. His column, ‘Round and About’, would be printed on the last page of the Evening News, then Midday, and now appears in the Afternoon Dispatch and Courier, which he edits himself. The first paper is defunct, but the last two are sold from three to six o'clock in the evening at traffic-jams by urchins who dart between Ambassadors and Fiats, holding neat stacks in their arms, shouting the names without understanding the meaning of either ‘mid-day’ or ‘afternoon’. Busybee writes in patient, detailed prose about this inexhaustible city. His column has been the signature of all the papers I have mentioned above, the distinctive scribble, which one has grown to recognise, of a personality. From time to time, Busybee describes his own community, and writes lyrically of its cuisine: patra-nu-machhi, pomfret in coriander and mint chutney steamed in leaves, lagan-nu-custard, or ‘wedding custard’, the dessert served at Parsi weddings.

Rohinton Mistry is a Parsi writer who lives in Canada, and has already written one book of short stories, Tales from Firozsha Baag. Firozsha Baag, I presume, is his fictionalised version of Cusrow Baug, a vast colony of similar-looking houses around gardens, separated from the world outside and from the vivid shops of Colaba Causeway by a single otherworldly arched gateway. In these houses middle-class Parsis live; repose and nostalgia settle round their white children, who look like the contented, cherubic children in early Ovaltine advertisements.

The Parsis are neither Hindu nor Muslim, and seem absolved from the anxieties of modern India. Their lives are marginal and emblematic. Each one of them reflects the other's customs and clothes and manners.

Like many other Indian writers in English, Mistry lives abroad, in Canada. The Bombay he writes about he carries inside him, for inside him are streets and institutions and the voices of other people—many voices. Inside him is the second most populous country of the world. Like most post-colonial writers in English, he is something of an accident, the fortuitous meeting-place of a local sensibility and a foreign language. He is a writer who sings of his land but has no mother tongue with which to sing of it, a kind of displaced but strangely native sensibility that could not have been created outside the unrepeatable and extraordinary Galapagos conditions of the colonial experience. Such a writer must always remain inbetween, neither here nor there, alien whether in his own land or in London or in Canada. The post-colonial writer, like the test-tube baby, is a miracle of the 20th century, or, in a darker light, a curious effluent, an unwitting by-product of the great technological, industrial and economic projects of an age.

[Such a Long Journey] tells the story of Gustad Noble and his family, who live in Bombay in Khodadad Building. In the first five pages is the book's most careful writing, a sustained but unambitious prose, absorbed, domestic, gracefully holding back from the theatricality that is to be found in much of the novel:

Then he began singing that Nat King Cole song, in his deep voice:

You will never grow old,
While there's love in your heart,
Time may silver your dark brown hair,
As you dream in an old rocking chair …

She loved it when Gustad changed the song's words from ‘golden hair’, always breaking into a big smile at the third line.

Thereafter the plot becomes more and more improbable, but fascinating in its complete abstention from credibility: Gustad is estranged from his eldest son; his daughter falls ill recurrently; his gentle and ordinary wife, under the guidance of a strange widow, Mrs Kutpitia, practises witchcraft to save her family; Dinshawji, Gustad's bank colleague, flirts, jokes, falls ill and dies; Gustad gets unsuspectingly involved in a government spy scandal because of his old friend Major Billimoria, who, towards the end, also dies, almost magically, as it were, after coming into existence in the book (on a hospital bed) no less magically. Billimoria is the Godot of the first three-quarters of the book, and when he finally appears he is a parody, as no doubt Godot would have been if he had finally appeared in the play. The villain of the story, by an unwitting but devastatingly comic stroke, is Mrs Gandhi, referred to unmysteriously as ‘the Prime Minister’, or simply by the sinister pronoun ‘she’. Politics enters the novel through conversations that sound like history lessons, and the Bangladesh war is indicated by black-outs, sirens, and the black paper pasted to the windows. There is Dostoevsky here, even Dickens, but one also feels the presence of the Hindi film. For in Hindi films, too, the plot is absurd and the mood sentimental, but in such an extreme way as to generate a kind of energy, a drunkenness that realises the impossible, a blind but liberating strategy. In Mistry's plot, more tactful but as difficult to believe nevertheless, this saving quality of inebriation dwelling in absurdity is lacking.

The most joyous of the characters is Dinshawji, Gustad's bank colleague, who entertains his friends with one joke after another in the office canteen: ‘The group in the canteen did not spare themselves either, joking about the vast reputation of the Parsi proboscis (what happens when a bawaji with an erection walks into a wall? He hurts his nose). No linguistic or ethnic group was spared; perfect equality prevailed in the canteen when it came to jokes.’ We are pleased that Gustad wanders about such a lot, is such a mobile person, for with him we go to markets, are companionably trapped during rush-hour at the roundabout in Flora Fountain, are nudged sensuously by passers-by, and are occasionally served tea in opaque tumblers by the familiar curt waiters at local restaurants called ‘hotels’, waiters who have a proud and aristocratic contempt for hygiene. Joy is the real subject-matter of this novel about unhappiness, and joy and laughter are what come most naturally to Mistry and his creations. Also recorded here is the peculiar and sometimes moving bathos of Indian speech in English, bathos which is potentially richer than pathos because it wears two masks—laughter and sadness—instead of one. Later, Dinshawji, sick and dying, seems unhappy and uneasy, less about dying, it seems, than about being forced to play this new part by the author. For he is a lively man, and cannot put his heart into the role of the dying one; with his ‘shaking’ voice and his suddenly ‘rheumy eyes’, he appears embarrassed, having put on too much make-up for the scene.

There are some interesting bits about a paanwalla or paan-seller (no relation to paanwalla or ‘water-seller’). Paan is the heartshaped betel leaf wrapped around slivers of betel nuts and other undisclosed ingredients which many Indians chew upon tranquilly, before stooping to spit the violent haemorrhage-red clots of betel juice onto the pavement. The inscrutable operations by which the paan is made, and the loving, comical dance of the customers, are reported by Mistry with an admiring tolerance. Distracting symptoms of that Latin American virus, ‘magic realism’, are evident, however, in the descriptions of the paanwalla. The production of India as an extraordinary show has always been disquieting. The British writers who created fantasies of the ‘Raj’ (a misleading euphemism for British rule—there have been several kinds of ‘Raj’ in India, the Mughal Raj among them) wrote of tigers, elephants, nawabs, fakirs, yogis. As the India they came into contact with existed mainly in the form of clubs and favourite hill stations, they wrote, instead, about a country that did not exist. Many of the ‘magic realists’ who write about India live not in hill stations but abroad, where they continue to construct their spectacle of India. More than a century old now, the show goes on. Meanwhile that vast tract of land, incomprehensible and intricate, invents itself in ways more far-fetched than the tropes of any fantasist. It is to Mistry's credit that, now and then, he has managed to capture at least an infinitesimal portion of this seemingly infinite entity in his work.

In a book so full of catastrophes and travails, it is the minor characters—the hawkers, the butchers in Crawford Market with their meat cleavers, a pavement artist who draws ephemeral images (which is what Mistry himself does when he is at his quietest and most accomplished)—who carry the novel to its end. In the context of the many disasters of the main story, they are gratuitous points of relief, enduring, brief, and if such a word exists, uncatastrophic. They come and go like ghosts, as they do in life, as anyone who has lived through an Indian afternoon will know. Even in the description of an emergency (Gustad's accident) the cry of the water-seller, a sibilant and reptilian whisper, unobtrusively calls attention to itself: ‘The peculiar street sound carried well over other noises, a mixture of hissing, aspirating and susurrating. “Hss-sst-sst-sst! Paaniwalla!”’ To walk down a crowded Colaba street on an afternoon is to come into contact with more people than one would in the course of a lifetime in Sweden. In the West, because of the climate, people get to know each other in rooms. Relationships form. So do characters. In India, the human face, being part of a river of faces, refuses to lend itself to characterisation, disappears, like a hint, soon after appearing, remains ghostly, without inwardness. This sense of humanity as at once endlessly replenishable and dispersed, Mistry powerfully suggests through his minor characters. Subject to the more occidental practice of ‘characterisation’, his protagonists tend to be unconvincing. Neither a minor nor a major figure, the pavement artist wanders intriguingly through the book, producing image after image, reminding me of Indian villagers who publish the pictures of their gods on the walls of their mud huts, decorating the fronts of their houses like the covers of books, each house containing a different story.

Ajay Heble (essay date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Heble, Ajay. “‘A Foreign Presence in the Stall’: Towards a Poetics of Cultural Hybridity in Rohinton Mistry's Migration Stories.” Canadian Literature, no. 137 (summer 1993): 51-61.

[In the following essay, Heble discusses the role of personal identity, cultural dislocation, and the difficulties inherent in emigrating to a new country.]


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 focus in the character of Sarosh, an Indian from a Parsi community in Bombay who decides to emigrate to Canada. Before Sarosh leaves his native India, a party is held in his honour and, at this party, his friends and family debate the relative merits and demerits of Sarosh's decision to go abroad. Some of his friends commend Sarosh, suggesting that, by emigrating, he is doing a wonderful thing; “his whole life,” they feel, is going to “change for the better” (Tales [Tales from Firozsha Baag] 154). Others, however, are somewhat more circumspect, insisting that Sarosh is making a big mistake: “emigration,” they argue is “all wrong, but if he wanted to be unhappy that was his business, they wished him well” (Tales 154). As a way of striking a kind of compromise between these two opposed factions, Sarosh, in “a moment of lightheartedness” (Tales 154), makes the following promise: “My dear family, my dear friends, if I do not become completely Canadian in exactly ten years from the time I land there, then I will come back” (Tales 154-55).

Ten years later, we find Sarosh, now Sid, completely Westernized in every respect save one—he is unable to use Western toilets:

At the point where our story commences, Sarosh had been living in Toronto for ten years. We find him depressed and miserable, perched on top of the toilet, crouching on his haunches, feet planted firmly for balance upon the white plastic oval of the toilet seat.

(Tales 153)

Later we are told that Sarosh, in the privacy of his own home, is able to squat barefoot. Elsewhere, however,

if he had to go with his shoes on, he would carefully cover the seat with toilet paper before climbing up. He learnt to do this after the first time, when his shoes had left telltale footprints on the seat. He had had to clean it with a wet paper towel. Luckily, no one had seen him.

(Tales 156)

Unable to pass a motion Western style by sitting on the toilet seat, Sarosh repeatedly finds himself climbing up onto the seat and simulating the squat of Indian latrines in order to achieve the desired catharsis. Despite the intensely personal nature of Sarosh's problem, the story continually urges us to consider the social and cultural ramifications of his inability:

The world of washrooms is private and at the same time very public. The absence of feet below the stall door, the smell of faeces, the rustle of paper, glimpses caught through the narrow crack between stall door and jamb—all these added up to only one thing: a foreign presence in the stall, not doing things in the conventional way. And if the one outside could receive the fetor of Sarosh's business wafting through the door, poor unhappy Sarosh too could detect something malodorous in the air: the presence of xenophobia and hostility.

(Tales 156)

Although this might seem to offer a rather unconventional and incommodious point of departure for a scholarly paper, I begin with this moment because it seems to me to describe a signally pragmatic instance of cultural dislocation. It bespeaks an uneasiness which can only be the result of the problematic relationship between interlocking cultural landscapes, between an ethnic heritage and a new life in the West, or, to put it slightly differently, between what Rosemary Sullivan, in an article entitled “The Multicultural Divide,” simply calls there and here. In Sullivan's words, “this is not a cheap polarity of eelgrass and snow, of a vapid idealized image of a past that is the focus only of nostalgia and a simplified alienating here. It is tougher than that. There and here are interlocked” (26).

That this is not, in Sarosh's case, a cheap polarity is evinced in various ways throughout the story. The “sad but instructive chronicle” (Tales 153) of Sarosh's life in Canada is offered by Nariman, the storyteller, as only one instance of immigrant experience; in fact, his story of Sarosh significantly begins with the counter-example of Vera and Dolly, two girls who “went abroad for studies many years ago, and never came back. They settled there happily” (Tales 153, my emphasis). While the offhand, seemingly incidental reference to Vera and Dolly serves as a convenient entrance into Nariman's story of Sarosh, it more suggestively functions as a reminder that different individuals have had varying degrees of success in negotiating their identity vis-à-vis a new system of cultural referents.

It is, however, tempting to see in Sarosh's predicament something that might be symptomatic of the immigrant experience. His inability to use Western toilets becomes, in his mind, a sign of his failure to adapt to a new culture. The discomfort occasioned by his perceived failure is played out through two overlapping areas of alienation: personal unease and social displacement. On a personal level, Sarosh's tale is a kind of narrative of failed conversion: he senses that he has failed because he has not become completely Canadian. On a social level, Sarosh's washroom habits seem to give rise to an increased sense of hostility and xenophobia. Upon detecting that things in the stall are not, as it were, being done in the “conventional way,” others, at least as Sarosh sees it, will simply reject him as a foreign and intrusive presence. But what we need to keep in mind, here, is the fact that Sarosh's story is framed by Nariman, a storyteller with a penchant for unpredictability and ambiguity, for “lots of subtle gradations of tone and texture” (Tales 147). Why does Mistry situate the story of Sarosh's failed immigrant experience within the context of a narrative framed by a storyteller?


The figure of Nariman, the storyteller, is important for our understanding not only of this particular story, but of Mistry's fiction in general precisely because he, like Sarosh, inhabits the interstices of culture. Despite using the inserted tale of Sarosh as a warning for future generations of Indians who plan to seek happiness and success abroad, Nariman's own patterns of behaviour implicitly work to undermine the impact of his story. If the example of Sarosh seems to point up the dangers inherent in the process of ethnic interaction and to argue for a return to one's place of origin, Nariman himself contradicts the lesson which he seeks to impart to his listeners. He does this by revealing the extent to which he relies on and is steeped in Western cultural practices. In addition to his fondness for introducing new English words into his stories, for exposing “young minds to as shimmering and varied a vocabulary as possible” (Tales 146), Nariman, we are told, owns a Mercedes Benz (a Western symbol of success and affluence), has cultivated the moustache of a Western movie star (Clark Gable), and likes to whistle a march from a Western film (Bridge on the River Kwai). Though they may initially appear to have little, if anything, to do with the story of Sarosh, these allusions to Western popular culture are important for the subtle and intriguing ways in which they remind us that post-colonial identity is always already a hybridized formation.

Mistry, then, frames Sarosh's story within Nariman's in order more effectively to explore the consequences of migration. Rather than simply proceeding on the basis of an opposition between the new world (as a source of alienation) and the old world (as the only authentic source of values), Mistry interrogates the relationship between diverse cultural groups and dismantles traditional structures of authority which privilege an essential cultural purity. Moreover, Mistry employs the story-within-a-story technique in “Squatter” as a kind of structural analogue for the very process which Sarosh undergoes: the activity of re-forming the self in a new culture. The shift from a familiar frame of reference (hence the story begins with Nariman's invocation of Vera and Dolly, two girls who, despite having left the compound many years ago, are vividly remembered by the boys who gather around to listen to Nariman's tales) to a strange and foreign one becomes a structural enactment of Sarosh's experience of cultural displacement. The effect which Nariman's story has on his listeners reinforces this point: the fact that they are unable to determine whether this is a comic or a serious tale forces us to recognize the extent to which notions of purity and structures of authoritarian discourse are being undermined:

Some of the boys struggled hard to keep straight faces. They suspected that Nariman was not telling just a funny story, because if he intended them to laugh there was always some unmistakable way to let them know.

(Tales 154)

The story itself, like Sarosh, like Nariman the storyteller, is hybrid: at the juncture of the strange and the familiar, the serious and the funny, without ever purely being any one of these things.

What, then, are we, as readers, to make of Nariman's story of Sarosh? In seeking to become completely Canadian, Sarosh seems to want to forget his ethnic past, to efface his origins, and to lose his sense of identity by immersing himself in the Western hegemonic culture. His goal is clearly assimilation and his inability to accomplish the desired transformation can only be seen as a sign of failure: “If he could not be westernized in all respects, he was nothing but a failure in this land—a failure not just in the washrooms of the nation but everywhere” (Tales 162). Sarosh, thus, in his own peculiar way, seems to corroborate the view advanced by sociologist Robert Park in his 1928 essay, “Human Migration and the Marginal Man.” In this famous piece, Park speaks of the “moral dichotomy and conflict [which] is probably characteristic of every immigrant during the period of transition, when old habits are being discarded and new ones are not yet formed. It is inevitably a period of inner turmoil and intense self-consciousness” (893). Moreover, Sarosh, during this transitional decade in his life, would appear to emerge as an instance of what Park calls

a new type of personality, namely a cultural hybrid, a man living and sharing intimately in the cultural life and traditions of two distinct peoples; never quite willing to break … with his past and his traditions, and not quite accepted, because of racial prejudice, in the new society in which he [seeks] to find a place.


Unlike Park's “new type of personality,” however, Sarosh, as we have seen, certainly seems willing to make a complete break with his past. The problem stems from what he is unable to do. Or is this necessarily the case?

What if we were to interpret the story of Sarosh not in terms of alienation, discomfort and failure, but rather in terms of a resistance to hegemonic practices? Such an interpretation would rescue Sarosh from the fate to which he seems to have resigned himself. No longer would we have to think of him, to use Park's terms, as exemplifying the “unstable character” of “the marginal man” (881). Instead of stressing his instability, we might focus on the way in which certain modes of behaviour, certain social practices, have been relegated to a position of inferiority by the dominant culture. In their formulation of a theory of “minority discourse,” Abdul Jan Mohamed and David Lloyd call for the need to see difference and otherness not as symptoms of an inferior position, but as “figurations of values radically opposed to those of the dominant culture” (10). By clinging to old world social practices—though apparently not by choice—Sarosh, it seems to me, may at some unconscious level be attempting to preserve remnants of meaning unique to his domain of experience in India. What I am suggesting, then, is that in the same way that Nariman's tale of Sarosh, with its deliberate blurring of borders of classification, is a hybridized formation, so our interpretation of the central meaning of this tale is similarly problematized. More explicitly, the act of interpretation, here, fractures in half to reveal its own dependence on a kind of hybridity.


The final point I'd like to make about the frame in Mistry's tale might best be understood when situated within the context of the following remark. Analyzing the tension between centre and margin in the fiction of Mistry and Bharati Mukherjee, Ashok Mathur writes, “their art is an interplay of dichotomies never resolved (nor resolvable), always shifting in and out of focus. Everything blurs: predator becomes victim, cause becomes effect, fact becomes fiction, transparency turns opaque” (19). The frame structure, I would argue, is itself part of this complex site of interaction. Nariman, the teller, is both outside the frame, narrating, and inside it as a minor participant in the action. The fact that he knows Sarosh, and is, in fact, invited to his welcome-home party, signals Nariman's position inside the frame. What is more revealing, however, is the way in which his own life is almost a mirror-image of Sarosh's. I say “almost” here because, unlike Sarosh, Nariman is not displaced; for that matter, he is not even inconvenienced by his dependence on Western systems of thought. Nevertheless, Nariman's own hybridized identity alerts us to the possibility that the framed moment in Mistry's text might be as much about Nariman as it is about Sarosh. Or, to put it slightly differently, the border which separates the person doing the framing from the person being framed is itself subject to the kind of blurring we see throughout the story. Given his position both inside and outside the frame, Nariman finds himself in a particularly effective discursive situation, able to speak with what Linda Hutcheon calls “the forked tongue of irony. … which allows speakers to work within a dominant tradition but also to challenge it” (9).

Working from within in order to subvert: this is, of course, precisely what Rohinton Mistry does throughout the stories in Tales from Firozsha Baag, and in the argument that follows I want to suggest some of the ways in which this discursive strategy is played out in some of these stories.

In his extraordinary re-reading of the Harlem Renaissance, Houston Baker discusses some of the “sounding strategies” which enabled American blacks to establish their own (also hybridized) Afro-American identity. He speaks of two strategies which, when taken together, constitute the essence of black discursive modernism: “mastery of form,” and “the deformation of mastery.” Baker's formulation is instructive in our current context because it alerts us to the fact that a self-conscious adoption of the discourse employed by a hegemonic white culture (what he calls “mastery of form”) represents an important stage in the process of subversion (“the deformation of mastery”). Baker's “sounding strategies” from black literary and cultural history find a kind of approximation in post-colonial notions of abrogation and appropriation. Here are the authors of The Empire Writes Back:

The crucial function of language as a medium of power demands that post-colonial writing define itself by seizing the language of the centre and re-placing it in a discourse fully adapted to the colonized place. There are two distinct processes by which it does this. The first, the abrogation or denial of the privilege of “English” involves a rejection of the metropolitan power over the means of communication. The second, the appropriation and reconstitution of the language of the centre, the process of capturing and remoulding the language to new usages, marks a separation from the site of colonial privilege.

(Ashcroft 38)

In Mistry's fiction, as we might expect, these strategies of language-use overlap and interlock in a way which makes it difficult to distinguish agency from response, cause from effect.

Mistry's mastery of form, his “ability to give the trick to white expectations” (Baker 49), expresses itself in the ironic continuation of certain stereotypes and clichés. Rustomji, in “Auspicious Occasion,” bemoans the departure of the British in India because “Johnnie Walker Scotch, freely available under the British, could now be obtained only on the black market” (Tales 15). Similarly, Kersi's parents, in “Lend Me Your Light,” seem to take the inferiority of their nation as a given: “We've seen advertisements in newspapers from England, where Canadian Immigration is encouraging people to come to Canada. Of course, they won't advertise in a country like India—who would want these bloody ghatis to come charging into their fine land?” (Tales 178). By having these Indian characters—and the fact that they are Indian is, of course, crucial—articulate their own sense of inferiority in terms of (a) how much better off they were under British rule, and (b) their very willingness to hold the conviction that Canadian Immigration would not want to advertise in a country like India, Mistry appropriates the clichés of colonialist discourse, while simultaneously rejecting their validity. Mastery of form functions here, by way of irony, as a kind of deformation of mastery.


The tension between these two (hybridized) strategies of language-use (mastery of form and deformation of mastery) is roughly played out in the central dramatic conflict in “Lend Me Your Light.” Like “Squatter,” this story also deals with problems of immigrant experience, but the tone here is unmistakably tragic. Enlarging on the opposition between two childhood friends, Jamshed, who, scornful of his native India, leaves for the Promised Land of America, and Percy, who adamantly stays in India to help villagers in their fight against exploitation, the story finds its focus in Kersi, the narrator, who comes to represent the struggle between the two extreme positions.

Even in his school days in Bombay, Jamshed sets himself apart from others. Instead of having lunch with his classmates in the “school's drillhall-cum-lunchroom,” he eats in the family car: “His food arrived precisely at one o'clock in the chauffeur-driven, air-conditioned family car, and was eaten in the leather-upholstered luxury of the back seat, amidst his collection of hyphenated lavishness” (Tales 174). There is, it seems to me, something ironic about Mistry's use of the term “hyphenated” in this context. Jamshed dines amidst the hyphenated splendour of a “chauffeur-driven,” “air-conditioned,” “leather-upholstered” family car, but, once he takes up residence in America, he is unable to recognize his own hyphenated identity. As one critic puts it, “… so lost is Jamshed in a world of his own creation, so convinced is he that he has successfully attained the center, that he cannot even recognize his own roots of marginality” (Mathur 25). Moreover, when he returns to Bombay for a visit, Jamshed perpetuates stereotypes about the inferiority of Indians, insisting that Indians should do what they can to become more like Americans: “Indians [are] too meek and docile, and should learn to stand up for their rights the way people do in the States” (Tales 185). This is, of course, more than a mere comparison; Jamshed speaks here as a proponent of assimilationist theory. As an immigrant in the United States, he has willingly renounced his ethnic heritage and taken on the values of Americans. As far as he is concerned, he has become one of them.

Percy, by contrast, refuses Jamshed's invitation to take up a new life in the United States, and continues to fight for change and justice in a small Maharashtrian village. His brother, Kersi, the narrator of the story, is, however, not nearly as certain of his own position. He too, like Jamshed, has emigrated, though he has chosen Canada, rather than the U.S.A. But unlike Jamshed, Kersi has made efforts to retain something of his ethnic past: “I became a member of the Zoroastrian Society of Ontario. Hoping to meet people from Bombay, I also went to the Parsi New Year celebrations and dinner” (Tales 182). That Kersi inhabits the ambivalent space between cultures becomes strikingly evident when he comments on a letter he has just received from his brother Percy: “There you were, my brother, waging battles against corruption and evil, while I was watching sitcoms on my rented Granada TV. Or attending dinner parties at Parsi homes to listen to chit-chat about airlines and trinkets” (Tales 184). Kersi, in this passage, recognizes the extent to which his Indian heritage has been effaced by the North American cultural mainstream. He also understands that his attempts to retain some vestige of his ancestral culture have resulted in little more than idle chit-chat. Unlike Nariman, who, in “Squatter,” moves with considerable ease between two cultures, or at least between two domains of language-use, Kersi sees his hybridized identity as the site of a struggle between opposing sets of cultural values.

Earlier in the story, Kersi receives a letter from Jamshed. On the subject of his visit to India, Jamshed had written, “Bombay is horrible. Seems dirtier than ever, and the whole trip just made me sick” (Tales 181). Kersi is “irritated” by the fact that Jamshed “could express so much disdain and discontentment even when he was no longer living under those conditions” (Tales 181). He thus fashions his own letter to Jamshed, trying desperately to assert his ethnic origins:

I described the segment of Toronto's Gerrard Street known as Little India. I promised that when he visited, we would go to all the little restaurants there and gorge ourselves with bhelpuri, panipuri, batata-wada, kulfi, as authentic as any in Bombay; then we could browse through the shops selling imported spices and Hindi records, and maybe even see a Hindi movie at the Naaz Cinema. I often went to Little India, I wrote; he would be certain to have a great time.

(Tales 181-82)

Upon writing this, however, Kersi immediately submits himself to a process of self-correction. “The truth is,” he tells us, “I have been [to Little India] just once. And on that occasion I fled the place in a very short time, feeling extremely ill at ease and ashamed, wondering why all this did not make me feel homesick or at least a little nostalgic” (Tales 182). Kersi's confession alerts us to the fact that the “authenic” Indian essence he seeks to recover here is nothing but a constructed memory. Or, to put it slightly differently, this self-corrective gesture constitutes, for Kersi, a pronounced recognition of his own hybridity: despite being drawn to his brother's strong sense of purpose, Kersi also bears within himself much of Jamshed (Mathur 25). Hence when Kersi too returns to India, he is ashamed to admit that his views are very much in accord with those of Jamshed: “Bombay seemed dirtier than ever. I remembered what Jamshed had written in his letter, and how it had annoyed me, but now I couldn't help thinking he was right” (Tales 187). I do not mean to suggest, here, that Kersi simply comes down on the side of Jamshed, but rather to indicate that the force of Mistry's accomplishment in “Lend Me Your Light,” as indeed in many of the other tales in the volume, resides in his evocation of the plight of the cultural hybrid: the impossibility of defining immigrant identity exclusively in terms of one's ancestral past or in terms of one's ability to assimilate into the new culture. Identity, as Kersi discovers, is more a matter of process than a fixed condition.


At this point, I would like to return to the strategies of language-use I spoke of a moment ago. The problematic interplay between the two positions I have been discussing, between what we might loosely call essentialism and assimilation, reverberates in the very language of these stories. While Jamshed, to adapt Baker's formulation, seems to have mastered the form of a Western hegemonic discourse (with all its attendant clichés concerning those on the margins), there are two additional remarks which should be made here. The first concerns our need to distinguish between Jamshed's sense of mastery and Mistry's appropriation of English. If, as I have been suggesting, Mistry works from within in order to subvert, if, by implication, he appropriates English as a vehicle for exploring levels of otherness within himself, Jamshed, by contrast, adopts the behaviour and values of Western culture only in order to immerse himself in that culture. Secondly, the limitations of Jamshed's assimilationist endeavours are revealed in his recourse to modes of expression which belong to the past he thinks he has discarded. Thus Jamshed, in spite of himself, alerts us to the fact that he cannot simply deny his ethnic heritage. Here is what he writes to Kersi about his visit to Bombay: “Nothing ever improves, just too much corruption. It's all part of the ghati mentality” (Tales 181). Continuing in this vein, he goes on to imply that in America things are much better. The point here is that he fails to recognize the implications of his own use of language. For all his eagerness to immerse himself in Western culture, Jamshed reveals his reliance on a set of linguistic assumptions which are specifically Indian. Deriving its contemporary usage from the context of India's hardy mountain dwellers, the term “ghati,” as it is used both by Jamshed and by Kersi's parents, becomes a derogatory label for Maharashtra's common labourers. The “ghati mentality” to which Jamshed alludes thus has a certain kind of cultural resonance: the very phrase serves to remind us that Jamshed has grown up at a particular time and as a member of a privileged class in India.

Unlike Jamshed, Kersi would seem to be cognizant of the implications of his use of language. Despite his own “fluency in the English language” (Tales 178), Kersi openly articulates his hybridity through his use of interlocking discursive strategies. In other words, he too has mastered the form, but his appropriation of English is tempered with a deliberate admixture of words and phrases from his domain of experience in India. Thus in his letter to Jamshed, Kersi attempts to assert and inscribe cultural difference through the very act of writing non-English terms: “bhelpuri, panipuri, batata-wada, kulfi.” Part of the point here, I take it, is the fact that these uniquely Indian culinary delights cannot simply be rendered into English. Bhelpuri and panipuri have no equivalent terms in English, and the English counterparts for batata-wada and kulfi (potato pastry and ice cream) are inadequate because they fail to acknowledge what the authors of The Empire Writes Back call the “importance of the situating context in according meaning” (Ashcroft 66).

The notion of language as a sign of cultural distinctiveness plays an analogously important role in “Swimming Lessons,” the final tale in the collection. The narrator, though unnamed, is presumably Kersi once again, and in this piece we learn that Kersi, like Mistry, is a writer. Set primarily in Toronto, “Swimming Lessons” also contains shifts to India, where the narrator's parents, in a series of metafictional moments, read and comment on the text which their son has recently written—thus interrupting the text which we, as readers, are in the very process of reading. I'd like to conclude this paper by turning to a passage from “Swimming Lessons” which duplicates the discursive configuration of the migration stories in the collection. After having received a short, unforthcoming letter from their son in Toronto, the narrator's parents fashion their own letter to him. Here is the father telling his wife what to write: “remind him he is a Zoroastrian: manashni, gavashni, kunashni, better write the translation also: good thoughts, good words, good deeds—he must have forgotten what it means” (Tales 236). That the father's prescription, here, needs to be followed by a translation becomes a kind of reminder of Mistry's own involvement with what I am calling a poetics of hybridity. Thus alongside an insistence on Kersi's heritage (“remind him he is a Zoroastrian”), there is an acknowledgement of the necessity of translation: an awareness of the extent to which Kersi has been involved in the process of integrating his ethnic differences into the sameness of a Western cultural mainstream.

In the migration stories in Tales from Firozsha Baag, thus, Mistry, through a series of interlocking discursive formations, articulates the ambivalent space between the “old” culture of India and the “new” culture of Canada. Caught between there and here, his characters and narrators, sometimes in spite of themselves, are engaged in the activity of defining their own hybridity. Like them, Mistry himself is someone who—as a South-Asian-Canadian—negotiates between different cultural traditions, and his fiction powerfully attests to the need for the Canadian literary landscape to open up to include a new kind of critical activity. Indeed, the emergence in Canada of writers like Mistry, Joy Kogawa, Dionne Brand, and Tomson Highway indicates the necessity of moving beyond a nationalist critical methodology—where “the desire to come to terms with oneself in place and time and in relation to others” is, as David Tarras suggests, “a national instinct” (10)—to a cross-cultural exploration of the discourse of hybridity as it is played out both within and beyond our national borders.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill and Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Baker, Houston A. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1987.

Hutcheon, Linda. As Canadian As … Possible … Under The Circumstances! Toronto: ECW/Robarts Centre, 1990.

JanMohamed, Abdul and David Lloyd. “Introduction: Toward a Theory of Minority Discourse.” Cultural Critique 6 (Spring 1987): 5-12.

Mathur, Ashok. “The Margin is the Message: On Mistry, Mukherjee and In Between.” Critical Mass 1 (Spring 1990): 19-29.

Mistry, Rohinton. Tales from Firozsha Baag. Markham: Penguin, 1987.

Park, Robert E. “Human Migration and the Marginal Man.” The American Journal of Sociology 33 (May 1928): 881-893.

Sullivan, Rosemary. “The Multicultural Divide.” This Magazine 22 (March-April 1988): 25-30.

Tarras, David. “Introduction.” A Passion for Identity: An Introduction to Canadian Studies. David Tarras and Eli Mandel, eds. Toronto: Methuen, 1987. 10-16.

Amin Malak (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4313

SOURCE: Malak, Amin. “The Shahrazadic Tradition: Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey and the Art of Storytelling.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 28, no. 2 (1993): 108-18.

[In the following essay, Malak focuses on Mistry's storytelling techniques, likening them to the Shahrazadic tradition, which he believes Mistry has subtly melded with the Western style of narrative.]

While in Mistry's first book, the collection of short stories entitled Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987), the three finest and most exciting pieces switch between Bombay and Toronto, the narrative in his second book, the novel Such a Long Journey (1991), is set entirely in India.1 Lengthier, more assuredly detailed and variant, Such a Long Journey nevertheless shares numerous features with its predecessor, the most obvious being the imaginative depiction of residential complexes (Firozsha Baag and Khodadad Building respectively), inhabited mostly by middle-class Parsis. The Parsis are a tiny but vibrant Bombay community whose religious and ethnic roots go back to the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (c. 1400 B.C.). The choice of such a setting reveals the author's penchant for groups of characters that exhibit diverse temperaments and rich potential for drama. One is almost tempted to say that Mistry's strategy aims at producing characters en masse, yet the tone and texture of the narrative suggest a design that situates the individual within a context, be it family, ethnic community, or nation, whereby the narrative becomes humanized and historicized. Subsequently, the discourse can evolve effortlessly and interchangeably, moving from private to public, from ethnic to national, from local to universal. Significantly, the vehicle that readily serves to express such a vision is storytelling, an art whose influence, according to Walter Benjamin,2 has diminished in the technologized cultures of the West, yet still flourishes as a popular narrative form in the oral tradition of numerous other civilizations.

Such a Long Journey tells the story of a sympathetic bank-clerk, Gustad Noble, whose devotion to his family, loyalty to his friends, and love for his Parsi community are continually tested through a series of mimetically rendered events and situations. Loyalty and journeying constitute two major contrasting patterns in his life: the first entails constancy and commitment; the second mutation and metamorphosis. Gustad Noble is well delineated and centrally positioned amongst a host of other characters; as his name suggests, his touching, tolerant self appeals to our best instincts, at times even movingly evoking pathos. Mistry illustrates that a decent, ordinary person can be unassumingly heroic. Unlike the larger-than-life gods of myths and legends, the characters of oral stories and folk-tales are creatures of average, often mundane, qualities: they experience fears, failures, and frustrations, but also entertain hope, express joy and reap rewards. Mistry's modest Noble, because of his closeness to our humanity, recurrently excites then fulfils our anticipation of his reactions to situations that are, at times, beyond his control or comprehension. Through well-timed flashbacks, we become aware of how this middle-class clerk is still haunted by his father's degrading bankruptcy years ago, an event that disrupted and dashed his hopes for an advanced education. We can thus appreciate his current troubles with a son, Sohrab, who prefers arts to studying at the prestigious Institute of Technology, thereby denying the father the vicarious pleasure of achieving what cruel destiny has denied him. And this is not the only preoccupation that disturbs Noble's relative tranquillity: his close, but mysterious friend, Major Bilimoria, asks a favour that requires risky, if seemingly legal, financial transactions, connected, as is revealed later, with Indira Gandhi's secret scheme for funding the guerillas in Bangladesh while deceptively embezzling the money for her family's use. This high, breathtaking drama, at times stretching the limits of credibility, is handled competently through the use of prolepsis and analepsis.3

But the novel, as I suggested earlier, is more than the tale of one individual's life, touching and riveting as this aspect is; it is a microcosm of a community, an image of a “tribe” invented through the imagination of its storyteller. We are presented with a gallery of characters of diverse types and temperaments, such as dabblers in magic, an ageless aphrodisiac vendor, a barefoot pavement painter of ecumenical saints and gods, a malcontent who hurls defiances at God, the disabled Tehmul (perhaps Mistry's finest creation) who exhibits “a child's mind and a man's [sexual] urges”,4 and a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde secret agent who seems to be everywhere and nowhere.5 “It is a tidal wave of humanity”,6 one reviewer comments. Another articulates quite colourfully the role of the minor characters:

They come and go like ghosts, as they do in life, as anyone who has lived through an Indian afternoon will know … To walk down a crowded Colaba street on an afternoon is to come into contact with more people than one would in the course of a lifetime in Sweden. In the West, because of the climate, people get to know each other in rooms. Relationships form. So do characters. In India, the human face, being part of a river of faces, refuses to lend itself to characterisation, disappears, like a hint, soon after appearing, remains ghostly, without inwardness. This sense of humanity as at once endlessly replenishable and dispersed, Mistry powerfully suggests through his minor characters.7

Mistry's skilful blending of his characters' personal affairs with communal concerns situates them and lends them significance as social beings. This conception of characters and the engaging, simple, yet subtle, narrative are but two of several aspects of Mistry's strategy of harmonizing the secure style of storytelling—whose paradigms are refined in the Shahrazadic tradition—and the generic exigencies of the novel, an essentially European product. The challenge is to reconcile respectfully and synergetically the compatible features from both practices, without denigrating either, as E. M. Forster does when he calls storytelling “this low atavistic form”.8 Accordingly, it is appropriate to enumerate below the salient features of storytelling that have bearing on our reading of Such a Long Journey.


In any story told orally, the audience's comprehension, engagement, response, and sympathy are crucial. Its approval of, indeed participation in, the way the story is told means in essence that it partakes in shaping it. That is to say that the audience's confidence in the integrity of the storyteller is as crucial as the story's merit and the excitement it generates. Here the audience has to trust both the tale and the teller. As Salman Rushdie affirms, “the first and only rule of the storyteller is to hold his audience: if you don't hold them, they will get up and walk away. So everything that the storyteller does is designed to keep the people listening most intensely”.9 In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, when Rashid Khalfa's storytelling talent is restored to him after the defeat of the evil Khattam Shud, Rushdie describes it thus: “And it was plain that he was okay again, the Gift of Gab had returned, and he had the audience in the palm of his hand” [emphasis added].10


That both the storyteller and the audience share common codes speaks volumes about the social function of the storyteller as a repository of the community ethos, recorder/reminder of shared perceptions, and spokesperson articulating feelings, attitudes and judgements. The storyteller, then, distils and defines individual experiences while registering and retaining community history; as Walter Benjamin puts it:

Experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth is the source from which all storytellers have drawn … In [storytelling] the love of faraway places brought home by a much-travelled man is combined with the love of the past, as it best reveals itself to natives of a place.11

Interestingly, for a traditionalist like R. K. Narayan, whose fiction provides yet another illustration par excellence of the dominance of storytelling strategies in his narrative, stories can be unabashedly utilized to confirm common creed: “Since didacticism was never shunned, every story has implicit in it a moral value, likened to the fragrance of a well-shaped flower”.12 Significantly, Narayan underscores the difference between oriental and Greek visions of good and evil:

To the story-teller and his audience the tales are so many chronicles of personalities who inhabited this world at some remote time, and whose lives are worth understanding, and hence form part of human history rather than fiction. In every story, since goodness triumphs in the end, there is not tragedy in the Greek sense; the curtain never comes down finally on corpses strewn about the stage. The sufferings of the meek and saintly are temporary, even as the triumph of the demon is; everyone knows this. Everything is bound to come out right in the end; if not immediately, at least in a thousand or ten thousand years; if not in this world. at least in other worlds.13


If I may venture a tentative definition of storytelling, I would say it is a form of imaginative reporting about something that happened to someone elsewhere, earlier—witness the formula “Once upon a time …”. Of course in order to accept and appreciate the report(ing), one needs a trustworthy reporter; one needs to establish rapport with the rapporteur (puns intended). A striking quality of Such a Long Journey is the large amount of reporting that occurs throughout: characters often tell each other what happened to themselves or to others elsewhere. Exceptionally, however, one report assumes a pivotal significance: it involves the confessional claim Major Bilimoria makes about how corruption goes to the top of the Indian political establishment, implicating that “strange … very strong woman” (p. 272) [i.e. Indira Gandhi who double-crossed him with a large sum of embezzled state funds.14 Given the delicacy of the contention, Mistry depicts Bilimoria making those allegations elliptically while in the grips of delirium and death, thus making the claim twice removed from the reader; this situation is not unlike what Rushdie's Gibreel Farishta undergoes as he “dreams” those risky, controversial reports in The Satanic Verses.

Reporting can also take other forms: self-reporting through memory, the most prominent being Gustad Noble's recurrent, private recollections of his father's shattering business failure. There is also collective memory symbolized by traditions (such as the dramatic details of Parsi burial rituals in the novel) and community codes, as well as the history of the nation, India, especially as it relates to the saga of wars with troubled/troubling neighbours: China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.


Storytelling as a craft involves at times blending different modes of expression to serve stylistic and thematic intentions. In Mistry's fascinating story “Squatter”, which employs the form of a story-within-a-story, a bright, young listener, Jehangir, comments appreciatively on the technique used by Nariman, the storyteller who enchants the boys of Firozsha Baag:

Nariman sometimes told a funny incident in a very serious way, or expressed a significant matter in a light and playful manner. And these were only two rough divisions, in between were lots of subtle gradations of tone and texture. Which, then, was the funny story and which the serious? [The boys'] opinions were divided but ultimately, said Jehangir, it was up to the listener to decide.15

Not only do storytellers blend modes, but also genres. In Such a Long Journey, Peerbhoy, an aphrodisiac vendor with a multi-faceted personality and a parody of sorts of Shakespeare's Polonius, turns to storytelling during the mobilization for the war in Bangladesh; his “tale” mocks General Yahya, the Pakistani potentate then, referred to as the Drunkard:

In deference to the mood of the country and the threat from without, Peerbhoy Paanwalla had mobilized his talents for the common good, using his skills to weave a tale that defied genre or description. It was not tragedy, comedy or history; not pastoral, tragical-comical, historical-pastoral or tragical-historical. It was not a ballad or an ode, masque or anti-masque, fable or elegy, parody or threnody. Although a careful analysis may have revealed that it possessed a smattering of all these characteristics. But since things such as literary criticism mattered not one jot to the listeners, they were responding to Peerbhoy's narrative in the only way that made sense: with every fibre of their beings. They could see and smell and taste and feel the words that filled the dusk and conjured the tale; and it was no wonder they were oblivious to the gutter stink.

(p. 306)

While storytelling is not quite that amorphous a process, it does enjoy solid, resourceful possibilities that could befit variations in mood, situation, time, audience and comprehension level.


Given that Such a Long Journey characterizes not only Gustad Noble's private odyssey but also the lives of a community of other characters relating to him, befriending him or coming in contact with him, the narrative often shifts—quietly, imperceptibly, but intentionally—into the histories and preoccupations of these others. According to Tzvetan Todorov's analysis of the narrative technique of Alf Laylah wa-Laylah: 1001 Nights, the appearance of any new character necessitates inserting a new story within the preceding one—a process which he labels as enchâssement (embedding or encasement):

L'apparition d'un nouveau personnage entraîne immanquablement l'interruption de l'histoire précédente, pour qu'une nouvelle histoire, celle qui explique le “je suis ici maintenant” du nouveau personnage, nous soit racontée. Une histoire seconde est englobée dans la premiére; ce procédé s'appelle enchâssement.16

As the most striking feature of storytelling, these digressions are meant to defy or de-emphasize linearity, rigid narrative cohesion, or self-indulgent insularity. Replying to a question on the role of digressions in Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie affirms that “they are absolutely crucial”:

The digressions are almost the point of the book, in which the idea of multitude is a central notion. When I started writing, I just tried to explain one life, and it struck me more and more that, in order to explain this life, you had to explain a vast amount of material which surrounded it, both in space and time. In a country like India, you are basically never alone. The idea of solitude is a luxury which only rich people enjoy. For most Indians, the idea of privacy is very remote. When people perform their natural functions in public, you don't have the same idea of privacy.17

On another occasion, Rushdie eloquently describes how storytelling aborts linearity:

An oral narrative does not go from the beginning to the middle to the end of the story. It goes in great swoops, it goes in spirals or in loops, it every so often reiterates something that happened earlier to remind you, and then takes you off again, sometimes summarizes itself, it frequently digresses off into something that the story-teller appears just to have thought of, then it comes back to the main thrust of the narrative. Sometimes it steps sideways and tells you about another, related story which is like the story that he's been telling you, and then it goes back to the main story. Sometimes there are Chinese boxes where there is a story inside a story inside a story inside a story, then they all come back … So it's a very bizarre and pyrotechnical shape. And it has the appearance of being random and chaotic, it has the appearance that what is happening is anything the storyteller happens to be thinking, he just proceeds in that contingent way. It seemed to me in fact that it was very far from being random or chaotic, and that the oral narrative had developed this shape over a very long period, not because story-tellers were lacking in organization, but because this shape conformed very exactly to the shape in which people liked to listen

[emphasis added]18

The vibrant character of Haroun in Haroun and the Sea of Stories deploys a juggling metaphor to describe the dynamics of storytelling: “I always thought storytelling was like juggling … You keep a lot of different tales in the air, and juggle them up and down, and if you're good you don't drop any. So maybe juggling is a kind of storytelling, too.”19

Put briefly, then, one can assert that digressions are not redundancies but variations that are integral parts of the narrative strategy, leading towards the enchâssement phenomenon, mentioned earlier in Todorov's observation and which he further underscores by calling it “the narrative of narrative”: le récit d'un récit.20


Storytelling is obviously a phenomenon of the oral tradition; the novel is a product of literacy. Each practice is defined by the artistic and social functions attributed to it by its relevant civilization. According to Walter Ong, for oral cultures narrative functions crucially in two ways: “to store, organize, and communicate much of what they know” and “to bond a great deal of lore in relatively substantial, lengthy forms that are reasonably durable and repeatable”.21 Of course when narrative becomes choreographed and typographed, the needs for warehousing and durability are satisfied, but at a price. Features—such as open-endedness, spontaneity, intimacy, drama—and functions—such as audience participation, singing, dancing and playing music—have to be abandoned and/or curtailed substantially. In Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction, Leonard J. Davis argues that “the shift from storyteller to novelist carries with it the move from craftsperson … to professional”22 whose financial and cultural success

changes narrative into professionalised novel form—breaking the story away in objectified form—as opposed to the lived and contextualized folktale or story-teller's tale. In the newer form, character becomes established as the ideological representation of personality, plot plows the disorder of modern life into orderly lines, the natural flow of time is broken up into commodified units which appear serially in magazines or individual numbers to maximize sales. The novelist, as professional, gains with this the “universal” authority of a cultural, financial, and creative paragon.23

Walter Benjamin astutely articulates a different perspective on this shift from storyteller to novelist:

The storyteller takes what he tells from experience—his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself. The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others. To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life. In the midst of life's fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living.24

The epistemological and phenomenological differences separating storytelling from novel-writing make the task of a post-colonial writer like Mistry who straddles the two traditions quite challenging. The task of the storyteller-cum-novelist is to accommodate, reconcile, and integrate the demands of both practices: Such a Long Journey, qua hybrid, contains calculated, negotiated features, reflecting different geneses. Accordingly, the attitude of the post-colonial novelist towards his profession becomes Manichean, quite similar to his attitude to the English language he uses; as the Indian novelist Raja Rao puts it succinctly, “One has to convey in a language [or a medium] that is not one's own the spirit that is one's own”.25

From reading Mistry's two books, one senses the confidence and dexterity with which he handles his material. The subject-matter may, thus far, be limited in scope, namely Parsis living in residential complexes, but when it contains such variety of tones, textures, and temperaments, and when it is so consummately constructed and conveyed, our satisfaction with the final product is guaranteed. Mistry's secret success as a writer relates to the fact that he, the bona fide storyteller, is comfortably intimate with the situations and experiences that he deals with. “To write well,” Mistry says, “I must write about what I know best. In that way, I automatically speak for my ‘tribe’”.26

Significantly, for the title of his first book written about his “tribe,” Mistry chooses the term “tales” over the obvious alternative “stories”: Tales from Firozsha Baag. Such a choice clearly evokes oral narrative. M. H. Abrams gives us a convenient, if fairly bland, distinction between the two: a tale focuses on “the course and outcome of events” while a story focuses “instead on the state of mind and motivation, or on the moral qualities, in the protagonist”.27 This distinction is not of much help here, for Mistry's tales are more than mere episodes. By opting for the less fashionable and ambitious of the two terms, Mistry, who modestly calls himself “a traditional writer” who “is not trying to break new ground or pioneer new technique”,28 renounces claims to moral depth and stylistic sophistication that should legitimately be his. Indeed, his characters' motivations are clearly delineated and their action is convincing and consistent. (The only exception I would make here relates to a few unconvincing coincidences in Such a Long Journey.) Accordingly, the boundary between tale and story in Mistry's case is not only shifting and ambiguous but also false and irrelevant.

Let me conclude by venturing a proposition: the art of storytelling not only rewards us aesthetically, but also provides an infinite source of inspiration and hope. There is a common saying uttered by the wise men and women of Baghdad, the city of Alf Laylah wa-Laylah: 1001 Nights, when they or their friends face a crisis or a depressing situation: “It shall pass and become one more story to tell.” The story thus becomes a register and repository of our experiences, signalling the distilled, civilizational wisdom derived from them. Moreover, it represents a sure worry-defeating, life-embracing vehicle that confirms confidence and instills hope by holding out not only the possibility of survival but also of a quasi-creative reward of telling a wise, enduring story to oneself and to others. As Mistry says, “there is a latent desire in all of us to be story-tellers. In the best of all possible worlds, all of us would be story-tellers and listeners”.29

To tell a tale then means that someone has witnessed, experienced, and survived something; equally important, another person or other people are sharing it with her through listening, responding, and appreciating. I tell a story, therefore I am; you listen to it, ergo you are.


  1. For an analysis of Tales from Firozsha Baag, see my “Insider/Outsider Views on Belonging: The Short Stories of Bharati Mukherjee and Rohinton Mistry” in Short Fiction in the New Literatures in English, ed. Jacqueline Bardolph, Nice: Université de Nice, 1989, pp. 189-96.

  2. Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov”, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968, pp. 83-109.

  3. Gérard Genette's terms, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method, trans. Jane E. Lewin, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985, p. 40.

  4. Rohinton Mistry, Such a Long Journey, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1991, p. 303. Subsequent references are to this edition.

  5. From this impressive gallery of portraits, I find Tehmul and the nameless painter the two most potently suggestive, self-contained “minor” characters. While respectively manifesting reticence and a speech impediment, they nevertheless speak through their actions. Functioning jointly as the novel's conscience, they symbolize innocence and creativity and illustrate its plea for compassion and tolerance.

  6. Val Ross, “Keeping the World at Bay”, The Globe and Mail, 30 November 1991, national edn., Section E, p. 2.

  7. Amit Chaudhuri, “Parsi Magic”, London Review of Books, 4 April 1991, p. 19.

  8. E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, London: Edward Arnold, 1927, p. 41.

  9. Salman Rushdie, “Midnight's Children and Shame”, Kunapipi, VII, 1, 1985, p. 8.

  10. Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, London: Granta, 1990, p. 206.

  11. Benjamin, op. cit., pp. 84-5.

  12. R. K. Narayan, A Story-Teller's World: Stories, Essays, Sketches, New Delhi: Penguin, 1989, p. 9.

  13. ibid., pp. 5-6

  14. In an informative review of the novel, “Narrating India”, The Toronto South Asian Review, 10, 2, 1992, pp. 82-91, Arun Mukherjee states that Mistry is giving a narrativized rendition of a real incident popularly known in India as the Nagarwala case. To Mukherjee, Mistry “picks up [a] thread from the rich fabric of narrative—imaginary and real—woven around India's unofficial royal family and tells us his version of a story that has been told and retold in India millions of times” (p. 82).

  15. Rohinton Mistry, Tales from Firozsha Baag, Toronto: Penguin, 1987, pp. 147-8.

  16. Tzvetan Todorov, Poétique de la Prose, Paris: Seuil, 1971, p. 82.

  17. Salman Rushdie, Interview, Kunapipi, IV, 2, 1982, pp. 22-3.

  18. Midnight's Children and Shame”, pp. 7-8.

  19. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, p. 109.

  20. Todorov, op. cit., p. 85.

  21. Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, New York: Methuen, 1986, pp. 140-1.

  22. Leonard J. Davis, Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction, New York: Methuen, 1987, p. 143.

  23. ibid., p 144.

  24. Benjamin, op. cit., p. 87.

  25. Raja Rao, Foreword to Kanthapura, London: OUP, 1938.

  26. Geoff Hancock, “An Interview with Rohinton Mistry”, Canadian Fiction Magazine, 65, 1989, p. 145. Whether Parsis in India or South Asian immigrants in Canada, Mistry's “tribe” is permanently positioned as a minority and his discourse articulates it as such. In one effective instance, he voices Gustad Noble's acute pain with his son's disregard for his vulnerable status as a minority in an ethnically turbulent society:

    What kind of life was Sohrab going to look forward to? No future for minorities, with all these fascist Shiv Sena politics and Marathi language nonsense. It was going to be like the black people in America—twice as good as the white man to get half as much. How could he make Sohrab understand this? How to make him realize what he was doing to his father, who had made the success of his son's life the purpose of his own? Sohrab had snatched away that purpose, like a crutch from a cripple.

    (p. 55)

    One should point out, however, that Mistry does not represent the minority situation as entirely one of victimization, but sees it as a challenge one is forced to face. Consequently his narrative method frequently employs humour and irony.

  27. M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 5th. edn., New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1988, p. 172.

  28. Hancock, op. cit., p. 148.

  29. ibid., p. 150.

Ragini Ramachandra (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Ramachandra, Ragini. “Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey: Some First Impressions.” Literary Criterion 29, no. 4 (1994): 25-34.

[In the following essay, Ramachandra praises the depiction of India in Such a Long Journey, holding that Mistry's portrayal of the Parsi people is accurate.]

With its theme of man's primordial striving for peace and happiness eloquently articulated through a stunning sequence of events; its eye-filling variety of characters; its daring experimentation with language and its predominantly native sensibility, Such a Long Journey makes the reader sit up and take note of its unusual tone and texture. The novel which makes engrossing reading is like a whiff of fresh air and as welcome as spring time! What makes it even more refreshing is its intimate and first-hand presentation of a segment of Indian society by an insider that is not all too frequently portrayed in Indian fiction, namely, the Parsi community and its distinctive way of life. At the same time its astonishing affinity with mainstream Indian life also proves to be an eye-opener. A glaring departure however lies in its treatment of the dead and the novel addresses itself even to this vital issue from the standpoint of both the conservatives and the reformists, not in a propagandistic manner but in a mode that does not violate artistic sanctity.

The narrative flows with ease and the language remains quintessentially Indian, exuding not the faintest touch of alienness and the story resonates with Indian voices and all this, despite Mistry's immigration to Canada some two decades ago, should make the book an isle of hope especially in the context of what a crop of other young writers like Seths and Chatterjees and Tharoors are doing!

The epigraph from Eliot's “The Journey of the Magi” placed at the beginning of the novel sheds light on the genesis of the title. Explicit references to the concept of journeying are made on quite a few occasions in the novel testifying to its perennial appeal for a sensitive writer. However, there are moments when the protagonist wonders:

Would this long journey be worth it?

Was any journey ever worth the trouble?

(p. 259)

The scepticism voiced here recalls to our minds an identical situation in “The Journey of the Magi” where Eliot hints at the “folly” of it all and Ezekeil's “Enterprise” which tells us of the “trip” that had “darkened every face”.

But Mistry's distinction lies in making his hero's “long journey” ultimately worthwhile for both character and reader. If the level of participation is the measure of success of a work of art, then this is indeed a highly successful novel.

The story centres round a Parsi gentleman called Gustad Noble who works as a bank clerk. One might note the name “Noble” could be a deliberate choice, for as protagonist, Gustad does display traits of nobility, especially in his dealings with Tehmul, Dinshawji and Jimmy Bilimoria. Deeply devoted to his family of wife, two sons and a daughter, he entertains grand ambitions for his eldest son, Sohrab, a boy of great promise who however frustrates his father's plans for him, cruelly upsets his apple-cart and blights all his dreams. This in brief is the crux of the story and yet not the whole of it, for to say so would mean narrowing Mistry's wide canvas and overlooking other complex dimensions to the story. Mistry is equally interested in regenerating Gustad's whole neighbourhood in Khodadad building so as to place his hero in interaction with others around him which unfolds the process of his self-education. It is a whole world in itself and each man with a distinct individuality contributes to the making of Gustad's character.

To trace the family geneology briefly, Gustad's grandfather was a maker of furniture, a man who made it as “stout-hearted as his own being” (p. 254) in the belief that “when a piece of furniture was handed down, the family was enriched by much more than just wood and dowels”. (p. 254) Little wonder then if these relics of his childhood days stood like “parantheses” around Gustad's entire life, indeed, the “sentinels of his sanity”. Whenever therefore Gustad saw his son wielding his great grandfather's hammer, a sense of pride would well up within him.

As for Gustad's father, he was a “lover of books who tried to read life like a book. …” and himself possessed “the finest bookstore in the country”. But during his illness in the hospital his younger brother's dissolute ways reduced it all to a shambles; bankruptcy invaded the family like a virus from which it never recovered and Gustad's “once invincible father” was completely “broken”. His mother who was “fair as morning, sweet as the music of her mandolin, who went gently through life, offending no one …” (p. 254) took ill with sorrow and lay in the hospital “uncomplaining and uncomprehending” before she succumbed to her illness. It was a matter of ignominy for her husband not to be able to afford even the four days of prayer at the Tower of Silence. He had failed his family and he wept which in turn made Gustad resolve never to indulge in tears, in private or before others, not even when his mother died though he was only eighteen and “his eyes were on fire”. When his father in his magnanimity had still insisted on looking after his dissolute, worthless, dying brother “as best as his impoverished state permitted” (p. 102), it had only raised Gustad's “scorn”. These little instances illustrate the novelist's bid to fight the risk of both sentimentality and idealization of character so as to preserve his artistic integrity.

Though his father's book-store is gone, it is touching that Gustad should still cherish the ambition of building with the help of his son Sohrab, a fine book-case, for in his view:

It's all a family really needs.

A small bookcaseful of the right books, and you are set for life.

(p. 103)

The image of the book-case recurs so often that it almost becomes a metaphor for Gustad's unfulfilled ambition in life as revealed in his poignant outburst:

And my plans for the book-case—turned to dust. Like everything else.

(p. 129)

The chief cause of Gustad's frustration in life as has already been mentioned, is his son Sohrab who thwarts his father's plans. It was Gustad's greatest desire to send his son to IIT, a dream which took shape when he was young and then completely took hold of his imagination:

And the Indian Institute of Technology became the promised land. It was El Dorado and Shangri-La, it was Atlantis and Camelot, it was Xanadu and Oz. It was the home of the Holy Grail. And all things would be given and all things would be possible and all things would come to pass for he who journeyed there and emerged with the sacred chalice.

(italics mine) (pp. 66-67)

But, for Sohrab who as a boy wrote an abridged version of King Lear and put on a home-made production of the play in which he was Lear, producer, director, costume designer and set designer, it was odd that his father should never have dreamed of “an artist-son”:

It was never: my son will paint, my son will act, he will write poetry. No, it was always: my son will be a doctor, he will be an engineer, he will be a research scientist.

(p. 66)

In satirizing Gustad's middle-class aspirations the novelist makes it clear that he doesn't believe in sparing even his ‘noble’-minded hero when he carries his pet obsessions too far. However, the differences between the father and the son escalate and the ever-increasing rift results in Gustad disowning his son and Sohrab walking out of his father's house. For Gustad who had doted and pampered his son earlier; had once even saved his life at the cost of his own, the blow is irreconcilable. He could never come to terms with his son's “blighted future” and the “heartache” it caused him. To compound his misery he unwittingly gets involved in a plot fraught with dangerous implications that could well have wrecked his life and career, thanks to the murky role and shady deals of his friend Major Bilimoria, an officer in RAW, Delhi who in turn we hear was used as a scape goat by the Indira Gandhi government, Incidentally, the pointed allusions to Chinese oppression against India, the Indo-Pak war and India's role in the emergence of Bangladesh—all lend a political colouring to the novel apart from investing it with topical interest.

Bilimoria's “betrayal” of trust following closely on heels of his son's defiance coupled with his little daughter Roshan's frequent illnesses leaves Gustad a “broken” man—exclaiming in despair:

I don't understand this world any more. … what a world of wickedness it has become.

(p. 142)

But as though the novelist's mature vision cannot brook an irrevocable nihilistic end, he provides a balm to Gustad's harried psyche by effecting a reconciliation between not merely the dying Bilimoria and Gustad but also between the estranged father and son not to speak of Roshan's recovery, which is not to suggest that Mistry is providing a glib and facile conclusion to a moving tale but demonstrating his faith in a life affirming principle. The fact still remains that Gustad loses all his three dearest friends one by one in quick succession, Dinshawji, Bilimoria and Tehmul and faces the prospect of emptiness in a “shrunken” world around him. Then comes the collapse of the wall right outside the Kodadad building where he lives, causing him much dismay.

The black stone wall which had all along been defiled by people but miraculously transformed into a shrine, a meeting ground of all religions thanks to the creative efforts of the wayside artist, is in the end ruthlessly demolished by the municipality even in the face of stiff opposition from a hostile public. And even for Gustad who has already weathered many big crises in life, the first crashing sound of the wall bringing the painted Trimurti down proves to be “freezing” making the reader wonder if this could not be the novelist's mode of voicing his concern over crumbling traditional values, all symbolized by the wall that had emotionally and spiritually meant so much to so many people. The author's explicit statement, “the collapse of the wall would wreck the past and the future” (p. 329) lends credence to its symbolic use and inevitably puts us in mind of the “falling down” of the London Bridge in Eliot's Waste Land.

Against this background the concluding line of the novel. … “a frightened moth flew out and circled the room” (italics mine) gains an added significance. Reminiscent of Yeats's “turning and turning in the widening gyre”, could the frightened, circling moth imply the predicament of frail, fragile man caught in the web of flux and illusion struggling to complete the endless cycles of his karma? That it should have the potential to stir up such a metaphysical association is a tribute to what a writer of prodigious talent could do in barely a couple of words.

One of the chief assets of this novel is its characterization achieved with deft, precise strokes and an unfailing eye for the incongruities of human nature tempered however with compassion. To take a look at some of these men and women etched memorably in our minds: first of all there is the “tall”, “solid” and “broad-shouldered Gustad Noble himself”, the “envy and admiration of friends and relatives” whose greatest virtue is his loyalty to friends. His devotion to Tehmul, the physically and mentally retarded cripple, both in life and death brings out the best in his character. His wife Dilnavaz is a typical example of Indian womanhood with her unquestionable devotion to her family and her capacity for suffering and sacrifice. For the reader she is inextricably associated with spells, rituals and magic with whose help she hopes to ward off the evil that surrounds her children. And then there is the comic, irrepressible Dinshawji, Gustad's close friend, a “jovial man” with a “quick tongue” who regards himself as the “son of Mother India”, “Kavi Kamaal”, “Indian Tennyson” and so on, much to the amusement of the reader. This “star performer” or “the star of the comic hour” as he is known in his official circle over reaches himself in his flirtations with Miss Laurie, the young typist in his bank. His brand of humour which borders on the obscene and the indecent almost makes him ludicrous and contemptuous. But his loyalty to Gustad in the face of tremendous odds and his near-clinical efficiency can lend his character an amount of respectability. He figures over a major part of the novel in a major way and is treated with both humour and sympathy as, his wife Alamai, his “domestic vulture” despite her scandalizing ways.

The other characters to fill the picture gallery are Major Bilimoria with a mind “sharp as a seven o'clock stainless-steel razor blade”; a key-figure who plays a prominent and crucial role in Gustad's career and provides much of the suspense and creative tension in the novel; Inspector Bamji “fond of verbal colour and ribaldry”, Mr. Rabadi, “the Dogwalla idiot”, the Gurkha with his “perfect neem-nurtured white teeth”; “Hydraulic Hema” with her “sand-paper voice”; Old Cavasji who would come out into the balcony, look up at the sky and loudly hurl “cosmic criticisms” whenever he was dissatisfied with God's dispensation; the Madhiwalla Bonesetter, who was “revered like a saint for his miraculous cures” of shattered limbs, broken backs and cracked skulls; Miss Kutpitia who with all her “idiosyncrasies” offered help and advice on matters “unexplainable by the laws of nature” and who claimed to know about curses and spells and both black and white magic; the colourful and sensuous Peerbhoy Paanwalla who had “a pann for all seasons” and “like an artisan of antiquity” took great pride in all his products and Gustad's childhood physician Dr. Paymaster with the countenance of a “sad clown doctoring in his jesterly way” but all the same had the “wit and stamina to sustain medical metaphors endlessly”. And lastly but not the least in importance, the lame, moronic Tehmul Lungraa nicknamed “Scrambled egg” because of his perpetual habit of scratching his body in a circular manner, the novelist's masterpiece of creation—the “one and only Tehmul-Lungraa”, who would talk so fast that the baffled onlookers would remark:

Was that a mouth or the Deccan Express?

(p. 47)

Incidentally this expression with its unmistakable Indian flavour should highlight the novelist's singular use of language and all the linguistic peculiarities in the novel. If Raja Rao had decades ago used rustic idiom to convey the peasant sensibility in Kanthapura, Rohinton Mistry uses the language of the urban middle and lower middle class as well as that of the poor and the working class. He uses various forms of speech including convent English to capture the very tone and accent of the speaker with utmost authenticity as in:

Hard to believe, no?

(p. 40)

But I am telling you, no?

(p. 99)

Come on yaar

(p. 70)

What days those were yaar

(p. 38)

The use of “only” to indicate emphasis, another Indian peculiarity, reveals Mistry's keen ear for the spoken idiom as in:

… ask your son only! … Let me tell you now only! Ask him now only! … Now only in front of me!

(p. 261)

“In front of me”, the reader might note is an Indianism for “in my presence!” Repetition is yet another mode through which Mistry can reproduce the zest, vigour and exuberance in Indian character as in:

Hallo, hallo, hallo!

(p. 40)


Thank you very-very much!

(p. 259)

Very very sorry

(p. 88)

A few other expressions used quite frequently to reinforce an idea are those which smack of a local flavour as: “sweet-sweet paani”, “big-big words”, “new-new things”, “different-different prices”, “hot-hot things”, “nice-nice uniforms”, etc.

Exclamations like “Salaam Seth”, Arre bhaiya, Arre baap, Chaalo, choop re' Dimple, tut-tut, Theek hai theek hai, tapuck-tapauck, thuuck thuck, thussok-thussok, gilly-gilly jostle with colourful swear-words directly lifted from regional languages. Scattered over the pages of the novel are such expressions as “Bismillah”, “meherbani”, “tohrun”, “thaali”, “murgi”, “dubbawalla” etc. At other times Mistry deliberately changes the spelling so as to recreate the very peculiarities of Indian pronunciation as in “bajaar” (for bazaar), “biskoat (for biscuit)”, “pope music” (for pop music), “pope corn” (for pop corn), “aveleble” (for available), “snakes” (for snacks), and “risvard” (for reserved). The last of which figures in a sentence that catches the very intonation of the illiterate or the semi-literate:

Risvard seat! Ten rupees risvard? Yes sahab, risvard seat?

(p. 258)

An Indian fondness for rhyming, much in vogue in the local languages faithfully creeps into the narrative here as in:

Laureate-baureate; mistake-bistake; fighting-bighting; acting-facting; must-bust, etc.

However, these peculiarities are not restricted to pronunciation only but include syntax as well:

Otherwise nothing we can do.

(p. 237)

these crowded trains, what to do.

(p. 263)

The wrong use of the present continuous—yet another widely prevalent Indian practice does not escape the keen observation of the author. To cite one or two samples:

You are absolutely telling the truth.

(p. 256)


and it is not looking nice … I am hoping you will listen straight and stop your son. The whole building is watching and that's not looking nice.

(p. 261)

Apart from these departures from the norm, a few other examples, typically Indian in both idiom and sensibility are:

Make a boni with me.

(p. 103)

There goes your express train brain

(p. 92)

a typical loose-screw eccentric

(p. 85)

What has happened to your mouth?

(p. 166)

Mem saab … you want some tea-coffee?

(p. 212)

I can eat walking-walking

(p. 72)

What-what went on

(p. 79)

This is how Mistry captures the vigour of the spoken word and glorifies it too. He can with equal gusto recreate things like the Indian style of bargaining or the Indian way of listing items in a restaurant if not bring to life Indian lanes and shops and even an ordinary cart laden with curios, revealing his descriptive powers at their best. As one marvels at these things as well as his mature insights into life and death one suddenly remembers those lines of Emily Dickinson:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
.....This Travel may the poorest take
.....How frugal is the chariot
That bears the Human soul.

Nilufer E. Bharucha (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Bharucha, Nilufer E. “‘When Old Tracks Are Lost’: Rohinton Mistry's Fiction as Diasporic Discourse.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 30, no. 2 (1995): 57-64.

[In the following essay, Bharucha examines Mistry's writing as part of the Indian Diaspora and the expatriate's identification with and alienation from both his old and new countries.]

As an Indian who now lives in and writes from Canada, Rohinton Mistry is a writer of the Indian Diaspora. However, Mistry is also a Parsi Zoroastrian and as a person whose ancestors were forced into exile by the Islamic conquest of Iran,1 he was in Diaspora even in India. Like other Parsi writers,2 his writing is informed by this experience of double displacement.

Within its broad frame, Indian Diaspora is a historical and economic phenomenon which can be divided into four distinct phases. The first is set in the colonial period when Indians were transported as indentured labourers to Britain's African and West Indian colonies. The second phase can be contextualized within the immediate post-colonial times when Indians went to Britain and Canada to supplement the West's war-depleted work force. In the third phase, students from India went to universities in the West, mainly in the USA, and rarely if ever returned. Finally, there is the Petroleum Diaspora, in which Indians went to the oil-producing countries of the Middle East in search of “Petrodollars”. These Diasporas which began towards the middle of the last century are now nearly a hundred and fifty years old.

Indians of almost all these Diasporas have sought to record the manner in which they have adapted to their new environment and how they have experienced both identification with and alienation from their old and new homelands.3 The bonding of culture, religion, literature and language is especially strong in a Diasporic situation but where it provides ethnic identity and a sense of self, it can also alienate from the host culture. It is this displacement which gives Diasporic writing its peculiar qualities of loss and nostalgia. The world view provided by such writers is thus a fragmented one—whether they write of their new homelands or their old. As Rushdie has said in Imaginary Homelands, they are obliged to “deal in broken mirrors some of whose fragments have been lost”.4

As a Parsi, Mistry is in yet another Diaspora—a much older one. In pre-colonial India Parsis were allowed to practise their ancient monotheistic religion but there was a price to pay for this freedom. They could not proselytize and had to adopt the costumes, traditions and language of their Hindu hosts.5 Their religious festivals had to be kept low-key and above all they could not bear arms. These unequal conditions provided fertile ground for the development of feelings of alienation from India. In colonial times, the Parsis enjoyed a privileged status as brokers between the British and other Indians. They became very Westernized and identified almost completely with the colonial masters. This in turn has created problems in post-colonial India where their social and economic status has been much downgraded, prompting many Parsis to move to the West and shed their Indian identities. This too has resulted in psychological trauma as, in the West, they have been lumped together with other Asian groups—specifically Indians.

Writing done by Parsis has borne witness to these old and new travails experienced by their co-religionists. The pre-colonial oral tradition of the Gujarati folk song—Garba—records the arrival of the first band of Parsis to India and the conditions upon which they were given refuge. The Persian text, Kissah Sanjan, by Kaikobad Sanjana in 1600 CE, tells the same story, but in the written tradition. Both these texts also valorize the glorious Persian past, i.e. the Persian Empire, recall Iranian heroes and detail the life of the Prophet Zoroaster and his monotheistic, this-worldly religion. Colonial Parsi writers like Behram Malbari and Cornelia Sorabji also displayed diasporic traits of nostalgia and loss in their poetry, sketches, fiction and autobiographical work.6 There isn't much Parsi writing available in either the nationalist phase or in the immediate post-colonial times. This was the period when, under the guidance of Gandhi and Nehru, a distinct, composite Indian identity was being forged. The majority of Parsis, however, did not stake out a claim to this identity and in spite of the exhortations of nationalist Parsis like Dadabhoy Naoroji and Phirozsha Mehta they remained aloof as India gained independence from Britain and then went through the holocaust of Partition. However, starting with the 1980s, the Parsi voice has been heard once again.

The 1980s also saw the emergence of the second generation of post-colonial Indian English writers. This period coincides with what Edward Said has called the second stage of anti-colonial resistance, when a post-colonial society, having achieved political sovereignty, makes a determined effort to shake off the continuing sociocultural domination of the erstwhile colonizer—the battle now is for “cultural territory”.7 As Rushdie has put it, post-colonial society then seeks to “repossess its own history”.8 Frantz Fanon has called this the “Cultural Nationalist” phase.9

In the case of Parsi writers, in addition to the post-colonial concerns of cultural autonomy and repossession of history, was added the need to assert a distinct identity and recall the ethno-religious characteristics of Parsis. As the end of the twentieth century approaches, the Parsis are in demographic decline. A ban on conversions, late marriages, a low birth rate, marriages outside the fold by Parsi women, whose offspring is then not accepted as Parsis, has led to a situation where only around a 100,000 Parsis survive world-wide today. So in a way, Parsi writers today are trying to record for posterity the story of the Parsi race and their ancient Zoroastrian faith. In an interview Rohinton Mistry has said that when the Parsis have disappeared from the face of the earth, his writing will “preserve a record of how they lived, to some extent”.10 However, he claims that this is not the central focus of his writing.

In spite of this disclaimer, Mistry's discourse does revolve around the detailing of Parsi identity. It also reveals how Parsis are learning to cope with the reality of post-colonial India and how they are coming to terms with their new lives in the West. In common with other post-colonial writing, Mistry's fiction is fashioned in the form of alternative narratives and employs anti-realist modes of narration. This not only challenges elitist Master Narratives but privileges the marginal and provides resistance to Western hegemony.

However, this is not all that Mistry's discourse does. As a Parsi he is on the periphery even in India so his discourse also challenges and resists the totalization of the dominant culture within India itself. Mistry has also experimented with linguistic hybridity and celebrated the unique Parsi idiom in his writing. This is true of both Tales from Firozsha Baag and Such a Long Journey.11

In Tales from Firozsha Baag, Mistry presents his readers with a ghetto-like Parsi world, where the post-colonial Indian reality is firmly shut out and where the residents display a siege-mentality. In these short stories Mistry grapples with what Kulke has called identity-forming elements of Parsiness—the Zoroastrian faith, a shared history of flight from Iran and refuge in India, a colonial elite consciousness and feeling of unease in decolonized India.12 In this insular world, the protagonists' lives revolve around the Parsi housing complex of Firozsha Baag, the Zoroastrian religion, the Fire-temple, the Parsi priests, the Parsi calendar, Parsi cuisine. This discourse also highlights Parsi idiosyncrasies and bloody-mindedness. Among Indians, Parsis have a not undeserved reputation for eccentricity and even testiness. This was tolerated in colonial India, where thanks to their proximity to the colonizers, the Parsis had a certain license and were almost treated like honorary sahibs. However, in post-colonial India the Parsis have to contend with a downgraded status and there is little sympathy for their fads and foibles and above all their haughtiness vis à vis other Indians.

This is nowhere clearer than in the first story from Mistry's collection—“Auspicious Occasion”. Here the Bawaji (an affectionate/pejorative term for a Parsi male), Rustomji, is as eccentric and bloody-minded as a Parsi can possibly get. His wife, Mehroo, is pious and given to much praying and agiary-going.13 India is firmly kept out of their Parsi world and about the only contact they have with non-Parsis is through their servants. Rustomji covertly lusts after his cleaning lady—always called Ganga by Parsis, irrespective of her actual name. This is yet another commonplace characteristic of the Bawaji. In fact, both Rustomji and Mehroo are almost stereotypical Parsis and what saves them and the story from becoming banal is Mistry's deft introduction of two incidents—one where Rustomji is spat upon by a paan-chewer and the second where Mehroo is shocked by the murder of the Parsi priest, the dastoorji. These events clearly indicate the sense of unease Parsis experience in post-colonial India. Rustomji's elite-consciousness suffers a severe denting when a ghaati14 lets loose a stream of paan-spittle on him, soiling his crisp white coat, the dagli. This wasn't done deliberately but Rustomji takes it as a personal slight. His self-esteem is further damaged when instead of being intimidated by his ravings and rantings, the ghaatis get together and almost beat him up. He escapes only by playing the clown—“his desperate search for a way out was rewarded—a sudden inspiration which just might work. He reached his fingers into his mouth, dislodged the dentures, and spat them out onto his palm … The collapsed mouth and flapping lips appeased everyone. A general tittering spread through the assembly. Rustomji the clown was triumphant” (p. 18). This is a sad but true reflection of how Parsi image has been downgraded in decolonized India. At another level, his wife Mehroo is confronted with the disintegration of yet another aspect of Parsi identity—its essential sameness. She is shocked that the Parsi priest has been murdered by his own Parsi servant. This threatens the support-system, the closing-of-ranks syndrome, which has helped preserve the Parsi identity for over a thousand years even in the all-embracing, all-encompassing ethos of Hinduism.

This near-total alienation from post-colonial India has pushed more and more Parsis into a Western Diaspora. This is evident in the story “Lend Me Your Light”. What is of importance here is the feeling of guilt connected with this voluntary exodus. The enforced Diaspora from Iran had engendered a feeling of self-esteem, as the Parsis had gone into exile to preserve their religion and their way of life. The protagonist of this story says, “I'm guilty of the sin of hubris for seeking emigration out of the land of my birth and paying the price in burnt out eyes: I Tireasias, blind and throbbing between two lives, the one in Bombay and the one to come in Toronto” (p. 180). This story also presents the Parsis who have totally identified themselves with post-colonial India. Such Parsis are in a minority and generally frowned upon by their co-religionists. The narrator's brother Percy is such a man. He is actively involved in work at grass-roots level in a village and feels little kinship with his family and even less with his childhood friend Jamshed, who is totally Westernized and now lives in New York.

The last story in this collection, “Swimming Lessons”, is the only one set fully in Canada. However, even here the Canadian world is juxtaposed with Indian memories. The distinctness of Parsi identity here is not overtly invoked but this does not necessarily mean Canada is now home. The initial failure of the protagonist to master the Chowpatty waters in Bombay, as well as the swimming pool water in Canada, symbolizes his failure to assimilate in either society. However, by the end of the story, water, the amniotic fluid, is the medium through which he is reborn. He reopens his eyes underwater in his bath-tub and sees life in dual perspective—what Rushdie has called “stereoscopic vision”—both Eastern and Western.

Mistry's first novel, Such a Long Journey, returns to Bombay and the Parsi world. Even more than the short-stories this novel is Diasporic discourse. Here Mistry has very overtly attempted to deconstruct and repossess his past. He was born in 1952 and left India in 1975 for Canada—so the India he evokes is that of the 1960s and 1970s. More specifically it is Bombay of that era that he has recreated in this novel. Another significant aspect of this discourse is the leitmotif of “journeying”—which is also central to most Diasporic writing.

The three epigraphs which preface the novel sets the tone. The first is from Firdausi's Iranian epic, Shah Namah, and recalls both the glorious Iranian heritage of a mighty Empire, as well as hints at the downgraded condition of present-day Parsis. The second one is from T. S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi and reminds readers of the ancient Zoroastrian religion and the belief that the magi who attended the birth of Christ were Zoroastrian priests. This epigraph also provides the title as well as the central metaphor of the novel—“A cold coming we had of it, / Just the worst time of the year / For a Journey, and such a long journey”. Finally Tagore's lines from Gitanjali sum up the way in which the Parsis have moved from one country to another and how they have had to adapt themselves to new realities.

In Such a Long Journey the Parsi world gradually moves out of its self-imposed isolation and interacts at the highest levels of finance and politics with the post-colonial Indian world. The catalyst which brings about this contact is the “factional” character of Major Jimmy Billimoria. This is a composite character fashioned out of the real-life State Bank cashier Sohrab Nagarwala and the Parsi agent from RAW (arm of the Indian Secret Service), who was close to Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India. The story-line, however, is more centrally concerned with the events that had overtaken Nagarwala. He was the man involved in the Rs.60 Lakhs scam that had rocked the Indira Gandhi Government in 1971. He claimed that he had received a call from the Prime Minister instructing him to hand over that large sum of money to a messenger. This was never accepted by the Prime Minister's Office and Nagarwala was charged with embezzlement and arrested. He died in rather mysterious circumstances before he could be brought to trial. The missing sum of money was also connected with the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh.

It is against this backdrop that Gustad Noble and his family live out their lives in the city of Bombay. Mistry has here provided an “insider-outsider” view of Bombay. From the vantage point of the 1990s, Mistry has reviewed Bombay of the 1960s and 1970s. These were decades that witnessed the slow erosion of the idealism which had marked the beginning of the end of the Nehruvian dream of a secular India. The Chinese attack of 1962 was seen as a betrayal by Nehru. He never recovered from the shock of seeing his vision for Asian socialism and regional cooperation crumble.

The end of the Nehruvian Utopia also marked the beginning of sordid power-politicking, corruption at the highest levels, nepotism and cynical manoeuvring of the electorate. In Bombay, it marked the end of the island-city's famed religious tolerance. When large parts of Northern and Eastern India were convulsed by Hindu-Muslim riots in 1947, Bombay had remained an oasis of calm and sanity. This, however, changed in the 1960s with the rise of extreme right-wing political parties like the Shiv Sena. The Sena raised the bogey of “the other”—the religious other, the Muslim, the linguistic other, especially Tamil speakers, and the regional other, those who came from other parts of India. Mistry, like many political analysts and novelists (see Rushdie's Midnight's Children), places the blame for this at Indira Gandhi's door—“How much blood-shed, how much rioting she caused. And today we have that bloody Shiv Sena, wanting to make the rest of us into second-class citizens. Don't forget, she started it all by supporting the racist buggers” (p. 39).15 The language of this denunciation of Mrs. Gandhi's politics is indigenized in the tradition of post-colonial discourse. Mistry's texts are splendid celebrations of the Parsi idiom and faithfully captures its rhythms. Unlike earlier Indian English writers, notably Nissim Ezekiel, Mistry does not use Indian English to merely create a comic effect. He uses it consistently and naturally and thereby conveys its present status as one of the several Indian languages with its own distinctive phonetic and syntactic features—a part of the phenomenon of global “englishes”. This is a post-colonial mode of resistance offered by other writers too—like Salman Rushdie, Michael Ondaatje, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Bapsi Sidhwa. They use the colonizer's language “not to curse with”, but to subvert the privileging of colonial discourse and the hegemony of Master Narratives of the West, thereby most effectively sabotaging the unequal Prospero-Caliban dichotomy.

In the midst of this city, slowly succumbing to the triple-headed monster of religious, linguistic and regional chauvinism, stands the Khodadad Building, the Parsi residential complex where the main protagonists of the novel live. Significantly enough, the building is protected from the outside world by a high black wall. The wall is an important symbol in the text. It is actually a cluster of symbols—at the beginning of the narrative it represents both protection and reduction. It shuts out the outside world, thus providing security, but at the same time it reduces contact with the Indian reality. Outside the protecting/imprisoning wall lies the squalor of India—“the flies, the mosquitoes, the horrible stink, with bloody shameless people pissing, squatting alongside the wall. Late at night it became like a wholesale public latrine” (p. 16).

As the novel progresses, Gustad Noble turns the offensively stinking wall into “the wall of all religions”. He gets a pavement artist to paint on it gods and prophets of all the major Indian religions. “Over the next few days, the wall filled up with gods, prophets and saints. When Gustad checked the air each morning and evening, he found it free of malodour. Mosquitoes and flies were no longer quite the nuisance they used to be” (p. 183). However, in the cynical, increasingly intolerant city, Gustad's wall is doomed. The Municipal Corporation pulls it down to widen the road and the gods come tumbling down. However, the artist takes this destruction quite philosophically. To Gustad's question about where he would go, he replies: “In a world where roadside latrines become temples and shrines, and temples and shrines become dust and ruin, does it matter where?” (p. 338). The artist's mood is typical of the Hindu ethos which does not place much faith in external symbols of divinity and which is why in decolonized India there was no immediate vendetta-campaign to right the old wrongs, i.e. pull down mosques and churches, which had been built over temples. The destruction of the Babri Mosque in December 1992 was a politically—engineered event rather than an expression of the spontaneous religious belief and outrage that it was made out to be.

The destruction of Gustad's wall is turned into a positive happening because it prompts him to take down the blackout papers he had pasted on his windows and ventilators at the time of the Chinese attack in 1962. “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” (p. 339). This letting in of the light can be seen as a metaphor for the letting in of Indian reality into the cocooned isolation of the Parsi world. The tearing down of the blackout sheets could also signal a readiness on the part of the Parsis to let the Iranian past go and to let “new melodies break forth from the heart; and where the/old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders”.16


  1. In the tenth century CE, some Zoroastrians from Khorasan, a province of North Eastern Iran, left their homeland following the Arab conquest. They did so to avoid forcible conversion to Islam and religious persecution. They sailed to India and established themselves at Sanjan, Gujarat, on the North Western coast in 936 CE. These Zoroastrians came to be known as Parsis or Parsees in India, after Pars, the name of a province in Iran.

  2. Among post-colonial Parsi writers are Bapsi Sidhwa, Boman Desai, Farrukh Dhondy and Dina Mehta.

  3. V. S. Naipaul and David Dabydeen write from the West Indian diaspora, M. G. Vissanji writes from the African diaspora, Salman Rushdie and Farrukh Dhondy (among others) write from the UK diaspora. Bharati Mukherjee represents the USA diaspora and Vilas Sarang the Petrodollar one.

  4. See Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, London: Granta Books, 1991, pp. 10-11.

  5. Present-day Parsis speak Gujarati which has developed from Nagar/Gujar between the 10th and 12th centuries CE. When the Parsis made their pact with the ruler of Sanjan, Jadav Rana, the local language was Apabhravnsh Bhasha or Old Gujarati.

  6. Behram Malbari, The Indian Muse in English Garb (1876), Gujarat and Gujaratis (1882), The Indian Eye on English Life (1895) and Cornelia Sorabji's Love and Life Behind the Purdah (1901), Sun Babies (1904), Between the Twilights (1908), India Calling (1935), India Recalled (1936).

  7. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, London: Chatto & Windus, 1993.

  8. Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands, London: Granta Books, 1991.

  9. Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks, with a foreword by Homi Bhabha, London: Pluto Press, 1986.

  10. See interview by Ali Lakhani with Rohinton Mistry at the Vancouver International Writers' Festival, The Long Journey of Rohinton Mistry.

  11. Rohinton Mistry, Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987), all quotations from Rupa reprint, 1993; Such a Long Journey, (1991), all quotations from Rupa reprint, 1991.

  12. See E. Kulke, The Parsees in India: A Minority as Agent of Social Change, Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978.

  13. Agiary means a fire-temple. However, Parsis are not fire-worshippers. For them fire is a symbol of purity and light and therefore representative of Ahura Mazda, the Supreme Lord.

  14. A pejorative term used by Parsis for all Indians but it specifically refers to people who live in the Western Ghats.

  15. When fascist parties like the Sena took over the streets of Bombay and enforced their writ through strong-arm tactics, minorities like the Parsis felt particularly threatened. In post-Ayodhya India though, the attention of the Hindu right-wing parties is focussed on Muslims and other not so visible minorities have got a brief respite. Also, given the minuscule number of Parsis (only 100,000 world wide and 70,000 in Bombay), they have never been a high-visibility minority in India. It is only in Bombay that their concentration and high level of education and expertise make them a threat to the job-prospects of what the Sena calls “the Sons of the Soil”.

  16. See epigraph from Tagore's Gitanjali in Such a Long Journey.

Ranu Samantrai (essay date winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Samantrai, Ranu. “States of Belonging: Pluralism, Migrancy, Literature.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 57 (winter 1995): 33-50.

[In the following essay, Samantrai explores aspects of modern Western culture and the immigrant's role in its evolution, using Mistry's Swimming Lessons as an example of how the immigrant views this ongoing change.]

In Canada, normally so open to immigrants, a blatant ethnocentricity condemns people of color to the sidelines: eternal immigrants forever poised on the verge of not belonging.

—Claire Harris (115)

Thou shalt be ethnic, our legislators say; thou shalt honour thy mother tongue; thou shalt celebrate thy difference in folk festivals; and thou shalt receive monies to write about thy difference (providing thou art a member of an ethnic organization that sponsors thy application). And we have responded to that call, ethnics and non-ethnics alike; we have responded by discovering that difference is sexy.

—Smaro Kamboureli (146)

I give my name to a telephone operator, a salesperson, a secretary, and wait for the inevitable question: “What kind of name is that?” Increasingly I find myself answering, “It's an American name.” I think, but do not yet say, “Get used to it; this is what an American name sounds like now.”1

More troubling: An old friend and I discuss names for children. She offers her favourites; I offer mine. She hesitates, obviously surprised by my choices, and then says, “Well, as long as you pick a name that Americans can pronounce.” I have pronounced each name perfectly. I am an American. But her genealogy includes names such as George Washington and John Marshall. She has told me, kindly but firmly, where I do and do not belong.

Why do I respond with increasing hostility to the friendliness of strangers and the kindness of friends? The struggle over names and naming happens in the context of race relations, relations exacerbated in these days of Operation Blockade and Operation Hold the Line.2 The struggle over who does and does not belong is carried out in our universities as well, in the debates now raging about the canon, multiculturalism, and that ironic misnomer, political correctness. Questions of canonicity, the Kulturnation, and immigration policy are intertwined. We know from the histories of our own academies that nation building and canon formation are two sides of the same coin. How a writer is received and named perhaps tells us more about the intentions of the namer than about the writer himself or herself.

Consider the case of Rohinton Mistry. He is by ethnicity a Parsi, by national origin an Indian, and by residence a Canadian. Mistry's work has been acknowledged as legitimately Canadian by no less an authority than the committee that grants the Governor General's Awards, Canada's highest literary prizes. Such a Long Journey, a novel about Parsis in Bombay, was the recipient of this honour; it was also short-listed for Britain's Booker Prize. Only those who promote a cynical nationalism would deny Mistry's work the status of Canadian literature. Yet its inclusion in that category has a paradoxically double effect. On the one hand, insisting on Mistry's location within Canada confirms the nation as the natural entity capable of generating ways of being and thinking, understood in such homogenizing phrases as “the national character.” On the other, that strategic insistence serves to explode the very idea of Canada, impossibly stretching its boundaries to include places, people, and memories conventionally excluded from the Canadian mainstream. The fact that Mistry's work is also claimed by Indians as Indian fiction and by Parsis as Parsi fiction suggests a breakdown and an overlap of nations such that it is unclear where India ends and Canada begins. Far from coherent, self-enclosed facts of nature, nations and cultures (which themselves fail to coincide) are revealed as interpenetrating, not distinct from each other but made by, and making, each other.

This mutual making is reinforced by the content of Mistry's work, in which every location or culture betrays the constitutive presence of other possible locations and cultures, and nothing can claim the status of authenticity. The problems of classification raised by this literature expose the inadequacy of our categories, and provide a way to foreground instabilities in the idea of the nation as an imagined community. This instability, I will argue, is productive and indeed crucial for the expansion of democracy in countries such as Canada and the United States. Attempts to foreclose it can result in a dangerous compromising of democratic rights and of the best meanings of pluralism. Both majority and minority groups have made such attempts. My purpose in this essay is to reflect upon the systems of thought that make possible the paradoxical collaboration between reactionary celebrations of nation and progressive celebrations of migrancy.

Mistry's volume of short stories, Swimming Lessons [Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag], is set, for the most part, in Firozsha Baag, an apartment block in Bombay occupied primarily by middle-class Parsis. But the stories of the families in these flats make clear the extensive presence of the West in their lives: in mundane reminders of the continuing impact of the Raj, in economic constraints that reflect international economic relationships, and in the continual movement between India and North America—children going to schools abroad, emigrating, returning, and so forth. India's boundaries are quite permeable for Mistry's characters. What they experience as their country is itself a process, a field of social relations where an enormous variety of social and historical actors encounter one another.

What are the implications of these stories for Canada? The final and title story of the collection is narrated by a speaker who appears to be the fictional author of this volume. Kersi is one of the children of Firozsha Baag who, upon reaching maturity, has emigrated to Toronto. As he writes about his experiences in Toronto, his voice is interrupted and accompanied by another voice telling another story: a third-person narrative about parents in Firozsha Baag as they await letters from their son and discuss what they know of his new life. Much of their conversation betrays their disappointment that he tells them almost nothing of that life, restricting the content of his letters to general commentary about the weather. Then comes the day when, instead of a letter, they receive a volume of short stories, and discover that their son is a writer. But again, to their disappointment, they find that his stories are not about Toronto, but about Firozsha Baag:

Mother and Father read the first five stories, and she was very sad after reading some of them, she said he must be so unhappy there, all his stories are about Bombay, he remembers every little thing about his childhood, he is thinking about it all the time even though he is ten thousand miles away, my poor son, I think he misses his home and us and everything he left behind, because if he likes it over there why would he not write stories about that, there must be so many new ideas that his new life could give him.


My hope is, Father said, that there will be some story based on his Canadian experience, that way we will know something about our son's life there, if not through his letters then in his stories; so far they are all about Parsis and Bombay. …


Finally, completing the narrative loop of self-referentiality, the parents come to the last story in the volume that they are reading, which is, in the volume that we read, also the story in which they have their existence:

The last story they liked the best of all because it had the most in it about Canada, and now they felt they knew at least a little bit, even if it was a very little bit, about his day-to-day life in his apartment; and Father said if he continues to write about such things he will become popular because I am sure they are interested there in reading about life through the eyes of an immigrant, it provides a different viewpoint; the only danger is if he changes and becomes so much like them that he will write like one of them and lose the important difference.


In these passages, Mistry himself makes an issue of the stubborn provinciality of his writing. Refusing to write about Canadian life from the viewpoint of the immigrant, he instead asks his North American audience to become familiar with the lives of the residents of Firozsha Baag. Even this final story, which could be simply about the writer in Toronto, includes within it voices that carry all the way from Bombay and intrude into an otherwise straightforward narrative. Through these other voices Mistry finds a way to provide information about his historical and ethnic community that he could not otherwise include in the volume, such as “the great Tatas and their contribution to the steel industry, or Sir Dinshaw Petit in the textile industry who made Bombay the Manchester of the East, or Dadabhai Naoroji in the freedom movement, where he was the first to use the word swaraj, and the first to be elected to the British Parliament where he carried on his campaign.” Kersi's father complains that the writer should have “found some way to bring some of these wonderful facts [about Parsis] into his stories” (245), and his complaint itself becomes that “way.” His articulation creates anew a large community that traces itself through time and across space, and asserts its continuing significance in the life of a young member.

But lest we read these stories simply as works about Firozsha Baag, tales of an exotic childhood from the viewpoint of the immigrant, Mistry insists that we ask, with Kersi's parents, why Kersi writes as he does. The simultaneity of the two narrations that constitute the final story fragments the coherence of a closed existence in one location. Moreover, it opens the possibility that all the stories in Swimming Lessons are about Canada, for the voices heard in them have to be grappled with not in Bombay but in Toronto. This strategy collapses physical distance and suggests dizzying alternative spatial configurations; it also asks us to reevaluate our idea of Canada. At stake is the treatment of the people considered to be Canada's minorities, treatment that raises the spectre of what legal theorist Martha Minow calls “the dilemma of difference”: on the one hand, by claiming Mistry as a Canadian we risk forcing an outmoded version of assimilation that denies the legitimacy and impact of non-European Canadians; on the other, by acknowledging difference we risk freezing these Canadians as aberrant and unassimilable in relation to what is considered the mainstream. To put it in literary terms, the dilemma of difference on the one hand means that Mistry can and should be read as Canadian, assimilated into the Canadian canon, judged by perhaps inappropriate criteria, his difference dismissed. On the other, it means that he should be read as Asian Canadian, not really Canadian, perhaps an exotic new offshoot of the Canadian canon, but unable to affect fundamentally the definition of that canon.

To pursue the consideration of the effects of a writer such as Mistry on a Western nation's self-definition and, in turn, the place and naming of Mistry's work in that definition, I will turn next to a discussion of pluralism. In the United States the discourse of pluralism has been an important means for debating the management of a heterogeneous population.3 It provides a language for contesting the naming of the “we” that is the community of citizens and for theorizing the place of difference in the national self. This discourse is once again proving useful for those interested in the radical possibilities of a postliberal democracy.

A contemporary theory of pluralism must begin by acknowledging the significance and range of identity-forming contexts available to citizens of multicultural societies. For some radical democrats, the communitarian critique of liberalism's presocial, autonomous, and atomistic individual provides a useful starting point. I will examine the communitarian model of pluralism as it has been recently articulated by Charles Taylor. The guiding principle of Taylor's model is respect for a culture's need to maintain and perpetuate itself. Despite his concern for the integrity of minority cultures within Canada, however, I shall argue that the model of pluralism Taylor proposes ultimately consolidates a conservative nationalism that effectively excludes minorities from the full rights of citizenship. An alternative model, articulated by Jürgen Habermas in his response to Taylor, argues against the protection of cultural groups. This would limit Habermas's usefulness for a theory of radical pluralism if it meant a return to the kind of procedural liberalism that reduces democracy to the noninterference of the state and leaves the individual floating free of location in any collective. But I shall argue that Habermas's model of pluralism should properly be understood as postliberal, for he advocates the removal of barriers to change precisely in order that differences may flourish.

I begin with Taylor's important essay “The Politics of Recognition.” Taylor starts by tracing a philosophical history of the nation as an authentic and authenticating community, locatable in the customs and language of its citizens. He thus defines individuals (adapting his definition from Herder) as “culture-bearing people among other peoples” (31). Given this context, pluralism becomes a challenge for the nation. Taylor offers the struggle for autonomy in Quebec as his primary example of the problem of pluralism. What happens, he asks, when collective goals come into conflict with individual rights, when the ideal of universal rights, which demands equal treatment, conflicts with the politics of difference, which demands equal recognition? How do we allow for the group differences that exist within a pluralist society, specifically in constitutional states such as Canada and the United States, without creating different laws for different groups? For such laws may recognize the special status and needs of those groups, but they may also discriminate against individuals who do not want to live by them. To illustrate, Taylor notes two legal issues: “Quebec legislation prescribes … the type of school to which parents can send their children,” that is, it obliges French speakers to send their children to French language schools; and “it forbids certain kinds of commercial signage,” thus limiting the language a business can use in its advertising (55). These laws have been contested and the second modified, but their goals are clear: they are intended to ensure the survival of the French-speaking Québécois into the future. Their infringement on individual rights is also clear: they do not allow present Québécois the option of not participating in the project of cultural survival.

Taylor positions himself on the side of collective goals. The community, he argues, has a right to ensure future survival, and this right does, at times, override the right of the individual dissenter: “Political society is not neutral between those who value remaining true to the culture of our ancestors and those who might want to cut loose in the name of some individual goal of self-development” (58). And because individual choices are not neutral but influenced by economic and other pressures of assimilation, the Québécois cannot simply make the French language available for those who might choose it; they must ensure that future members of their community will want to use it. “Policies aimed at survival,” Taylor writes, “actively seek to create members of the community” (58-59). When cultural survival is at stake, a proper respect for difference is signalled by the acceptance of unusual means to achieve collective ends.

Taylor's concern for subcultures within nations is admirably expressed in his stark comment, “liberal society singles itself out as such by the way in which it treats minorities” (59). And though he rejects talk of power as far too neo-Nietzschean, his implicit regard for the power relations governing majority and minority cultures, which, however benevolent, create assimilationist pressures for the latter, suggests that Taylor's communitarian politics of difference might be good for minority cultures. Thus far, he seems a great friend of the multicultural society, one who is hopeful about pluralism's ability to cope with the increasingly multicultural nature of natopolitan nations.

But despite the allowances majority cultures must make for their minorities,4 Taylor warns that there are certain fundamental rights that cannot be negotiated. Hence not all differences can be accommodated in the liberal society. Liberalism, he acknowledges, is not a neutral meeting ground for all peoples and cultures; it is what he calls “a fighting creed”: “the political expression of one range of cultures, and quite incompatible with other ranges.” Hence even its most hospitable variant must “draw the line” (62). Where does Taylor draw the line? Not surprisingly, at the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini. What is surprising is his defence of this boundary marker:

[A]ll societies are becoming increasingly multicultural, while at the same time becoming more porous. Indeed, these two developments go together. Their porousness means that they are more open to multi-national migration; more of their members live the life of diaspora, whose center is elsewhere. In these circumstances, there is something awkward about replying simply, “This is how we do things here.” This reply must be made in cases like the Rushdie controversy, where “how we do things” covers issues such as the right to life and to freedom of speech. The awkwardness arises from the fact that there are substantial numbers of people who are citizens and also belong to the culture that calls into question our philosophical boundaries. The challenge is to deal with their sense of marginalization without compromising our basic political principles.


At least two features distinguish these comments on citizens from non-European nations from Taylor's earlier discussion of the Québécois. Most obviously, Taylor's language changes: the scenario he now presents is that of a conflict between an us and a them, categories that he did not invoke when discussing the Québécois. Moreover, having established political principles by asking us to adopt the perspective of potentially disempowered groups of people within a heterogeneous nation, he now shifts attention to the problem of maintaining a supposedly homogeneous majority in the face of threats from those who would make it heterogeneous. In the example of Quebec, Taylor emphasized the value of the cultural survival of minority groups, particularly given the overwhelming advantages enjoyed by the majority culture. He now extracts the principle of cultural survival from this context, so that it becomes a generally applicable right of all groups, whether they be minority or majority, to defend their way of life against all perceived threats. Now power no longer matters; anyone who is named different can be excluded by a group or a nation defending its homogeneity.

The fatwa is perhaps the most infamous challenge in recent history to what Taylor considers “our” way of life. As such, it has proven a convenient referent around which to define the borders that separate us from them: they do that sort of thing, we do not. The example of the fatwa makes it easy for Taylor to invoke an us and a them by superimposing philosophical over national borders. But let us be clear about the way of life that his we shares and, he says, is right to defend. First, constraints on speech are not a problem for him when it is the Québécois regulating choice of language. Coincidentally, these Québécois are of European descent, and hence perhaps safely within the limits of the heterogeneity that Canada can tolerate. Second, the way-of-life defence is regularly invoked by those elements in England worried by the nation's Muslim population. It was used in the controversy over Satanic Verses, for instance, not only to condemn the fatwa, but also to silence British Muslims. There is no right to free speech in Britain; no one has it. The British government can and does practise censorship on behalf of its state church, the Church of England (see Levy). In this context, British Muslims did not ask for the extension of special rules that would recognize and validate their difference from the British norm. Rather, they asked to be treated as the same: they asked for protection under existing antiblasphemy provisions, the same protection that is accorded to British Anglicans. Whether or not one believes in censorship on religious grounds, one must grant that there is a difference between asking that it be employed ex nihilo and asking that it be applied equally once it already exists. But to the demands of British Muslims for the rights and protections of equal citizenship, the British government effectively responded, “That's not how we do things here.”

Discrimination is the British way of life. Would Taylor agree with New Right ideologues that the majority culture in Britain has a right to defend its way of life against the democratizing pressures of British minorities? There is nothing in his essay to suggest that he would not. The xenophobic use of the way-of-life defence follows logically from the definition of the nation as the authentic expression of a folk with an authentic way of life. What Taylor might say, in his own defence, is that given the majority way of life, it becomes all the more imperative that there be some mechanism in place by which the minority can defend itself.

But notice now that the minority is locked into its difference. The claim of difference is no longer a strategy of self-empowerment wielded by the minority, but a prison policed by the majority. Taylor advocates extraordinary sympathy for difference, but he does not allow those named as different to become members of the norm, and so to remake what counts as the same. We move from a sympathy for difference, to a guarantee that it will thrive in perpetuity, to a reification of the borders and traditions required to fulfil that guarantee, to an exclusion of people who do not fit neatly within borders or who challenge the putative homogeneity within.

This position can be used to defend the most xenophobic practices, including the closing of borders, the trade in immigrant labourers, and discrimination against existing internal others. A frequently voiced fear about Quebec autonomy, after all, stems from that community's treatment of its own minorities. People of English and French descent are not the only players in that drama. There is no homogeneity within Quebec, let alone within the rest of Canada, or England, or the United States. To defend a way of life, the inevitable heterogeneity within every society and culture must be suppressed. Taylor is caught, as Minow would say, on the horns of the dilemma of difference. By legislating and guaranteeing difference, he freezes it, and reifies the borders that divide up the world. Anyone who does not fit into this neatly divided world, and this would certainly include Mistry, is rendered invisible.

If we follow Taylor's communitarian proposals for managing the multicultural society, what would be the place of a Rohinton Mistry in Canadian literature? If Kulturnationen are believed to be separable and self-enclosed entities, the concept of tradition, literary and otherwise, generally serves as a primary means of reification. Taylor makes a generous offer to presume the worth of other cultures, provided that such faith can be subsequently substantiated. But he warns that we must not go too far with our appreciation, as the “multiculturalists” would want us to do, and change the national literary canon without proof of worth (66-67). Never in his discussion does he consider the possibility that advocates for curricular change may be asking not for the study of other cultures, but for the more adequate study of our own heterogeneous culture.5

Mistry could be added to the Canadian curriculum, if not to the canon. But the reason for his inclusion would not be that his work is Canadian literature; rather, he could be added if his work, though the creation of an irredeemably different culture, could nevertheless be shown to be so good that it is worth the risk of cultural contact. In this case, then, the classification of Mistry as anything other than simply Canadian—that is, the qualification of Canadian with any prefix—can only serve to reinforce the impression that he is not, and can never be, truly Canadian. At best, he can be the element that makes Canada diverse; he can even be celebrated as adding to Canada's diversity. But he will still be different from the supposedly nondiverse population that constitutes the real Canada. As another resident of Firozsha Baag notes, “The Multicultural Department is a Canadian invention. It is supposed to ensure that ethnic cultures are able to flourish, so that Canadian society will consist of a mosaic of cultures—that's their favorite word, mosaic—instead of one uniform mix, like the American melting pot. If you ask me, mosaic and melting pot are both nonsense, and ethnic is a polite way of saying bloody foreigner” (160).

In response to Taylor, Habermas proposes a very different kind of pluralism, one that does not begin by opposing individual rights to collective rights. Like Taylor, Habermas posits an individual formed by identifications, one who does not exist independently of various collectives. But he suggests that it is premature to conclude, from this locatedness, that a system of rights based on the individual must be inadequate. On the contrary, he claims, the “system of rights not only is not blind to unequal social living conditions; but is also by no means blind to cultural differences”: “Persons, including legal persons, are individualized only by way of socialization. Given this premise, a correctly understood theory of rights calls precisely for a politics of recognition which also protects the integrity of the individual in his or her identity forming life context. This does not require a counter-model and additional principles to correct the individualistic design of the system of rights; all that is required is the consistent realization of that system” (“Struggles” 131-32). In other words, in order to guarantee the private autonomy needed to maintain local affiliations, we need neither resort to atomistic individualism nor sacrifice the individual to the group. Mutual recognition means that “Everyone should be in a position to expect that all will receive equal protection and respect in his or her violable integrity as a unique individual, as a member of an ethnic or cultural group and as a citizen, i.e., as a member of a polity” (“Citizenship” 5). Hence, private autonomy requires the prior guarantee that every individual be free to work towards maintaining and perpetuating his or her life context. But Habermas adds the caveat that this autonomy does not require a guarantee that such attempts will succeed. People may have a right to try to persuade the next generation or the general public to affiliate themselves with a particular culture, but no one can legislate this affiliation:

Cultural traditions and the lifeforms articulated in them are normally reproduced by virtue of the fact that they convince those whom they capture and form in their personality structures, i.e. they permeate and form members who perpetuate them productively. All a constitutional state can do is make possible this hermeneutic achievement of the cultural reproduction of lifeworlds. For a warranty of immunity would necessarily rob the members of the very freedom to say yes or no which is needed today to make a cultural heritage one's own and preserve it. … Even if we considered it worthwhile to protect certain cultures from extinction, the conditions for reproducing them with any chance of success would be irreconcilable with the goal “to maintain and cherish distinctness, not just now but forever.

(“Struggles” 142)

Taylor wants to guarantee cultural survival forever; Habermas argues that everyone has the right to pursue cultural survival through political struggle, but no culture's survival can be guaranteed.6

Habermas makes explicit the issue motivating these debates: the culture under pressure is not, or not only, that of various minorities. On the contrary, concern over pluralism and multiculturalism is expressed at the moment the majority feels itself besieged from the inside and out, the moment its world starts to change. As the trajectory of Taylor's essay suggests, these discussions are actually about immigration. At stake are the democratic principles Euro-America professes. Habermas is concerned about the rising tide of xenophobia in Germany and across the natopolitan nations. In his view, the closing of borders, racial violence, and forced assimilation constitute the compromising of democratic aspirations. Distinguishing carefully between political foundations and ethico-cultural lifeforms, he argues that while everyone must agree to the procedural liberalism of the former, no one should be forced to assimilate to the latter. In other words, the majority, like the minority, has no guarantee of cultural survival; it has no right to protect its life-form by limiting those of minorities, or by limiting immigration for ethnocentric and protectionist reasons (“Citizenship” 13-18).

This seemingly harsher version of collective rights is, in fact, much more tolerant of change and of difference than is Taylor's seemingly sympathetic communitarianism. Habermas notes that as cultures encounter one another, they change one another. Indeed, he suggests that even without external pressures, cultures remain vital under shifting conditions by means of an “unrestrained revisionism,” transforming themselves “even to the point of breaking with [their] own traditions” (“Struggles” 142). Consequently, minority cultures may well cease to exist in the forms considered by some to be authentic. But for all that, they do not disappear; rather, they remake the majority. They are transformed, but in the process they themselves transform the majority. National culture, then, becomes a dialogical, historical process, not an ahistorical inheritance. Shared national identity has to do only with “common constitutional principles,” which themselves are available for reinterpretation in light of the changing national culture (“Struggles” 148).

By implication, any claim to authenticity that would deny others the right to engage in the process of self-transformation is incompatible with a state built on the principles Habermas advocates. Here Habermas follows Taylor's lead in using the fatwa against Salman Rushdie to draw the boundaries of differences that a constitutional state can tolerate. Again, however, his argument constitutes an important revision of Taylor's position. The fatwa signifies an attempt to guarantee the stability of a group by refusing to allow dissent and change; as such it violates the political guarantees available to every citizen of a nation that professes democratic principles. But Muslims in Britain are not simply to be contained, assimilated, or excluded. If Britain practises the principles it professes, the presence of this group can be transformative. Habermas's position suggests that he would applaud the demand of British Muslims that their government either extend to them equal protection from blasphemy, or break with its own traditions, disestablish the Church of England, and remove that protection from everyone. This would result in the establishment of the right to free speech regarding religion for everyone. Far from embodying the threat of the outsider, British Muslims now exemplify Habermas's argument that immigration is the best hope and perhaps the last chance for the expansion of democracy in Europe (“Citizenship” 12-13).

Habermas is committed to making liberal democratic societies live up to their political and philosophical promises. Against Taylor's claim that the nation's base is the identification of its citizens with a way of life—that is, nations are the authentic expressions of an organic folk, defined by language, values, customs—Habermas offers the examples of India, the United States, and Switzerland: countries that demonstrate the foundations of the nation can consist of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic diversity (“Citizenship” 7-8). Taylor's nation is a fundamentally homogeneous one to which diversity may be added, though not without causing problems. Habermas offers fundamental heterogeneity; in such a nation citizens must agree to common political principles that foster the coexistence, not always peaceful, of already existing and potentially expandable differences. His writings can be useful for theorizing a potentially postliberal pluralism because his position provides a way to question the assumption that the natural citizen—bearer of rights and legitimate agent of political action—of Western democracies is the white man. Following his argument, we can problematize the general practice of measuring “diversity” against the norm of this citizen.

In Minow's terms, Habermas effectively gets us around the dilemma of difference that currently haunts race and gender relations in the natopolitan nations. Briefly, Minow argues that difference arises out of relationships and comparisons, and does not inhere in people. A hearing-impaired child is not inherently different by herself, but is different from a hearing child, who is, in turn, different from the hearing-impaired child (81-86). In every relationship difference is assigned to one term by assuming the normality of the other term. Hence, to analyse the attribution of difference, and to evaluate the fairness of policies based on that attribution, one must identify the term that is functioning as the implicit norm and try to shift it. Minow offers the example of maternity leave: on the one hand, there is the position that women's difference from men—that is, their function as childbearers—should be taken into account in the workplace; on the other, there is the fear that all women will be locked into, and defined by, this potential difference, resulting in the creation of “mommy tracks” or the reluctance to hire women because benefits for them may cost more than benefits for men. A solution may be found, as one was in a California court in 1987, if we recognize that women pose the challenge of difference only if the worker is assumed to be male. Shifting the implicit norm enables us to see hitherto obscured similarities between men and women: workers of both sexes have responsibilities outside the workplace—for children or for elderly parents, for example. Differences that once seemed insurmountable can cease to be relevant once the frame of reference is shifted:

The fact that women have historically had more time-consuming family-related duties than men should be irrelevant to the basic similarity that both women and men may have parental roles and responsibilities. Thus, the “difference” requiring “special treatment” dissolves in the face of a larger similarity between male and female workers, each of whom has the task of juggling work and family obligations. The Court thereby replaced the unstated norm of the male worker without family duties with a new norm of a worker with family duties; the Court also considered the perspective of the women workers rather than presuming that their “difference” emerges inevitably from a naturally constructed workplace.

(Minow 88)

By displacing the racial and cultural norm for national identity, we can acknowledge Mistry as a Canadian, and not because he adds to Canada's diversity. If the nation is a political community and not a cultural, spiritual, or ethical entity, then citizenship is a political affiliation. Race, origins, ethico-cultural life-forms: none of these are appropriate criteria for measuring Canadianness. These are differences that, for judging qualification to engage in the public life of the nation, do not obtain. Mistry belongs to the ongoing process that is at the very heart of the life of the nation: the making and remaking of the nation itself. He need not be given a hyphenated classification at all, because his work is Canadian literature today.

Mistry's stories support this position in their challenge to the ability of national borders to contain and explain an individual's many identificatory possibilities. But his is not a celebration of migrancy that dispenses with the urgency of location. Here is one way to read the moral of the story “Swimming Lessons”: The migrant comes into being at the moment he violates the order established by the border that separates an us from a them. His hybrid self mocks the clarity and self-identity the border polices. Transgression is his mode of being: escaping the policing, his empowerment and triumph. But even as the immigrant rejoices in the failure of borders, we must ask: What would he do without them? What would he be? If he finds his own freedom through transgression, does he not, in that gesture, freeze the very borders he delights in defying, and in so doing, also freeze the people trapped on either side of those borders in homogeneity and authenticity? The concept of migrancy can be used for conservative as well as progressive ends. When, perhaps despite itself, it reinforces the terms of home and belonging in order to authorize the migrant as the romantic exile/outsider, it plays into nationalist notions of the nation as organic, homogeneous community.

When the father in “Swimming Lessons” advises his son not to lose “the important difference,” he is warning Kersi to avoid an assimilation into Canada that would erase India. But maintaining the important difference also means leaving in place the norm of the non-Indian Canadian. This is the strategy advocated by Taylor, and chosen by many people who feel their identities marginalized and threatened by the pressures of assimilation. The self-empowerment of the minority collaborates with the anxiety of the majority to close the metaphorical borders of the nation. Mistry chooses a third alternative when he refuses to allow his stories to be consigned neatly either to the category of the immigrant's view of Toronto or to the category of tales of life back in the old country. By confusing here and there and bringing India into Canada, he proposes a different experience of migrancy, one that honours the spirit of the father's request while radicalizing its impact. His immigrant is not the perpetual outsider, forever poised on the verge of not belonging, easily pushed out by the force of xenophobia. Rather, Mistry's immigrant unsettles the terms of sameness and difference, insisting on his full citizenship even while he explodes the idea of national belonging.

Identities and affiliations as complex as those suggested by Mistry must be founded on a pluralism sophisticated enough to avoid the trap of safeguarding the homogeneity of the parts while advocating the heterogeneity of the whole. While Habermas can help us reject the defensive impulse that undermines such a pluralism, many questions remain. How are people convinced to affiliate themselves with a culture? Is the implied operation of choice and will an appropriate description of the process of affiliation? What determines access to the public sphere where dialogues between majority and minority cultures occur? Which elements of minority groups are recognized by the majority as a community's legitimate representatives? What determines the process of the transformation of the majority? What role does the commodification of expressive culture play in this process, and who profits from that commodification? Are the politics of otherness reproduced even as this transformation occurs? Such questions about the micropolitics of power relations may take us beyond Habermas's philosophical universe, and will certainly cast doubt on his faith in rational communication and his optimism about eventual consensus. But if we do not ask them, our theory of pluralism will be a romantic gloss covering over struggles for justice and power.

As immigrants participate in the ongoing process of the reconstitution of Canada, we can say that, paradoxical though it may be, Canadian literature is now about Firozsha Baag. But as Linda Hutcheon points out to her fellow Canadians, that irony need not be resolved, for it is the very condition of the nation's existence (vii).7 Nations are legal and economic realities, but also imagined communities. Their invented traditions can be endlessly reinvented, and new stories written to express their new forms.


  1. I would like to acknowledge my debt to members of the Cultural Studies Group of the Program in Social Thought and Analysis at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, for vigorous and enlightening debates about the texts and issues I address here. Their influence on this essay is considerable. Thanks are also due to Erin Crawley, Lisa Majaj, De Witt Douglas Kilgore, and Mary Williams. A version of this essay was presented at the University of Arizona; I am especially grateful to the Women's Studies faculty for their thoughtful responses.

  2. Operation Blockade and Operation Hold the Line are recent, military-style efforts initiated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to stop undocumented Mexican nationals from entering the United States. I write this essay in the United States: my location grounds, shapes, and perhaps limits my perspective. Nevertheless, the moral and political issues I address here are common to the citizens of most democracies.

  3. For a brief history of the concept of pluralism in the United States, see McClure.

  4. I cannot call such “tolerance” and respect for difference a compromise between the needs and values of majority and minority groups, since it asks for nothing from the majority. Its impact is restricted to members of the minority, for they are the ones who have to suffer a suspension of their rights. Needless to say, members of the majority retain all their rights in this arrangement.

  5. Susan Wolf makes this argument in her response to Taylor.

  6. The pursuit of collective rights can include strategies such as the local autonomy of First Nations peoples, affirmative-action policies, the theory of equal protection developed by American feminists, and so forth. In fact, Habermas suggests that political struggles, and particularly the struggles of disadvantaged groups, are not only desirable, but are also necessary for the survival and expansion of democracy itself.

  7. Canadian readers may object that Canada differs from the United States precisely because its citizens already understand it to be a nonorganic and heterogeneous nation. This is reflected in the metaphor of the mosaic. But the recent suit challenging the policy that allows Sikh mounties to wear turbans, the rise in hate crimes, and polls indicating growing opposition to immigration by so-called visible minorities suggest that many Canadians ascribe to an understanding of sameness and difference that does not follow the official doctrine.

Works Cited

Habermas, Jürgen. “Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe.” Praxis International 12 (1992): 1-19.

———. “Struggles for Recognition in Constitutional States.” European Journal of Philosophy 1 (1993): 128-55.

Harris, Claire. “Poets in Limbo.” A Mazing Space: Writing Canadian Women Writing. Ed. Shirley Neuman and Smaro Kamboureli. Edmonton: Longspoon-NeWest, 1986. 115-25.

Hutcheon, Linda. Preface. Splitting Images: Contemporary Canadian Ironies. Studies in Canadian Literature. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1991. vii-ix.

Kamboureli, Smaro. “Of Black Angels and Melancholy Lovers: Ethnicity and Writing in Canada.” Feminism and the Politics of Difference. Ed. Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman. Boulder: Westview, 1993. 143-156.

Levy, Leonard W. Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie. New York: Knopf, 1993.

McClure, Kirstie. “On the Subject of Rights: Pluralism, Plurality and Political Identity.” Dimensions of Radical Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community. Ed. Chantal Mouffe. London: Verso, 1992. 108-27.

Minow, Martha. Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion and American Law. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Mistry, Rohinton. Such a Long Journey. New York: Random, 1991.

———. Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag. New York: Penguin, 1989.

Taylor, Charles. “The Politics of Recognition.” Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition.” Ed. Amy Gutmann. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992. 25-73.

Wolf, Susan. “Comment.” Taylor 75-85.

Rocío G. Davis (essay date January 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5812

SOURCE: Davis, Rocío G. “Revisioning a Homeland in Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family and Rohinton Mistry's Tales from Firozsha Baag.Literary Half-Yearly 37, no. 1 (January 1996): 67-85.

[In the following essay, Davis discusses Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family and Mistry's Tales from Firozsha Baag, examining immigrant authors' attempts to reconcile their pasts and their national identities through their writing.]

Salman Rushdie's 1982 essay, “Imaginary Homelands”, may be read as a paradigm of the discourse of writers in the between-world condition. In this piece, he describes and defines the situation of those writers who are, in the words of Michael Ondaatje's English patient: “born in one place and choosing to live elsewhere. Fighting to get back to or get away from our homelands all our lives” (1992, 176). More specifically, Rushdie analyzes the theme of the homeland in the works of this breed of writer, pointing out that the attempt to portray one's land of origin is inevitably coupled with the failure to be faithful to any objective reality.

It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.

(1992, 10)

Taking as his point of departure the writing of Midnight's Children, Rushdie dwells on the complexity of fictionally recreating land he had left more that twenty years before into the saga of a child and of a nation. Recognizing that the distances of time and space distort facts, he revisioned his novel in order not to fall into the trap of having to validate his remembered experiences with objective realities, He centered his efforts on making the novel “as imaginatively true as I could” knowing that “what I was actually doing was a novel of memory and about memory, so that my India was just that: ‘my’ India, a version and no more than just one of all the hundreds of millions of possible versions” (1992, 10). Any writer who writes about his homeland from the outside, Rushdie claims, must necessarily “deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragment have been irretrievably lost” (1992, 11). Nonetheless, it is precisely the fragmentary nature of these memories, the incomplete truths they contain, the partial explanations they offer, that make them particularly evocative for the “transplanted” writer. For Rushdie, these “shards of memory acquired greater status, greater resonance, because they were remains; fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities” (1992, 12).

The attempt to build a novel about one's homeland on the basis of memory has been shown to be both an irresistible challenge and a compelling necessity for may exiled or immigrant writers. There is a palpable obsession to set down, with or without the help of fiction, the collection of memories that from the writer's idea of his homeland, perhaps in an attempt to reconcile oneself to both past and present. This is the case with a great number of ethnic minority writers in Canada and the United States, as well as those in England. In his first two novels, for instance, Anglo-Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro deliberately sets out to write the Japan he had not seen since the age of six, “because I wished to re-create this Japan—put together all those memories and all those imaginary ideas I had about this landscape I called Japan. I wanted to make it safe, preserve it in a book before it faded away from memory altogether” (1991, 76). Once set down, the narrative may serve as a touchstone, that needed point of reference for identity and meaning. This perhaps, in an attempt to find comfort by denying Rushdie's assertion, and one's nagging sensation that somehow, inescapably, “it's my presence that is foreign, and that the past is home, albeit a lost home in a lost city in the mists of lost time” (1992, 9).

Rushdie's essay may also serve as the framework for a study of Michael Ondaatje's fictionalized memoir, Running in the Family and Rohinton Mistry's Tales from Firozsha Baag as attempts on the part of between-world writers to revision the histories of their homelands, their communities and their families. Having left Ceylon for England and then Canada at the age of 11, after his parents' divorce, Ondaatje chronicles in the novel his return twenty five years later, accompanied by his own family. Composed of apparently unstructured and randomly placed vignettes of varied lengths, interspersed with poetry, pictures of life in Ceylon and snapshots reused from the family album, the book is Ondaatje's attempt to record and thus recapture the world of his parents, Ceylon in the early decades of the century, which he knew mainly from fragments of stories he had heard as a child. Mistry's narrative, a collection of independent but interrelated short stories, focuses on the process of the introgression and assimilation into Canadian society by shuttling back and forth from an Indian past to a Canadian present: the complicated process of assimilation is the covert theme of each of the stories and the unifying theme of the collection.

Like other ethnic literatures in North America, writing by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent is concerned with personal and communal identity, recollections of the homeland, and the active responses to the “new” world. Both Ondaatje and Mistry's narratives engage in the task of articulating the reconstruction of identities displaced by colonialism, personal migrations and relocations. The historical situation of these writers involve complex relations with the political and cultural histories of the countries they have left behind, and to the construction of new identities in the countries to which they have immigrated. The task of the migrant, specifically the literary migrant, becomes, therefore, to articulate that identity. The writers here considered suggest, by the nature of their discourse, that this is to be done by first looking back to the homeland. As Craig Tapping has pointed out, in Tales from Firozsha Baag, Mistry foregrounds and articulates his personal, familial identity and sociopolitical context, explaining how and why he comes to be where he is and why he writes as he does. The manner in which he, and other writers in diverse manners, attempts to define self and community is therefore a dialogic engagement with history, making apparent the political and economic forces that have operated to create nations, literatures' and identities (Tapping 1992, 39). Interestingly enough, the metaphor for this type of creation is made explicit in the last story in the collection, as the narrator-protagonist Kersi discovers that the sunbathing women he had been watching are not as attractive up close as when he saw them from his kitchen window, at a distance (233). Perspective is necessarily acquired from a distance, both temporal and spatial.

Ondaatje's commitment in writing his work which straddles fiction and autobiography is clearly to come to terms with a past that is both personal and cultural. The compulsive need that will take him back to Asia springs from the realization in his mid-thirties that he had “slipped past a childhood I had ignored and not understood” (22). Not to know one's family nor have a role in history is to be denied the very basis of identity; hence the author's yearning to establish a niche for himself in Sri Lanka and to recreate his family's story. This involves looking back both at a history that began its process of formation three centuries ago and at the individuals who lived that history and composed his family. Chelva Kanaganayakam has claimed that, as such, the novel's principal achievement lies in the manner in which it projects the claims of both “History” in the national sense and “history” in the private sense to express what is at once a profound personal quest and a statement about the country that has chosen to remain, in many ways, oblivious of the realities that edge its complacent vision of itself (1992, 39).

The task Ondaatje sets for himself, therefore, is that of articulating both the complexity of a colonial inheritance and the intricacies of family connections. The interrelationships between the different national and cultural identities that formed and are present in Sri Lanka have created a complex social network due, partly “as result of forgetting the past, of creating identities that owe their origins to Eurocentric or nationalist fictions, of steadfastly refusing to perceive truths that lie behind the immediate and subjective” (Kanaganayakam 1992, 41). The interaction between the Tamils, Sinhalese, Burghetrs, Dutch and colonial English forged a Sri Lankan identity almost impossible to categorize, much less objectify. It was a society in which intermarriage had caused everyone to be vaguely related, where cultural differences were undefinable, and in which “God alone knows” (41) each one's nationality. This intricate maze of social affiliations, charged with the colonial mythos and the native propensity for invention, is what Ondaatje must try to disentangle. The Ondaatje family history is, as Michael will find, equally laden with the fictions and mythical elaborations of memory. The writer sees himself as the chronicler of both these histories, inextricably linked, charged with the task of setting them down. “During certain hours, at certain years in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from the earlier generations that were destroyed. So our job becomes to keep peace with enemy camps, eliminate the chaos at the end of Jacobean tragedies, and with ‘the mercy of distance’ write the histories” (179).

The theme of Running in the Family hints at linearity of structure in its presentation of historical and familiar construction; nevertheless, the parallel recounting of both evolutiona is unexpectedly episodic. But, as Helen Hoy has argued, the structure of the novel is clearly “organic and … not collage; rather it's the scrupulous dissection—anatomization—of consciousness” (1983, 330-31). What Ondaatje actually writes, therefore, is not so much objective history as he uncovers it, as the awakening of his consciousness to the implications of the realities he discovers, of the connections he perceives as he contemplates the evidence before him. This imaginative implosion is the prime guiding force in his manner of recording: recurring images, foreshadowing and flashbacks, themes taken up and discarded, only to be elaborated on later, are the structural and narrative manifestations of the process of Ondaatje's involvement with his history. The fragmentry nature of the narrative is a natural result of his simultaneous perception of present and past, personal and collective history, that hints at the same time at the impossibility of creating a linear narrative based on the transcultural experience.

This journey to Sri Lanka is mainly a quest for his father, to know the man who had become a legend in the writer's mind, and perhaps to overcome feelings of guilt for not having made the effort to see him before his death. After offering us a number of people's memories of his father, the narrator concludes: “There is so much to know and we can only guess. Guess around him. To know him from these stray actions I am told about by those who loved him” (200). These fractured perceptions about the man who was his father reinforces the veritable result of the attempt to recreate an imaginary homeland and the people in it; Mervyn Ondaatje and the other players in the family drama, are condemned to remain “partial beings, in all senses of that phrase” (Rushdie 1992, 12). Ondaatje unstintingly records all the accounts, flattering or not, told to him of his father; his task, in order to be complete, does not allow censorship. But the exuberant early portrayals change in tone in the later part of the work to reveal a lonely, depressed man, who writes to his expatriate children that “he just wished he could kiss (them) all again” (178).

In Tales from Firozhsa Baag, Mistry, through the character of Nariman, in “Squatter” presents to us the technique of storytelling as remembering, and as identity-building. The elusive nature of the stories Nariman tells and embellishes requires active participation by his listeners, and his irony leaves room for doubt as to absolute truths and ultimate interpretation. In this manner, the stories themselves convey the intricacy of their message, leaving it to the reader to discern the implications:

Unpredictability was the brush he used to paint his tales with, and ambiguity the palette he mixed his colours with … Nariman sometimes told a funny incident in a very serious way, and expressed a significant matter in a light and playful manner. And these were only two of the rough divisions, in between were lots of subtle gradations of tone and texture. Which, then was, the funny story and which the serious? (The) opinions were divided, but ultimately, said Jehangir, it was up to the listener to decide.”


Kersi, the protagonist-narrator of the Collection, having listened to Nariman's stories since boyhood, himself comes to be a storyteller, and tells the life of his apartment complex to the world, in the way Nariman had entertained the Baag children. As each story or vignette diverges into memory and recollection, the reader is required to fill in the imaginative gaps left between them. At each familiar reference and convergence, the narrative expands our imagination of Firozsha Baag or Ceylon. The spaces are filled in and shards of detail become numinous.

Integral to the articulation of both discourses is the idea of doubleness and the presence of binary oppositions. Doubleness. of identity, of culture, of loyalties, often of language, is the basis of the experience of immigration for anyone, anywhere. Thus, the authenticity of both narratives spring from the validity of Ondaatje's and Mistry's voices, that of the expatriate, the exiled voice that is both marginal and central. Their perceptions of their homelands are thus made profound and complex because they entail examining the past with what Rushdie has designated “stereoscopic vision … a kind of double perspective: because they, we, are at one and the same time insiders and outsiders in this society” (1992, 19). Ondaatje is conscious of this duality, of being both “native” and “foreign”, the recognizable between-world position: “I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner” (79). His narrative will therefore also spring from his acceptance of his “at once plural and partial” identity: the feeling that sometimes “we straddle two cultures; at other times, we fall between two stools” (Rushdie 1992, 15).

Ondaatje organizes his autobiographical narrative around a series of stark opposing metaphors: Asia/Canada, sweat/snow, prodigal/foreigner, movement/stasis. Sangeeta Ray has shown how his desire to travel back to his family and country to revitalize his parents' generation, requires both writer and reader to construct and generate constantly a double layer of meaning (1993, 41). Ondaatje's use of oppositions establishes contrasts between cultures, forms and geographical locales while at the same time the construction of identity through the act of travelling, dreaming, listening, writing reanimates the “frozen opera” of his memory and denies the reader access to a moment of self possession. What is interesting about this is that in the denial of a singular identity Ondaatje always foregrounds location, language, time and class. He does not allow the reader, in other words, to step outside the material conditions that construct a shifting identity (Ray 1993, 41).

This double perspective is equally a constant in Mistry's tales, the dichotomy in the imagination a reflection of the writer's preoccupation with belonging. “Lend Me Your Light”, partly set in Canada, focuses on the ambivalent position of the narrator, Kersi, whose brother Percy stays behind to devote himself help poor peasants when he leaves for Canada. A friend of theirs, Jamshed, has previously emigrated to New York, but returns to Bombay to revile it, vindicating his departure and ridiculing Percy's humanitarian efforts. The conflicting visions in the narrator's mind are skillfully articulated through the metaphor use of the figure of Tiresias,

But as I slept on my last night in Bombay a searing pain in my eye woke me up … I bathed my eyes and tried to get back to sleep. Half-jokingly, I saw myself as someone out of a Greek tragedy, guilty of the sin of hubris seeking immigration out of the land of my birth, and paying the price in burnt-out eyes: I, Tiresias, blind and throbbing between two lives, the one in Bombay and the other one to come in Toronto …


The story thus offers two parallels of conflict: an external one between the pompous Jamshed and the idealist Percy and their conflicting views on staying, or leaving, and its internalized version within the narrator between his roots and his new Western lifestyle (Malak 1989, 194) the narrator wryly has to accept that the binary oppositions that govern his life will not be easily resolved, even after a journey back home: “The epiphany would have to wait for another time another trip. I mused, I gave way to whimsy: I, Tiresias, throbbing between two lives, humbled by the ambiguities and dichotomies confronting me …” (192). As Ajay Heble has pointed out, Mistry's accomplishment is his evocation of the cultural hybrid: the impossibility of defining immigrant identify exclusively in terms of one's ancestral past of in terms of one's ability to assimilate into the new culture (1993, 58). Kersi thus discovers that identity is more a matter of process than a fixed condition.

Three stories in particular, “Squatter”, “Lend Me Your Light” and “Swimming Lessons” are complexly structured to accommodate the narrative's shifts between India and Canada and dramatize the clashes between the Oriental and Western cultures. The direct oppositions between the Asian past and Canadian present, as well as the parent child alienation caused by immigration, is most clearly evident in “Swimming Lessons”, the last story in the collection. This tale continues the mapping out of the space and history of Firozsha Baag, extending and expanding into Kersi's life in Canada. The story also engages in an interesting attempt at metafiction, with an italicized Firozhsa Baag substory interspersed with the Toronto swimming story. Kersi's recollections of India find their alter egos in his Canadian ambiance; Chaupatty beach becomes the Canadian swimming pool, the old man in the foyer reminds him of his grandmother, the Don Mills apartment building is another Firozsha Baag. The binary structure on this story is evident even in his parent's Interpretation of his reason for writing: ‘Father … said all writer worked in the same way’ they used their memories and experiences and made stories out of them, changing some things, adding some, imagining some, all writers were very good as remembering details of their lives. Mother said, how can you be sure that he is remembering because he is a writer or whether he started to write because he is unhappy and thinks of his past and wants to save it all by making stories of it …” (243).

The frame structure, as seen in “Squatter”, for instance, is part of the complex interactions between dichotomies in the stories. Nariman, the storyteller, is both outside the frame, narrating, and inside it as a minor participant in the action. The fact that he knows Sarosh, the immigrant who gave himself ten years to become Canadian or return to Bombay, and is in fact, invited to his welcome-home party, signals Nariman's position inside the frame. What is more revealing is the way his life is almost a mirror image of Sarosh's, except that, unlike Sarosh, Nariman is not displaced; for that matter, he is not even inconvenienced by his dependence on Western systems of thought. Nevertheless, Nariman's own hybridized identity alerts us to the possibility that the framed moment in Mistry's text might be as much about Nariman as it is about Sarosh. Given his position both inside and outside the frame, Nariman finds himself in a particularly effective discursive situation, able to speak with irony, within a tradition and challenging it at the same time (Heble 1993, 55).

Irony is the predominant tone of Mistry's stories. This, according to Linda Hutcheon, is a particular Canadian virtue, one made of self-defining discourse: “the particular space of irony in Canada has been mapped out over more than a century of negotiating the many dualities and multiplicities that have come to define this nation” (1991, vii). The very doubleness inherent in irony—the need to keep literal and ironic meanings afloat to get there—disrupts any notions of meaning as stable, complete, or transparent. The double, complex meaning of irony is graspable only in context and with the acceptance and understanding of simultaneous double-voicing: “There seems to be little in Canada that is not (or has not been) inherently doubled and therefore at least structurally ripe for ironizing. Its history offers many a binary opposition: native/colonial, federal/provincial, not to mention English/French” (1991, 15). Other examples of inherent doubleness in Canada would be its identity as a bilingual yet multi-cultural nation. Within the latter, there is another set of oppositions: Canada, like all the Americas, is a county of immigration, where, at least for a time, all the non-native inhabitants have felt dual allegiances (1991, 16). Doubleness, of identity, of culture, of loyalties, often of language, is the basis of the experience of immigration for anyone, anywhere. Hutcheon suggests that irony is one way of coming to terms with that duplicity, for it is the trope that incarnates doubleness, and it does so in ways that are particularly useful to the “other”: irony allows “the other” to address the dominant culture from within that culture's own set of values and modes of understanding, without being co-opted by it and without sacrificing the right to dissent contradict, and resist, opening up new space, literally between opposing meanings, where new things can happen (1991, 49).

A corollary of this dual, or multiple, perception is the writers' constant use of intertexts and their consciousness of the act of writing as essential to the act of creating, not simply literature, but identity. To further convey this sense of how the witness and writer assimilates the merging of personal and collective history, Ondaatje includes in the network of Running in the Family both literary and historical intertexts. One section, for example, is entitled “Historical Relations”. It is a fragment of Ondaatje's family past, so we might suppose the title to refer to, ‘relations” or “relatives” in his own history. An Historicals Relation is later revealed to be the name of a memoir by Robert Knox, a man who was held captive in Ceylon for twenty years, and that it constitutes one of Ondaatje's major sources of historical information about the land and its traditions. To pun on “historicals relations” as “connections with history” which Ondaatje is constantly making and as “relatives from the past”—underlines the inevitable meeting between the chaos of actual historical facts and the ordering processes of the one who writes history (Hutcheon 1985, 307). Some of the other intertexts are personal memories of Ondaatje and his family, memories he spends his time “trying to swell … with the order of dates and asides, interlinking them all.” In this way, we are told, “history is organized” (26).

In fact, the book's binary structure—hovering between validated facts and necessary fictions, between the recreation of Sri Lankan history and his own family one—is perceived as the author ponders some “false” maps of Ceylon. Their way of “growing from mythic shapes into eventual accuracy” reflects the creation of his novel (63).

The island seduced all of Europe. The Portuguese. The Dutch. The English. And so its name changed, as well as its shape—Serendip. Ratnapida (‘island of gems’), Taprobane, Zeloan. Zeilan, Seyllan, Ceilon, and Ceylon—the wife of many marriages courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword or bible or language … The pendant, once its shape stood still, became a mirror. It pretended to reflect each European power till newer ships arrived and spilled their nationalities, some of whom stayed and intermarried—my own ancestor arriving in 1600, a doctor who cured the residing governor's daughter with a strange herb and was rewarded with land, a foreign wife, and a new name which was a Dutch spelling of his own. Ondaatje. A parody of the ruling language.


This emphasis on cartography as the validation of both the post-colonial and immigrant space is also reflected in Tales from Firozsha Baag. Spatial and geographical location are clear constitutive elements of the recreation of identity for both post-colonial and immigrant writers. It matters greatly where Mistry is and where he is writing from. As Linda Warley has pointed out, for the African, Jamaican or Canadian autobiographer:

the intersection of language and place is at the very centre of post-colonial identity politics. Always aware that his or her place has at one time been marked red on the imperial map, and that views of “home” and “away” have been configured and frequently distorted by the colonial past (and perhaps, the neo-colonial present), autobiographers from these locations struggle to construct a viable representation of the “self” as a located “self.” At stake here is more than local colour, painting in words a landscape against which the “I” can authentically figure. The post—colonial autobiographer is engaged in a project of imaginative possession of place an act of self-articulation at once necessitated by and working in opposition to the invasion of both territory and mind enacted by Europe upon colonial space.

(1993, 25)

Through the short stories, Mistry draws a verbal map of Firozsha Baag as a specific place, an apartment building in the middle of Bombay, in an urban sprawl east of the Mazagoan area, a twenty-minute walk from the train station on the west side, a short trip from the Hanging Gardens to the north, and a stone's throw away from Dr. Sidhwa's Dispensary. Beside the Baag are the impoverished tenements of Tar Gully, lighted by few street lamps and rumored to be visited by pimps and prostitutes at night. In Tar Gully is the Irani Restaurant where Tehmina the spinster bought her ice before Najamai got her fridge; here, we also find Cecil Cycles, where Hersi and Viraf rent their bicycles. Beyond Tar Gully is the A1 Bus Stop, but nearer the Baag is the H Route Bus Stop. Both buses carry passengers to tho fire-temple at the other end of Bombay, visited at one time or another by the mostly Parsi Zoroastrian community of the Baag, passing through the Bhindi Bazaar and the Crawford Market, stopping at Marine Lines near Princess Street and near the south end of Marine Drive. Further up north, on Marine Drive, where Kersi and the Baag children would play cricket on the maidaan, is Chaupatty Beach, site of the annual Ganesh Chaturthi and Coconut Day. From the beach, you can catch a glimpse of the roof of the Baag. In this manner, the Baag is well constructed as a place in the series of stories with nary a detail that contradicts the whole. The consistency of this fictive world sustains the verisimilitude of the history of the Baag and points to places beyond it like Bandra, to the north, where Najamai's sister lived and where the Karani couple went for a New Year's Eve party at a friend's house; Mysore, where Dr. Mody and his family lived before moving to the Baag; Poona, where Pesi was sent to for boarding school; New Delhi, so far away, where the Canadian High Commission made their approval of Sarosh's application for immigration; and Canada, where Dolly lives in British Columbia, Vera in Alberta and Kersi writes in Ontario. In effect, Mistry creates not only Firozsha Baag but a great expanse of the world where Parsi families live and die—from their own yards to the streets of Toronto. In the later stories, we are introduced to another apartment building, this time in Toronto, with its own residents and stories is imaginatively part and parcel of the world—and the story land—of the far-off Firozsha Baag.

In Ondaatje's case, the obsession with collecting historical details, temporal and spatial, about the country extends to his own family: he reads and copies information from stone inscriptions, church ledgers, old news clippings. This explains his excitement at seeing his name cut across the stone floor of a church, “To kneel on the floors of a church and see your name chiselled in large letters so that it stretches from your fingertips to your elbow in some way removes vanity, eliminates the personal” (65-6). From the first page of the novel, Ondaatje is present in the text as physical writer of it and the reader becomes a part of even the execution of the novel: “The air reaches me unevenly with its gusts against my arms, face, this payer” (24). The narrator tells us that his attempt to write the history of the people in his familial past springs from his craving to “touch them into words” (22). There are continuous references to the act of writing and the power of words: the physicality of language, its concrete letters, is likewise a recurring motif in the text, as in the letters carved on gravestones or church floors that make “your own story a lyric” (66) and the beauty of the Sinhalese alphabet, “the self-portrait in language” (83). He refers to his father, moreover, as “one of those books we long to read whose pages remain uncut” (200), and poignantly pleads with the memory “Give me your arm. Give the word” (180). Meaning, he implies, is to be found, not only in what the words say, but in the words themselves. The retelling and the writing of stories changes them, but only with words will Ondaatje find the meaning of his history. Here the reason for his preoccupation for getting the stories right; this is how he will bring his family back to life and commune with the memories of the past.

Mistry likewise draws from literary sources and demonstrates a postmodern preoccupation with words and the act of writing. Moreover, as Craig Tapping has noted, the collection “stages the translation of oral cultures into literature with a commentary on the traditional society from which such practices derive; it reflects on its textuality and on the growing consciousness and literary abilities of its protagonist-author; it mocks well-meaning Anglo-Saxon liberalism through satire; and it appropriates the inherited narratives of the imperial canon in parody which opens our understanding of such figural systems” (1992, 45), “Squatter”, for instance, is an almost archetypal contemporary postcolonial literary artifact that mixes the sacred with the profane, the high with the low. The author is self-effacing in the manner of other postmoderns: commenting on another's literary performance, he alerts us as to how we should be reading his own. To convey the tragedy of not learning how to use toilets in Canada within his protagonist's self-imposed time limit, Mistry parodies the Renaissance classic of “otherness”, Othello: “I pray you, in your stories … When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am: nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice: tell them that in Toronto once there lived a Parsi boy as best he could. Set you down this; and say, besides, for some it was good and for some it was bad, but for me life in the land of milk and honey was just a pain in the posterior” (168). In Mistry's tale, the canon of English literature is appropriated and revised: an empire of literature displaced by a text hilariously performing an oral event in a subject-culture's contemporary repertoire (Tapping 1992, 45-46). He further imbues his work with oblique references to other Western literary works, from Eliot's The Waste Land to a parody of Tolstoy in Nariman's tales: “… Wonderbread is a Canadian bread which all happy families eat to be happy in the same way; the unhappy families are unhappy in their own fashion by eating other brands” (158).

“Swimming Lessons” is the most precise example of the author's “textual form of self-consciousness” (Hutcheon 1980, 4). As metafictional narrative is both the storytelling and the story told, Kersi's parents and the reader simultaneously read what the immigrant has written. He tells us what he remembers about his childhood years, but not really as one who is in it fully, but rather as one who has been in it, and now just looks at it from a distance. Ironically, he has to detach himself from his past in order to connect himself to it, in order for him to establish roots, He sees his Indian-ness as a means of looking at Canada in a different light and what will compose the particular structure of his Canadian-ness: “The world outside the water I have seen a lot of, it is now time to see what is inside” (249). As Kersi remembers his past, he seems to be defining himself, thus the writing of the book. And in the process of remembering, everything goes back to India, all the shards and fragments that he recalls define his being Indian: “My snowflakes are even less forgettable than the old man's because they never melt” (244), His snowflakes will never melt because he will save them in his book. “All the stories were read by Father and Mother, and they were sorry when the book was finished, they felt they had come to know their son better now, yet there was so much more to know, they wished there were many more stories …” (247). The particular territory of writers is to make fictions from truths and create identities. Tales from Firozsha Baag therefore is, at the same time, the creation of Kersi's Canadian identity and Mistry's discourse on that process.

Throughout his novel, Ondaatje makes it clear that writing this history is probably his only way to seize these long-lost truths of his past. This, by extension, is the specific task of the transnational writer. The assignment is given to him by his family: “You must get this book right, my brother tells me, ‘You can only write it once’” (201). Nonetheless, he must come to terms, with the fact that, though he has managed to make mythic and family truths give life to the narration, his memoir will necessarily always remain ‘incomplete’ as a history: “In the end your children move among the scattered acts and memories with no more clues” (201). Although writing has the power to set down memories as truths, a homeland and the whole past can, and does, escape narration: the transnational writer's destiny is almost preordained and his homeland will necessarily be imaginary. As Ondaatje tries to recapture the truths that had long evaded him he must resign himself to the fate of the writer and “confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture’” and comfort himself with the thought that “in Sri Lanka a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts” (206).

David Williams (essay date summer 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7446

SOURCE: Williams, David. “Cyberwriting and the Borders of Identity: ‘What's in a Name’ in Kroetsch's The Puppeteer and Mistry's Such a Long Journey.Canadian Literature, no. 149 (summer 1996): 55-71.

[In the following essay, Williams asserts that Such a Long Journey and Robert Kroetsch's The Puppeteer are examples of a shift in metaphoric borders, both in writing strategies and real cultural identity.]

Borders are fast disappearing in the new Europe, along the information highway, and in the mega-channel universe. Hong Kong's Star Satellite, carrying five television channels to fifty-three countries, has already changed the face of Asia. In India, a new generation openly celebrates the country's “Californication,” while their elders debate “The Challenge of the Open Skies” (Joseph) to a state broadcast monopoly. Given such a fundamental shift in the mode of information, we might ask whether the nation state, or local culture, or even the concept of a substantial self can survive the communications revolution?

Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg threatened speech communities in Europe with a similar loss of identity. With the benefit of hindsight, we can understand how the book redefined the human subject as being self-bounded and self-contained, much like the bound volume which came to occupy a reader's inmost consciousness. “I think; therefore I am,” the philosopher established as the surest ground of metaphysics; but what made this idea thinkable was the very subjectivity engendered by the book. The new religion of the Book also brought about a revolution in church and state, undermining age-old hierarchies. Henceforth, the privileging of a sovereign consciousness, which demanded increasingly liberal values, would change all the old forms of social and state organization.

Now, in the midst of another communications revolution, the modern philosopher announces “The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing.” Though Jacques Derrida has had little to say about electronic writing per se, several comments suggest that he would locate us between the epoch of the book and that of the electronic mark. In Of Grammatology he argues that the artificial intelligence of the “cybernetic program” has tended “to oust all metaphysical concepts—including the concepts of soul, of life, of value, of choice, of memory—which until recently served to separate the machine from man” (9). In consequence, the very “constitution of subjectivity” (113) in technological societies has been altered, as Mark Poster claims in his study of “Derrida and Electronic Writing,” by the immateriality of new forms of script: “The writer encounters his or her words in a form that is evanescent, [as] instantly transformable” as mental images, and so “the human being recognizes itself in the uncanny immateriality of the machine” (111-12).

This uncanny “mentality” of the machine underwrites the paradigm shift in recent theories of the humanities which have made language or culture, not nature, the final ground of interpretation. Forty years ago, Roland Barthes foresaw that, because “man in a bourgeois society is at every turn plunged into a false Nature” (156), the mythologist must decode the myth of a culture, to expose it as an alibi. Today, it remains the critic's task to expose the stubborn alibi that linguistic determinations and other forms of social construction are really facts of nature; questions of race and gender have also brought to light transcultural systems of domination which at every turn oppress women and non-Europeans. Again, it is Derrida who, as Gayatri Spivak says, “has most overtly investigated the possibilities of ‘the name of woman' as a corollary to the project of charging ‘the ends of man.’ In Of Grammatology he relates the privileging of the sovereign subject not only with phonocentrism (primacy of voice-consciousness) and logocentrism (primacy of the word as law), but also with phallocentrism (primacy of the phallus as arbiter of [legal] identity)” (Spivak 144).

This large-scale critique of the metaphysics of identity no longer privileges the subject as a sovereign consciousness, nor gender and race as facts of nature. Even the nature of our sensory perceptions—our entire positivist epistemology—is called into question by computer-generated virtual realities. For the first time, those who make it down the on-ramp onto the information highway sense how their nerve-endings no longer stop with their fingertips, but reach around the globe. And so the “uncanny immateriality” of the machine raises new questions about the space of our communities and even the integrity of our bodies. Where should we re-draw the borders of an identity once based on the book?

A longtime spokesman for the critical avant-garde, Robert Kroetsch has been gradually reworking French anti-humanist assumptions into a recognizably Canadian context. In an essay entitled “No Name Is My Name,” he argues that a “willed namelessness” has always been the cultural norm in Canadian writing, a norm that he values since it holds out at least a hope of “plural identities” (Lovely 51-2)—an obvious social good in a society made up of so many races, languages, and ethnic groups. But Kroetsch also confesses his scepticism about the “very notion of self” (47), such scepticism being perhaps “the most significant consequence of structuralism: its rejection of the notion of the ‘subject’” (Culler 28).

By contrast, a writer of colour from a more traditional society, such as Rohinton Mistry, seems to take the old humanist assumptions as a given. Such a Long Journey, the first novel by an Indian immigrant to win the Governor General's Award for Fiction (1991), sees the threat of ethnocentrism to personal identity, but takes refuge in a kind of universalism tied to English itself as the guarantor of identity. When a Parsi character bemoans the loss of his familiar world in the changed street names of Bombay, Mistry's protagonist asks, “What's in a name?” To which his friend Dinshawji replies:

No, Gustad. … You are wrong. Names are so important. I grew up on Lamington Road. But it has disappeared, in its place is Dadasaheb Bhadkhamkar Marg. My school was on Carnac Road. Now suddenly it's on Lokmanya Tilak Marg. I live at Sleater Road. Soon that will also disappear. My whole life I have come to work at Flora Fountain. And one fine day the name changes. So what happens to the life I have lived? Was I living the wrong life, with all the wrong names? Will I get a second chance to live it all again, with these new names? Tell me what happens to my life. Rubbed out, just like that?

(Mistry 74)

What Dinshawji laments in the loss of the old names is the loss of the old logocentric security, that metaphysical reassurance via language “of the meaning of being in general as presence” (Derrida 12). Though Dinshawji resists the loss of his social identity and even his personal history to the politics of “Maharashtra for Maharashtrians” (73), the erasure of the old names also eradicates his world, makes absent what should be “naturally” present. Ultimately, he experiences the rewriting of the map of his neighbourhood as an interruption in his self-presence. A life by any other name would not be the same life. But in terms of the old metaphysics of identity, his ultimate appeal is to the fixity of print.

Conversely, the characters in Kroetsch's latest novel, The Puppeteer (1992), are regularly “exchanged for each other, and again” (126); lovers engage in “Finding other names” (127); and the words of two narrators—one speaking and the other typing—blend on the page as their personal identities begin to merge. The Puppeteer marks something of a narratological departure, even for someone as experimental as Kroetsch. It should come as no surprise that this is his first novel composed on the computer. It seems to me, the effect of the new technology on the writer's process is decisive: “Writing at the border of subject and object” (Poster 111), the old Cartesian subject no longer stands “outside the world of objects in a position that enables certain knowledge of an opposing world of objects” (99). Instead, the experience of “computer writing resembles a borderline event, one where the two sides of the line lose their solidity and stability” (111).

The epochal difference between the typographic and the electronic mark may finally serve to determine “What's in a name?” for both Mistry and Kroetsch. But we would first need to locate the differences in writing between an electronic society (Canada in the 1990s) and a traditional one (India in the 1970s). What are the consequences in either case for the character of the book? Can Mistry, who has lived in Canada since 1975, possibly resist the effects of his new milieu? Or can the country he recalls in his writing ever escape the logic of technology?

In Jacques Derrida's critique of Western logocentrism, the breakdown of the classical logic of identity occurs in the shift from an epistemology based on speech and presence to one based on new forms of writing, belatedly exposing an absence at the heart of writing in general. But technological change only exposes what Derrida claims was repressed in the whole history of writing by a metaphysics of presence—that language itself is “always already a writing” (106). For alphabetic script reveals what was always intrinsic to the system of language, even as its phonetic character helped to maintain our illusion that what we read was “united to the voice and to breath,” and so was “not grammatological but pneumatological” (17).

A computer monitor more obviously takes our breath away, dispersing the mind and its mental images in a mirror outside itself, even as it “depersonalizes the text, removes all traces of individuality from writing, de-individualizes the graphic mark” (Poster 113). Yet alphabetic writing always had the same hidden power to open “a fissure between the author and the idea” (Poster 125), to disperse the identity of a speaking subject still conceived in the instant of “hearing (understanding)-oneself-speak” (Derrida 7). The “electronic mark” only “radicalizes the anti-logocentric tendencies that deconstruction argues are inherent in all writing” (Poster 123), for it “puts into question the qualities of subjectivity … [vestigially] associated with writing and more generally with rationality” (112-13).

“The Battle of Proper Names” in Of Grammatology concludes that what's in a name is more likely the whole coercive network of relations bounding the subject. Only the phonocentric illusion of hearing/understanding oneself speak hides this coercion and helps to naturalize the whole system of differences. But what the “concealment of writing and the effacement and obliteration of the so-called proper name” can no longer hide is “the originary violence of language which consists in inscribing within a difference, in classifying … In effect, it reveals the first nomination which was already an expropriation” (Grammatology 112). To name is to mark off territory, to set social bounds or limits, to forcibly erect boundaries which seem natural, which are “perceived by the social and moral consciousness as the proper, the reassuring seal of self-identity.”

Mistry's protagonist in Such a Long Journey, expressing an awareness that “the reassuring seal of self-identity” is a social and political fiction, says, “Why worry about it? I say, if it keeps the Marathas happy, give them a few roads to rename” (73). But the novel seems to foreclose on such political questions when Gustad's friend protests the violence done to his own identity, meanwhile ignoring the violence done by the British name-giver to Maratha identity, much less the “originary violence” of naming itself.

Resisting loss at every turn, the narrative structure of Such a Long Journey thus enacts what Derrida saw in Lévi-Strauss as “a sort of ethic of presence, an ethic of nostalgia for origins” (Writing 292), which sends Gustad Noble on his own long journey toward a recuperation of lost beginnings. The “original” loss in Gustad's life is the innocence of a happy childhood, when the Noble family could still afford a vacation with the luxury of mosquito nettings at a hill station: he likes to recall “That picture of my mother—locked away for ever in my mind: my mother through the white, diaphanous mosquito net, saying goodnight-Godblessyou, smiling, soft and evanescent, floating before my sleepy eyes, floating for ever with her eyes so gentle and kind” (242). Even a toy seen in the Chor Bazaar reminds Gustad of the thieving uncle who gambled away his father's bookstore: “And what had become of the Meccano set? Lost with everything else, no doubt, during the bankruptcy. The word had the sound of a deadly virus, the way it had ravaged the family” (101). Even the feel of a fountain pen between his fingers evokes a powerful nostalgia for the world of childhood: “This was the bloody problem with modern education. In the name of progress they discarded seemingly unimportant things, without knowing that what they were chucking out the window of modernity was tradition. And if tradition was lost, then the loss of respect for those who respected and loved tradition always followed” (61).

His son Sohrab's lack of respect for paternal authority threatens Gustad's traditional values with their inner contradiction: “He will have to come to me. When he learns respect. Till then, he is not my son. My son is dead” (52). Just as hard on his friends, Gustad will not forgive Major Jimmy Bilimoria for packing up and leaving their apartment building without a trace: “Without saying a word to us. That's friendship. Worthless and meaningless” (49). The xenophobic force of tradition even shows up in a symbol of seeming inclusiveness, a sort of ecumenical wall separating the apartment compound from the street. A refuge from the Hindu majority, the concrete wall is a border marked by the odour of a counter-territoriality. Each day at dawn, Gustad suffers both the stench of urine and the sting of mosquitoes as he performs his kusti prayers, sheltered all the while from the stares of passersby. He hires a pavement artist to draw pictures of the gods and goddesses and saints and mosques of all the world's religions. But the wall is neither as holy nor as ecumenical as it first appears, since its saintly face masks a more divisive purpose: to preserve the Parsi in his self-sameness and hierarchical privilege, and to protect him from the threat of difference, of Otherness itself.

Gustad also erects other walls to hedge him in from the world. To his wife's dismay, he will not take down the blackout paper tacked to the windows nine years earlier, during a devastating war with China when even Nehru broke under the treachery of his Chinese brother Chou En-lai. Gustad has learned too well the truth of brotherhood, as revealed in the biblical story about “Cain and Abel … Fairy tales, I used to think. But from the distance of years, how true. My own father's case. His drunken, gambling brother who destroyed him as surely as crushing his skull. And Jimmy, another kind of Cain. Killed trust, love, respect, everything” (178). All that saves Gustad from the fate of Abel is a few pieces of rescued “furniture from his childhood gathered comfortingly about him. The pieces stood like parentheses around his entire life, the sentinels of his sanity” (6).

Neither is he alone in this novel in clinging to remnants of a happier past. Miss Kutpitia, a neighbour in Khodadad Building, appears to be an Indian Miss Havisham, a Dickensian woman who has stopped the clock in her apartment at a point thirty-five years ago when her motherless nephew—her sole reason for living—was killed in an auto crash. Tenants who come to use her telephone are kept at bay in a little vestibule, and are never permitted to see beyond the closed door into the inner apartment where, “Like tohruns and garlands of gloom, the cobwebs had spread their clinging arms and embraced the relics of Miss Kutpitia's grief-stricken past” (284).

Ultimately, so many images of loss remind us of the condition of the emigré author for whom Gustad's sentiments are quite natural: “How much of all this does Sohrab remember, he wondered. Very little, I think. For now. But one day he will remember every bit. As I do, about my father. Always begins after the loss is complete, the remembering” (210). The childhood home is not so easily foregone, it would seem; its loss looms large within and without the text, as does the nostalgic yearning to reconstitute that absence in language, in a logocentric guarantee of presence. No wonder, then, that the names must not change, lest it should turn out, as Dinshawji says, that he was “living the wrong life, with all the wrong names” (74).

And yet, as Laurie Coutino tells Gustad in shame and terrible anguish, “Mr Dinshawji has ruined my own name for me” (176). For the incorrigible flirt and joker, playing on the Parsi word for the male member, has told her that he wants her “to meet his lorri. … ‘You can play with my little lorri,’ he said, ‘such fun two of you will have together.’” In his thoughtless way, Dinshawji has named her his thing, has committed precisely the kind of linguistic violence that Derrida describes in “the first nomination which was already an expropriation” (112). For Dinshawji has literally made the woman's proper name improper, has turned “Laurie” into the metaphorical measure of his own narcissism by appropriating her identity to that of his “lorri.”

A third story of naming is just as violent, and ultimately quite as disruptive of self-presence. The local physician, Dr Paymaster, had some fifty years ago purchased the closed-down dispensary of Dr R. C. Lord, MBBS, MD Estd 1892. Revered for a sense of humour which could make his patients laugh their sickness away, Dr Paymaster one day committed the terrible blunder of removing the old doctor's sign and putting up his own shingle. “The very next day, the dispensary was in turmoil. Patients were marching in and marching out, demanding to know who this Dr Paymaster was” (113). The only way the new doctor could recover his practice was to hang up the old sign with the former doctor's name on it, “and the confusion vanished overnight. And overnight, Dr Paymaster sorrowfully realized something they never taught in medical college: like any consumer product, a doctor's name was infinitely more important than his skills.” But he has had to give up his proper name to practice those skills, has had to accept being renamed within the generalized writing of a community which resists real change. And so the loss of his proper name turns out to be no change at all; it is simply another means of conserving the past.

Even in its narrative form, there could be a parallel between the novel and what Mistry calls “a country stuck in the nineteenth century” (155). Technically, there are very few risks, and very few discoveries, in the use of a limited third-person narrator to present differing points of view at the level of alternating chapters, or scenes, or even paragraphs. Narrative omniscience, like the fixity of print in a sign that cannot be changed, becomes a larger mark of continuity with the past, of the reassuring sense of an author-God.

Kroetsch's The Puppeteer, on the other hand, demands to be read in the new social context of “the borderline event” of electronic writing. The borderline between the writing and reading subject immediately begins to blur as the apparent narrator, Jack Deemer, reads the typescript of its protagonist-author Maggie Wilder in the very process of its production. In Deemer's words, “Maggie Wilder is writing this. Reading over her left shoulder, I become a loving supporter, the champion of her need to get the story of her wedding dress down on paper. Now and then I say a few words, joining myself into her train of thought. Sometimes, perhaps just to tease me, she scrambles a few of my words in amongst her own” (17).

The “borderline” identity of the narrator is further complicated by questions arising out of various forms of theatrical performance in the narrative. At the heart of the story is a puppet show put on by Dorf, the narrator of a previous Kroetsch novel, Alibi, who is now hiding out in Maggie's attic from his old boss Jack Deemer. Maggie, in the early stages of a separation from her husband, has walled herself in from the world quite as much as Mistry's Gustad Noble with his blackout paper on all the windows, much less Billy Dorf disguised as a monk and hiding in her attic, calling himself Papa B. Yet Dorf, alias Papa B, who has also spent three years in hiding in a Greek monastery, tries to reach Maggie through “Karaghiosi, the most popular of all the Greek shadow puppets” (115). Within the frame of a simple set, screened by a white bedsheet, the puppet comes knocking

with his long, hinged right arm. “Are you locked in there, Maggie Wilder? Do you want out?”

“I'm not at home to you,” a voice answered. “Leave me alone.”

There was no figure to be seen inside the house, only a voice to be heard. Papa B was speaking both voices, but neither was his. The voice of the second and invisible speaker, Maggie recognized, was an imitation of her own.


Wishing to unmask the pretender, Maggie wilfully violates the theatrical frame by speaking in her own person to the puppet, the stage persona of Papa B: “Karaghiosi, you are always pretending to be someone you aren't. I know that much about you. You're pretending to be Papa B” (117). Papa B, who is pretending to be Karaghiosi, is accused of pretending to be Papa B, of playing himself. Yet he is also pretending to be Maggie, using her voice to ask her to give up her own identity, to play their mutual friend Inez: “Maggie was shocked and yet excited too, by the name she was given. She had become part of the play. She liked that” (117). And so the audience of one surrenders her proper name to the play of signification, crossing the line into the space of performance. Like the users of electronic message services, she appears to embrace the circumstance that “Identity is fictionalized in the structure of the communication” (Poster 117).

Later, however, when Maggie is seated once again at her desk, another puppet dressed up as a monkish Papa B addresses her in her own person: “Tell [Karaghiosi] that you don't want to be alone” (121). The breaking of the frame from the other side of the stage now strangely unsettles Maggie: “She could not, that second night, bear the directness of the puppets' approach. One of the puppets was asking her simply to play herself, and Maggie found the assignment impossible” (122). The borders of identity begin to blur as well for Papa B whom Maggie has forced to play himself: “The voice of the monk was almost but not quite that of Papa B. Papa B, trying to imitate his own voice, was hesitating” (121). The “real” voice of Papa B now belongs to Karaghiosi, as it were, while his imitation of himself sounds inauthentic—authenticity receding into infinity in all these deliberate confusions of identity. Now it is Jack Deemer, the narrator, who puts the problem most succinctly: “Who was the puppet, who the puppeteer?” (123).

Since it is Deemer who winds up with the girl at the end of the novel, his narrative substitution of himself for Papa B almost makes up for his impotence to change the past. Certainly, he would have us believe that the whole affair has been staged for his benefit: “Maggie, I suspect, felt that in telling me the story of her love affair with puppets was telling me back into my own desire” (119). Ultimately, then, Deemer calls for another ending to the whole performance:

They were the puppets, Maggie and Dorf, not Karaghiosi. That ancient Greek shadow puppet became master. It was he who manipulated their desire. … Karaghiosi, that slave and fool, became master. … Maggie taking the pain of Karaghiosi's heave. They were exchanged for each other, and again. They were orphaned into rhapsodies of desire. … “Karaghiosi,” she said, calling him back. She said the name, making a small experiment into the naming of a wish. The whispered name was a reassurance to her own wet tongue, and she wondered whose hair touched her small breasts. … They were a frenzy of silence. They laughed, then, after, finding shirts and socks, pyjama bottoms and the cold cups of brassieres, there in the rank dark. Finding other names.


In the act of love, the lovers have been exchanged for one another, have for the moment become truly Other. Crossing borders of flesh, they have “traded places,” to cite the title of Maggie's first published collection of short stories. And so have the puppets and puppeteer been exchanged for one another, even as the reader (Deemer) and the author (Maggie who types the text before our eyes) have also traded places.

The other site of borderline events in the novel is the elaborate wedding dress which Maggie wears to the typewriter because “she could hear the story she intended to tell” (2) whenever she puts it on. Maggie wants “to write the autobiography of a wedding dress” (15), partly out of the conceit, as she says, that “dresses could talk” (27), and partly out of a conviction, as another character says, that “Brides look alike—in the long run, it's the dresses that differ” (28). Now, even the boundaries of genre begin to blur as the speaking subject is displaced from person to thing, and history (or perhaps biography if the dress has a “life”), dissolves into auto-biography, the dress “writing” its own story as told to Maggie, just as Maggie writes her own story as told to Jack Deemer.

The dress, however, is not unique to Maggie; it has been worn before by Deemer's wife Julie Magnuson, and it seems, according to its maker, to have been “double digit bad luck” (52). As a signifier, it encodes a social practice whereby each bride who wears it is supposed to find a new name and a new social identity. Julie was supposed to become the wife of Fish, who had even “asked for one small detail to be included in the flow and drift of details on the dress” (58)—a rainbow trout. But the dress, which keeps its identity as a differential mark in a system of differences without positive terms, contains a myriad of signs, just as a bride like Julie who marries and remarries carries the potential of many new names. The sign of the fish cannot even save Fish from being waylayed en route to the altar, where the bride is claimed instead by Jack Deemer: “In the tumult of the dress we were the story,” Deemer says, “that Josie Pavich had only guessed; we were the lovers in animal form that she had so carefully pictured, the man with the body of a fish, the horse-headed man, the woman with octopus arms” (137). The dress, in other words, is a sign of the whole underlying system of metamorphoses encoded in weddings; it speaks of the bride and groom as shape-changers, and of their shifting identities in marriage.

Even Jack Deemer, who dons the dress in disguise at the end of the novel, becomes other than he is, and henceforth speaks differently: “I put it on. And then something precious happened. Wearing the dress, I was no longer simply myself” (251). At first, the dress merely puts him in mind of the woman he once married: “Waiting there, sitting, pacing, I came to understand how Julie Magnuson must have felt on the morning of her delayed wedding” (252). And yet he continues to wear the dress after an accident at the Greek chapel where the “monk” Dorf falls over a cliff to his death. The ruthless old collector who had once sought Dorf's life is apparently changed enough by the dress to persuade Maggie to live with him and to work “on—dare we say?—a saint's life” (264). “Papa B is seen as something of a saint by the monks and priests of Mount Athos” (264), not least because his cassock has turned him into “the monk he had so long pretended to be” (250), the true performer of his part. So, too, Deemer is transformed by his performance as “Maggie puts a beach towel over the shoulders of my wedding dress and tells me to close my eyes, which is hardly necessary, and she shaves me and does my hair. “‘You must look the part,’ she tells me, often, while she is doing this” (266). Feminised by the dress-as-sign, this most manipulative of men winds up in the role of a bride.

Of all the borders which are crossed in The Puppeteer, this one—the subversion of gender identity—is the least “natural” or, in narrative terms, the most forced. For Jack Deemer is a man who is not above murder, a wealthy thug, by his own admission, whom “people mention with curiosity and disgust. You don't put together a collection of collections without first putting together a little heap of the stuff that buys collections. Once in a while I had to make the rules fit the occasion” (71). How, then, could such a macho man be so easily taken over by his own disguise? Or how could a dress—even if it is a linguistic sign—gain total control over its speaking subject? Why, in a word, should we be willing to see an incorrigibly male identity erased at the touch of another signifying system?

In a postmodern society already beginning to ask whether gender is determined by anatomy or by culture, the wedding dress evokes the “genderless anonymity” (Poster 121) of electronic communications. For individuals linked through computers now converse, “often on an enduring basis, without considerations that derive from the presence to the partner of their body, their voice, their sex, many of the markings of their personal history. Conversationalists are in the position of fiction writers who compose themselves as characters in the process of writing, inventing themselves” (117). In the immaterial medium of the new writing, material differences such as gender no longer have to determine the old borders of identity.

Though a wedding dress is not a computer, it is clearly a form of address, serving as a medium of communication. “If dresses could talk” (27), Maggie says, then dons it to write “her autobiography of a dress” (23). Much like the “mirror effect of the computer” which “doubles the subject of writing” (Poster 112), the dress doubles Maggie's subjectivity. Her identity is thus dispersed as much as Deemer's in wearing this dress, much as any writing subject in computer communications is “dispersed in a postmodern semantic field of time/space, inner/outer, mind/matter” (Poster 115). Through the fluid medium of the gown, the writer is made an amanuensis for the object itself which turns into a speaking subject. So inner/outer, mind/matter, are also reversible semantic fields in the dress.

The indelible mark, however, of the new context of communications to which the dress belongs is a figure of itself. Almost at the outset of the story, Maggie notices “for the first time, in the intricate embroidery and bead-work on her lap, the outline in miniature of the dress she was wearing. The dressmaker who had filled the dress with detail had, with the same care, left blank an outline of the dress no larger than a postage stamp” (3-4). This self-reflexive sign of the sign—the so-called mise en abyme—puts into an abyss, or subverts the authority of, the real, as does a television monitor on the desk of the television announcer, receding into infinity. We are reminded that the world we “see” is mediated, or constructed by, the medium which shapes our perception; it no longer has its “real” ground outside itself, and yet it has the power to change the way we see ourselves.

Take another look at Such a Long Journey and you will find, even in a supposedly traditional novel, the telltale mark of this same mise en abyme:

Gustad looked closely at what seemed a very familiar place. “Looks like our wall,” he said tentatively.

“Absolutely correct. It's now a sacred place, is it not? So it rightfully deserves to be painted on a wall of holy men and holy places.”

Gustad bent down to get a better look at the wall featuring a painting of the wall featuring a painting of the wall featuring a …


The infinite regress of a picture on the wall of Gustad's compound shows how Mistry's traditional world is no more immune than Kroetsch's post-modern world to the effects of modern technology. Here, however, we might read the sign of Mistry's postcolonial resistance to a form of realism which would naturalize the status quo, or legitimate the existing social order. For the self-reflexive picture displays a figure founded only on itself, a sign which is wholly arbitrary and conventional, and yet which has been allowed to stand, in the name of Dada Ormuzd and kusti prayers, as the ground of social division. In this space of the wall-within-a-wall can be seen another space in which the post- of postcolonialism, “like that of postmodernism,” emerges as “a post- that challenges earlier legitimating narratives” (Appiah 353). Suddenly, the painter's mise en abyme, like the postrealist mark of cyberspace, puts into an abyss the social reality of a wall which on its painted side displays the face of universal brotherhood, but on its blank side reveals the face of social partition.

Finally, in this space, we ought to observe how the postrealist ideology of postcolonial writing can have a very different motivation from that of post-modern writing. As Kwame Appiah remarks of a postrealist impulse in African writing of the past two decades:

Far from being a celebration of the nation, … the novels of the second, postcolonial, stage are novels of delegitimation: they reject not only the Western imperium but also the nationalist project of the postcolonial national bourgeoisie. And, so it seems to me, the basis for that project of delegitimation cannot be the postmodernist one: rather, it is grounded in an appeal to an ethical universal. Indeed it is based, as intellectual responses to oppression in Africa largely are based, in an appeal to a certain simple respect for human suffering, a fundamental revolt against the endless misery of the last thirty years.


Mistry's delegitimation of the nationalist project of the postcolonial bourgeoisie is nowhere more apparent than in the suffering of Gustad's long-lost “brother” at the hands of RAW and the Indian Congress Party. As Major Jimmy Bilimoria says on his deathbed, “Gustad, it is beyond the common man's imagination, the things being done by those in power” (280). This same subplot of embezzlement and atonement nearly defies belief, using wild gossip and innuendo to offer a postrealist critique of the elected oppressor. But Mistry's inclusion of pseudo-documents and digests from newspapers also delegitimates the “realism” of journalism itself as a tool of the national bourgeoisie who equate Mother India with Mother Indira: “the line between the two was fast being blurred by the Prime Minister's far-sighted propagandists who saw its value for future election campaigns” (298). In the concluding “morcha” of the people on their corrupt governors, the novel ultimately appeals to an ethical universal which Dr Paymaster, its reluctant leader, can only trope in terms of suffering human flesh: “You see, the municipal corruption is merely the bad smell, which will disappear as soon as the gangrenous government at the centre is removed. True, they said, but we cannot hold our breath for ever, we have to do something about the stink” (313).

In the final analysis, doing “something about the stink” in this novel requires more than direct political action. The political and the aesthetic meet again in the figure of that wall which speaks of universal brotherhood and social partition. Since both meanings are imaginary constructs, not facts of nature, the sign itself is bound to change. In the end, Gustad has to accept the idea that the social wall must come down. “The pavement artist, awaiting his turn to speak, said despondently, “Please, sir, they are telling me I have to give up my wall.” Gustad had gathered this from the new notice on the pillar, the cement-mixers, and the waiting lorries. For the briefest of moments he felt the impending loss cut deeply, through memory and time; the collapse of the wall would wreck the past and the future” (329). But in the battle of demonstrators to save the wall, it is the idiot Tehmul, the neighbourhood manchild who worships Gustad, who is killed. Tehmul, it seems, has been made a scapegoat by Gustad's wife Dilnavaz, by a mother who is willing to sacrifice one of the “children of God” for the sake of her own estranged son. For Dilnavaz employs a witch in the person of Miss Kutpitia to cast a spell on Tehmul in hope of purging the evil from Sohrab; coincidentally or not, the idiot dies because his life means less to her than her own child's life. Thus the wall of family continues to partition the world even behind the outer wall of Parsi identity.

Gustad, however, is surprised to find that the “wreck [of] the past and the future” which he had feared in the tumbling of the wall only makes him more open to past and future both. At the death of his mother thirty years before, he had been unable to shed a single tear: “Seeing his once invincible father behave in this broken manner” had made him swear silently “to himself, then and there, that he would never indulge in tears—not before anyone, nor in private, no matter what suffering or sorrow fell upon his shoulders; tears were useless, the weakness of women, and of men who allowed themselves to be broken” (101). But at the sight of the idiot child's broken skull, something finally breaks in him as well: “His voice was soft and steady, and his hand steady and light upon Tehmul's head, as the tears ran down his cheeks. He started another cycle [of prayers], and yet another, and he could not stop the tears … the salt water of his eyes as much for himself as for Tehmul. As much for Tehmul as for Jimmy. And for Dinshawji, for Pappa and Mamma, for Grandpa and Grandma, all who had had to wait for so long” (337). In weeping for his dead mother, Gustad cradles the head of the dead manchild in a way which makes him virtually a Parsi Pietà, as truly feminised as Kroetsch's Jack Deemer.

What Gustad has not yet seen, of course, is that he has already assumed the role of a father to poor Tehmul; every “child of God” is become as one of his own sons. But accepting the loss of this child finally opens his eyes, quite literally: “Gustad turned around. He saw his son standing in the doorway, and each held the other's eyes. Still he sat, gazing upon his son, and Sohrab waited motionless in the doorway, till at last Gustad got to his feet slowly. Then he went up and put his arms around him. “Yes,” said Gustad, running his bloodstained fingers once through Sohrab's hair. “Yes,” he said, “yes,” and hugged him tightly once more” (337). The estranged son and the lost child Tehmul have also traded places.

Though the reader and narrator are not explicitly exchanged for one another in Such a Long Journey, the pavement artist is at least aware of such aesthetic economies: “In a world where roadside latrines become temples and shrines, and temples and shrines become dust and ruin, does it matter where [I go]?” (338). Not that he has entirely escaped the temptation himself of monumental art: “The agreeable neighbourhood and the solidity of the long, black wall were reawakening in him the usual sources of human sorrow: a yearning for permanence, for roots, for something he could call his own, something immutable” (184). He has even given up his coloured chalks not long before this and has begun to paint in oils, giving way to the aesthetic temptation to construct a wall against time itself. But in the best Hindu fashion, he learns that nothing is eternal, not even art. And so the aesthetic wall is breached anew, if in a different sense from the way in which Kroetsch's puppeteer “had gone through the frame” (153). For here, too, the reader finds that art cannot erect a boundary against life, though Mistry more modestly concedes the superior power to nature and to social forces which exceed his own technology.

Finally, it is the entirely natural force of decay—a sign written indelibly in human flesh—which marks a significant difference between the postcolonial and the postmodern novel. As Deemer relates the story of Dorf's death in The Puppeteer, he tells how the latter “had fallen straight down [the cliff] and landed on his head, somehow causing some of the bones of his neck to force his tongue out of his mouth” (257). But in bringing the body back up the cliff, “the sling either slipped or broke and poor Dorf was in for a second crash” (260). This comic treatment of a corpse points to what has been left out of cyberspace or the world of virtual reality: the body which suffers. But it also opens to question that founding absence in the “science” of grammatology: the breath of the body. For, as Derrida notes with astounding equanimity, “What writing itself, in its nonphonetic moment, betrays, is life. It menaces at once the breath, the spirit, and history as the spirit's relationship with itself” (Of Grammatology 25). That indifference to the presence of the body (of writer or of reader) and its material conditions exposes the continuing idealism of the postmodernist or the poststructuralist—the material trace of writing somehow exceeding, or transcending, the material conditions of its own production.

By contrast, the scene of Dinshawji's funeral in Such a Long Journey conveys “a certain simple respect for human suffering” which is never far from view in the postcolonial novel; inevitably, it restores us to the terrible burden of human flesh and the limits of the mortal body. On the march up the hill to those hideous vultures waiting in the Tower of Silence, Gustad realizes how the solemn sound of feet on the gravel “was magnificent, awe-inspiring. Crunch, crunch, crunch. Grinding, grating, rasping. The millwheel of death. Grinding down the pieces of a life, to fit death's specifications” (253). Which is not to say that a Parsi can see no humour in death: in a repeated funeral scene the “vulture controversy” between orthodox and progressive Parsis turns as funny as any comic scene in Kroetsch.

But what lingers in this second funeral scene is the gratitude of the sole other mourner for Major Bilimoria, a Muslim comrade whose life he had saved on the battlefield in Kashmir in 1948: “Ghulam wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. He said, his voice steady now, ‘Your Parsi priests don't allow outsiders like me to go inside’” (322). In the end Gustad's story takes down the wall between Parsi and non-Parsi alike. Now Mistry can take us up the hill with Gustad where not even the women are allowed to go, but where we—women and other outsiders—are permitted vicariously to pay our last respects to the dead. To return to one of the book's predominant visual figures, the blackout paper which the protagonist takes down in the end allows us to see in as much as it allows Gustad to see out. And what we find at last is that story does—has always done—what is not unique to the new technologies: it blurs the boundaries of subject-object division, does away with borders, displaces the binary of Self and Other. Finally, what the Anglo-Indian writer reminds us in the West is that Eastern identity has always been given to ceaseless change.

Works Cited

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?” Critical Inquiry 17 (Winter 1991): 336-57.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. 1957. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill & Wang, 1972.

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1975.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1976.

———. Writing and Difference. Trans. with introd. by Alan Bass. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1978.

Joseph, Abraham. “The Challenge of the Open Skies.” Paper presented to the Xth International Conference of the Indian Association for Canadian Studies, Goa University, May 10-13, 1994.

Kroetsch, Robert. The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1989.

———. The Puppeteer. Toronto: Random House, 1992.

Mistry, Rohinton. Such a Long Journey. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991.

Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1990.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Nilufer E. Bharucha (essay date September-October 1996)

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SOURCE: Bharucha, Nilufer E. “From Behind a Fine Veil: A Feminist Reading of Three Parsi Novels.” Indian Literature 39, no. 5 (September-October 1996): 132-41.

[In the following essay, Bharucha outlines the limited roles of women as shown in three novels by Parsi writers and the distinctions made between male and female authors.]

Parsi women have not been rigourously subjected to the regimen of the purdah, but they share the limited and reductive world of their Hindu and Muslim sisters in India. Parsi traditions are rooted in the patriarchal society of Ancient Iran and these patriarchal moorings have been reinforced by a 1300 year long residence in India.1 Association with the British during the Raj coated some Parsis with a thin patina of westernisation and emancipation,2 but for the majority of Parsi women the fine veil remained, from behind which they looked at the world. As Sherry B. Ortner (1974) has put it: ‘the secondary status of woman in society is one of the true universals, a pan-cultural fact.’

Child marriages, truncated schooling and multiple childbirths were till recently the lot of most Parsi women. Bapaiji, in Boman Desai's The Memory of Elephants (1988), belongs to this group of repressed women. She is hemmed in by an oppressive world which she determinedly pushes aside to create her own female space, but is not quite successful.

Lenny, the girl-child narrator of Bapsi Sidhwa's Ice Candy Man (1988), inhabits a more sophisticated cityscape, as compared to the rural universe of Bapaiji. However, she too is subject to the limitations of her gender. In fact she is a doubly marginalised figure—female and physically handicapped. Lenny, from behind this veil of marginality, offers a uniquely subaltern view of the bloody birthing of Pakistan. This view is as strong an indictment of patriarchy as it is of colonialism.

Soul-destroying, mindless drudgery is the destiny of Dilnavas in Rohinton Mistry's first novel, Such a Long Journey (1991). Dilnavas hovers at the periphery of the novel as her domestic crisis assumes national importance. Her husband—the man—is an active participant in this crisis but she is the hapless spectator. She can only take recourse to superstition and prayers, as her beloved eldest son drifts away from the family and her husband's life is endangered by sinister elements outside her control.

This paper examines the world view provided by these Parsi women from behind the veil of patriarchy, marginality and haplessness and attempts a Feminist reading of the three novels under study.

Two of these novels, The Memory of Elephants and Such a Long Journey are written by men, while the author of Ice Candy Man is a woman. The paper also explores the difference this has made to the presentation of women characters in these books.

Desai's The Memory of Elephants begins with a section entitled ‘Bapaiji’. Bapaiji is the Gujarati word for grandmother. The portrait of Bapaiji reveals the many female stereotypes, most writers harbour about their women characters. This is in spite of the fact that Desai's Bapaiji is apparently a ‘strong’ woman and Desai's male protagonist Homi, grudgingly admires her for this. This strength and admirable qualities, however, are related to Bapaiji's ‘man-like’ nature and behaviour—she is almost an honorary man. This tendency of attributing male, and hence superior, characteristics to a female character, happens when in the ‘creation of fictions, writers call upon the same signifying codes that pervade social interactions, re-presenting in fiction the rituals and symbols that make up that social practice’ (Greene & Kahn 1985).

What is, therefore, required is a reading of the novel which will go beneath the surface of the man-like Bapaiji and seek what Adrienne Rich (1979) has called ‘the true knowledge of women’ which comes from ‘uncovering the hidden, making ourselves present … (and defining) a reality which resonates to us, which affirms our being.’

In The Memory of Elephants, the male protagonist, Homi, lives in a disoriented world upon which the Memo-Scan he has invented, imposes its own order. This Memo-Scan gives him the ‘memory of elephants, the memory of whales, the equation of the universe.’ It is an instrument which activates the collective unconscious of the Parsis, what Bapaiji calls the ‘memory of the soul.’ Bapaiji is Homi's guide through the intricate of maze of racial memory. She is not just Homi's past, she is also the Parsis' link with rural India. She is a symbol of those first Parsis who had made a pact with Jadhav Rana, the king of Sanjan, who had given them refuge in Gujarat. The pact had included among other things, a promise to embrace the local language,3 customs and clothes. So Bapaiji speaks only in Gujarati to Homi, whom she calls her ‘American Grandson.’

When the novel opens, Bapaiji is already dead, but ‘speaks’ to Homi from ‘the Kingdom of God.’ However, Bapaiji's voice is that of a man. In the magical realism of Desai's novel, Bapaiji is, in the ‘hereafter’, a man. Bapaiji has shed what the male world considers a ‘restrictive’ female body: ‘I am a man here; I wear pants, I walk more quickly, upright, directly forward without that ridiculous waddle with which so many women are afflicted, without those huge breasts like a cow elephant's which always got in my way; I even have a deeper voice—you will doubtless find this comical, but it is what I had always wanted, to be a man, to do things men did …’. This is a classic example of what Kate Millet (1969) has termed the ‘expected traits of minority status: group self-hatred and self-rejection.’ In a man-dominated world, women, irrespective of their class/caste, are minority figures, who believe in the male-version of the inferior attributes of women and as a result hate themselves.

Bapaiji's definitive statement also opens up various avenues of investigations, the most important of which are the questions of Gender-Identity and male taboos/disgust connected with the female body.

A flashback to Bapaiji's childhood in Navsari, a small town in Southern Gujarat, reveals an early dissatisfaction with her feminine identity. The fact of being female is a biological reality, the matter of feminine identity is a matter of sociological conditioning. (Millet: 1969). Bapaiji, from early girlhood, waged a battle against the constrictions of a feminine identity. She is what Heilbrun (1979) has called a ‘male-identified’ girl, as opposed to her sister Dhunmai, who is a ‘female-identified’ girl.

Bapaiji plays tag and ‘Hu-tu-tu’ with the boys and is un-embarassed when her skirt rides to her thighs. She defies social expectations and refuses to identify with her mother. She takes to wearing her brother's pants in an effort to rid herself of the restrictions of her sex. By putting on male clothes, she also indirectly seeks to put on the power that goes with being a man (Gilbert; 1982).

With approaching adolescence, Bapaiji finds it increasingly difficult to ignore her female body and begins to consider it an encumbrance to her fantasy of being a boy. She soon finds herself married off to the staid Hormusji Seervai. Hormusji had been married earlier to a girl who had a baby by someone else. The marriage had been annulled and ‘the baby made to drink milk.’ Here we are in a social milieu where child marriages and infanticide were a reality.

This marriage ‘made a woman out of Bapaiji’ and she hated it. The reductive existence of the youngest daughter-in-law in a patriarchal family jars on Bapaiji. She is subjected to all the taboos patriarchy imposes on female sexuality—isolation during menstruation, segregation from unrelated males, etc. Bapaiji nearly revolts against these sanctions but cannot subvert her husband's deep-rooted faith in the patriarchal system. And since Bapaiji cannot imagine a revolt outside the matrix of male approval, she is unwillingly subdued.

However, the most restrictive bondage is imposed on her by motherhood: ‘She had hated pregnancy and she hated motherhood; it was just one more way, perhaps the most diabolical, of tying down a woman.’ Chodorow (1978) says that societies ‘ensure an adequate supply of child-tenders by encouraging all women to be empathic and nurturant.’ Bapaiji resists being the nurturant female.

With the arrival of middle-age, Bapaiji involves herself with the local affairs of Navsari, attends meetings and makes speeches. Yet she turns down the invitation to be on the governing board of an institution, ‘Fifteen years of domesticity had tamed Bapaiji to the point of questioning a woman's role outside the home.’

In her later years Bapaiji is given the title of Rajya Ratna by the Maharaja of Baroda, for the services rendered to Navsari. In spite of these successes, achieved as a woman, Bapaiji after her death, wishes herself into becoming a man. The restrictions she had faced as a girl and woman, the fights she had to wage against a suffocating patriarchy, makes her turn against herself—against her identity as a woman. It is only by becoming a man that she can finally shed the restrictive veil which had impeded her existence as a woman.

Bapsi Sidhwa's girl-child Lenny in Ice Candy Man is rather different from Bapaiji. She is the creation of a woman writer. Gubar (1982) has remarked that ‘If artistic creativity is likened to biological creativity, the terror of inspiration for women is experienced quite literally as the terror of being entered, deflowered, possessed, taken, had, broken, ravished—all words which illustrate the pain of the passive self whose boundaries are being violated …’ The woman writer is like Charlotte Brontë, who suffers a ‘secret, inward wound.’

These are rather perceptive remarks in the context of Sidhwa's novel and her protagonist. Here Lenny experience through the surrogate character of her Ayah, the terror and trauma of rape, as her world is shattered and the boundaries of her universe violated.

Sidhwa's novel, like Desai's, is technically sophisticated. It has post-modernist characteristics of fantasy and the fragmentation of time. It also employs the device of allegory. As Mihai Spariousu has said: ‘Allegory appears whenever there is an overload felt so overwhelming that it can only be dealt with in a multiplicity of dimensions.’ As allegory, the novel operates at a different level from that of a pure narrative.

Ice Candy Man is set in the partition period when the colonising power, presented her erstwhile Empire with the parting gift of a yet-to-heal wound, i.e. the partition of India into the two nations of India and Pakistan. Lenny, the girl-child is herself a wounded creature. She is maimed by polio. Thus to the biological disadvantage of being female in a male world, are added the handicaps of a physical deformity and a colonial milieu. The novel could thus be interpreted as a political allegory.

However, it also operates as a Feminist allegory. Through the character of Lenny, Sidhwa explores a female universe hemmed in by the restricting and reductive forces of patriarchy and colonialism.

The novel begins on this note of restriction and reduction, ‘My world is compressed … My child's mind is blocked by the gloom emanating from the wire-mesh screening the oblong ventilation slits (of the Salvation Army wall). I feel such sadness for the dumb creature I imagine lurking behind the wall. I know it is dumb because I have listened to its silence, my ear to the wall …’ This capacity to ‘listen to silence,’ to create text from a negation, is the special gift of women writers who are denied articulation in a man's world. It is also significant that this silence is experienced in relation to the Salvation Army wall—the Salvation Army bringing the civilising message of a colonising power to the dumb Calibans of this earth.

Sidhwa's opening pages also stress other woman-related issues. Lenny, unlike Bapaiji is not male-identified. She has strong female models with whom she has a woman-to-woman bonding. This is in keeping with current psychological theories of a girl-child's positive bond with her mother (Chodorow: 1978). Lenny identifies with her Godmother: ‘The bond that ties her strength to my weakness, my fierce demands to her nurturing, my trust to her capacity to contain that trust—and my loneliness to her compassion—is stronger, than the bond of motherhood. More satisfying than the ties between men and women.’

Lenny also shares a strong bond with her mother and her Ayah, Both these women also possess the strong female qualities of Godmother—strength, a capacity to trust and be trusted, nurturant natures and compassion. These two women also share with all other women the pressures and pains inflicted by a male world.

The mother blames herself for Lenny's polio: ‘I'm to blame’, she says, ‘I left her to the ayahs …’ Here she is a victim of societal expectations vis a vis the female as a nurturer. The Ayah becomes a victim to the politics of rape and is violated and humiliated like countless other women in that apocalyptical year of 1947, caught in the crossfire between rampant patriarchy and callous colonialism.

Lenny's world is also populated by other deprived female characters. Papoo is the daughter of Muccho, the sweeper woman, who considers her to be a nuisance and a curse. The maltreatment of Papoo by Muccho runs through the novel like a malevolent strand. Muccho is a victim of a patriarchal society which has engendered a fierce self-hatred in her, which manifests itself in violence against her daughter whom she sees as an extension of herself. She finally marries Papoo off to middle-aged dwarf. This is the ultimate wound she inflicts not just on her daughter, but also on herself.

The question of education and the female-child, is also touched upon in this novel. Lenny's handicaps are piled one on top of the other and her lameness is allied to her femaleness, to deprive her of a proper education. The doctor tells her parents, “she'll marry—have children—lead a carefree, happy life. No need to strain her with studies and exams,” he advises: thereby sealing my fate.

Thus deprived of schooling, Lenny is thrust more and more into the company of her Ayah in whose company she explores the multi-faceted world of Lahore. It is this association which forms the core of Ice Candy Man.

Through the agency of the Ayah, Lenny is awakened to a frank appreciation of female sexuality. The Ayah is assiduously courted by a cross-section of men in Lahore. The favoured suitor is the Masseur whose clever fingers ‘massage Ayah under her sari’ till ‘she moans, a fragile, piteous sound of pleasure.’ From these moments of vicariously shared excitements Lenny discovers the ‘secret rhythms of creation and mortality.’ It is through the Ayah and her many admirers that Lenny also learns of betrayal, pain and violation.

The idyll which Lenny and Ayah share with the Masseur, the Afghan Knife-sharpener and Ice-Candy Man is abruptly shattered as India is torn apart into two bleeding nations. The fantasy of romantic love is shattered and Ayah, the chivalrously courted beloved, becomes the victim of a male conflict. Overnight the secular landscape of Lahore is fragmented into religious enclaves. ‘One day everybody is themselves—and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all-encompassing Ayah—she is also a token—a Hindu.’ As a token4 Ayah is raped by her erstwhile Muslim admirers and friends. She is abused in retaliation for the trainloads of dead Muslims and bags full of the breasts of Muslim women cut off by Hindu men. As Millet (1969) has put it rape is an offence ‘one male commits upon another—a matter of abusing “his woman”’. The Ayah becomes a victim of these sexual politics allied to the carnage set off by a departing colonial power.

The most tragic aspect of the abuse of Ayah is that it is set off by Lenny's ‘truth-infected tongue.’ It is Lenny who betrays Ayah to the mob which had come looking for her at Lenny's house. Taken in by the blandishments of the Ice Candy Man, ‘Don't be scared Lenny Baby … I'll protect Ayah with my life!’, Lenny gives away her hiding place and sees the Ice Candy Man change before her eyes and knows that ‘I have betrayed Ayah.’ Here Lenny is like Muccho who betrays her own daughter into male bondage. A betrayal, the result of centuries of patriarchal conditioning, a misplaced faith in the integrity of men and a searing lack of confidence in and hatred for the female self.

The much-loved Ayah now becomes what Lenny's boy-cousin calls ‘the opposite of Virgin Mary’—a whore. As a whore she is outside the pale of ‘respectable’ society. Lenny is kept away from her as her mother and Godmother strive to ‘rehabilitate’ Ayah and thousands of other violated women like her. Women, who like Hamida, Lenny's new Ayah, have become untouchables because their husbands ‘do not like other men to touch their women.’

Ayah is by the end of the novel married to the Ice Candy Man, who now professes to be desperately in love with her. But having been betrayed by him Ayah prefers to go back to her family in Amritsar—which is now in India. In a final, sinister sentence Sidhwa tells us that the ‘Ice Candy Man too, disappears across the Wagah border into India,’ thereby underlying the ever-present nature of the betrayer.

Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey tells the tale of Gustad Noble who is unwittingly caught up in the world of Indian politics and mired in the quicksands of high finance and war-mongering that accompanied the Indo-Pak conflict of 1971. The book is based on the real-life scandal involving Sohrab Nagarwala, the State Bank cashier, who was at the centre of the Rs. 60 lakhs scam which had rocked the Indira Gandhi government.

In this novel the domestic life of Gustad Noble clashes with the forces of money—capitalism. Trapped in this crossfire is Dilnavas, Gustad's wife and their children. This is very obviously a novel written from the male point of view. It opens with Gustad Noble saying his early morning prayers and closes with Noble's belated action of tearing off the black-out papers from his ventilators and windows—thereby symbolically letting in light and reality. It is the male characters in the novel who ‘act’, who ‘do’ things—Gustad, his sons, Major Billimoria—a thinly disguised Nagarwala, the sinister underworld figure of Ghulam Mohammed, the Christian friend Malcolm and the Bank cashier Dinshawji. Even the retarded and lame Tehmul initiates some action.

The female characters are the passive recipients of the results of these actions. Dilnavas, her daughter Roshan and their neighbour Miss Kutpitia are female stereotypes much beloved of male writers around the world. Like the secondary status of women, female stereotypes are also a pan-cultural phenomenon. Dilnavas is the perfect foil to Gustad—soft and pretty, where he is big and muscular. As a couple they exhibit the typical features of male aggressiveness and female passivity. As Millet (1969) has sarcastically noted: ‘If aggressiveness is the trait of the master class, docility must be the corresponding trait of a subject group.’

The child Roshan is a doll-like creature, sickly and fragile. She is in direct contrast to the sons Sohrab and Darius. She has neither the mental prowess of Sohrab nor the physical robustness of Darius. As is the wont of female children, she cries, gets scared and is petted and cosseted by Daddy.

Miss Kutpitia (her name in Gujarati means the ‘quarrelsome one’), is the archetypal spinster, much reviled by the neighbourhood. She is ‘the ubiquitous witch of fairy stories come to life,’ Mistry informs us. Miss Kutpitia could have been a strong character, privy to ancient wisdom of women, living a life of independence. However, all we get is a caricature of a silly, superstitious woman. Miss Kutpitia's spells and magic, her being a ‘witch’, is not at all in a positive Feminist sense.

Instead her magic spells are reduced to being a mere manifestation of women's irrational nature. Mistry pokes fun at this ‘inferior’ female behaviour. Miss Kutpitia, being a spinster and a little batty is to be allowed her superstitions. However, Dilnavas, the happily married woman, a ‘fulfilled’ mother's belief in Miss Kutpitia's ‘jadu-mantar’, is indirectly attributed to her concern and love for her husband and children. So, whenever she is not cooking, filling water or settling quarrels between her husband and their son Sohrab, she is found conspiring with Miss Kutpitia in creating spells for the well-being of her family. Sohrab's intractability is sought to be removed by a spell involving a lizard's tail. Limes, chillies, alum and even poor Tehmul are pressed into service to cure Roshan's illness.

Gustad, the rational male, is never party to this ‘mumbo-jumbo.’ His mind is occupied with more important matters of national importance—how to legalise the large sums of money sent by Major Billimoria. He is not house-bound like Dilnavas. He ranges as far as Delhi.

Dilnavas's universe is on the other hand the restricted world of her home and she ranges only as far as Miss Kutpitia's flat. Her role is that of wife, mother and home-maker; she cooks, serves and with-draws discreetly while the men discuss politics. Unlike Bapaiji she does not rage against these restrictions, unlike Lenny she is not even aware of them. Nor does Mistry attempt to probe beneath the surface of the reductive lives of Dilnavas and Miss Kutpitia, He does not attempt to seek the reasons for their belief in spells, instead there is an exploitation of their ‘stupidity’ for comic effect. The pathos underlying Miss Kutpitia's lonely life, or Dilnavas's drudgery is not explored. Indeed the pathos and sympathy in the book is reserved for the eponymously named Gustad as he nobly strives for the welfare of his family. There is even empathy for the retarded Tehmul as he copulates with Roshan's stolen doll but not a sliver of sympathy is thrown the way of Miss Kutpitia. May be her stridency and apparently unbalanced behaviour too were caused by repressed sexuality. Mistry, however, is not willing to concede sexuality to his female characters. Dilnavas interacts only in a romantic way with her husband, not sensually, or even worse, sexually! Miss Kutpitia is celibate in the cause of an orphaned nephew, who eventually dies and little Roshan, unlike Lenny is neither troubled nor curious about her body.

In a novel entitled Such a Long Journey, the female characters in it do not journey at all. They remain stationary while the world around them moves and changes. Theirs is a static universe where they are even denied the knowledge of their own stultification and repression by their creator. This novel which is a fictional account of recent history is in the genre of what Greene and Kahn (1985) have called history as ‘written by men, from a male perspective. What has been designated historically significant has been deemed so according to a valuation of power and activity in the public world.’

Such writing disregards the ‘histories’ of the Dilnavas, Miss Kutpitias and Roshans. These women have to emerge from behind the veil, to speak, to fill in the blank pages of their stories. It is Feminist, woman-centered readings which will help in tearing this veil to shreds so that a Bapaiji may exist proudly as a woman, instead of aspiring to be a man and a Lenny's universe is not subjected to the brutality of repeated violence.


  1. The present day Parsis are descendents of the Zorastrians who fled Iran around 800 A.D., after its invasion by the Arabs. They fled to avoid forcible conversion to Islam and took refuge in Gujarat, on the Western coast of India. Here they were given refuge by the King of Sanjan, Jadav Rana, on the conditions that they neither proselytise nor wage wars. These Zorastrians were called Parsis in India, after their language, Parsi. The name Parsi could also be traced to the Persian province of Pars, from where these people were presumed to have come.

  2. In British India, unhampered by the taboos of the Hindu caste system and the isolationism of the Muslims, the Parsis surged ahead and became the most Westernised of all Indian communities. However, this Westernisation was mainly confined to men. Even though some rich Parsis educated their daughters, who became doctors, lawyers and teachers, the majority of Parsi women received little education and were subjected to the taboos and repressions of a strict patriarchy.

  3. The language spoken in Gujarat is called Gujarati. It belongs to the Indo-Aryan group of languages. However, this modern day Gujarati developed only around the 15th century A.D. At the time the Parsis made a pact with Jadhav Rana, the local language was Apabhravansh/Bhasha or what Grierson (quoted in Rawal Anantrai (1968); Gujarati Sahitya, 3rd ed., Macmillan, Bombay) called Old Gujarati. It was from Old Gujarati that Nagar/Gujar was derived between 10th and 12th century A.D.; Modern Gujarati developed from this Nagar/Gujar language.

  4. The Ayah's character can also be interpreted as a symbol of the Indian earth and that of the titular Ice Candy Man as the ravisher—the conquerer(s) of India. (For details see Bharucha N. E. (1992): ‘The Parsi Voice in Recent Indian English Fiction: An Assertion of Ethnic Identity,’ in Sarang V. and Bharucha N. (eds): Indian English Fiction 1980-1990: An Assessment, B.R. Publishing Corp., Delhi, (forthcoming).


Chodorow, Nancy (1978): The Reproduction of Mothering, Berkley.

Desai, Boman (1988): The Memory of Elephants, Andre Deutsch, London.

Gilbert, Sandra (1982): ‘Costumes of the Mind: Transvestism as Metaphor in Modern Literature,’ in Abel E. (ed.): Writing and Sexual Difference, Harvester Press, Sussex.

Greene G. & Kahn C. (1985): Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, Methuen, New York.

Gubar, Susan (1982): ‘The Blank Page’ and the Issue of Female Creativity, in Abel E. (ed.): Writing and Sexual Difference, The Harvester Press Limited, Sussex.

Heilbrun, Carolyn (1979): Reinventing Womanhood, New York

Millet, Kate (1969): Sexual Politics, Doubleday & Co., New York.

Mistry, Rohinton (1991): Such a Long Journey, Faber and Faber, London.

Ortner, Sherry B. (1974): ‘Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?’, in Rosaldo & Lamphere (eds.): Woman, Culture and Society, Stanford University Press, Stanford, Cal.

Rich, Adrienne (1979): ‘Taking Women Students Seriously,’ in On Lies, Secrets and Silences: Selected Prose 1966-1978, Norton, New York.

Sidhwa, Bapsi (1988): Ice Candy Man, Penguin Books, U.K.

Patricia Goldblatt (review date February 1997)

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SOURCE: Goldblatt, Patricia. “Tailors Struggle in India.” English Journal 86, no. 2 (February 1997): 94.

[In the following review of A Fine Balance, Goldblatt asserts that Mistry imbues his characters with noble strength despite their struggles against the pre-assigned cultural roles in which they are trapped.]

Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance is the story of the heroic struggle of two tailors whose attempts at survival become the microcosm for all the suffering poor in India. It is through the eyes of the affable Ishvar and cynical Omprakash (Om) that we become encompassed in their tale, one painted in shades of green, brown, and ultimately black.

The story winds and unwinds to envelop strands from the tailors' present, past, and futures. When we first meet the two men, they are excited and nervous, hoping to secure jobs. Mistry soon fills in the background that has brought them to the city. We learn that Om is the grandson of Dukhi, a lower caste Chamaar, whose desire for a better future has caused him to send his sons, Ishvar and Narayan, away from home to pursue a livelihood different from his prescribed one. Narayan, Om's father, continues his father's desire for self-determination that results in the brutal murder of his family by Thakur Dharamsi, a man resentful of Dukhi and his son's destruction of the caste system's defining positions.

Gradually the tailors' lives are entwined with the lives of Dina Dalal, their employer, revealing a portrait of people grappling with an inconstant world that preys, manipulates, and most often devours the poor. The security of home and family support are continually knocked away in the lives of these players. Moments of fun and relaxation are fleeting: a teatime chat, a massage on the beach, a concert, a lover's embrace are the memories to which our characters cling, for the accruing onslaught of troubles wreak havoc on the lives of unfortunates who possess little money or influence in a world where connections can make the difference between life on the street or protected subsistence.

Yet, Mistry endows his characters with pride and determination to continue on in their daily journeys. When Ishvar and Om discover that their jhopadpatti has been levelled by government bulldozers, they stubbornly refuse to tell Dina and eventually work a deal to sleep outside a chemist shop. Om's nightmares finally cease so that he can dream of wasted fields transformed “into garden[s] teeming with flowers and butterflies” and he can make love on a magic carpet of clouds. Similarly, when Dina's husband, Rustom, returning home with strawberry ice cream to celebrate their third anniversary, is knocked from his bicycle and killed, Dina reaches into her past. She resurrects her knowledge of sewing in order to support herself so she will not have to return to her brother, Nusswan.

It is not an unfeeling, embittered coldness that drives each character; rather, each rises to fulfill his or her destiny, filling themselves with tenacity and courage to encounter whatever life has handed them. Each remembers and longs for those sustaining days of familial love, yet, each knows that he or she cannot linger in the nostalgia of the past. There is no choice but to continue on in search of a livelihood to sustain body, and occasionally soul, in a world so unkind that children are purposefully blinded for the sake of a few piastres. In his presentation, Mistry evokes the widows, the orphans, the masses ravaged by a government so simple and savage that it believes that by removing the homeless from the streets that they will simply cease to exist.

However, it is the human spirit that prevails and the multifaceted portrayals of A Fine Balance enfold the reader to impart enduring memories of the helpless caught by Indira Gandhi's government in a no-win game. By presenting so many aspects of character, Mistry's “villains” are also portrayed as puppets in India's repressive society.

From a haughty weak-eyed employer, Dina grows and becomes a friend to the tailors, sharing her shelter and her life with them, putting her own life at peril for their sake. In the process, she has softened and has rekindled some happiness in an illusory world of ersatz family. Mistry's creation of these characters rings so true that the reader feels that she is in the next room, smelling Om's chapatis, and watching Dina arrange the scraps of discarded cloth into her patchwork quilt.

And life, Mistry seems to say, is like a quilt, each piece separate, unique, but the odd one colourful, bright, standing out, holding together the many dull, frayed and monotonous ones. In the final scenes of the story, the quilt that was to be Om's wedding present serves as a kind of cushion for Ishvar to rest his body upon: a comfort and a support, a visual patchwork of a life filled with many sorrows and few joys.

Carmen Kagal (review date 20 February 1997)

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SOURCE: Kagal, Carmen. “Enduring in Bombay.” Far Eastern Economic Review 160, no. 8 (20 February 1997): 48-9.

[In the following review of A Fine Balance, Kagal praises the depiction of humanism and universality of Mistry's writing despite the horrors and incredible tragedies within the novel.]

For a change, the 1996 Booker Prize was relatively free of the usual bickering and controversy. True, the winner Graham Swift—for his Last Orders—did regret “the racehorse element” of the competition. But the only real excitement was generated by feminist writer Germaine Greer's outburst against the shortlisting of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. “I hate this book,” she said. “It's a Canadian book about India.” (The Bombay-born author has lived in Canada for the last 20 years.)

One can see why Greer was so incensed, for Mistry's novel is a harrowing tale of hideous misfortune. However, Greer's is a minority opinion. Both in India and abroad, A Fine Balance has been hailed as “a literary touchstone,” and Mistry has been placed in the ranks of Dickens, Balzac and Victor Hugo.

The book is set against Indira Gandhi's 1975 Emergency, but the action swings back and forth in time over the 40-year period after Partition. At its core is an unlikely foursome: Dina Dalal, a fortyish Parsi widow struggling to make ends meet in Bombay; Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, two village tailors Dina hires to sew dresses for an export firm; and Maneck Kolah, the Parsi college-student son of Dina's childhood friend and now her paying guest. Mistry's account of how these disparate elements form a harmonious household in Dina's tiny flat is among the few heart-warming patches in a chronicle of unrelieved misery.

Take the scenes of life in the tailors' village. These depict dire poverty, communal rioting and unspeakable caste violence, culminating in the torture to death of Omprakash's father. The tailors flee to the city only to experience the squalor of slum life—the vast railway-tracks latrine, wretched hovels that are periodically demolished, police brutality, drunken brawls and casual murder—until they find a brief respite with Dina. A visit back to the village months later unleashes an avalanche of catastrophe. The tailors are forcibly operated on in one of the Emergency's notorious sterilization camps. Ishvar develops gangrene and his legs are amputated. Omprakash is castrated in an act of vengeance by a local don. The tailors return to the city once again—this time as beggars.

The middle-class adversities of Dina and Maneck are less horrendous. After her husband dies in a hit-and-run accident, Dina battles for independence under the constant threat of eviction by the landlord. Eventually she loses her flat and is reduced to a drudge in her domineering brother's household. Maneck had an idyllic upbringing in a hill-station but adapts quickly to the ruthless city and develops a genuine camaraderie with the tailors. Returning on his father's death after eight years abroad as a refrigeration engineer, he learns that his best friend in college has been exterminated by the Emergency. He meets a transformed Dina, sees his tailor friends begging, then steps off the platform in the path of an oncoming train.

As disaster is heaped upon disaster and the corpses pile up thick and fast, one balks at the horror of it all. Also daunting are the book's 600-page length, its slow pace, the weight of description and the improbable role played by coincidence.

These are literary lapses. Despite them, however, Mistry manages to touch us at some deep human level to the extent that we get involved in his story and its people.

The four main characters, drawn with care and affection, evoke our sympathy most. In addition there's a host of minor players—a beggarmaster, a rent-collector, a briefless lawyer, a hair-seller, a monkey-man—all familiar denizens of Bombay's streets. Mistry's glimpses of the city's low life are etched with insight and accuracy. And he is unerring in his re-creation of the Parsi ambience, down to the rosewood furniture with its carved sunbursts.

Perhaps the chief element that sustains Mistry's narrative is his tone—quiet, detached, unemotional. There is no striving for effect, no display of verbal virtuosity, no forays into magical realism. Here Mistry stands in sharp contrast with his Bombay-bred contemporary, Salman Rushdie, with whom he is often compared. No two writers could be more different—where Rushdie's language is flamboyant and coruscating, Mistry opts for unpretentious prose.

Although he sets his stylistic sights low, Mistry is uncompromising in expressing his sense of outrage and indignation against the plight of India's underprivileged. Indeed this anger floods and permeates the entire novel, so much so that in the end the reader is inclined to share the view voiced by Dina: “Where human beings are concerned, the only emotion that makes sense is wonder, at their ability to endure: and sorrow, for the hopelessness of it all.”

Robert L. Ross (essay date spring 1999)

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SOURCE: Ross, Robert L. “Seeking and Maintaining Balance: Rohinton Mistry's Fiction.” World Literature Today 73, no. 2 (spring 1999): 239-44.

[In the following essay, Ross presents an overview of Mistry's career, citing factors behind his critical success, and contends that Mistry's balancing of elements within his fiction is its most appealing aspect.]

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 himself while studying English and philosophy at the University of Toronto, where he received a second bachelor's degree in 1984. Although an immigrant, an outsider in Canadian society, Mistry already understood this condition, for in India he belonged to the Parsi community, whose Zoroastrian religious beliefs set its members on the edge of Hindu society. After a few years in Canada, he started writing stories and gained immediate attention, receiving two Hart House literary prizes and Canadian Fiction Magazine's annual Contributors' Prize in 1985. Two years later, Penguin Books Canada published a collection of eleven stories titled Tales from Firozsha Baag, which appeared in 1989 in the United States as Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag. Most of the stories had little to do with his experience as an immigrant in Canada, but focused instead on the uneventful lives of a group of Parsis who live in a ramshackle Bombay apartment block.

While some readers interpreted the collection's final story, “Swimming Lessons,” as a forerunner to future fiction about the immigrant experience, their expectations fell short when Mistry's first novel, Such a Long Journey, appeared in 1991. This complex tale of corruption during Indira Gandhi's years in office returns once more to the Bombay Parsi community. For a debut novel, it brought the author rare attention, first as a winner of the Governor-General's Award of Canada and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, then as an entry on the shortlist for the Booker Prize. He published his second novel, A Fine Balance, in 1995. It again reached the shortlist for the Booker Prize and received various awards. Like its predecessor, A Fine Balance treats India both kindly and harshly. Set in the mid-1970s during Mrs. Gandhi's declaration of a state of internal emergency, the book turns first toward the Parsi community in an unidentified city by the sea that resembles Bombay, but its plot opens up to embrace other characters and to expand the settings.

Mistry as a writer has enjoyed an exceptional start. When he was asked by Geoff Hancock in 1989 how he reacted to reviews, he replied: “In all modesty, I must admit that so far, I have only received positive reviews. I haven't felt the sting of a bad review” (147). That phenomenon still holds generally true. Hancock continues to stress how well Mistry has done in such a short time and proposes, “Is writing a gift you have?” Mistry counters the question by asking “Is it a gift? Or a fortuitous confluence of events? Is it because Multiculturalism is fashionable?” (146). Asked about his “sense of audience,” Mistry responds rather grandly, “I suppose the world is my audience,” then qualifies the claim by adding “At least, I wish it” (146). To a degree, the English-speaking world has become his audience, even though the wide reception of Mistry's fiction set in the milieu of a minority religious community and focused on Indian political events does raise some questions.

First, are Western readers just plain curious about the Parsis? After all, they are probably most widely known for a single practice: the way they dispose of their dead by leaving them in a tower for vultures to feast on. This ceremony receives full attention in Such a Long Journey, which presents all the gruesome details along with the ritualistic. As far as Parsi life goes, though, Mistry has some competition, because the Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa, now a United States citizen, has written a robust novel that portrays this community during the colonial period, The Crow Eaters (1980), another that depicts a Parsi family in Lahore during the time of Partition in 1947, Cracking India (1991), and a third set in the postcolonial era, An American Brat (1993), that treats not only contemporary Parsi life in Pakistan but the community's immigrant experience in the United States as well. Although Sidhwa has received her share of attention, it has been far overshadowed by that accorded to Mistry. His meteoric career cannot then be credited altogether to the exotic nature of the Parsis. Instead, he has turned their lives into a metaphor that stands for the human experience: the fears, the joys, the ambitions and failures, the terror and the conflicts, finally the sense of balance that once attained will allow the characters to withstand the outer world, a world awash with dangers to personal fulfillment and identity.

Another question arises when considering the two novels: does the exposé of political corruption and tyranny during Indira Gandhi's tenure still hold that much interest? She is long dead, assassinated, and her sons are dead as well. Only the Italian-born daughter-in-law remains to carry on the dynasty. The tempest that is Indian politics before, during, and since Mrs. Gandhi's years in power probably fails to intrigue most readers of Mistry's work. It is not the history or the actuality that attracts in Mistry's fiction, but the way he uses these elements. As in his treatment of Parsi society, he transforms the historical situations and the reality of Indian life into a metaphor that shows how the individual reacts to widespread corruption when entangled in its grasp, as in Such a Long Journey, and how people respond to the endless forms of tyranny that government and society inflict, as in A Fine Balance.

But why does Mistry depend on India as a metaphor when he has lived in Canada for nearly twenty-five years? Bharati Mukherjee has declared the Asian immigration story as her preference, urging the Asian-born writer living in North America to turn away from Indian materials and write about the exultation and the turmoil of the immigrants' experience. The brilliant new novelist Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni has done just that. Born in India but now living in California, she sees her fiction—so far a collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage (1995), and a novel, The Mistress of Spices (1997)—as a way of “dissolving boundaries.” Yet Mistry seems little concerned with such matters, and his three stories about Asians in Canada that appear in Tales from Firozsha Baag lack the immediacy that Mukherjee and Divkaruni attain.

Even though Mistry seldom goes back to India literally these days, he does persist in taking literary journeys. Asked if this dependence on memory rather than reality causes problems in his fictional re-creation of India, Mistry explained: “Some people might say it's arrogant of me not to live there and assume that I know everything from a visit every five or six years. But I'm confident that I do know. It's memory. Well—I suppose that when one says memory, it's memory plus imagination, which creates a new memory. When I don't have that, I will not write about it. I have promised myself that” (Smith, 65).

Mistry bristles when accused of not reporting Bombay accurately. In a newspaper article that appears on the Internet, which unfortunately provides neither a date nor a source, Mistry replies to criticism leveled by Germaine Greer, the Australian feminist writer, during a BBC-TV panel discussion before the 1996 Booker Prize award ceremony. A Fine Balance, which had just received the Commonwealth Writers Best Book prize, had made the six-book shortlist for the Booker Prize; but that did not impress Greer, who grimaced and said: “I hate this book. I absolutely hate it. … I just don't recognize this dismal, dreary city. It's a Canadian book about India. What could be worse? What could be more terrible?” She went on to explain that she had spent four months teaching in a Bombay women's college and she had not witnessed the squalor and misery that Mistry's novel recounts, adding that the city “was so much less terrible than I had feared.” In reply to Greer's criticism, Mistry retorted: “She wants to say that those four months teaching the daughters of high society put her in a better position to judge India than I am in, having grown up there and spent 23 years before emigrating? … If she wanted to make the case that she did not like the book there were far better ways to do it than to say something so, so … I said asinine already? So brainless, really.” I would defend Mistry, because I have been to Bombay a couple of times and find his descriptions on target, just as Anita Desai's were in Baumgartner's Bombay (1988). Both writers catch the city's squalid side, the poverty, disorder, filth and ruin, the chaos, but at the same time engage its immense vitality and diversity.

There is, in fact, an admirable balance in Mistry's Bombay, which brings us back to my earlier proposition: that Mistry's writing in its development of the time-honored fictional ingredients—setting, character, style, and plot—seeks and maintains a delicate balance. And that balance leads into subtle thematic implications.

Tales from Firozsha Baag. The middle-class Parsis who inhabit the residential block known as Firozsha Baag come to life in these eleven intersecting stories, just as the building itself takes on an embodiment of its own. Placing the characters for the most part within the confines of the apartments and allowing them to appear in more than one story lends the work a strong structure and makes it more like a novel than a collection of separate pieces. The principal element that connects the action stems from the common Parsi religion, whose roots were in Persia and whose adherents were driven out of that country once Islam attained dominance. The now-dwindling community of around 50,000 came to India some 1,300 years ago and were allowed to stay if they promised not to practice conversion; the largest settlement remains in Bombay. While the Parsis have contributed to Indian society, especially in business, far in excess of their number, and have never been persecuted, they continue to live outside the mainstream and strive to retain their distinct identity in a predominantly Hindu country. Their religious practices, based on tradition, intrude on all avenues of their lives and appear at times to be more the product of the letter than the spirit. The younger residents in Firozsha Baag rebel, and the older ones fear the encroachment of a changing world. This conflict between religious tradition and personal fluidity creates the tension in each of the stories. The collection has been compared to Joyce's Dubliners and to Chekhov's work—again, fiction that focuses on a limited company but manages to unfold into a larger world. Early on, Mistry attracted the attention of the fine Canadian short-story writer Mavis Gallant, and later studied with her; he has developed a sensitivity to character, an ear for dialogue, and an exactness of detail that is comparable to her work.

Handling such a risky subject as religious beliefs and practices, in particular by a member of the Parsi community, could prove disastrous for the writer, yet Mistry sidesteps the hazards through his subtle humor along with the ironic but sympathetic treatment of Firozsha Baag's motley assortment of residents. He also equalizes tragedy and comedy. Each portrayal turns into a miniature portrait, precise and accurate, so that the Baag's dwellers represent Parsis in discord with both their religious beliefs and the larger community. At the same time, they emerge as just ordinary human beings who are sometimes likable and sometimes not, humans who grapple with spiritual questions, feelings of alienation, the terror of death, economic worries, and family friction. At least that is the way the stories appear to an outsider; of course, I am not qualified to speculate on how the Parsi reader might react. Amin Malak, in a review of the book, notes that “the writer's sympathies preclude his condemning or disowning his culture in its entirety, and the humorous rendition of character and incident makes the criticism poignantly effective and lasting” (103).

From a stylistic standpoint, Mistry might be said not to have a style, at least one that is apparent. He writes more in the tradition of India's English-language fiction before Salman Rushdie came along, followed by Arundhati Roy and The God of Small Things (1997): that is, in a form altogether readable, which is to say a simple, direct, refined, conventional manner. Dialogue, in particular, Mistry handles exquisitely, always catching the rhythms of Indian English. One critic commenting on A Fine Balance wonders why writers like Mistry and Vikram Seth in A Suitable Boy (1993) seem to be attracted to the Victorian fictional conventions, which is a worthwhile question but not an easy one to answer. Yet buried in this unpretentious narrative approach and unassuming prose style there appear surprising passages, such as this one in “Lend Me Your Light” that captures in striking terms a young man's reaction to Bombay on his return from North America:

As if enacting a scene for my benefit with all the subtlety of a sixteenth-century morality play, a crowd clawed its way into a local train. All the players were there: Fate and Reality, and the latter's offspring; the New Reality, and also Poverty and Hunger, Virtue and Vice, Apathy and Corruption.

The drama began when the train, Reality, rolled into the station. It was overcrowded because everyone wanted to get on it: Virtue, Vice, Apathy, Corruption, all of them. Someone, probably Poverty, dropped his plastic lunch bag amidst the stampede, nudged on by Fate. Then Reality rolled out of the station with a gnashing and clanking of its metal, leaving in its wake the New Reality. And someone else, probably Hunger, matter-of-factly picked up Poverty's mangled lunch, dusted off a chapati which had slipped out of the trampled bag, and went his way. In all of this, was there a lesson for me? To trim my expectations and reactions to things, trim them down to the proper proportions?


The collection's final story, “Swimming Lessons,” takes an original turn by setting the commonplace doings of a young Parsi immigrant in Canada against the equally mundane existence of his parents in Bombay. What makes the story extraordinary, though, comes from the unexpected. The parents receive in the mail a book that their son has just published in Canada, and they take turns reading the stories, which re-create his and their own experiences from the days before he emigrated. The action switches between the cold North and the tropical South. The son continues his activities, mainly disastrous swimming lessons, sexual fantasies, and casual but unsatisfying encounters with his apartment-house neighbors. And his parents continue to read and comment on the stories. The father is even a bit of a theorist, explaining at one point that their son is writing about earlier times, “because they are far enough in the past for him to deal with objectively, he is able to achieve what critics call artistic distance, without emotions interfering.” The mother has no time for such reflections “and said it was her turn now and too much theory she did not want to listen to, it was confusing and did not make as much sense as reading the stories” (246). Her point is well taken, because the eleven stories about Firozsha Baag speak so eloquently for themselves.

Such a Long Journey. “But where?” Gustad Noble, the novel's central character, asks. “Where does not matter, sir,” is the reply. “In a world where roadside latrines become temples and shrines, and temples and shrines become dust and ruin, does it matter where?” (338). Where and why serve as the motifs of Such a Long Journey, a novel about how public corruption in all its guises seeps into every crevice of experience and leaves the individual along with his community defenseless and despairing.

As the narrative opens, it moves once more into the familiar milieu of Bombay Parsis, which the earlier short-story collection introduced. The engaging but far from exceptional activities of Gustad's family, including his wife, daughter, and two sons, are revealed in minute detail, as are their physical surroundings: again a noisy and dilapidated Bombay apartment block. Even food plays an essential role, especially a live chicken Gustad brings home that provides some comic relief. At first it appears that the novel may turn into a domestic comedy. All the elements combine to make this possible: family celebrations, the strife between generations, the husband-wife bickering, the children's education and hobbies and hopes for the future, and the escapades of the neighbors. Although this attention to domesticity and family affairs continues throughout the novel, it serves as a backdrop and as a contrast to the larger world that disrupts family order.

That world is India in 1971, when India and Pakistan engaged in a thirteen-day war that ended with the liberation of East Pakistan to become the independent nation of Bangladesh. The narrative never meshes with the war directly, but reports it through newspapers, radio broadcasts, and conversations. Gustad's daughter asks at one point, “Daddy, why is West Pakistan killing the people in East Pakistan?” He replies: “Because it is wicked and selfish. East Pakistan is poor, they said to West, we are always hungry, please give us a fair share. But West said no. Then East said, in that case we don't want to work with you. So as punishment, West Pakistan is killing and burning East Pakistan.” When his daughter insists that such action is “mean” and “sad,” Gustad observes: “Lot of meanness and sadness in the world” (81).

This simple observation evolves into the narrative's driving force. Before long the humble but upright bank clerk Gustad finds himself involved in political intrigue. As a favor to a friend, he enters into a scheme run by the Indian intelligence agency to divert government funds, believing that he is aiding the people of East Pakistan, whom he considers victims of West Pakistan's aggression. Gradually he realizes that he has been used as a pawn in a sinister stratagem to steal government money for the use of dishonest officials. As the story unfolds, it sets the private arena and the public orbit interacting to reveal that the two are linked. The individual and the family cannot escape the venality and ineptitude of the government.

Some of the satire directed toward Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party turns less than subtle. As well, the chaotic political, social, and economic conditions in India receive treatment tinged with bitterness. At times the censure is stated directly and is less effective—in fact mars the text—than when the ideas issue from the action and the dialogue in a natural way. Most often, though, the social message blends into the narrative structure. Of course, reading the novel nearly thirty years after these historical events and after so many other such events have taken place around the world allows us instinctively to put them into perspective, to repeat with Gustad, “Lot of meanness and sadness in the world.”

Do we need a 339-page novel to reveal such a self-evident truth? Although Such a Long Journey can be described plainly as a sad novel, Mistry manages, as always, to balance the conflicting forces: that is, the outside world and the inner sphere. Outside is rotten to the core, he confirms over and again, and will corrupt the most decent man, even a man like Gustad Noble. David Townsend, in a review of the novel, notes that “the story's private dimensions are not merely weighed against political circumstance; they are revealed as the personal manifestations of the same reality. … At the same time, the book's ultimate concerns are deeply spiritual” (62). At the end, Gustad is damaged, and he will likely never again view the world with such innocence. “But where?” he says as the novel concludes, and enters into the security of his shabby flat. “Life will go on” is the answer to his question. In a way the narrative becomes a circular one, returning to Gustad and his family, his work, and his devotions—once he has cleaned the mud from his prayer cap and has healed his bruised soul.

A Fine Balance. Indira Gandhi, the Congress Party, and India's social injustice again serve as the villains in A Fine Balance, which takes as its epigraph the warning from Balzac's classic, Le Père Goriot: “Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true.” Balzac's admonition proves appropriate as the tale of four characters unfolds over 603 pages of a finely crafted novel, even more old-fashioned in its fictional technique than Such a Long Journey. This time the personal misfortunes unravel against another watershed in modern Indian history: Mrs. Gandhi's State of Emergency, which suspended civil liberties in 1975. One critic called the novel India's version of Les Misérables, which seems apt enough.

The first of the four doomed characters to appear is Dina, a Parsi woman who had been brought up by a domineering older brother after her father's death and her mother's nervous collapse. She finally escapes endless arguments with her brother when she marries against his will, but after three years of marital happiness her husband is killed in a traffic accident. Refusing to return to the brother's house, she decides to remain in her flat and support herself, a defiant and independent act for a young Parsi widow. Before long, she hires two village tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash, both Hindus, to assist her in sewing women's clothing for an export company. Like Dina, the tailors have rebelled against tradition by daring to move out of their caste as leather-workers and to train as tailors. When they find themselves homeless after their shanty has been demolished by the government, Dina allows them, with misgivings, to share her apartment. Before long they are joined by Maneck, a Parsi student, who is the son of Dina's girlhood friend. He too has his problems, more invented than real, but he feels alienated from his family, who lost their lands in the 1947 Partition and now own a failing general store. He has been sent to the city from their mountain home to attend college and train as an engineer, a profession that his parents see as the only hope for his financial survival.

Placing such a disparate quartet into a cramped apartment and chronicling their everyday life in minute detail are what Mistry does best. It as though we have returned to a miniature Firozsha Baag, and some of the most compelling parts of the narrative depict the characters and their relationships as they develop from wariness into trust, then into love for one another. Unlike the earlier fiction, A Fine Balance goes outside the secure flat and beyond the city by the sea into the village of the two tailors and the idyllic mountain home of the student. These locales are rendered with the same care Mistry takes with city life.

All too soon, though, the communal harmony of the four unlikely companions is shattered by the world outside the four walls that enclose and protect them. The invading forces are economic, social, and political. Dina struggles to make ends meet and to fill the demands of the woman who heads the clothing exporters. The two tailors, just when their lives have taken on some order, return to their village for a wedding and fall victim to India's cruelest social constraint: the caste system. Although Maneck's problems seem self-imposed or a result of his overdrawn sensitivity, he finally succumbs to what he considers the hypocrisy of his country's government and commits suicide. At the end the tailors survive as beggars on the streets, one of them turned into a eunuch as village retribution for his arrogance in defying the caste system. Dina is sentenced to her brother's home as a domestic drudge. Every afternoon she secretly provides a meal for the men who worked for her in better days. And the account of “great misfortunes” comes to a close. That the one member of the foursome best equipped to succeed economically should kill himself is heavy with irony. In contrast, the less fortunate survive by achieving what one character calls “a fine balance between hope and despair.”

This summary merely skims over the agony these haunting characters endure: humiliation in every form possible, torment in a government-run work camp, torture, violation of human decency, bitter disappointment and disillusionment—to list but a few trials. Neither does it do justice to the variety of supporting characters: ranging from Dina's bigoted brother, who represents a particular social class in India; to the Beggarmaster, who shares the secrets of street life; to the mysterious proofreader, who serves as the novel's philosopher. A summary also fails to capture the flawless rendering of the Indian scene, especially Bombay. One reviewer calls the novel “a distinguished addition to the mythologizing of Bombay” (Gurnah, 22).

Just as he did in Such a Long Journey, Mistry spends time in this novel castigating Indira Gandhi and her cohorts. One passage draws a brutal picture of the prime minister addressing a rally and incorporates the shallowness, emptiness, delusion, and self-serving attitudes Mistry sees as characterizing both Mrs. Gandhi and the Congress Party, which had ruled India almost continuously since independence. Even Mrs. Gandhi's ordering of the attack on the Sikhs' Golden Temple plays a prominent role. Although such forays into open condemnation are potent, the novel is at its best when the fictionalized facts of the characters' lives speak for themselves.

Broad in its range, powerful in its execution, numbing in its reality, A Fine Balance asks what Hilary Mantel calls an “age-old” question: “In the face of the world's beauty, in the face of the self-evident fact of altruism, how can atrocious conduct occur, how can hideous beliefs survive? The question is age-old, and Mistry has no answers, but it is evident from the seriousness and weight of the present book that he believes that novelists should go on asking, and asking” (6). It is true that Mistry answers this overriding question only indirectly. The old proofreader says, “Let me tell you a secret: there is no such thing as an uninteresting life,” and goes on to tell Maneck that he would like to hear his life story because “It's very important. … It's extremely important because it helps to remind yourself of who you are. Then you can go forward, without fear of losing yourself in this ever-changing world” (594-95). Although in this novel the characters' lives appear to have lost their importance, although the balance between hope and despair has almost tipped, the age-old question has been well asked. If it continues to be asked, then perhaps the significance of the individual and the necessity of spiritual balance will never be fully lost.

Works Cited

Gurnah, Abdulrazak. Review of A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. Times Literary Supplement, no. 4848 (1 March 1996), p. 22.

Hancock, Geoff. “An Interview with Rohinton Mistry.” Canadian Fiction Magazine, no. 65 (1989), pp. 143-50.

Malak, Amin. Review of Tales from Firozsha Baag, by Rohinton Mistry. Canadian Literature, 119 (Winter 1988), pp. 101-3.

Mantel, Hilary. Review of A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. New York Review of Books, 20 June 1996, pp. 4, 6.

Mistry, Rohinton. A Fine Balance. New York. Knopf. 1996.

———. Such a Long Journey. 1991. New York. Vintage. 1992.

———. Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag. Boston. Houghton Mifflin. 1989.

Smith, Stephen. “There from Here.” Quill & Quire, 61:9 (September 1995), pp. 1, 65.

Townsend, David. Review of Such a Long Journey, by Rohinton Mistry. Quill & Quire, 57:3 (March 1991), p. 62.

Rocío G. Davis (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7588

SOURCE: Davis, Rocío G. “Paradigms of Postcolonial and Immigrant Doubleness: Rohinton Mistry's Tales from Firozsha Baag.” In Tricks with a Glass: Writing Ethnicity in Canada, edited by Rocío G. Davis, pp. 71-92. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Davis surveys the nature of the short story cycle in Tales from Firozsha Baag, and the ways this form allows Mistry to examine his dual role as immigrant Canadian and native-born Parsi Indian.]

Rohinton Mistry's short-story cycle Tales from Firozsha Baag meditates on the situation of the transcultural artist as it presents us with a search for personal and communal identity, through recollections of a postcolonial homeland and active responses to the immigrant's ‘new’ world. Born in India and resident in Canada, the author explores both Canadian and Indian identities in the stories—how these are created and destroyed, how they overlap and fuse. The complicated process of assimilation and the inescapable doubleness of the between-worlds subject is the covert theme of each of the stories and the unifying theme of the collection. In this manner, Mistry questions what determines identity, specifically that of the postcolonial immigrant; signalling how geographical, ethnic, political and cultural make-up and differences can also serve as signifying aspects of this complex self. As Craig Tapping has pointed out, Mistry's historical situation emplots his relation to the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, to the consequent political histories of newly created nations and the nationalities which the writers have variously left, and to the construction once again of even newer identities in the countries to which they have immigrated.1 His stories ultimately outline the process of translating the cultures of the old world into the growing literary consciousness of its protagonist-author in the social construction called the New World.

Salman Rushdie's literary manifesto on the postcolonial and immigrant artist's plight, the essay “Imaginary Homelands,” sheds light on the complexity of the act of creation and signals the manner of understanding Mistry's stories. Anyone who writes about his homeland from the outside, Rushdie claims, must necessarily “deal in broken mirrors, some of whose fragments have been irretrievably lost.”2 Nonetheless, it is precisely the fragmentary nature of these memories, the incomplete truths they contain, the partial explanations they offer, that make them particularly evocative for the “transplanted” writer. For Rushdie, these “shards of memory acquired greater status, greater resonance, because they were remains; fragmentation made trivial things seem like symbols, and the mundane acquired numinous qualities.”3

The principal effect of the temporal and spatial discontinuity Mistry experiences is that the authenticity of his narrative springs from the validity of his voice, that of both the postcolonial and the immigrant, the exiled voice committed to a struggle with undelineated identities. He has, according to Rushdie, access to a second tradition apart from his racial and cultural background: “the culture and political history of the phenomenon of migration, displacement, life in a minority group.”4 He is now one of the economically and politically displaced immigrants of the twentieth century, transported into alien contexts from which they redefine and newly construct alternative identities and communities. Moreover, Mistry has access to two cultures, that of postcolonialism and that of immigration. His between-worlds position provides him with a privileged vantage-point from which to view the paradoxical situation of the postcolonial and the immigrant and to articulate the discourse of the transnational experience. His perception of both India and Canada and the relations between the two becomes profound and complex because it entails examining the past with what Rushdie has called “a kind of double perspective: because they, we, are at one and the same time insiders and outsiders in this society.”5 His stereoscopic vision, focusing from different angles to create a unified image, merges the two realities and adds the dimension of depth. In this manner, Rushdie offers the possibility of an alternative discourse, a way of “redescribing a world [as] the necessary first step towards changing it,”6 one that is a natural result of this diasporic century, when traditional cultures and a eurocentric world-view are being challenged, drawn more and more into conflict and confrontation. The postcolonial/immigrant artist must, he believes, take the risk of pushing his work to “the limits of what is possible, in the attempt to increase the sum of what it is possible to think.”7

The dynamics of the short-story cycle make it a particularly appropriate form for those narratives of memory that articulate this imaginative quest for an identity and the definition of a relationship with a homeland. This hybrid literary genre may be defined as

a set of stories linked to each other in such a way as to maintain a balance between the individuality of each of the stories and the necessities of the larger unit […] [so] that the reader's successive experience in various levels of the pattern of the whole significantly modifies his experience of each of its component parts.8

The experimental quality of this form is a fundamental constituent of a new definition of cultural pluralism that incorporates the immigrant legacies of Asians in North America while adapting to the practices of the culture in which these works are created. The term ‘short-story cycle’ implies, above all, a principle of organization, a structural scheme for the working-out of an idea, characters, or themes, even a circular disposition in which the constituent narratives are simultaneously independent and interdependent. The pivotal challenge of each cycle is twofold: the collection must, at one and the same time, assert the individuality and independence of each of the component parts while creating a necessary interdependence that emphasizes the wholeness and essential unity of the work. Forrest Ingram has further pointed out that consistency of theme and an evolution from one story to the next are among the classic requirements of the form, with recurrence and development as the integrated movements that effect final cohesion.9 Short-story cycles magnify the relationships between the separate stories to create a larger whole, without destroying the specificity of each story.

The fundamental structure of a cycle emerges from the interaction of the diverse elements within the relatively independent components. At the same time, connective patterns on all levels draw these together into a totality strengthened by varying types of internal cohesion. In the first place, the title of a volume may indicate an organizing concept that acquires depth and resonance as the collection unfolds: titles that point to a particular locale or to a unifying element give immediate focus and direction to the process being unveiled. The principal approaches to the necessary cohesion may involve, for instance, the process of development of a character; a dominant, explicit theme, such as a generation-gap or search for identity, the delineation of a particular locale or community, or the quest for a homeland. Since short-story cycles do not usually require the type of ending traditionally expected of a novel, the typical concluding section or sections tend to simply round off the themes, symbolism, and whatever patterned action the cycle possesses. In this manner, drawing together in a final story or series of stories the themes and motifs, symbols, or the characters and their communities which have been developing throughout, the author puts the finishing touches to the portrait being created. Nonetheless, as Ingram has emphasized, the most pervasive unifying pattern of short-story cycles appears to be the dynamic pattern of recurrent development.10 This affects all the elements of the narrative: the themes, leitmotifs, settings, characters and structures of the individual stories and, in consequence, the entire context of the collection as a unit.

The specificities of the form make the short-story cycle an especially appropriate vehicle for the distinctive characteristics of ethnic fiction in general. The short-story cycle, a hybrid occupying an odd, indeterminate place within the field of narrative, resembles the novel in its totality, yet is composed of distinct stories. Such a fusion of modes “imposes new strategies of reading in which the movement from one story to the next necessitates re-orientation, just as the uneasy reciprocity between part and whole conditions the ongoing determination of meaning.”11 Ethnic fiction has also obliged new strategies of reading and has led to a new awareness of the between-worlds condition. The short-story cycle, hovering between novel and short story, becomes a particularly apt medium with which to enact the enigma of ethnicity, the feeling that one falls “between two stools.”12 The ethnic short-story cycle may be considered the formal materialization of the trope of doubleness as the between-worlds condition is presented via a form that itself oscillates between two genres.

The fact that short-story cycles exist in all the different ethnic literatures also signals the appropriateness of the form to the depiction of a common experience. Patricia Lin Blinde, speaking of Maxine Hong Kingston, has pointed out how the situation of individuals who must integrate their heritage with the sociocultural traditions of their adopted land finds its formal representation in the use of hybrid literary genres. As the barbarian melodies “translated well” when played on Chinese instruments, Kingston's work, in particular her development of a highly distinct mode, results from the way she incorporates elements unique to her ‘exiled’ experience as a Chinese—American woman into the literary forms available to her.13 Experimenting with genre combinations and discovering their utility is an intrinsic part of the writer's task, more so when the experience to be embodied is characterized by its continual crossing of boundaries. As such, to choose to write a short-story cycle is emblematic of the creative position ethnic writers choose—almost an optical illusion, being two things at the same time, and creating something wholly new: a metaphor for the task of negotiating identity. In this regard, Elizabeth Ordoñez has pointed out that the “disruption of genre” is a common thread linking various ethnic texts: “the text itself becomes both the means and embodiment of modifying and reshaping […] history, myths, and ultimately personal and collective identity.”14

Moreover, the ethnic short-story cycle, a hybrid within a hybrid, ultimately offers diverse levels of reading and understanding that help further the ethnographic purposes of the writers. On the one hand, there is the patterned closure of the individual stories, which principally enact personal dramas of identity; on the other, there is the discovery of larger unifying strategies, transcending the gaps between the stories and constructing a larger sphere of action through imaginative recollections that serve to revision a homeland. Asian—Canadian writers, who may be conscious of a double literary inheritance or, at least, the reality of an insider/outsider point of view, tend to be aware of how binary categories of cultural classification work in producing knowledge and counter-knowledge within the framework of literary and cultural studies, a position from which they redefine and construct alternative identities and communities. Hybridity, an important characteristic of all ethnic literary texts, becomes a strength rather than a weakness. It does not imply a denial of the traditions from which it springs but focuses, rather, on continual and mutual development. In this manner, the text itself becomes the mechanism for modifying and recreating personal and collective identity.

The short-story cycle is also well suited to the concerns of Canadian writers intent on portraying a particular region or community, its history, its characters, its communal concerns. In addition to providing opportunities for the exploration of place and character, the story cycle also offers formal possibilities that allow its practitioners the freedom to challenge, whether intentionally or not, the totalizing impression of the traditional novel of social and psychological realism. As Gerald Lynch points out, Canadian writers who are inspired to compose something more unified than the miscellaneous collection of stories and who do not wish to forego the documentary function of the realistic novel, but who are wary of the traditional novel's grander ambitions, often find in the story cycle a form that allows for a new kind of unity in disunity and a more accurate representation of modern sensibility.15 The fact that short-story cycles exist in all the different ethnic literatures in Canada also indicates the appropriateness of the form to the depiction of similar experiences. Rachna Mara's Of Customs and Excise, Shyam Selvadurai's Funny Boy, Dianne Maguire's Dry Land Tourist, M. G. Vassanji's Uhuru Street and Wayson Choy's The Jade Peony are a small sample of recent ethnic short-story cycles. Because it is a form that has not found much favour in the dominant cultures, it allows writers to work with subversive irony. As such, the short-story cycle may be viewed as a formal manifestation of the pluralistic culture that creates and nourishes it.

It is clear, therefore, why Canadian writers may regard the short-story cycle as a particularly flexible and resilient medium for recording their impressions of a changing landscape. The defining characteristic of the Canadian short-story cycle becomes, then, not strictly a matter of place, but rather a matter of consciousness; social and cultural determinants of a specifically Canadian kind continue to inform the stories, whether the setting is London or Toronto, giving the works of Canadian writers considerable significance in terms of ideological and linguistic difference.16 On different levels, Mistry's short-story cycle projects a desire to come to terms with a past that is both personal and collective: his fiction will explore the Indian character and history of his community as a reflection of both his personal odyssey of displacement and his search for self. Cultural displacement and the constant intermingling of diverse manners of perception, Rushdie has claimed, has forced the immigrant writer to accept “the provisional nature of all truths, all certainties”17 and has obliged him to engage in a redefinition and redescription of even the nature of reality: “to find new ways of describing himself, new ways of being human.”18 Rushdie considers this cultural displacement an essentially positive and liberating experience; the fact that Mistry “straddles two stools” of culture frees him from a unilateral vision of both the world and his art, and permits him to explore cultural and artistic possibilities more deeply. This process mirrors that involved in the appreciation of a story cycle, in which the evolution and gradual unfolding of the themes, a discovery of a new kind of unity in disunity, integrate the essence of the form. Furthermore, insisting on a unitary identity can be a means of opposing and defending oneself from marginalization. Although there is no limit to the kinds of subject or theme that are found in cycles, one repeatedly discovers that twentieth-century cycles are preoccupied with certain themes, including isolation, disintegration, indeterminacy, the role of the artist, and the maturation process.19

Tales from Firozsha Baag attempts to understand and further the phenomenon of this double perception: the stories, in one way or another, explore the creation of culture and the invention of identities, the palimpsests created when the postcolonial or immigrant writer or character reflects on the temporal or spatial past. Mistry incorporates into the fabric of his work a suggestion of the doubleness of human experience itself, and its ability to slip beyond the forces that seek to define it empirically. As Geoffrey Kain points out, Mistry plays with the complex, multi-faceted nature of the theme of self as Other. He invites readers to peer into the experiences of characters who are necessarily Other for both author (despite some suggestively autobiographical elements) and reader, and who themselves struggle with the perplexities of what it means to be Other in a new culture—a process which also distances as Other the native culture and its previously hyper-familiar fixtures (family members and elements of the home environment)—usually against the will of the immigrant.20 One of the techniques he uses in manifesting the tensions of doubleness that create the new order is the interesting and intriguing relationships he establishes between entities commonly separated by experience, location and time, as well as between the realm of the real and that of the imaginary; between the narrator and the listener in the stories and between author and reader. He mixes autobiography, gossip and personal intimacy with irony and self-mockery, maintaining a comic stance even while narrating serious and tragic events.

Mistry's position as an Indian writer in English also allows him to work against the largely dominant Orientalist framework of literature and culture. The resulting hybrid text constitutes an interleaving of practices, with new forms being produced even as older forms continue to exist, providing a means of evading the replication of the binary categories of the past and developing new anti-monolithic models of cultural exchange and growth.21 One manifestation in Mistry of both the immigrant double perspective and his own insight into binary categories of belonging is his emphasis on geographical position. A preoccupation with setting has particular valency for postcolonial subjects, since their home locations have been historically constructed as peripheral. For the African, Jamaican or Canadian writer,

the intersection of language and place is at the very centre of post-colonial identity politics. Always aware that his or her place has at one time been marked red on the imperial map, and that views of both ‘home’ and ‘away’ have been configured and frequently distorted by the colonial past, […] autobiographers from these locations struggle to construct a viable representation of the ‘self’ as a located ‘self.’22

The concern with either developing or recovering an appropriate identifying relationship between self and place becomes a major feature in post-colonial literature because it is precisely within the parameters of place and its separateness that the process of subjectivity can be conducted. ‘Place’ is characterized, first, by a sense of displacement in those who have moved to the colonies, or the more widespread sense of displacement from the imported language, of a gap between the experienced environment and the descriptions the language provides, and secondly, by a sense of the immense investment of culture in the construction of place.23 Mistry, aware of the importance of place, makes a conscious effort to try to be exact in his descriptions:

I think it's something I owe to the place where I grew up. Honesty, truth and accuracy is the least I owe to that place. [The most I owe it is] never to forget. The most and the least then combine, I don't want to forget anything about Bombay. The life, the places, the people.24

The author's involvement with place is evident in his precise descriptions, which makes the theme of place a recurrent one in this cycle. Mistry, through details in the different stories, creates a verbal map that localizes Firozsha Baag as a well-constructed place, lending consistency to the rhetorical evocation of locality. Firozsha Baag is an apartment building in the middle of Bombay, in a typical urban sprawl east of the Mazagaon area. It is a twenty-minute walk from the train station on the west side, a short trip from the Hanging Gardens in the north, and a stone's throw away from Dr Sidhwa's Dispensary. Beside the Baag are the impoverished tenements of Tar Gully, lighted by very few street-lamps and rumoured to be visited by pimps and prostitutes at night. In Tar Gully is the Irani restaurant where Tehmina the spinster would buy her ice before Najamai got her a refrigerator. Beyond Tar Gully are the A1 Express and the H Route Bus Stops, from where passengers travel to the Fire-Temple at the other end of Bombay, passing through the Bhindi Bazaar and the Crawford Market, stopping at Marine Lines near Princess Street and near the south end of Marine Drive. Further north on Marine Drive, where Kersi and the Baag children played cricket on the maidaan, a circular tour of the city leads to Chaupatty Beach, site of the annual Ganesh Chaturthi and Coconut Day. From the beach, one can catch a glimpse of the roof of Firozsha Baag.

The congruity of this fictive world sustains the verisimilitude of the history of the Firozsha Baag residents, and encourages the imagination to range more widely to places and people outside of Bombay, like Bandra, to the north, where Najamai's sister lives and where the Karani couple went for a New Year's Eve party; Mysore, where Dr. Mody and his family lived before moving to the Baag; Goa, where Jacqueline's family lives; New Delhi, where the Canadian High Commission approved Sarosh Sid's application for immigration; and, across the sea, Canada, where Dolly lives in British Columbia and Vera in Alberta, and Kersi writes in Ontario. In effect, Mistry conjures up not simply Firozsha Baag but a great expanse of the world where Parsi families live and die, from their own yards to the streets of Toronto. In the later stories, he introduces a corollary to Firozsha Baag: an apartment building in Toronto, with its own residents and stories, yet imaginatively part and parcel of the world—and the storyland—of the far-off Firozsha Baag. The writer perceives similarities in differences: both apartment buildings occasion stories that are not so different after all and contribute to the creation of identity through place. The final story continues the mapping out of the space and history of Firozsha Baag, extending and expanding into Kersi's life in Canada.

According to Graham Huggan, this cartographical emphasis, albeit rhetorical, indicates a shift from the desire for homogeneity to an acceptance of diversity reflected in the interpretation of the map, not as spatial containment or systematic organization, but as a medium of spatial perception allowing for the reformulation of links within and between cultures.25 As such, Mistry's mixing of different story-modes and the abundance of diverse literary references illustrate the resulting hybridity. Further, the links he establishes between his contemporary short-story cycle and other literary texts serve as another thread uniting his collection. The polyglot literary family tree that the between-world writer belongs to allows Mistry to subvert both Eastern and Western classics. The epigraph of the story “Lend Me Your Light” comes from Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali: “your lights are all lit—then where do you go with your lamp? / My house is all dark and lonesome,—lend me your light.” In this story, a revisioning of orientalist stereotypes, Mistry reverses Tagore's colonialist implication that the East needs light from the West. In another tale, Tolstoy is (mis) quoted to describe a North American phenomenon: “Wonder Bread is a Canadian bread which all happy families eat to be happy in the same way; the unhappy families are unhappy in their own fashion by eating other brands.”26

Three stories in particular, “Swimming Lessons,” “Lend Me Your Light” and “Squatter,” are structured to accommodate narrative shifts between India and Canada. They dramatize the clashes between Oriental and Western cultures and articulate the drama of doubleness. These shifts, which provide thematic diversity, blend the central themes to better illustrate the writer's principal concern and fuse the diverse stories in the collection. “Squatter,” a travesty of immigrant desperation, begins by asserting the humour and self-assurance of the protagonist, who gives himself ten years to become a Canadian or return to Bombay. Unfortunately, the immigrant Sarosh's tragicomic ordeals with the toilet-seat and symbolic inability to perform his natural body functions cannot be overcome until he takes off back to India. Sarosh's problems bespeak an uneasiness which can only be the result of the problematic relationship between interlocking cultural landscapes, between an ethnic heritage and a new life in the West.27 Retaining the story's comic tone, Mistry subverts the Shakespearean classic of ‘otherness,’ Othello. A parody of Othello's last speech is Sarosh's ironic summary of his immigrant experiences: just as the Moor remained alien to the confusing values of Venice, Sarosh remains unfit for the volatile world of Toronto:

“I pray you, in your stories […] When you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice: tell them that in Toronto once there lived a Parsi boy as best as he could. Set you down this; and say, besides, that for some it was good and for some it was bad, but for me life in the land of milk and honey was just a pain in the posterior.”


The implication of such a sharp treatment of the immigrant's experience may seem pernicious, yet the story's psychological thrust creates an overall humorous effect that counterbalances the cynicism.28

The figure of Nariman, the storyteller in “Squatter,” is important for an understanding not only of this particular story, but of Mistry's fiction in general, precisely because he, like Sarosh, inhabits the interstices of culture. Philosophical in his presentation, Mistry allows the stories themselves, and the connections between them, to convey the intricacy of his message, leaving it to the reader to discern the implications of its doubling. Jehangir, one of Nariman's most avid listeners, comments on the storyteller's narrative strategy:

unpredictability was the brush he used to paint his tales with, and ambiguity the palette he mixed his colours in […] Nariman sometimes told a funny incident in a very serious way, or expressed a significant matter in a light and playful manner. And these were only two rough divisions, in between were lots of subtle gradations of tone and texture. Which, then, was the funny story and which the serious? Their opinions were divided, but ultimately, said Jehangir, it was up to the listener to decide.


Ajay Heble has shown how, despite using the inserted tale of Sarosh as a warning for future generations of Indians who plan to seek happiness and success abroad, Nariman's own patterns of behaviour implicitly work to undermine the impact of his story. If the example of Sarosh seems to point to the dangers inherent in the process of ethnic interaction and to argue for a return to one's place of origin, Nariman himself contradicts the lesson which he seeks to impart to his listeners. He does this by revealing the extent to which he relies on and is steeped in Western cultural practices. In addition to his fondness for introducing new English words into his stories, for exposing “young minds to as shimmering and varied a vocabulary as possible” (146), Nariman owns a Mercedes-Benz, has cultivated a Clark Gable moustache, and likes to whistle the march from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Though they may initially appear to have little, if anything, to do with the story of Sarosh, these allusions to Western popular culture are important for the subtle and intriguing ways in which they remind us that the postcolonial identity is already a hybridized formation.29

Mistry's position as between-world writer may be reflected in the framing of Sarosh's story within Nariman's, as the frame structure is part of the complex interactions between dichotomies in the stories. Nariman, the teller, is both outside the frame, narrating, and inside it as a minor participant in the action. The fact that he knows Sarosh and is invited to his welcome-home party signals Nariman's position inside the frame. What is more revealing is the way his life is almost a mirror-image of Sarosh's, except that Nariman is not displaced; he is not even inconvenienced by his dependence on Western systems of thought. Nevertheless, Nariman's own hybridized identity alerts us to the possibility that the framed moment in Mistry's text might be as much about the narrator as it is about the object of the narration. The border that separates the person doing the framing from the person being framed is itself subject to the kind of blurring that we see throughout the story. Given his position both inside and outside the frame, Nariman finds himself in a particularly effective discursive situation, able to speak with irony, within a tradition and challenging it at the same time.30

The dominant tone of the stories, essential to the development of the double mode, is irony, which, according to Linda Hutcheon, is a Canadian virtue: “the particular space of irony in Canada has been mapped out over more than a century of negotiating the many dualities and multiplicities that have come to define this nation.”31 She suggests that irony is one mode of self-defining discourse used by anglophone Canadians. The very doubleness of irony—the need to keep literal and ironic meanings afloat together—disrupts any notions of meaning as single, stable, complete, or transparent. The double, complex import of irony is graspable only in context and with the acceptance and understanding of simultaneous double-voicing:

there […] seems to be little in Canada that is not (or has not been) inherently doubled and therefore at least structurally ripe for ironizing. Its history offers many a binary opposition: native/colonial, federal/provincial, not to mention English/French. […] Other examples of inherent doubleness in Canada would be its identity as a bilingual yet multicultural nation. Within the latter is another set of oppositions: Canada, like all the Americas, is a land of immigrants, where, at least for a time, the non-native inhabitants have felt dual allegiances32

The trope of irony as a doubled or split discourse has the potential to subvert from within, as Mistry shows in “Squatter.” As a double-talking mode of address, irony becomes a popular rhetorical strategy for working within existing discourses and contesting them at the same time. Doubleness, of identity, of culture, of loyalties, often of language, is the basis of the experience of both postcolonialism and immigration for anyone, anywhere.

irony is one way of coming to terms with this kind of duplicity, for it is the trope that incarnates doubleness, and it does so in ways that are particularly useful to the ‘other’: irony allows the ‘other’ to address the dominant culture from within that culture's own set of values and modes of understanding, without being co-opted by it and without sacrificing the right to dissent, contradict, and resist.33

Irony thus opens up new space, literally, between opposing meanings, where new things can happen.

The double mode and inherent irony are constants in Mistry's cycle. When Mistry defines his setting within the boundaries of Firozsha Baag, he gives his cycle unity, focus and familiarity. The collected stories create a composite memoir of a past Bombay life, long and far gone, as distant as adulthood is from childhood, as Canada is from India. The stories introduce the inhabitants of Firozsha Baag through a successive unfolding of the details in the lives of each of the residents, mostly middle-class Parsi families, allowing entry to a world inside an apartment building full of intrigues and quiet drama. Firozsha Baag is a microcosm of Indian life, but, more particularly (as a Parsi colony), it is a microcosm of a highly defined sect that has managed to keep its own customs, language and religion intact while becoming a vital part of the Indian scene.34 But the primary unifying thread of the short-story cycle is the narrator, Kersi, and his development from child and adolescent in India to young adult in Canada, making the cycle a Bildungsroman. In the later stories in Mistry's collection, the discourse delivers a powerful social message, and we witness this evolution occurring with the expansion of the narrative from the confined but familiar Firozsha Baag towards a foreign territory, Canada. As Geoffrey Kain points out, the brief exposure we have to the experience of these characters, especially through the narrative voice of the sensitive and perceptive Kersi, provides us with poignant (however limited) insight into the immigrant experience—into what is seen as

not just the impact of emigration on the émigré himself, not only the effects of departure on those who are left at a distance, but the complex and slowly changing web of consciousness that, taken together, defines the immigrant experience in Mistry's fiction.”35

“Lend Me Your Light,” which shifts from India to Canada, focuses on the ambivalent position of the narrator, Kersi, as he is caught between two radically opposed attitudes: that of his brother Percy, an enthusiastic idealist who chooses to help poor peasants against the exploitation of the village usurers, and that of their upper-class friend Jamshed, who scorns India's backwardness and leaves for his American dreamland. Kersi leaves India for Canada, yet keeps his cultural identity as an Indian, maintaining contact with the Parsi community of Toronto. The conflicting visions in the narrator's mind are skilfully articulated in eye-imagery and allusions to the figure of Tiresias from T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land:

But as I slept on my last night in Bombay a searing pain in my eyes woke me up. It was one o'clock. I bathed my eyes and tried to get back to sleep. Half-jokingly, I saw myself as someone out of a Greek tragedy, guilty of the sin of hubris for seeking emigration out of the land of my birth, and paying the price in burnt-out eyes: I, Tiresias, blind and throbbing between two lives, the one in Bombay and the one to come in Toronto …


The story concludes tragically with the village usurers murdering one of Percy's co-workers, leading to the collapse of the humanitarian project. Jamshed seems to triumph in his worldly wisdom. Again, light-imagery becomes an apt commentary on the callousness of this mercenary: “What would it take to light the lantern of his soul?” (190), asks Kersi. As Amin Malak shows, the story offers two parallels of conflict: an external one between the critical Jamshed and the idealist Percy and their conflicting views on staying or leaving, and its internalized version within the narrator between his roots and his new Western life-style.36

But Kersi, when he returns to visit India, ironically sees himself as a tourist in his own country. He must deal with the realization that the years of physical separation from India have led to his cultural and spiritual alienation: “It was disconcerting to discover that I'd become unused to [Bombay]” (187). Yet he dreads the thought of becoming like Jamshed:

It was puzzling that he could express so much disdain and discontentment even when he was no longer living under those conditions. Was it himself he was angry with, for not being able to come to terms with matters as Percy had? Was it because of the powerlessness that all of us experience who, mistaking weakness for strength, walk away from one thing or another?


The binary oppositions evidenced in “Squatter,” “Lend Me Your Light,” and “Swimming Lessons,” where characters hover between the place of the past and the place of the present, articulate the disjunctural position the post-colonial immigrant finds himself in. As Nariman's manner of narration shows, the quest for total assimilation can become ridiculous, while, on the other hand, the subsequent effort to return home is often subverted by the original choice to leave. ‘Home’ then becomes a mental construct developed, in part, through the anxieties of absence. The immigrant “thus finds himself faced with the difficult task of having to redefine home, and to craft a new relationship between a modified self and a revised mis/understanding of location.”37 Kersi shifts uneasily from one side to another, seeking a place to belong: “I, Tiresias, throbbing between two lives, humbled by the ambiguities and dichotomies confronting me” (192). Feeling no longer at home in Bombay, yet wanting to keep alive his attachment to his home and all that this implies,

Kersi thus embodies and gives expression to the tension between the emotional poles of indigenousness or cultural immersion/attachment (manifest in Percy) and cultural rejection or the quest for full assimilation (manifest in Jamshed), and is left unsure of his place or even of the strength of his conflicting inclinations.38

The final story, “Swimming Lessons,” incorporates and offers solutions to both the writer's awareness of binary oppositions and his crisis of belonging; it is the most concretely transcultural, as it discusses the experience of cultural separation and the painful parent—child gap that is created by immigration. It also decisively unites the story-collection, both thematically and structurally. This metafictional tale offers as frame Kersi's decision to learn to swim, alternating with italicized episodes set in Firozsha Baag. The narrator's epiphany commences when, seeing an old man from his building staring out the window, he wonders what he is thinking:

For me, it is already too late for snowmen and snowball fights, and all I will have is thoughts about childhood thoughts and dreams, built around snows-capes and winter-wonderlands on the Christmas cards so popular in Bombay, my snowmen and snowball fights and Christmas trees are in the pages of Enid Blyton's books.


As Kersi remembers his past, he struggles to define himself; hence the writing of the book. He wants to preserve the memories of his past so he can have something to look back on when he grows old. And, in the process of remembering, everything goes back to India; all the shards and fragments that he recalls confirm his Indianness: “My snowflakes are even less forgettable than the old man's, for they never melt” (244). His snowflakes will never melt, because he will save them in his book, the collection of stories Father and Mother read at the end, entitled Tales from Firozsha Baag.

This final detail is Mistry's tour de force, as he merges, in the one telling, diverse modes of perception and his solution to the problem of fusing disparate subjects. His perception of Canada and India, of his postcolonial past and immigrant present and his need to come to terms with both, is conveyed in charged images reflecting the interaction of distance and belonging: “The world outside the water I have seen a lot of, it is now time to see what is inside” (249). Until now, his view of Canada has been mainly that of an outsider; his decision to take swimming lessons is symbolic of his choice to immerse himself in that world and describe it from the inside. Yet, unlike Jamshed, Kersi will not turn away from India to become Canadian. Rather, his Indianness will serve as the catalyst for the appropriation of a fresh identity. His new perspective on India and Canada is illustrated when he realizes that the sunbathing women he had been watching were not as attractive up close as when he saw them from his kitchen window (233). He writes nostalgically about India, while his view of Canada is devoid of false illusion. He tells us what he remembers about his childhood years, but from the position of one who is no longer in it and must resort to looking from a distance. Paradoxically, he must detach himself from past time and place in order to reconnect himself to it and put down roots.

Interestingly, the writer's art is judged in this case from another double perspective. Kersi's parents, upon reading his book, reach contrasting conclusions in their attempt to understand his purpose in writing about his Bombay past:

because if he likes it over there why would he not write stories about that, there must be so many new ideas that his new life could give him.

But Father did not agree with this, he said […] all writers worked in the same way, they used their memories and experiences and made stories out of them, changing some things, adding some, imagining some, all writers were very good at remembering details of their lives.

Mother said, how can you be sure that he is remembering because he is a writer, or whether he started to write because he is unhappy and thinks of his past and wants to save it all by making stories of it.


These divergent hypotheses point to one unified truth evident in the cycle: the art of storytelling as a manner of unifying binary oppositions and creating identity. Tales from Firozsha Baag articulates the discourse of the postcolonial immigrant, who is forced to come to terms with the dualities that constitute experience and who must often fashion a new identity.

[Mistry] offers a way of echoing in the form of our work the issues faced by all of us: how to build a new, ‘modern’ world out of an old, legend-haunted civilization, an old culture which we have brought into the heart of a newer one.39

And some writers, Mistry suggests through Kersi, create identities when they write. He forges this new identity as he writes, ultimately revealing himself in the stories:

All the stories were read by Father and Mother, and they were sorry when the book was finished, they felt they had come to know their son better now, yet there was so much more to know, they wished there were many more stories.



  1. Craig Tapping, “South Asia/North America: New Dwellings and the Past,” in Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson (Westport CT: Greenwood, 1992); 35.

  2. Salman Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands” (1982), in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991 (London: Granta/Penguin, 1991): 11.

  3. Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” 12.

  4. Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” 20.

  5. Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” 19.

  6. Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” 14.

  7. Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” 15.

  8. Forrest L. Ingram, Representative Short Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century: Studies in a Literary Genre (The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1971): 15, 19.

  9. Ingram, Representative Short Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century, 20.

  10. Ingram, Representative Short Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century, 17.

  11. J. Gerald Kennedy, “Towards a Poetics of the Short Story Cycle,” Journal of the Short Story in English 11 (1988): 14.

  12. Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” 12.

  13. Patricia Lin Blinde, “An Icicle in the Desert: Perspective and Form in the Works of Two Chinese-American Women,” MELUS 6.3 (Fall 1979): 52.

  14. Elizabeth J. Ordoñez, “Narrative Texts by Ethnic Women: Rereading the Past, Reshaping the Future,” MELUS 9.3 (Winter 1982): 19.

  15. Gerald Lynch, “The One and the Many: English-Canadian Short Story Cycles,” Canadian Literature 130 (Autumn 1990): 93.

  16. Stephen Regan, “‘The Presence of the Past’: Modernism and Postmodernism in Canadian Short Fiction,” in Narrative Strategies in Canadian Literature, ed. Coral A. Howells & Lynette Hunter (Buckingham: Open UP, 1991): 108.

  17. Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” 12

  18. Rushdie, “Günter Grass,” 278.

  19. Susan Garland Mann, The Short Story Cycle: A Genre Companion and Reference Guide (Westport CT: Greenwood, 1989): 13-14.

  20. Geoffrey Kain, “The Enigma of Departure: The Dynamics of Cultural Ambiguity in Rohinton Mistry's Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag,” in Ideas of Home: Literature of Asian Migration, ed. Kain (East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1997): 64.

  21. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, & Helen Tiffin, ed. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1995): 183.

  22. Linda Warley, “Locating the Subject of Post-Colonial Autobiography,” Kunapipi 15.1 (1993): 25.

  23. Ashcroft, Grittiths & Tiffin, The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, 391.

  24. Geoff Hancock, “An Interview with Rohinton Mistry,” Canadian Fiction Magazine 65 (1989): 146-47.

  25. Graham Huggan, “Decolonizing the Map: Post-Colonialism, Post-Structuralism and the Cartographic Connection,” in Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism, ed. Ian Adam & Helen Tiffin (Calgary: U of Calgary P, 1990): 130.

  26. Rohinton Mistry, Tales from Firozsha Baag (London: Faber & Faber, 1987): 158. All further references to this edition are in the main text.

  27. Ajay Heble, “A Foreign Presence in the Stall: Towards a Poetics of Cultural Hybridity in Rohinton Mistry's Migration Stories,” Canadian Literature 137 (Summer 1993): 52.

  28. Amin Malak, “Insider/Outsider Views on Belonging: The Short Stories of Bharati Mukherjee and Rohinton Mistry,” Short Fiction in the New Literatures in English, ed. Jacqueline Bardolph (Nice: U of Nice P, 1989): 193.

  29. Heble, “A Foreign Presence in the Stall,” 53.

  30. Heble, “A Foreign Presence in the Stall,” 55.

  31. Linda Hutcheon, Splitting Images: Contemporary Canadian Ironies (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1991): vii.

  32. Hutcheon, Splitting Images, 15, 16.

  33. Hutcheon, Splitting Images, 49.

  34. Keith Garebian, “In The Aftermath of Empire: Identities in the Commonwealth of Literature,” Canadian Forum (April 1989): 25-26.

  35. Kain, “The Enigma of Departure,” 64.

  36. Malak, “Insider/Outsider Views on Belonging,” 194.

  37. Kain, “The Enigma of Departure,” 70.

  38. Kain, “The Enigma of Departure,” 69.

  39. Rushdie, “Imaginary Homelands,” 19.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, & Helen Tiffin, ed. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1995).

Blinde, Patricia Lin. “An Icicle in the Desert: Perspective and Form in the Works of Two Chinese-American Women,” MELUS 6.3 (Fall 1979): 51-71.

Garebian, Keith. “In The Aftermath of Empire: Identities in the Commonwealth of Literature,” Canadian Forum (April 1989): 25-33.

Hancock, Geoff. “An Interview with Rohinton Mistry,” Canadian Fiction Magazine 65 (1989): 143-50.

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.

Huggan, Graham. “Decolonizing the Map: Post-Colonialism, Post-Structuralism and the Cartographic Connection,” in Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-Modernism, ed. Ian Adam & Helen Tiffin (Calgary: U of Calgary P, 1990): 125-38.

Hutcheon, Linda. Splitting Images: Contemporary Canadian Ironies (Toronto: Oxford UP, 1991).

Ingram, Forrest L. Representative Short Story Cycles of the Twentieth Century: Studies in a Literary Genre (The Hague & Paris: Mouton, 1971).

Kain, Geoffrey. “The Enigma of Departure: The Dynamics of Cultural Ambiguity in Rohinton Mistry's Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag,” in Ideas of Home: Literature of Asian Migration, ed. Kain (East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1997): 63-74.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. “Towards a Poetics of the Short Story Cycle,” Journal of the Short Story in English 11 (1988): 9-24.

Lynch, Gerald. “The One and the Many: English-Canadian Short Story Cycles,” Canadian Literature 130 (Autumn 1990): 91-104.

Malak, Amin. “Insider/Outsider Views on Belonging: The Short Stories of Bharati Mukherjee and Rohinton Mistry,” in Short Fiction in the New Literatures in English, ed. Jacqueline Bardolph (Nice: U of Nice P, 1989): 189-95.

Mann, Susan Garland. The Short Story Cycle: A Genre Companion and Reference Guide (Westport CT: Greenwood, 1989).

Mistry, Rohinton. Tales from Firozsha Baag (London: Faber & Faber, 1987).

Ordoñez, Elizabeth J. “Narrative Texts by Ethnic Women: Rereading the Past, Reshaping the Future,” MELUS 9.3 (Winter 1982): 19-28.

Regan, Stephen. “‘The Presence of the Past’: Modernism and Postmodernism in Canadian Short Fiction,” in Narrative Strategies in Canadian Literature, ed. Coral Ann Howells & Lynette Hunter (Buckingham: Open UP, 1991): 108-34.

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991 (London: Viking/Granta, 1992).

Tapping, Craig. “South Asia/North America: New Dwellings and the Past,” in Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson (Westport CT: Greenwood, 1992): 35-49.

Warley, Linda. “Locating the Subject of Post-Colonial Autobiography,” Kunapipi 15.1 (1993): 23-31.

Hilary Mantel (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3444

SOURCE: Mantel, Hilary. “States of Emergency.” In India: A Mosaic, edited by Robert B. Silvers and Barbara Epstein, pp. 181-93. New York, N.Y.: New York Review Books, 2000.

[In the following essay, Mantel assesses A Fine Balance as a political novel at its core—one overtly critical of the political forces in India.]

“Un roman est un miroir …” Stendhal said. “A novel is a mirror which passes over a highway. Sometimes it reflects to your eyes the blue of the skies, at others the churned-up mud of the road.” Of course, not all novelists choose to carry mirrors of perfect clarity. Some travel with just a wicked sliver of glass, some strut along with a gleeful grin and a distorting mirror; others respectfully support a windowpane through which little is seen but the author's own face. But when Rohinton Mistry published his first novel, Such a Long Journey (1991), we seemed to have found an author who would carry a mirror for us down the dusty highways of India, through the jostling Bombay streets, behind compound walls and into the huts and houses where the millions sit, reinventing themselves, constantly reciting the stories of their own lives and times. His documentary realism won praise. The writing seemed a world away from Rushdie's aggressive surrealism and linguistic tricks. The prose was plain, the tone often jaunty. Human decency came shining through.

Such a Long Journey was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Governor General's Award in Canada. It was a fluent and involving chronicle of the family and neighborhood life of a Parsi called Gustad Noble, a likable man perpetually baffled by what destiny threw at him. It was not unflawed; there was some perfunctory plotting, a strain of sentimentality. Its great virtue was that it kept background and foreground in perspective. The perplexities and concerns of small people, the citizens of Bombay in the early 1970s, were set against a threatening international situation. Their everyday aspirations and disappointments entertained us, while India and Pakistan moved toward war. In his new novel, A Fine Balance,1 Mistry carries us on to 1975, when Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency and suspended civil liberties.

Here again intimate dramas will be played out against the vast canvas of the subcontinent. But where the first novel began in a gentle, careful miniaturist's manner, reminiscent of R. K. Narayan, the tone here is menacing. You had better believe me, Mistry seems to tell us: brace yourself for what is to come. In his epigraph he quotes Balzac, Le Père Goriot:

After you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well. … But rest assured: this tragedy is not fiction. All is true.

The book begins with a railway journey. The train is late. There is a body on the tracks. The passengers are more than usually exasperated: “Why does everybody have to choose the railways tracks only for dying? … Murder, suicide, Naxalite-terrorist killing, police-custody death—everything ends up delaying the trains. What is wrong with poison or tall buildings or knives?”

One carriage contains three people with a common destination. Maneck Kohlah is a Parsi student; Ishvar Darji and Omprakash Darji are Hindu tailors, uncle and nephew, respectively forty-seven and seventeen years old. They are new to city life; the two tailors are displaced from a village in the plains, while Maneck is a long journey from his misty northern home in the mountains. It is the exigencies of displacement that bring them together, and to the tiny, shabby city apartment of Dina, a Parsi widow in her early forties. Maneck is to be a paying guest. Repelled by the squalid conditions in his student hostel, he has appealed to his parents for help, and his mother has arranged for him to stay with an old school friend of hers. The tailors are to do piecework for Dina, sewing women's clothing for an export company.

Dina could have expected better than the cramped, penny-pinching, anxious life that she has come to live in middle age. Her father was a doctor, a selfless, hard-driven man who died from snakebite while toiling in one of the fever-ridden villages of the interior. She was twelve years old then, and her mother's nervous collapse left her upbringing in the hands of Nusswan, her twenty-three-year-old brother, already established as a young businessman. Quarrels with Nusswan brought an early end to her education, but she married—married a man she herself had chosen, in defiance of Nusswan's wishes—and was happy for three years, until her husband was killed in a traffic accident.

Though her brother presses her to join his household, Dina is determined to stay in her flat and to support herself. When the three men come into her life, she is wary of what their companionship may mean—loneliness is what she is used to. Besides, the tailors are uncouth villagers who scratch themselves and cannot use cutlery, and Maneck is so young, and spoiled perhaps?

The evolution of an odd, mutually dependent household is at the center of the book. The characters' halting progress toward each other is described with great sensitivity; it is a tale of pride and prejudice, of simple affection breaking barriers. When the tailors begin to work for Dina they are sleeping on the street. They get a hut in a shantytown and gather a few possessions, but their hut is bulldozed. They are on the streets again, and eventually Dina takes them in, even though she knows that their presence is against the terms of her lease and that her landlord is looking for an excuse to evict her. She is acting against her better judgment, her heart for once ruling her head; reserved, cautious, sometimes shrewish, she is a character to whom Mistry allows great dignity.

Maneck and his family are drawn with quiet sympathy. Wealthy people who lost their lands in 1947 when India and Pakistan separated, they have built up a general store, but trade is failing now, and they feel their only son should get professional qualifications. They do not want to send him away; he does not want to go. But parents and child are blind to each other's signals, too proud to confess their need of each other. It is a quiet, small-scale, low-key tragedy. Maneck feels his family has rejected him. A shy, fastidious, depressive boy, he takes some comfort in his unlikely friendship with Om, the childlike, boisterous young tailor. Meanwhile Ishvar impresses Dina with his quiet self-sufficiency, his ability to absorb life's worst blows. Early in the book there is a heavy hint of something grim in the tailors' past. The narrative loops back to the time of Om's grandfather, and we learn what it is.

The tailors' family belongs to the caste of leather-workers. Their work is highly unpleasant, their resources scanty. Om's grandfather commits the crime of wishing to better himself. He sends his two sons, Ishvar and Narayan, to the nearest small town, where they are apprenticed to his Muslim friend Ashraf, a tailor. It is a huge rebellion—against tradition, against fate.

When they grow up, Ishvar stays in town as Ashraf's assistant. Narayan goes back to the village, sets up shop, and makes a point of sewing for customers of all castes. He becomes successful, marries, builds a big house for himself, his parents, and his business. He has a son, Om, and two daughters. The author has already introduced us to the miseries of the caste system, the repression, violence, and humiliation suffered by the village people at the hands of landlords and their agents. We know that Narayan is courting disaster.

This is an intensely angry book, a political novel that pulls no punches. Mistry loathes the Congress Party, which has held power in India for all but four of the forty-nine years since Independence. He sees the party as the purveyor of empty promises of amelioration, the propagator of progressive social legislation that is passed but never enforced. There is a scathing set-piece description of Indira Gandhi addressing a rally; it captures all the Prime Minister's self-deluding complacency, all the self-serving hypocrisy of her supporters. It is as effective a demolition job as a novelist can do.

Yet when Mistry approaches the most harrowing event of his book, his tone is deceptively cool, as if indignation were bleached out, as if the facts spoke for themselves.

An election is scheduled—the date is not given, but we are in the early 1970s.

On election day the eligible voters in the village lined up outside the polling station. As usual, Thakur Dharamsi [the local magnate] took charge of the voting process. His system, with the support of the other landlords, had been working flawlessly for years.

The election officer was presented with gifts and led away to enjoy the day with food and drink. The doors opened and the voters filed through. “Put out your fingers,” said the attendant monitoring the queue.

The voters complied. The clerk at the desk uncapped a little bottle and marked each extended finger with indelible black ink, to prevent cheating.

“Now put your thumbprints over here,” said the clerk.

They placed their thumbprints on the register to say they had voted, and departed.

Then the blank ballots were filled in by the landlords' men.

Two years on there is another election. Narayan decides he will no longer take part in the farce. He goes to the polling booth and tries to register a genuine vote. Two neighbors back him up. When we learn what happens next we understand why Mistry's approach has been so deceptively calm. The three men are picked up by Thakur's men and taken to his farm. They are suspended upside down and flogged, through the length of a day. Burning coals are held against their genitals and forced into their mouths. In the evening they are hanged. The corpses are displayed in the village square.

And while the torture goes on, Thakur's little grandchildren are shut up indoors. Play with your nice new train set, he urges them, smiling. For the first time in the book we catch the whiff of the concentration camp; a mild paterfamilias steps out of his front door to exercise the rabid dog inside him. We catch the same whiff in the horrifying description of a work camp where Om and his uncle toil when they are picked up on the streets, along with beggars and pavement dwellers. The Nazi stench is overpowering when Dina's brother Nusswan, reflecting on his country's plight, advocates “a free meal containing arsenic or cyanide” for the “two hundred million people surplus to requirements.”

It is not that, by this point in the book, Nusswan has become a vicious caricature. What we learn of Nusswan's bullying tactics within his family does not lead us to admire him, but he is not inherently a bad man, and Mistry makes us reflect how often such bigotry stains the lips of otherwise kindly, dutiful individuals. In the face of the world's beauty, in the face of the self-evident fact of altruism, how can atrocious conduct occur, how can hideous beliefs survive? The question is age-old, and Mistry has no answers, but it is evident from the seriousness and weight of the present book that he believes that novelists should go on asking, and asking.

After the death of Narayan and his two nameless supporters there is worse to come. The landlords' men rampage through the village. They carry Narayan's mutilated body to his house and display it to his wife. They then tie up Narayan's wife, his little daughters, and his parents, and set fire to the hut. Om and Ishvar, safe in town, are the only survivors of their family.

This atrocity, which is placed by the author about a quarter of the way through the narrative, stretches its black shadow over the whole book. Mistry's very success in harrowing the reader will create a problem for him. We cannot read the next 450 pages without some alleviation, some lightening of the tone; yet how does an author achieve this, when he has so much more in store for his characters? The horrors of the forced sterilization program—with its potential not only for blood poisoning but for the settling of old scores—will reduce the patient Ishvar to a beggar with amputated legs, will reduce his spirited nephew to a puffy eunuch pulling his uncle on a wheeled platform. In the face of such horrifying material, the gentle humor of Mistry's earlier book cannot help the reader along, and his occasional attempts at levity become an irritating tic. A reader can perhaps bear an escalation of disaster and misery; what is almost unbearable is the cyclical pattern of disaster in which Mistry has trapped his creations. Every time life improves a little, every time they raise their low expectations a notch, disaster strikes. In the end one feels controlled, as if by a bad god. This, no doubt, is part of Mistry's intent.

By the closing stages of the book, no veil of irony is drawn over authorial manipulation. Shankar the beggar, known as “Worm,” is the most pathetic of all Mistry's creations. With no legs and deformed arms, he pushes himself around on a wheeled platform like the one on which Ishvar will end his days. He is given “protection” and guaranteed his pitch by the Beggarmaster, who takes a share of the offerings made to him—and who turns out to be his half brother. Shankar keeps, for comfort, some tails of human hair; absurdly, he is accused of the murder of their original owners. Escaping from an angry crowd, he is crushed by a bus. His grotesque funeral procession is attacked by riot police, who believe the participants to be politically inspired mummers “indulging in street theatre” and the corpse to be a “symbolic dummy.”

Mistry here is making a dangerously destructive comment on his own technique. Like the Beggarmaster, the author is keen on getting a good return from Shankar. He has used him to tease and torment our most tender sensibilities; then, through a strenuous sequence of plot developments, we are primed for him to meet a gruesome end. It is a miscalculation; we see that Mistry himself has made a “symbolic dummy” of the weakest and most vulnerable of all his creations. One reviewer has already compared Mistry to Dickens, and it is plain that his energy and his panoramic ambition are on the same scale. It may be, though, that he has one of Dickens's less-applauded traits; when his characters fall below a certain income level, he stereotypes them. It may be true that “the rich are different,” but it does not follow that the very poor are all the same. The novelist who writes in the realist tradition must take the trouble to grow his characters. Poor Worm can hardly evolve; a theatrical end is dealt out to him. He is ours to look at; he is not ours to feel with.

Images—of fate, of time, of destiny—cluster like flies around the narratives' death throes. “The lives of the poor were rich in symbols,” Dina reflects—and again Mistry is playing with fire, for his reader may retort that all our lives are rich in symbols when we have such a determined, schematic author on our trail. The book's great questions are not drawn together gently, but hauled weightily into the foreground. Time and fate are variously a quilt, a devouring lizard, a chess grandmaster who can never be checkmated. And yet it is the most naive images, simple and melancholy, that stay with the reader.

“If time were a bolt of cloth,” said Om, “I would cut out all the bad parts. Snip out the scary nights and stitch together the good parts, to make time bearable. Then I could wear it like a coat, always live happily.”

Calling attention to the nature of his own work, Mistry makes his characters reflect on the art and craft of story-making. “Perhaps the very act of telling created a natural design. Perhaps it was a knack that humans had, for cleaning up their untidy existences—a hidden survival weapon, like antibodies in the bloodstream.”

Mistry's work does not need this authorial endorsement. Few readers who have weathered the six hundred pages will need to be told that this is a serious and important book, that it is the product of high intelligence and passionate conviction. It is remarkable, in a narrative so overdetermined, that the four major characters breathe and flourish as individuals. The details of their daily lives, the nuances of their feelings, are presented to us respectfully. The final pages are coarser—perhaps the book should have been longer? The “fine balance” of which one character speaks—the balance between hope and despair—is exquisitely difficult to maintain. The placing of an incident, the timing of a passage, are crucial; the urgent, almost brutal energy which Mistry brings to his project tips us to the side of despair.

In the end, Mistry chooses to divide the fates of his four companions. Maneck commits suicide, though he is young, healthy, educated—he has, so to speak, nothing to commit suicide about. The less fortunate face life with more courage. Dina ends as a drudge in her brother's kitchen, secretly feeding the tailors-turned-beggars every afternoon, while they in turn nourish her with their warmth and their wit. Is Mistry feeding us an old line—telling us, rightly or wrongly, that what is inside a human being counts for more than external circumstance? We have been made witness to events that leave a stain on the soul; the resilience of spirit with which the tailors face their final degradation seems admirable, but slightly beside the point.

Perhaps the key lies in one of the many conversations that take place on trains. Maneck meets a man who used to be a proofreader for The Times of India—a man who for twenty-four years saw a record of his country's daily griefs and disasters pass before his eyes. Would it be effective, Maneck wonders, if everybody in India got angry? Might that force the politicians to change their ways? Sometimes, says the proofreader, it is better to suppress anger. “Just try to imagine six hundred million raging, howling, sobbing humans. … Would the mountains explode? What about rivers, would the tears from twelve hundred million eyes cause them to rise and flood?”

This experienced man preaches not quiescence but containment. Yet one day, he admits, the very words on the page rebelled. The letters pitched and tossed and mutinied. He could not read. The paper beneath his hand became a stormy sea. His eyes watered, his head swam; he collapsed. He had developed, he later discovered, a violent allergy to printer's ink. He had lived by the word and almost perished by it. He had explored its limits, and his own.

This is what Rohinton Mistry has done. He has lived in Canada for some years, which is perhaps as well, for this book will not make him popular in his native country. At the time of writing, the Congress Party has been humiliated in a general election, and the Hindu nationalists have formed a minority government. Their Bharatiya Janata Party is widely regarded as traditionalist if not retrogressive, inimical to the lower castes and to the Muslim population. Perhaps Mistry is right and—as the odious phrase has it—what goes around, comes around.

Huge, ambitious novels tend to succumb to platitudes in the end. Unless the author is a genius, they are sucked into cliché by their aspirations to universality. This is one of Mistry's problems. Another problem runs deeper. The novel is an optimistic form. It offers its characters some freedom, within their created nature, and an afterlife in the imagination of readers. But Mistry's characters—even those who are not Hindu—are caught in a vast, predetermined, prepatterned design, which the author embroiders fiercely, glibly. The narrative is closely sewn and makes effective patterns. Design is necessary, but the author should distinguish his own needs from those of the characters and those of the reader; a given fate is not necessarily one to which the characters should be resigned. Here they have no choice or hope. They loiter forever on street corners, hoping to catch the bus but knowing it is likely that when it comes it will mow them down; the driver's name is Mistry, and within his six hundred pages he will crush them all.


  1. Knopf, 1996.

Laura Moss (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Moss, Laura. “Can Rohinton Mistry's Realism Rescue the Novel?” In Postcolonizing the Commonwealth: Studies in Literature and Culture, edited by Rowland Smith, pp. 157-65. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Moss explores Mistry's realistic style, comparing it with the magic realism increasingly evident in South American novels.]

On the back cover of the American paperback edition of Rohinton Mistry's recent novel A Fine Balance, there is an excerpt from the New York Times: “Those who continue to harp on the decline of the novel ought to … consider Rohinton Mistry. He needs no infusion of magic realism to vivify the real. The real, through his eyes, is magical.”1 The celebration of Mistry's choice of “a compassionate” realism (and the implicit denigration of magic realism) is but one critic's perception of Mistry's prose, yet it is also a comment on contemporary attitudes to the form of realism. The back cover, written to appeal to an “average” American consumer, depoliticizes Mistry's novel as it is placed in the company of “masters from Balzac to Dickens.” In this light it can appear as if Mistry's use of the form rescues the (European) novel from the uncomfortable possibility of being overtaken—threatened, even—by magic realism, a form that has been most often associated with Latin American writing and therefore recognized as fundamentally non-European. Furthermore, the use of realism by a writer of what has recently been called the “far rim” (whether that be India or Canada) is taken to resuscitate the humanist traditions of the realist novel.2 Mistry's novel is accepted as having a sweeping appeal by the back-cover critic precisely because it does not resemble what has come to be viewed as a postcolonial novel of resistance—whether that be to caste in India or racism in Canada. The reason for this is simple: Mistry's novel is unequivocally realist and the prevalent view—both popular and academic—is that, for whatever reason, realism and resistance do not converge.

While Mistry's novel resists on every page, his resistance comes in the form of realism and is therefore often ignored as a focus of the text. The problematic nature of critical assumptions about postcolonial examples of realism stems, at least partially, from the privileging of the notion of resistance in postcolonial discourse. The concept of “resistance” has been fetishized to the point where it is even often presented without an object. At the same time, there has been a critical elevation of writing perceived to be experimental or writing that plays with non-realistic form. Within postcolonial criticism, these simultaneous developments have converged in the production of a profusion of studies linking, and sometimes suggesting the interdependence of, political or social resistance and non-realist fiction. If a text does not fit the profile of postcolonial resistance, as realist texts seldom do, it is generally considered incapable of subversion.

David Carter, in his article “Tasteless Subjects,” notes that postcolonial critics tend to present realism as a monolithic whole that is “complicit with the process of imperialism” and therefore with “universalism, essentialism, positivism, individualism, modernity, historicism, and so on” (1992:296). In spite of many examples of recent politically charged realist texts, the critical expectations about the form often hold that it is a reinforcement of conservative, specifically imperialist, ideology. On one hand, this assumption has led to the co-option of literary realism by conservative critics. On the other, it has led to the virtual dismissal of the realist novel by those critics looking for an apparently radical form to hold disruptive content. As part of the larger body of critics in the Academy, postcolonial critics are prominent in establishing such expectations. Non-realist writing is frequently privileged by the critics because of the assumption that its various forms are inherently conducive to political subversion because of their capacity for presenting multiplicity. I challenge the idea, as it has been developed or assumed by many postcolonial critics, that realism is almost necessarily conservative, and non-realist forms are inherently somehow more postcolonial—and therefore subversive. What is at issue in this paper, then, is the limited function of criticism when critics place too tight an ideological hold on realism and are not inclined to recognize the varieties of its possibilities or its capacity for multiplicity. I challenge this critical hegemony, arguing that realism is a viable, perhaps even indispensable, form for political and social engagement in postcolonial contexts. As such, the study is a reaction to the positioning of realism as a foil for other more “accepted” forms of insurgence regardless of whether such positioning is driven from the left or the right.

Realism, for example, is repeatedly set in opposition to magic realism. Because of its Latin American literary origins, magic realism has become privileged as a suitable form for the inclusion of politicized commentary in what Jeanne Delbaere has called the “energy of the margins” and Stephen Slemon has now notoriously labeled “postcolonial discourse.” Wendy Faris and Lois Parkinson Zamora argue that in magic realist texts “ontological disruption serves the purpose of political and cultural disruption: magic is often given as a cultural corrective, requiring readers to scrutinize accepted realistic conventions” (1995:3). In this formulation, realism has “accepted conventions” to which the politically active magic realist text can react. Magic realism opens up a space for the political to enter the text precisely because it is not realism here, while realism without magic is taken to be less capable of opposition. While I quarrel with the New York Times reviewer's depiction of magic realism as infused with a dose of magical rhetoric by an invisible but lurking trickster of the “far rim,” it does seem that the increasingly popular form has either been characterized as a catch-all of political action or is emptied of its politics.

Realism has a history of political activity in India, but it does not have the international recognition that magic realism has as a form capable of carrying resistance. Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance traces the day-to-day lives of fictional characters through non-fictional incidents in the 1975 State-of-Emergency. The primary function of the “ordinary” characters in A Fine Balance is not to be synecdochic of the “Indian citizen” in the Emergency but rather to represent possible examples of what might happen in such a state. Mistry's characters populate a novel that is critical of the resilience of the caste system, the pervasive nature of corruption, the hiring of political crowds, forced labour camps, sexism, “Family Planning” and Indira Gandhi herself.

The four main characters converge in Dina's apartment. As refugees from constricting caste, gender or social roles, they each inhabit a marginal position in the context of India: Dina as a woman and a Parsi; Maneck as a rural Parsi; and Ishvar and Omprakash as leather workers transgressively transformed into tailors. The apartment is a setting at the interstices of culture, or “the overlap and displacement of difference,” to use Homi Bhabha's phrase (1997:3). The four characters resist the social positions to which they are relegated by the community and try to foreground their own individuality. If the apartment is viewed as the secular site of convergence of individuals in a disruptive society, then the collapse of the community in the apartment is inevitable in the Emergency—a fact which the more conservative critics tend to ignore. The point is crucial: the individual can not be extricated from the community in this narrative. Bhabha writes that “political empowerment comes from posing questions of solidarity from the interstitial perspective” (1997:3). However, Mistry disempowers his characters after placing them in the putatively interstitial space of Dina's apartment.

The focus on the individual within the community evokes Bhabha's idea of the proximate, the “minority position,” the moderate subject, or the “first-in-third” (Bhabha 1997:434). For Bhabha, this position depends on the interstitial space of identification, on the ambivalent position of being at once one in a community (third person) and an individual in society (first person).3 The moderate subject is articulated in a movement between third and first persons. It is constituted “as an effect of the ambivalent condition of their borderline proximity—the first-in-the-third/one-in-the-other” (Bhabha 1997:434). However, in the Emergency context of A Fine Balance, there is no movement allowed between the first and the third. In this realist example the moderate position cannot exist. Conversely, magic realism relies on the possibility of the moderate position: the in-betweenness or the “all-at-onceness” which “encourages resistance to monologic political and cultural substructures” (Parkinson Zamora and Faris 1995:3). In Mistry's novel the point of resistance lies precisely in its representation of the impossibility of the moderate position. Mistry's realist novel concludes with the collapse of the apartment community which, in turn, leads to Dina's loss of independence, Ishvar's loss of his legs, Om's loss of his “manhood” and Manek's loss of life.

Some critics have argued about the applicability of the term realism to Mistry's mode of representation.4 The argument runs like this: it is degrading to see Mistry's writing as derivative of a European form, where the Indian writer has now “caught up,” in the literary evolutionary scheme of things, to the point where British writers were in the nineteenth century. While such criticism can fairly be aimed at those critics who call Mistry “worthy of the nineteenth-century masters,”5 such a view is not necessarily the impetus for all those who label the text realist. A focus on the limitations of social structures is by no means exclusively a feature of Victorian realism, although such fiction was an integral part of the education system in India. A concentration on the undistinguished lives of the lower classes clearly does not suggest that the text's precursor is necessarily Victorian realism. One only has to turn to such disparate classics of “social realism” in India in English as Mulk Raj Anand's Untouchable, Raja Rao's Kanthapura or Bhabhani Bhattacharya's So Many Hungers to think of critical depictions of a diversity of castes. Still, I agree with John Ball's comment that the realist novel is a precursor to Mistry's text, but I add that works of Indian social realism are also likely to be prominent precursors (1996:87).

As with the social realists, at points Mistry can be accused of being overly romantic in his portrait of poverty. The following tableau of workers trying to unblock an overflowing drain illustrates Mistry's propensity to present a lyrical view of poverty:

then a boy emerged out of the earth, clinging to the end of a rope. He was covered in the slippery sewer sludge, and when he stood up, he shone and shimmered in the sun with a terrible beauty. His hair, stiffened by muck, flared from his head like a crown of black flames. Behind him, the slum smoke curled towards the sky, and the hellishness of the place was complete.


The “interminable serpents of smoke” of Dickens's description of Coketown in Hard Times surface here in the slimy serpentine “s's” where the slippery sewer sludge stood up, shone and shimmered in the sun near the slum where fires smouldered, with smoke smudging the air (1990:28). Such alliteration adds to the self-consciously lyrical and somewhat melodramatic qualities of this depiction of the “underworld” (Mistry's word); yet, sewers do have black sewer sludge spilling from drains in a state of civic unrest and governmental corruption. This is a romanticized portrait of poverty and filth, but even such a portrait carries pointed commentary within it. It is important to note that Dina views this scene because her train is blocked by “demonstrations against the government” (1996:67). So the sewer scene for Dina—on the top level of a double-decker bus—is juxtaposed with a view of “banners and slogans [that] accused the Prime Minister of misrule and corruption, calling on her to resign in keeping with the court judgments finding her guilty of election malpractice” (1997:67). Mistry's explication of the Emergency context is not simply to provide a setting for a lyrical alliterative passage. There is an irrefutable link between slime and corruption.

In her review of Mistry's first novel Such a Long Journey, Arun Mukherjee argues with the comparison to a Victorian realist novel because such a comparison does not consider how the characters' lives are “negotiated in the context of a social environment” (1992:83). Mistry's narrative form, according to Mukherjee, is not realism but rather a representation of the real, as it “attempts to make sense of actual historical events by narrativising them” (1992:83). The necessity for cultural and historical specificity in realist novels is not fully taken into account in this comment. In Mukherjee's configuration of realism, the form simply provides a background for the action of the novel. The use of realism as background is sharply criticized by Chinua Achebe in his essay on Joseph Conrad's use of Africa in Heart of Darkness:

Africa as setting and backdrop … eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?


While I agree with Achebe's analysis of Heart of Darkness, I do not think that such a criticism should be launched against all examples of realism, as Mukherjee seems to. Mistry's realist novel is a case in point. Like Achebe, Mistry works against the notion of using context as a background for development of the individual in the novel. Mistry's recent novel relies closely and clearly on an understanding of its Indian context set in a specific time and place. A Fine Balance is emphatically not a World text in Franco Moretti's terms, where the “geographical frame of reference is no longer the nation-state, but a broader entity—a continent, or the world-system as a whole” (1996:50); nor is it a postnational text with sites as interchangeable as postcards, to use Frank Davey's formulation of postnational settings, nor are the political issues constructed in purely globalized terms. In A Fine Balance, although we follow the quotidian lives of fictional characters through non-fictional incidents in Indian history, “History is emphatically not the backdrop. Indeed, Dina is proven wrong when she dismisses the Emergency as background. Early in the narrative she explains the Emergency as “Government problems—games played by people in power. It doesn't affect ordinary people like us” (Mistry 1997:75). However, the remainder of the novel slowly details just how it does affect the “ordinary” character in the destruction of the apartment community.

This is clearly a tragic novel; yet many reviewers seem to rely heavily on the assumed conservative nature of its realist form and focus on the universally applicable elements of the apartment community (the optimism evoked in such a communal gathering), rather than the clear disruption of those elements in the conclusion (the pessimism that leads to the inevitable disruption of the community). This is particularly well illustrated in the comments that adorn the novel paratextually: “A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state”; and “The four strangers start sharing their stories, then meals, then living space, until over the divides of caste, class, and religion, the ties of human kinship prevail”; and even “in this one shabby little apartment, at least, the human family becomes more than a phrase, more than a metaphor, a piety” (Mojtabai 1996:29). Such responses to the novel are undeniably humanist. My response is repeatedly: yes, but—yes, but the fundamental point of Mistry's text is that the “ties of human kinship” do not prevail in his 1970s India. Things have fallen apart; the universalist paradigm can not hold.

Perhaps the finest example of a conservative—even neoimperialist—co-option of Mistry's realism is presented on the flyleaf of the novel. From the Literary Review of London, it reads: “A Work of genius … A Fine Balance is the India novel, the novel readers have been waiting for since E. M. Forster.” This comment not only exposes the vision of realism as an orientalist technique; it addresses itself specifically to the readers who would consider realism as such. The thinking behind this comment seems to be that, because A Fine Balance is not written in the quick syntax of Raja Rao, or the innovative styles of G. V. Desani, Amitav Ghosh or Salman Rushdie, it must be exemplary of the English tradition and therefore more valuable, more marketable, and ultimately more easily canonized in the Great Tradition. To equate Mistry's novel with A Passage to India (and to ignore the products of the intervening seventy-one years) thoroughly negates the context of both novels. I can only think that this is done because the reviewer, like many other critics, blindly accepts the notion of an ideologically conservative realism which is by definition an imperial product. The publicists of the American edition of A Fine Balance foreground the universal humanist elements of the novel in the comments found on the physical body of the text in order to decontextualize, dehistoricize and ultimately depoliticize the realism in the novel and thus ostensibly make it more palatable for a general American public. Although I do not particularly believe that the novel needed rescuing, I do think that realism does.


  1. This quotation is taken from A. G. Mojtabai (1996:29).

  2. See Rushdie (1996:49) for an explication of the term “far rim.”

  3. Bhabha claims that through his theorizing of “proximity”: “we are in a better position to grasp what [Gilles] Deleuze and [Félix] Guattari cryptically describe in A Thousand Plateaus as ‘becoming minoritarian’: a movement within the ‘in-between … constituting a zone of proximity … sweeping up the two distant or contiguous points, carrying one into the proximity of the other’” (1997:439). He also works through Deleuze and Guattari's discussion of Kafka's “minor literature” (1997:440). However, Bhabha only seems to use their term loosely as a launching point for his own criticism of the “minority” writer.

  4. See, for example, Arun Mukherjee (1992).

  5. A Time reviewer, cited in the front matter of A Fine Balance.


Abbas, Khwaja Ahmad

1975 “Social Realism and Change.” In Suresh Kohli, ed., Aspects of Indian Literature: The Changing Pattern, 145-54. Delhi: Vikas Publishing.

Achebe, Chinua

1988 “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.” In Robert Kimbrough, ed., Heart of Darkness, 3rd ed., 251-62. New York: W. W. Norton.

Ball, John

1996 “Taking the Measure of India's Emergency.” Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad 14, 2:82-87.

Bhabha, Homi K.

1997 “Editor's Introduction: Minority Maneuvers and Unsettled Negotiations.” Critical Inquiry Special Issue: Front Lines/Border Posts 23:431-59.

1994 The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Carter, David

1992 “Tasteless Subjects: Postcolonial Literary Criticism, Realism, and the Subject of Taste.” Southern Review 25:292-303.

Davey, Frank

1993 Post-National Arguments: The Politics of the Anglophone Canadian Novel since 1967. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Delbaere, Jeanne

1992 “Magic Realism: The Energy in the Margins.” In Theo D'Haen, ed., Postmodernist Fiction in Canada, 75-104. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

Dickens, Charles

1990 Hard Times. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Originally published in 1854.

Dollimore, Jonathan

1990 “Shakespeare, Cultural Materialism, Feminism and Marxist Humanism.” New Literary History 21, 3:471-93.

Mistry, Rohinton

1997 A Fine Balance. New York: Random House.

Mojtabai, A. G.

1996 “An Accidental Family.” New York Times, 23 June: 29.

Moretti, Franco

1996 Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to García Márquez. London and New York: Verso.

Mukherjee, Arun

1992 “Narrating India.” Toronto South Asian Review, 82-91.

Parkinson Zamora, Lois, and Wendy B. Faris, eds.

1995 Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rushdie, Salman

1996 “In Defence of the Novel, Yet Again.” The New Yorker, 24 June.

Slemon, Stephen

1988 “Magic Realism as Post-Colonial Discourse.” Canadian Literature 116:9-24.

Beverly Schneller (essay date summer 2001)

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SOURCE: Schneller, Beverly. “‘Visible and Visitable’: The Role of History in Gita Mehta's Raj and Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.Journal of Narrative Theory 31, no. 2 (summer 2001): 233-54.

[In the following essay, Schneller considers two novels—Gita Mehta's Raj and Mistry's A Fine Balance—and their authors' respective shaping of historical fact for their narratives.]

The title of this essay derives from Henry James' comments in his preface to The Aspern Papers about the qualities of the novel. He liked to read about a past that was both “visible and visitable,” i.e., a past which was alive, relevant, and the creation of its author. Recent post-modern discussion of historiography has also taken a similar approach to the nature of historical narrative and the kinds of meaning historical writing produces. Hayden White, the leader in this debate, argues that there is little difference between historical narrative and the type of prose narrative associated with fictions. As is now well-known, he posits that the historian's point of view towards the material used in historical writing is equivalent to the fiction writer's point of view when creating a plot for a novel. Whether or not White is right in his analysis is beyond the scope of this essay, but what is of interest in his work is the idea that history is an authorial creation: history is a text shaped by its writer's intention and interpretation of what should be “fact.” The implications of White's ideas bear on the name and nature of historical fiction of which Raj and A Fine Balance are two recent South Asian examples.

Gita Mehta and Rohinton Mistry are writers of popular novels; hers in 1989 and his in 1995. Their subject is the sweep of Indian history; hers before independence from Britain in 1947 and his since. As historical fictions, both Mehta and Mistry are willingly engaged with the burden of the past and participate in what David Cowart has defined as the historians' task of advancing “cultural self-knowledge” typically associated with such “humanistic studies” as history (25). Mehta chooses a female central character, Princess Jaya of Balmer, as the lens through which she transmits her versions of late empire; in contrast, Mistry creates a cast of interrelated characters whose lives offer different but complimentary visions of lower caste Indian life in the 1970s. Neither novel has received much critical attention with most of the existing commentary coming from book reviews in popular periodicals. My purpose in this essay is to compare these two novels in their uses of history; to show how they rely on historical information which they shape to fit their plots; and to discuss how these popular novels perform as history for their readers. To broaden the focus of the essay, I briefly compare how Mehta and Mistry use history in their novels to some recent work by Bapsi Sidwha, a Pakistani novelist, and by Hanif Kureshi, an Indian novelist living in Britain. Because Raj and A Fine Balance are historical novels of differing types, they provide a window on the ways novelists can incorporate history into their works to teach as well as to delight. Historical novels, in light of Hayden White, may now be considered as kind of historiography and it is as historical novels that Raj and A Fine Balance need scrutiny.

In the opinion of some book reviewers, Mehta's and Mistry's use of history is problematic. Some have asked the question, “Are we reading history or fiction?” While a few, such as Ian Buruma, identify the challenge facing the South Asian historical novelist. In The New York Review of Books, Buruma wrote, “in few countries is the legacy of history, in spirit and form, so apparent as in India” (9). For Pico Iyer in Time, Mistry has created “the Great Indian novel” (85) while for The New Yorker's anonymous reviewer, A Fine Balance is “a novel that can stand with the best of Dickens” (93).1

Mehta, praised by Buruma for writing of the Raj “without nostalgia or bitterness” (9) sets Princess Jaya's story across the end of the colonial period including the first elections for the Indian Congress, in which she places her name as a candidate. Mehta's story flirts with the traditions of romance—bad marriage, the loss of a son, the attraction to a British soldier, and the heroine's successful quest for identity in a country where repression of women is culturally enforced. Mistry writes a social commentary illustrating how oppression is not always brought to a country from farther shores. Indians are the villains and the heroes in A Fine Balance and what the people do to each other seems as bad if not worse than what happened during the colonial period. Both novelists complicate the easy distinctions between history and fiction in their depictions and interpretations of India's colonial and post-colonial pasts.

Like Forster, Mistry and Mehta make India a character in their novels, and their two novels compare well in other ways, too.2 Both Mistry and Mehta construct plots which focus on family issues and family loyalty as an extension of nationalism; both write with historical accuracy and use history as an operating principle in their narratives; the scope of both novels is broad as a result. Evolution of the individual in the nation and the evolution of India as a free country provide a common, parallel quest in both works, even if the focus of their histories of India diverge conspicuously. Princess Jaya is a member of the ruling class, who eventually becomes the Maharani of her Indian Kingdom and a politically active woman. She is largely sheltered and protected from the common people until she sees the tide has turned with independence. She finds her own voice and her own mission in the new country. The Hindu tailors, Ishvar and Omprakash Darji, whose lives intersect with those of Dina Dalal and Maneck Kohlah, are of the lower castes. They all become victims of the turbulence caused by the State of Emergency and find their lives changed utterly as a result of their vulnerability in this critical period of Indira Gandhi's rule in the 1970s.

The novelists' styles differ as Mistry follows more in the footsteps of Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1980), with its use of the grotesque, the shocking, and the ironic. Mehta's style is more straight forward, using the allegory of the birth of India and the new woman in a recognizable manner. Neither novelist wants to break new ground in literary style, but both seem to want to take the South Asian novel in a direction which differs from those of such contemporaries as Bapsi Sidwha and Hanif Kureishi, as I will discuss a little later in this essay. What we find when we compare Raj with A Fine Balance are approaches to writing historical fiction in two strains: the first is to use the history as a driving force to develop a character over a span of time and draw out the character from the country of origin as in Raj; the other is to adhere to stricter use of history and make the events the dominate character, to merge function with form and content, to take to heart, as Mistry does, the confluence of “spirit and form” in his fiction.

Because the subject of this piece is the use of history as fiction, I focus on work concerned with the historical elements in both novels. As I describe the novelists' uses of history, then, I consider how reviewers reacted to the use of such material. From their comments, a sort of preference theory of taste emerges, especially concerning Raj, which drew more female than male reviewers, who clearly were disturbed at the intrusion of fact into what they wanted to read—a neat romance. Yasmin Alibhai says, for example, “Jaya's story is obviously meant to symbolize the history of India itself as it moved turbulently from the end of the 19th century to independence in 1949 and the liberation of Indian women as these historical convulsions rocked the social structures of society. It doesn't work well and the problem may well be … too much meaningless detail, fascination with the exotic” (34). In Alibhai's mind, history and fiction cannot rest peacefully together in a novel, and it seems she faults Mehta for researching the history of the period she creates in Raj.

In what follows, I will address such complaints, and in presenting summaries of the novels, I will concentrate on those characters whose lives create the main lines of the plots. Given the scope of the novels, covering decades of Indian life and history, it is necessary to limit summaries to only major characters, though minor characters and sub-plots are also well-developed and integrated into main storylines by Mehta and Mistry. I contend that both novelists have written novels which create the “visitable past” so admired by Henry James through which they created “fictional histories” which give to fiction the power of history's language to describe the past. As Hayden White notes, in historical metafiction, “[e]verything is presented as if it were of the same ontological order …” (68); the history is submerged into the fiction and the fiction determines the nature of the history the novelists present. We start with the Raj according to Jaya and Gita Mehta; move on to the new India of Mistry; compare their novels with two of their contemporaries and return to James, via J. Hillis Miller, for a concluding theoretical analysis of the use of history in recent South Asian fiction.

Raj is divided into four parts. “Book One: Balmer” is Jaya's early life; “Book Two: Sirpur” covers her marriage to Prince Pratap; “Book Three: Maharani” portrays her life as the leading woman in the royalty of her kingdom; and “Book Four: Regent” describes her widowhood and her role in leading Sirpur into India and away from its position as an independent kingdom. The last book is also the story of Jaya's activism and her realization that she can continue to serve her country as an elected member of the Indian National Congress. The novel begins in 1897 and ends in 1949. Princess Jaya finds herself in three interlocking situations in the novel: her parents' home, where she is steeped in Indian culture; in her own home, where she must carry out roles prescribed for her by the British and by the Indians; and in emerging India, the country which has always been her “Home” of homes, through which Jaya Devi experiences personal and cultural freedoms.

Mehta presents detailed descriptions of the cultural and personal transformations which her character experiences and witnesses. As she writes in the preface to the novel, she researched the periods she covers in “exhaustive archives” and a “wide and eccentric span of books” (ix). These are the details it appears that bothered Alibhai, but pleased Buruma, who is careful to praise Mehta for recreating the poshness of the Raj and its various extravagances, including the dog wedding organized by the Nawab of Jungadh. One need only compare Jaya's courtly life with the descriptions of the end of the Raj found in Lawrence James' Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India (1997) to see just how well Mehta shows the wealthy Indians' desire to imitate the British, to play their games, to dress and talk like them, and to spend huge amounts of money keeping up the appearances associated with the “Jewel in the Crown” status India possessed as part of the Empire.

Jaya has been criticized as a flat character by reviewers Rachel Billington and Yasmin Alibhai. Billington, herself a novelist, writes Jaya “must, it seems, unlearn the lessons of thousands of years of Indian history and culture.” Further, she complains, “In general, Jaya is a kind of sleepwalker, making her way through remarkable events” (18). Billington and other reviewers miss the point about Jaya, though, and about Mehta's use of history in the novel. As a Maharani, Indian autonomy, even in a diminished state, is better than no native rule at all. Jaya is a presence in the world of colonial India. She is a transcultural woman like many Indian émigrés today, a part of India and a part of another culture, too. As a colonized subject, Jaya's flexibility and quick assumption of a new possibility point to the resilience and the strength of character which was latent in the Indian people. Certain things which happen to Jaya are obvious concessions to Western readers: the attempted suicide by Jaya's widowed mother and Jaya's lessons in how to be a Western woman at the hands of Mrs. Roy, who was hired by Prince Pratap to make Jaya less Indian. For Alibhai, it is Jaya's “mental lassitude” which makes her a poor person; she believes she should “seethe and plot, and joust, at least within the safe confines of her brain” (34). Yet, wanting Jaya to be Gandhi is inappropriate here. Her experiences are limited by history because of her class and her gender; her knowledge of the outside world is minimal and she is a prisoner of the patriarchy of the Raj. When she has the chance, though, she moves ahead and she learns that her real power is as a symbol for change in a free India. Jaya is not a modern woman or a revolutionary; she is a widow in her early fifties, who is not afraid to try something new for her country. Mehta has, in fact, created a character which is consistent throughout the novel. Jaya has always been in the service of India; the larger historical events simply require she shift her methods but not her focus.

Alibhai contends Mehta is writing an exploitation novel, and though the novel is based on factual events, which yield local color and give depth to the plot, the “nostaligie de 1'Empire” remains too strong for the novel to be taken seriously and as a good work of fiction. In particular Alibhai writes: “But this is supposed to be a novel and not a boil-in-bag history/social anthropology lesson and the imaginative leap that is needed to transform historical realities into fictional realities is rarely made” (34). How the “leap” is to be made is left unstated, but one must assume that it involves something more in Alibhai's mind than a well-crafted, accurate portrayal of a character in a specific moment in recorded history. I suspect Alibhai would be equally willing to dismiss Ruth Prawer Jhabvla's 1975 Heat and Dust, which is set again the Sepoy Rebellion (1857-8), and gives a similar blend of history and romance. Alibhai seems to believe that history is itself a kind of fiction and one reality fits both nonfiction and fiction. The premise of her critique, which is central to my argument, concerns the kind of history fiction is thought to present. Buruma believes, as do I, that “[Mehta] is at her best when describing the twisted human relations in colonial society” (9).

Princess Jaya's version of India shares some of the same characteristics as Miss Quested's in A Passage to India (1924). At first, Jaya and Adele Quested find themselves trying to reconcile India's physical beauty and stunningly rich cultural heritage with its politics, but, in the end the two cannot be reconciled any more than a cross-cultural romance between Princess Jaya and Colonel Osborne or Miss Quested and Dr. Azziz would be possible, probable or desirable for either pair. Both women are looking outside for an India they possess within themselves. Forster, Rushdie, and Mehta blend “dream and reality, revelation and imagination, history and fiction, past and present … British culture and Indian culture … to [undermine] and continuously [question] the authority of the monologic voice in religion and culture” (Dönnerstag 458-59). Alibhai and Billington want a feminist political novel from Mehta. They are critical, disappointed, and dismissive (though not as dismissive as the Publisher's Weekly writer who could not let pass that Mehta, is the “wife of Knopf's Sonny Mehta” (217)). In fact, Mehta uses the popular formula of the romance to enliven, through the eyes of a thoughtful woman whose whole life has been a cautionary tale, the end of the Raj. We experience through Jaya's eyes what it is like to see the old world slip away and the curtain rise on the new.

Jaya is a woman who can assume new roles and transform herself without losing her identity because she is loyal to India and remains so her whole life. There is in Raj a female history and a feminist theme after all, as Maharani, then citizen Jaya, never loses her place despite large scale political upheaval and raw violence. Jaya Devi travels around India in the closing pages of the novel, spreading the nationalist message. She wants to insure a peaceful transition from kingdom to part of India for Sirpur. When she registers as an independent candidate for Congress from Sirpur, the election official, hearing her name smiles and says: “The name means victory, madam. May I wish you good luck in your endeavours?” (466). As Osborne and her activist friend, Arun Roy, argue over what the British Empire knew about democracy, Jaya Devi laughs out loud at the absurdity of worrying about the past when the future is so promising (467).

Jaya's optimism is lost on the four characters whose lives are the focus of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance. In this novel, the widow, Dina Dalal, refuses her brother's efforts to arrange another marriage for her, and she ekes out a living as a piecemeal seamstress for a woman who operates an export clothing business. Once a woman with close friends and a husband, Dina is alone in Bombay. When her friends from school ask her to let their son rent a room from her while he is in college in Bombay, she is only too glad for the company, though their relationship gets off to an awkward start. She has not had an unrelated man in her home before and Manek Kohlah has never shared a home with anyone other than his parents. Manek is caught by having to live out his parents' dreams for him as a student of engineering, which he eventually abandons.3 He found the college dorm where he first stayed unnerving in its filth, and he was happy to move in with Dina Aunty.

In a parallel narrative, the reader is introduced to two struggling Hindu leather-workers turned tailors, uncle and nephew, Ishvar and Omprakash (Om) Darji. The two apply for jobs which Dinah has advertised when she finds the work is too much for her alone, and soon they are sewing for her in her apartment and living on an acquaintance's roof. Dina is uneasy about the men as she fears they will try to cut her out of the garment business, so she goes to great pains to see that they do not know where she takes the finished dresses, keeping them as virtual prisoners in her home when she is away delivering and picking up more material and patterns. A third story involves the Beggerman, who operates a large network of street beggars, and who eventually offers Dina and the tailors protection services when she has trouble with her landlord. All in all there are at least five levels or strands of Indian society brought together in A Fine Balance: the Himalayan family of Manek, whose father made his fortune in business; Dina and her brother, who are of the middle class; Om and Ishvar, representing the Hindu caste; Manek's school friend, Avinash, who becomes a campus activist and is killed by the police; and the underworld of Beggerman, the hair collector, Rajaram, and the displaced villagers who wander the streets of Bombay helplessly reduced to crime and begging.

Mistry presents the details of the intersecting lives with a microscopic precision that never seems boring or heavy handed. Like Mehta, he offers little personal touches which lend beauty to the narrative, especially in the quilt that Manek, Dina, Om and Ishvar collaborate on as a testimonial of their lives together. When Om and Ishvar find the government housing they were so pleased to have acquired is bulldozed during the State of Emergency, Dina takes them into her house as boarders; they live on her porch. Om and Manek have a predictable attraction to each other. They are both young men with a fire for life moving them; Dina and Ishvar are compelled by a class-consciousness particular to their ages and experiences to try to discourage the two young men from becoming too friendly. Other happy times in the apartment include Ishvar taking over the cooking and Manek's persuading Dina to take care of some stray kittens he found who live outside the kitchen window. In time, the four of them discover a common humanity. They are people who work hard, respect each other, and worry a great about their futures in uncertain times. Ishvar and Dina share the joy of Om's prospective marriage; Dina even feels she has a right to involve herself in the negotiations (540-7). They agree the trip home to the tailors' rural village will yield the promised results.

Chapter Fifteen “Family Planning” is the turning point in the novel. Om and Ishvar have returned home successfully and they are out shopping for Om's wedding and courting clothes when an old friend, Ashraf Chacha, tells them that a family planning clinic has just opened up in the village. Naturally, they all feel uncomfortable with the sterilizations they know go on there. The sinister background the clinic's tents provide is offset by the raucous welcome Om and Ivshar receive when they are recognized in the village (610), but the celebration is seemingly short-lived as the police move in wielding nightsticks and herd Om, Ishvar and others onto the waiting trucks. Ashraf is murdered on the street, Om and Ishvar are sterilized, against their will, and held in the camp for four months until they make their return to Bombay. Because Om spoke out against the family planning initiative and challenged the doctor performing the operations, the young man's testicles were removed, leaving him a eunuch (614-30). When they return, Dina nearly fails to recognize them. Reduced eventually to begging, Om supports the maimed Ishvar, who lost a leg due to blood poisoning. Dina's life also changes as the State-of-Emergency has ruined Mrs. Gupta's dress trade. She moves in with her brother and becomes a servant to her sister-in-law, Ruby. Manek, who encounters his old friends on the streets, pretends not to recognize them when he returns to Bombay for a visit after his military tour has ended, but he does and they know he has, too. The pain is all too much for him: first he loses Avinash, and then his replacement in Om. Manek commits suicide on the train tracks (710). In the end, Om, Ishvar and Dina still find a way to be together: she surreptitiously feeds them from her brother's table and they do a little mending for her. Most of all they keep each other's spirits up as their lives go on in a fine balance between life and death, sorrow and happiness, freedom and restraint. While there is pathos in Mistry's novel, the history wards off sentimentality.

A Fine Balance spans eleven years, from 1975 to 1984.4 The novel, which won four international prizes and was short-listed for four more, is described by reviewers as “ambitious in scope” (Rubin), as a “monumental new novel,” of “an heroic canvas” and as “a domestic novel that refuses to remain within its walls” (Mojtabai). None of Mistry's reviewers seem disturbed that he has chosen to write a contemporary historical novel, though A. G. Mojtabai finds herself “loosing touch with Ishvar and Dina” as the novel progress and “interior journies” are not presented (29). In the main, reviewers appear satisfied with Mistry's ability to capture “the real sorrow and inexplicable strength of India” (Iyer) as he treats “India both kindly and harshly” (Ross 239).

Robert L. Ross's essay, “Seeking and Maintaining Balance,” is the first U.S.-published critical essay on Mistry's fiction. Ross ponders how much interest Western audiences can be expected to have in Indian politics as he writes in World Literature Today:

Another question arises when considering these two novels (A Fine Balance and Such a Long Journey; Jowney [1991]): does the exposé of political corruption and tyranny during Indira Gandhi's tenure still hold that much interest? She is long dead … The tempest that is Indian politics before, during, and since Mrs. Gandhi's years in power probably fails to intrigue most readers of Mistry's work. It is not the history of the actuality that attracts in Mistry's fiction, but the way he uses these elements … he transforms historical situations and the reality of Indian life into a metaphor that shows how the individual reacts to widespread corruption when tangled in its grasp … and how people respond to the endless forms of tyranny that government and society inflict.


While I agree that Mistry integrates the history of India in a way that is relevant to and enhances the theme of A Fine Balance, I disagree with Ross's assumption that the incorporation of accurate historical information fails to attract readers. Ross appears to suggest that in Mistry's latest novel, history can be separated from the fiction, which I contend it cannot. The use of history is not limited to images and metaphor as the State-of-Emergency is a violent character in the novel, and as such, needs to be explored.

Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), who was active in the independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, became a member of the Indian Congress in 1950; party President 1959; Minister of Information in 1964; and Prime Minister in 1964. The State-of-Emergency was declared in June 1975 after she was found guilty of electoral corruption. She enforced censorship, limited civil liberties, and carried out social engineering among the poor. Removed in 1977 when the Congress Party lost the elections, she returned to politics as head of the Indian National Congress in 1978 and as Prime Minister in 1980. In 1984, she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards, which led to the retaliatory deaths of 3,000 Sikhs. This assassination is the subject of recent Indian literature, and A Fine Balance spans the whole of Gandhi's first term as Prime Minister. Om, Ishvar and the community in which they live mirrors reality and historical situations. Mistry relies on the reader to recognize the validity of his portrayal of the effects of the State-of-Emergency on the Indian poor. As Naomi Jacobs says, when writers use historical or pop-culture figures there is “a concentrated code reference to an elaborate set of associations in the reader's and/or writer's mind” (110). These associations are revealed now.

For Om, Ishvar and the other lower caste characters, the State-of-Emergency leads to arrests, beatings and the destruction of shanty homes in an atmosphere of widespread confusion. The declaration served as a means for Mrs. Gandhi to lash out at her whole country and to punish the easily abused poor. One must read the State-of-Emergency as a Hydra-like occurrence, in which the tentacles of government reached across the entire subcontinent, destroying lives in its wake. Dina's apartment serves as a safe-haven for Om and Ishvar, who are otherwise homeless at the wrong time. Their caste prohibits them from climbing out of poverty, though they are incredibly diligent and talented tailors. They are judged by their appearances and the outward signs of their caste's poverty, even though they are literate, are saving money from their wages for Om's wedding, paying their bills on time, and generally minding their own business. They are criminalized for being who they are, which is ironic when one recalls that Dina is actually breaking the law by having them work and live in her apartment and the sinister, but oddly likeable hair collector, Rajaram, is a murderer.

Reading the 1999 Human Rights Watch report, Broken People: Caste Violence against India's ‘Untouchables’, underscores the extent of the hardship and the violence the poor of India face and with which Mistry seems well-acquainted. The report's major finding, in the context of its relevance to A Fine Balance, is how through “a series of inefficient and corrupt state governments since the early 1970s … government officials … have acted as agents and turned a blind eye to the killings,” displacements, and police-led attacks on rural villagers, called Dalits (Untouchables) (43). Women and those who would dare engage in social activism are routinely singled-out for beatings and other acts of violence, which are termed attacks on modesty. The report describes “the criminalization of social activism” (153-165) and details cases similar to Om's one-man resistance to the vasectomy. Mistry's ability to grasp and portray the lives of the poor, especially how they “languish in makeshift homes on government property” (99) is particularly realistic as Om and Ishvar find themselves mingling with displaced members of Indian society during the State-of-Emergency. Broken People elucidates and A Fine Balance enlivens the patterns and types of violence and state-sponsored oppression. Started in the 1970s they are still much in evidence, lending credibility to “the fine balance,” the thin, delicate balance which is daily life in India.

The State-of-Emergency is Manek Kohlah's nemesis. As a young man who descends into the underworld of Bombay, he fails to survive. A victim of repression in a way that differs from the experience of Om and Ishvar, Manek will not be a hypocrite. His wealth and education would enable him to rise or, to at least do well, but this is irreconcilable with the mass suffering of the Indian people as experienced by his extended family in Bombay. Out of loyalty and in response to their dignity, Manek jumps to his death; his last memory is that of his murdered friend from college, whose parents he had lately met. From the start, Manek is ill-suited to urban Bombay; he is always uncomfortable with what seemed normal to those who had become acculturated to certain levels of squalor and poverty in order to survive. Lacking survival skills, with his head literally in the clouds, Manek is lost in a world without beauty.5

Mistry's decision to tell a story of personal courage, resilience, hope and dignity in a destructive world redefines the family by crossing classes and economic barriers. Pamela Dunbar addresses the importance of family in the postcolonial novel when she writes; “The use of [the family] implies a skepticism about the healthy survival of the wider community during a period of historical uncertainty” (103). Readers who know Indian history realize that what Dina, Om and Ishvar have will once again be tested in 1984, the year of the novel's Epilogue, and Mrs. Gandhi's assassination. The balance is once more upset. Gandhi's period as Prime Minister repeatedly tested the character of India and Indians' ability to balance hope and despair.

Both Gita Mehta and Rohinton Mistry illustrate Henry James' concept that a novelist “should regard himself as an historian and his narrative as history” (qtd. in Miller, “History, Narrative” 193). James maintained “fictional histories” bear the same weight of truth as history itself, writing in the Preface to the Aspern Papers: “I delight in a palpable imaginable visitable past … We are divided of course between liking to feel the past strange and liking to feel it familiar; the difficulty is, for intensity, to catch it at the moment when the scales of the balance hang with the right evenness” (197-8).6 That is, when the fine balance between history and literature is achieved, a lively, realistic history in and as fiction emerges from the story. In the post-modern, and post-colonial novels of Mehta and Mistry, history gives power to the language of fiction. It relies on literary narrative to mix the real with the imaginary. Writers of “fictional histories” bear the “responsibility” of telling the “truth” about the past. It is upon this responsibility that their ethos as novelists and those of their characters rest.

Thus, Mehta and Mistry are in the middle of the debate about historical “truth.” In 1946, R. G. Collingwood stated the inevitable dilemma of the historian who was writing about events which he/she did not witness first hand, when he said that if the historian is not present for the event, then “[he] must re-enact the past in his own mind.” To write the historical account, he must employ “certain documents or relics of the past” to achieve appropriate levels of “historical thinking,” i.e., the mindset which allows “[him] to re-enact in his own mind the experiences about which he wishes to write” (282-3). It seems the same could be said of the historical novelist.

Hayden White, as recently as 1999 in Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, claims “historical discourse” is an “interpretation of the past” which literary critics are as capable of assessing as historians (3). Because history writing relies on the same type of narrative linear storytelling, the perceived “opposition between fact and fiction is abolished;” or “the contract” between the real and the imaginary is “dissolved” (66-68). Again, the lines between historical and fictional narrative appear blurry. For literary critics including Cowart in History and the Contemporary Novel (1989), historical writing “… like imaginative writing, involves the selection of detail, the determination of emphasis, [and] a narrational shaping” (17). These are all properties of fiction writing which in the end affect the validity of the “truth” the reader finds in history. Cowart also maintains that “… history makes its greatest contribution when it supplies the creative artist with raw material” (25).

Following from Collingwood to White to Cowart, the reader is left to consider whether the form of the historical novel in any way invalidates the history which one finds in the fiction. As I have already shown, Mehta, through primary research creates her own interpretation of the Raj from the perspective of her female central character. Mistry's use of history is focused more on the situations of the characters he creates which are emblematic of the Indian people. In his work, I find parallels with memoirs and other primary accounts, though unlike Mehta, he does not indicate if he conducted research to develop his story. What the postmodernist view of history as a sibling of fiction suggests is that Mehta's and Mistry's histories of India are as valid as Lawrence James', Siddhartha Dube's or the Human Rights Watch report's authors.

To see more of these “fictional histories” and to highlight how Mistry's and Mehta's use of history differs from their contemporaries, it is helpful to consider, if briefly, two novels by Bapsi Sidwha and one by Hanif Kureishi. Sidwha's The Crow Eaters (1981) and Cracking India (1988) predate Mistry and Mehta while Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia was published in 1990 between Raj and A Fine Balance. Anglo-Indian relations are a common theme in both The Crow Eaters and Raj; while Cracking India has more in common with the brutal realism of A Fine Balance.

In The Crow Eaters and The Buddha of Suburbia, political history is a part of the furniture of setting. Racism is given a slightly larger role by Kureishi; though in the Sidwah novel, the marriage of the youngest son is an allegory for Anglo-Indian relations. When Billy Junglewalla marries Tanya Easymoney, he allows himself to be as westernized as she already is. Tanya, a beautiful spend thrift, with her “swing of black, bobbed-hair” (201) prefers to dress in British style. Billy is more traditionally raised, and has grown up in the shadow of his handsome, loved brothers. He is eager to gain his father's approval, and after his older brother dies and another becomes a mendicant, Billy assumes his father's store and becomes rich. The tension between Tanya and Billy symbolizes her greedy colonialist mindset; while he represents the wealth of India to her as ready to be plundered.7

Another subplot involves Yazdi, the family's second son, and Rosy Watson, an unfortunate Anglo-Indian. Yazdi falls in love with her, and promises to marry her though they are both still school children. He is moved by her accounts of domestic violence perpetrated by her father and stepmother. To get her out of the way in the house, her stepmother arranges for Rosy to be raped in her own home: “They tied her to the bed and brought men into the room …” (127), Yazdi tells his father, Freddy. Yazdi, Freddy realizes, does not grasp what Rosy's stepmother has done to her, but as Sidwha knows in creating this situation “Once a girl is raped, she becomes unmarriageable” (Human Rights Watch 31). For this reason, Freddy sends Yazdi away from Lahore for schooling, and succeeds in keeping Rosy out of the family.

In breaking up his own Romeo and Juliet, Freddy loses Yazdi anyway. By accident, Freddy finds Rosy working in a brothel he and some friends have gone to visit, and to make his point clear and solidify in his mind the rightness of his actions, he has sex with Rosy himself. Perhaps in this way he can make his decision more clear to Yazdi, but it is nevertheless cruel.

The aspects of The Crow Eaters that are clearly verisimilar include a rural family moving to the city to prosper; generational conflict; the steadying influence of women in the family; and class-based decision making. Indian history/Pakistani history does not play an essential role in this novel. The characters are affected by internal domestic politics, more so than by the separation of Pakistan from India or by Indian independence. Similarly, the racism of The Buddha of Suburbia and the experiences of this novel's main character are part of a fictional situation more than a fictional history.

Karim Amir introduces himself as “an Englishman born and bred” (3) in the first sentence of Kureishi's novel. Karim is the son of an Indian father, Haroon Amir, and an English mother, Margaret. The family lives in South London and tensions between the native British population and the Indian and Pakistani immigrants are always in evidence. Karim's foil is his cousin, Jamilla, a feminist, who sees Karim as selfish and a race-traitor. Although the novel, like The Crow Eaters is comic, Karim's inability to see himself as exploited because he is Anglo-Indian and The National Front's attack on people in his circle as well as Jamilla's arranged marriage, adds seriousness and depth to the text.

Karim experiences personal discomfort with his race when he is cast as Mogwli in “The Jungle Bunny Book,” not the dramatic adaptation Kipling wrote, but a play written and directed by a friend of his father's lover. Karim is enjoying the part until he is asked in rehearsal to use a stage-Indian accent, something which his father, who came to England for college in the 1950's, worked hard to eliminate, but Karim does it anyway.

Later in this acting career, Karim is included in a select company in a send up of method acting. He is asked to prepare a real-self sort of part, so the playwright, after seeing what the ensemble creates as characters, can write a play to accommodate them. First, Karim imitates what he sees as hysterical in his uncle, Anwar, whose fasting nearly kills him until Jamilla relents and accepts his choice of husband for her, Changez, a crippled man who loves reading and has no apparent business sense. When challenged by another member of the company, Tracey, with “Why do you hate yourself, and all black people so much Karim?” (180), Karim is at first confused, then sets out to create Changez for the stage. Like the National Front thugs who cannot tell the difference between Pakistanis and Indians, Karim cannot see the difference between himself as Anglo-Indian and as British; after all, he defined himself as an “Englishman” at the start. As he says, “… if I wanted the additional personality bonus of an Indian past, I would have to create it” (213) which he does by siphoning Indian-ness off of Changez.

Karim's closeness to Jamilla is damaged when he fails to appear at a protest march against the National Front which was organized after Changez was mistaken for a Pakistani and beaten up. Jamilla tells Karim the National Front is planning other acts of violence and the protest march will at least let them know they are not welcome. Karim decides “We could not stop it; we could only make our voices heard” (225); but he does not believe in “we” and “our.” He is, in fact, so successful in acting the part of Changez as a bumbling woman chaser that he becomes the star of the play, goes on tour to New York and gains a future as an actor on a TV soap opera. For Karim, activism is futile and the road to nowhere. In giving the audience a racist stereotype of an Indian man, he has achieved success. As a man in his twenties, Karim is selfish and more interested in sex than politics. At no point does Kureish break Karim's character with false political sentiments. Karim is shallow and selfish and suffers from the intellectual lassitude Alibhai claimed Jaya Devi possessed. Literary critics, however, have found much to politicize in The Buddha of Suburbia, though it makes no effort to be a political novel per se.8

Cracking India, Sidwha's 1988 novel, compares more favorably to A Fine Balance. The narrator is an eight-year-old girl, Lenny, who is crippled with polio (like Billy, Changez, Bunny and Om, who are other maimed characters).9 She acts as an observer-narrator in keeping with her role as a child. Through her ayah, Lenny crosses paths with a variety of men who wish to be the ayah's suitors, including the “Ice-Candy Man,” a vendor of ice treats. In a period of partisan violence, surrounding the Independence movement, the ice-candy man persuades Lenny to betray the hiding place of her Hindu ayah. The ayah is then raped and abducted, appearing in public as the much decorated, rechristened Mumtaz, “wife” of the Ice-Candy Man. Fortunately for the ayah, Lenny's grandmother is a sort of force of nature who arranges for the girl, though damaged, to return to her family.

Lenny's encounters with politics and sectarian violence are suited to her childhood. She listens to dinner conversations about politics, heated debates in the park, and picks up news she does not really understand in the park with her ayah. Sidwha incorporates the independence movement into the setting, first, then connects it to the most vulnerable member of Lenny's household to give it meaning. The chapters on politics, 15 and 16, in which the ayah is abducted, have the characters saying enough of their views to carry the main ideas of the plot through. How they live their political lives is kept remote from Lenny, who, like Yazdi is witness to something she does not really understand.

Lenny is unaware of the causes of the sectarian violence, the fate of her ayah, or of the cruelty surrounding the marriage of her sometime playmate, a household servant's daughter. The girl's mother really hates the child, and heaps verbal insults and beatings on her. The daughter is unable to physically fight back, but she is willing to provoke her mother and to insult her. At ten years old, she is married to a middle-aged man. For the ceremony, the girl is drugged (Lenny notices she does not seem her usual lively self) presumably by her mother, so she will offer no resistance. Thus, amid all the beauty of the traditional ceremony, a socially sanctioned act of inhumanity occurs. Sidhwa, again, shows her cultural awareness of India's women's complicity in acts that are against other women's freedom. While it is true child marriage is a way for parents to protect their daughters from rape by upper class men, the act of the mother in this novel is just vengeful.

Sidwha and Kureishi use historical circumstance as lesser vehicles in creating the settings of their novels. For Sidwha, Cracking India moves towards a greater, more direct use of history and contemporary politics, and both Sidwha and Kureishi present an unvarnished view of South Asian culture.

Henry James, R. G. Collingwood, and Hayden White are not far apart on the issue of history and fiction and history as fiction. For James, to be a novelist was to be cultural historian whose duty was to capture the details of the past. For Collingwood and White, the historian is in the same situation, needing to write about the past, which as a human, one is bound to interpret and shape in ways that do or do not conform with taste and cultural preoccupations. Both Mehta and Mistry transform key moments in Indian history into readable fiction and popular history. They are not “Indian historians” but they are invoking the “historical thinking” which Collingwood held was necessary for historical writing. Because history is the operating principle behind both novels, changing the settings of Raj and A Fine Balance to another time and place, would simply not work. Far from causing readers to move away from the fictions because of the historical thinking, as Ross suggests, the deliberate and deliberative uses of history employed by Mistry and Mehta reveal these works as unique, problematic, and complex. Raj and A Fine Balance make history visitable and visible and as historical novels they are worthy of appreciation having earned a place in the ongoing postmodern debates about truth, meaning and interpretation of the past.


  1. See also Annalisa Oboe, “South African Historical Fiction and Nationalism,” and Kavita Mathai, “National Identity in Recent Indian Novels in English.”

  2. Yoko Fujimoto labels Mistry and other immigrant novelists as “postcolonial transcultural writers” (33).

  3. Ragini Ramachandra's essay, “Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey: Some First Impressions” enables the reader to quickly compare the plots of his first and second novels. Both share the themes of a younger man disappointing his male elders and of personal loss. Ramachandra glosses over Mistry's use of history in Such a Long Journey as “lending a political coloring to the novel apart from investing it with topical interest” (29). Topical interest is not the point in Mistry's treatment of historical events.

  4. These years are also addressed in Siddharth Dube's family memoir, In Land of Poverty: Memoirs of an Indian Family, especially chapter 7: “The Messiah of the Poor: Indira Gandhi,” pp. 99-112. He writes “The campaign of forced sterilization and slum clearance begun by Sanjay Gandhi … left her reputation tarnished almost beyond repair, it was inconceivable they were pursued without her concurrence. The campaigns … also betrayed Mrs. Gandhi's retrograde attitude to the poor: they were a valuable vote block, they were also the root cause of India's troubles” (106). One and a half million people, mostly in northern Hindu states, were victims of sterilization (107). By the end of the 1970s, the poor felt they would never be able to rise above “the deprivation that [they] had long suffered” (112).

  5. Here it is interesting to compare Upamanyu Chatterjee's short story, “The Assassination of Indira Gandhi” with its main character, Bunny Karion, to Mistry's Manek Kohlah. Bunny is a Sikh college student, who against his parents wishes does not follow his religion or wear the beard and turban of his people. He has a drinking problem, and is leading a dissipated life at school in Bombay, when he decides, mostly out of boredom, to just go home. In fact, Bunny is ill with rheumatoid arthritis. As he is recovering from jaundice, Bunny and his family hear of the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi. Bunny feels “in a delirious state, … that the world's chaos merely mirrored his own” (207). Less subtle than Mistry or Mehta, Chatterjee drives home the parallels between history and literature. Both Bunny and Manek believe “nothing could claim him” (209), because “(a)mbition was an absurdity, so-much-to-do-and-so-little-time-to-do-it, how pointless an outlook” (210) in a world full of “mad events” (210). Bunny and Manek give into the State-of-Emergency which is at once a part of their private and public lives.

  6. Here, as I will explain later, I draw on J. Hillis Miller's interpretation of Henry James on the relationship of history and fiction.

  7. Mrinalini Sinha explains in Colonial Masculinity in a succinct way the importance of India to the English economy which makes Tanya's and Billy's marriage a symbolic parallel, see pp. 1-10.

  8. See for example, the essays on The Buddha of Suburbia in the special section of Commonwealth Essays and Studies, ed. with an introduction by James Oubechou. Topics including colonialism, otherness and cultural criticism are addressed by the several authors. Though Kureishi is only 44, he is the subject of a biography by Kenneth C. Kaleta, Hanif Kureishi: Postcolonial Storyteller.

  9. The defective body of the most native or natural of Indians is overtly suggestive of diseases and injustice in the larger polis; of colonialism and the State-of-Emergency. Rushdie's Salem Sinai is also disfigured with his huge nose and face in the shape of India. The injured bodies here are not open to such parody.

Works Cited

Alibhai, Yasmin. “A False Orient.” Rev. of Raj, by G. Mehta. The New Statesman and Society 16 June 1989: 34.

Bayer, Jogamaya. “The Presentation of History in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Novel Heat and Dust.” Zach and Goodwin 443-447.

Billington, Rachel. “Out of the Purdan into Politics.” Rev. of Raj, by G. Mehta. New York Times Book Review 9 April 1989:18.

“Briefly Noted—A Fine Balance.The New Yorker 3 June 1998: 93.

Buruma, Ian. “Good Night Sweet Princes.” Rev. of Raj, by G. Mehta. New York Review of Books 18 May 1989: 9-12.

Chaterjee, Upumany. “The Assasination of Indira Gandhi.” Mirrorwork. Ed. Salman Rushdie and Elizabeth West. New York: Owl Books, 1997: 198-210.

Collingwood, R. G. The Idea of History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1946.

Cowart, David. History and the Contemporary Novel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1989.

Dönnerstag, Jurgen. “Hybrid Forms of Multiculturalism in the Fiction of Salman Rushdie.” Zach and Goodwin 455-460.

Dube, Siddharth. In the Land of Poverty: Memoirs of an Indian Family. New York: Zed Books, 1998.

Dunbar, Pamel. “Conflict and Continuity: The Family as Emblem of the Postcolonial Society.” Zach and Goodwin 103-104.

“Fiction Reprints—A Fine Balance.Publisher's Weekly, 22 February 1991: 217.

Fujimoto, Yoko. “Multi-Culturalism and Ethnic Writing in English Canada: A New Development in the National Literary Discourse.” Zach and Goodwin 325-330.

Human Rights Watch. Broken People. Cast Violence against India's ‘Untouchables’. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999.

“Indira Gandhi.” Cambridge Biographical Dictionary, 1991.

Ingraham, Janet. “Book Reviews-Fiction.” Rev. of A Fine Balance, by R. Mistry. Library Journal 1 April 1996: 18.

Iyer, Pico. “Down and Really Out.” Rev. of A Fine Balance, by R. Mistry. Time 22 April 1996: 84-5.

Jacobs, Naomi. The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.

James, Lawrence. Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

Kaleta, Kenneth C. Hanif Kureishi: Postcolonial Storyteller Austin: U of Texas P, 1998.

Kureishi, Hanif. The Buddha of Suburbia. New York: Viking, 1990.

Mathai, Kavita. “National Identity in Recent Indian Novels in English.” Zach and Goodwin 435-441.

Mehta, Gita. Raj: A Novel. 1989. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

Miller, J. Hillis. “History, Narrative, and Responsibility: Speech Acts in ‘The Aspern Papers’.” Enacting History in Henry James: Narrative, Power and Ethics. Ed. Gert Buelens. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997), 193-210.

———. “Narrative and History.” ELH 41 (1974): 455-473.

Mistry, Rohinton. A Fine Balance. 1995. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1997.

Mojtabai, A. G. “An Accidental Family” Rev. of A Fine Balance by R. Mistry. New York Times Book Review, 23 June 1996: 29.

Oboe, Annalisa. “South African Historical Fiction and Nationalism.” Zach and Goodwin 229-237.

Oubechou, James, ed. “The Buddha of Suburbia.” Spec. section of Commonwealth Essays and Studies 4 (1997): 87-125.

Ramachandra, Ragini. “Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey: Some First Impressions.” The Literary Criterion (Bombay) 29.4 (1991): 25-34.

Ross, Robert L. “Seeking and Maintaining Balance: Rohinton Mistry's Fiction.” World Literature Today 73 (Spring 1999): 239-245.

Rubin, Merle. “Novels of Love and Adversity for Summertime Reading.” Rev. of A Fine Balance, by R. Mistry. The Christian Science Monitor 27 June 1996: B1.

Sidwha, Bapsi. Cracking India. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 1991. Rpt. of The Ice-Candy Man. 1988.

———. The Crow Eaters. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

Sinha, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinity: The “Manly Englishman” and the “Effeminate Bengali’ in the late Nineteenth Century. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1995.

White, Hayden. Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999.

Zach Wolfgang, and Ken L. Goodwin, eds. Nationalism vs. Internationalism: (Inter)national Dimensions of Literature in English. Tubingen: Stauffenberg, 1996.

Lee Langley (review date 30 March 2002)

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SOURCE: Langley, Lee. “Grim Home Thoughts from Abroad.” Spectator 288, no. 9060 (30 March 2002): 41.

[In the following review of Family Matters, Langley praises Mistry as a writer who effectively weaves tragedy and vivid descriptions of everyday routine into his fiction.]

In his last novel, A Fine Balance (short-listed, like his first, for the Booker), Rohinton Mistry dealt with a disparate group of losers thrown together at the time of Indira Gandhi's Emergency. Against a huge, Tolstoyan background, lives were destroyed in divers ways: accident, amputation, castration, violent death. Survivors teetered on a tightrope above the abyss. Heart-rending, tragic, the characters had a wild, Beckett-like humour; astride the grave, they got in the odd laugh.

The new novel, Family Matters, has a narrower focus, a family in Bombay today, and since as always, his locus is India, much of it takes place in that narrow space between penury and just enough to keep going, which is where much of the population of the subcontinent exists. This is not really a representative family: like Mistry himself they are Parsis, Zoroastrians, a minority tiny in number (around 120,000 today) perceived, like the Jews they in many ways resemble, as more powerful than they are. Strong on education and philanthropy, Parsis have a reputation for being energetic, resourceful, prone to intellectual arrogance. They keep family bonds tight. Once influential, they are dwindling through intermarriage and a low birth-rate.

Parsi writing made its mark on the postcolonial scene with the Pakistani novelist Bapsi Sidhwa's The Crow Eaters in 1978, comic and picaresque, introducing Western readers to this little-known aspect of Indian life. Mistry's first book, Tales from Firozsha Baag, followed on a decade later. Though his own life has been largely spent in Canada, he writes with the eye not of an exile but a family member home on a visit.

Mistry is good at families; the abrasive nature of propinquity. He shows with terrible truth the way it can bring out the best or the worst in people. His novels deal in various ways with how we behave towards one another. Lack of love lies at the core of tragic events. Resentment simmers between parents and children, siblings, in-laws, wives, husbands. Nice people can find good reasons for inflicting pain on those near to them. There are few screaming matches; loud quarrels are rare. Small deaths occur in the heart.

In Family Matters, Narriman, a frail, 79-year-old Parsi widower who lives with his stepson and stepdaughter is diagnosed with Parkinson's. When he tries to maintain his independence by going for a walk, disaster follows. Immobilised, a leg in plaster, the gentle, apologetic Narriman becomes a time-bomb to the family. In the countdown his two stepchildren discover their inability to rise to the new situation. With echoes of Lear, the practicalities are briskly embarked on: first neglect, then subterfuge. Narriman is dispatched to the cramped, two-room flat where his daughter Roxana lives with her husband and two children—a space already inadequate before the addition of a bed-ridden invalid. Mistry gives us the minutiae of everyday suffering: how to stretch an already insufficient meal to include an extra person; how to get a smelly, helpless old man on and off a bedpan and wash him, all dwelt on in unflinching detail.

The narrative shifts back and forth in time as Narriman drifts in and out of touch with the present, recalling earlier days: his great love, Lucy, a girl his parents forbade him to marry because she was not Parsi; his acceptance of an arranged marriage, from which all else followed: the ambiguous vengeance exacted by his embittered wife, the erosion of his daughter's marital happiness.

Narriman's sweetness and gentle humour recall Naipaul's Mr Biswas, as does the love of English literature he shares with his son-in-law, their conversations larded with quotes from the works they learned to love at school. Bombay is always there in the background with its seething disaffection; increasingly violent, beset by Hindu extremists and corruption. The plot is resolved—Shakespearean echoes abound—with accidental judgments and casual slaughter. Although Roxana and her family survive thanks to the transforming power of love, the epilogue provides an ironic twist.

Rohinton Mistry's world is not a happy one. He goes further than Larkin: man hands out misery to man. Anguish and tribulation come to the vulnerable; the cold-hearted inherit the earth. For those who find visiting India difficult because it offers too much reality, this will be a tough journey, but vaut le voyage.

Brooke Allen (review date September 2002)

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SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “Loss and Endurance.” Atlantic 290, no. 2 (September 2002): 165-66.

[In the following review of Family Matters, Allen charts the progress of Mistry's writing over the course of his career and commends him as a master of metaphor.]

Rohinton Mistry is not a household name, but it should be. The fifty-year-old Toronto resident, originally from Bombay, has long been recognized as one of the best Indian writers; he ought to be considered simply one of the best writers, Indian or otherwise, now alive.

Mistry is not prolific, but his development has been swift and steady. His first book, Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag (1987), was a wryly humorous series of interlocking tales rather in the manner of his countryman R. K. Narayan, or at least identifiable as part of the same gentle fictional tradition. His second, Such a Long Journey (1991), remained anchored in the world of his earlier stories, that of petit bourgeois Parsi families who struggle, sometimes desperately, to hold on to precarious livelihoods and dwindling status in decaying Bombay apartment blocks, and who dream of emigrating to Canada—“not just the land of milk and honey,” as one of Mistry's characters, fed up with Bombay's foul aromas, puts it, but “also the land of deodorant and toiletry.”

Swimming Lessons [Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag] and Such a Long Journey were the work of a miniaturist, tightly contained within one claustrophobic community. Coming on the heels of these two lovely but essentially regional books, A Fine Balance (1995) was a surprise: panoramic, intensely dramatic, bursting out of the bounds Mistry had previously set for himself. It earned comparisons with the work of Dickens and Tolstoy. This high praise is not exaggerated.

The Literary Review, with some justice, called A Fine Balancethe India novel, the novel readers have been waiting for since E. M. Forster.” The book is set in 1975. Forster's India, the Raj of King George V, where Britons and Indians hovered awkwardly on either side of an unbridgeable gap, has given way to the “Goonda Raj” of Indira Gandhi, where Hindus are separated from Muslims, and Parsis from Sikhs, and the immemorial laws of caste facilitate the brutal exploitation of the helpless by the powerful as the corrupt government leads the way.

A lot of nonsense has been written by literary critics, and others, about “the human spirit,” tempting one to point out that the human spirit has always been remarkable more for greed and rapacity than for the exalted qualities the term usually celebrates. Yet occasionally a book rekindles our affection for the human race, and A Fine Balance is one. Although the suffering within it should be unbearable to observe, the reading experience is in fact strangely joyful. We can only reflect, with the author, that “where humans were concerned, the only emotion that made sense was wonder, at their ability to endure,” and notice that those of Mistry's characters who retain this ability are those who have also retained their sense of humor. Mistry has a keenly developed feeling for the absurd: there is hardly a page in all of his fiction that isn't funny on one level or another. What makes the final pages of A Fine Balance heartbreaking is not that we see the protagonists' lives so hideously diminished but that in spite of it all they are still laughing.

Family Matters, Mistry's new novel, charts the effects of religious bigotry and rigid traditionalism as they work their insidious way through generations of a family. In the prime of his life Nariman Vakeel was compelled by his parents and their orthodox Parsi circle to give up the woman he loved, a non-Parsi Goan, and marry the more appropriate Yasmin, a widow with two children, Jal and Coomy. “No happiness is more lasting than the happiness that you get from fulfilling your parents' wishes,” a family friend tells him, and he allows himself to believe this lie. His subsequent loveless marriage blights the family for decades.

The distortion of the religious impulse into an instrument of prejudice and exclusion propels the novel and its characters; indeed, everywhere in Mistry's work a retreat into ritual indicates spiritual impoverishment. In Family Matters, Parsi fundamentalism wrecks the family's harmony and pollutes the very air at Nariman's flat in the ironically misnamed Chateau Felicity apartment building, while beyond Chateau Felicity, Hindu fundamentalism, in the form of Shiv Sena thugs, wantonly ruins the lives of thousands. The thoughtful Nariman is especially wary of the threat posed by zealotry: he admonishes Coomy, for example, for referring to acts of God, observing that she “was getting into the bad habit of burdening God with altogether too much responsibility: ‘And that is good for neither God nor us.’”

One of the strongest features of Mistry's novels—and the reason he is so reminiscent of the great nineteenth-century writers—is his use, sometimes audacious, of big metaphors. Family Matters and A Fine Balance are masterly in the way they imbue certain lives, or deaths, with meaning. Nariman's wife and his lover, for instance, are perversely joined in death as they were, much against their wills, during their lives. One of Mistry's most memorable characters is the powerful Beggarmaster in A Fine Balance, a terrifying fusion of cruelty and compassion. Beggarmaster literally buys beggars, often children; sends them to doctors for “professional modifications” (limbs amputated, eyes put out); and sets them up on street corners, then claiming a cut of their take. A figure of nightmare, in fact; yet he cares for his beggars with the utmost vigilance, and functions as an honorable protector and insurer in an anarchic world where the police have become more threat than protector. Beggarmaster's star beggar is Shankar, a legless, fingerless man who propels himself around on a rolling platform. In a plot twist that only Mistry—or Dickens—could have come up with, Beggarmaster and Shankar turn out to be half brothers. The revelation of this fact, and the striking even emblematic, manner of the two men's deaths, are unforgettable.

Major writers differ from minor ones, even great minor ones, in their ability to handle the big questions: death, family, the passing of time, the inevitability of loss, God or the corresponding God-shaped hole. Mistry handles all of them in an accomplished style entirely his own. He also manages, with gentle insistence, to focus our attention on what we have and what we are constantly in the process of losing. Children leave; families disintegrate; love slips away; moments of happiness, too often unrecognized at the time, vanish into the past. Material well-being is fragile: as Beggarmaster pointedly remarks, “People forget how vulnerable they are despite their shirts and shoes and briefcases, how this hungry and cruel world could strip them, put them in the same position as my beggars.” Immaterial possessions are just as evanescent; memory itself fragments and fades. “Losing, and losing again,” one of Mistry's characters insists, “is the very basis of the life process, till all we are left with is the bare essence of human existence.” Mistry's work illustrates the comment only too effectively; and yet this essence, seen through his eyes, is still beautiful.

John Eustace (essay date 2003)

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SOURCE: Eustace, John. “Deregulating the Evacuated Body: Rohinton Mistry's ‘Squatter.’” Studies in Canadian Literature 28, no. 1 (2003): 26-42.

[In the following essay, Eustace focuses on the preponderance of fecal matter in Mistry's various works, particularly in the short story “Squatter.”]

These squatting figures—to the visitor, after a time, as eternal and emblematic as Rodin's Thinker—are never spoken of; they are never written about; they are not mentioned in novels or stories; they do not appear in feature films or documentaries. This might be regarded as part of a permissible prettifying intention. But the truth is that Indians do not see these squatters and might even, with complete sincerity, deny that they exist: a collective blindness arising out of the Indian fear of pollution and the resulting conviction that Indians are the cleanest people in the world.

—V. S. Naipaul, An Area of Darkness

In attempting to expose bodies already too exposed, An Area of Darkness is forced to contemplate its own extraneousness as a narrative, and its secret arrival at an image of race as the evacuated body.

—Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India

Rohinton Mistry's fiction is full of shit. Throughout the Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987), along the compound wall surrounding the Noble family's apartment block in Such a Long Journey (1991), along the railway tracks of the unnamed city in A Fine Balance (1995), and into the bedpan of Nariman Vakeel in Family Matters (2002), bodies seem to be evacuating with unusual regularity. These representations of what, according to Naipaul, “is never spoken of” and “never written about” (76) might explain, in part, the reactions of some of Mistry's reviewers and critics. Arun Mukherjee, in her review of Such a Long Journey, suggests that many of its Western reviewers read the preponderance of bodily excrescences in condescending and self-serving ways, reinforcing “their smug sense of Canadian (Western?) superiority” (86). However, Parsis and Indian nationals to whom I have spoken personally have reacted similarly to the portrayals of squalor, suggesting that such representations do not serve their communities. One of the most public condemnations of Mistry came from a Western intellectual, Germaine Greer, who faulted him for his depictions of Indian squalor and cruelty in A Fine Balance: “I just don't recognize this dismal, dreary city. It's a Canadian book about India. What could be worse? What could be more terrible?” (“Mistry calls”; qtd in Ross 240).1 This comment prompted an unusual rejoinder from Mistry, who publically defended the verisimilitude of his representations, and then wrote the incident into the plot of Family Matters.2

In this paper, I will join the discussion concerning the efficacy of Mistry's representations of squalor by focussing on his deployment of the trope of the squatting Indian in his short story “Squatter.” In focussing on this trope, I will address indirectly the complaints of Greer and others: while their complaints are not specifically about the representations of shit and shitting or about Mistry's deployment of the problematic trope, public manifestations of these private affairs in his fiction epitomize the sordid depictions against which his critics rail. I propose an alternative reading of Mistry's excrescent representations, one that goes demonstrably against the grain of contemporary readings of shit and evacuation in the postcolonial context to give them a positive political valency. And “Squatter” seems the most appropriate vehicle for this alternative reading because it is his most direct engagement with a squalid subject. As such, it suggests how we might look at the squalor represented in his literary corpus as a whole.

To demonstrate how Mistry's short story renegotiates the political purchase of shit and evacuation, this paper will first situate the trope of the squatter within a postcolonial context. V. S. Naipaul's deployment of it in his travel memoir An Area of Darkness (1964) seems representative of its postcolonial purview. Naipaul's experiences of ubiquitous squatters—“the starved child defecating at the roadside while the mangy dog waited to eat the excrement” (49), the three women “companionably defecating” on a hill in Srinagar (75), the traveller passing the time by defecating in the gutter at a bus station in Madras (75)—lead him to this conclusion: “Indians defecate everywhere. They defecate, mostly, beside the railway tracks. But they also defecate on the beaches; they defecate on the hills; they defecate on the river banks; they defecate on the streets; they never look for cover” (76). Despite his cultural origins—or as Sara Suleri suggests, perhaps, because of them (163-64)—Naipaul's deployment of the trope is typical of imperial narratives. His squatting Indians are degenerate racial bodies; they are squatting, gaping anuses enacting their own negation. The body, in evacuating, is emptied of individual signification for the observer, who is repulsed and/or threatened by the uncontained nature of this behaviour. It is then resignified in a discursive system as an other body, allowing the observer to contain the threat it represents in a rhetorical cordon sanitaire that emulates the imperial boundaries established between rulers and subject peoples. Naipaul's language, in particular his parody of Churchill's famed pep talk to a beleaguered British Empire on 4 June 1940—“we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”—connects this representation of the racialized evacuating body directly to threats against the territorial sanctity of imperial space.

Naipaul's graphic representations of squatters signal a problem faced by postcolonial writers who represent excrement and evacuation: such representations are necessarily charged by a pervasive colonial rhetoric of debasement. In The Rhetoric of Empire, David Spurr suggests that debasement tropes—figures that degrade colonized subjects by characterizing them as filthy, defiled bodies to produce an abject other—are crucial to the imperial project on both territorial and psychological levels. Empires deploy such tropes “both as a justification for European intervention and as the necessary iteration of a fundamental difference between colonizer and colonized” (78).

Warwick Anderson's article on American imperialism in the Philippines, “Excremental Colonialism: Public Health and the Poetics of Pollution,” explains the process in terms fitting to this study. He discerns the colonial discourse producing the abject other and consolidating imperial territory in two discursive mechanisms: medical texts and toilets. According to Anderson, both played prominent roles in the consolidation of American control over the Philippines. The medical texts, contrasting “a closed, ascetic American body with an open, grotesque Filipino body, the former typically in charge of a sterilized laboratory or clinic, the latter squatting in an unruly, promiscuous marketplace,” call for “ceaseless disinfection” and “medical reformation” of the Filipino body to protect vulnerable American colonists (640-41). The toilet—both the instrument itself and its enclosure—was the principal means of containing the nightmarish threat of squatting Filipinos. What we have here is a discursive system by which Filipino bodies are evacuated of individual signification and resignified as uncontained and contaminating colonial others, squatters on territory that demands regulation, hence imperial intervention. Texts and toilets work in concert, the former licensing through debasement, the latter enacting the regulation of Filipino space while simultaneously creating the conditions for the subject's admission of abjection. A corpus of medical texts evolves informed by discourses of progress and modernity to support American regulation of Filipino space and body, enshrining American Standards in this other space. The toilet answers the colonist's demand for a cordon sanitaire between clean American bodies and filthy Filipino ones. It is a system of enclosure, of capture, of physical and moral imprisonment. It is also a confessional of sorts, and the act of evacuation a confession of filthiness and impurity: “In submitting to the Americans' craze for building toilets,” says Anderson, “Filipinos voiced their own impurity. Untreated, their excrement could have no regenerating power in the fields; rather, it had become a source of shame to be admitted, then sealed off and enclosed” (661).3

Read in this light, debasement tropes deployed by postcolonial writers, even in the service of their own resistant agendas, necessarily iterate colonial abjection. Joshua Esty's article “Excremental Postcolonialism” reveals this quandary while trying to recuperate scatological representations through readings of postcolonial texts that might be considered more progressive than Naipaul's in their political agendas. Esty shows how Wole Soyinka's The Interpreters (1965) and Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1968) appropriate debasement tropes, “turning scatology to the new task of representing postcolonial disillusionment” (30) by symbolically associating their new governments with unregenerative excrement. In this interpretive framework, however, representations of shit and shitting in the postcolony remain degrading and are therefore problematic vehicles of resistance for postcolonial writers: Soyinka and Armah reinscribe the negative valency of shit through their representations, buttressing colonial discourses that played on that charge to justify the regulation of other bodies and other territories.

On the surface, at least, it seems that Mistry's “Squatter” is caught in the same quandary. Within a framing narrative, the baag storyteller, Nariman Hansotia, tells the local boys two stories, one about Savukshaw the great cricketer, one about a Parsi immigrant to Canada, Sarosh the “squatter.” The latter is most important to my reading at this point, though the two stories work in tandem to make statements about squatting. Sarosh promises his mother and himself that he will fully adapt to Canadian life within ten years or return to Bombay. He succeeds in his adaptation in every way except one: he finds it impossible to void himself in “the Canadian way”—sitting instead of squatting. As a result he returns to Bombay. Sarosh's failure to renegotiate his identity in Canada is overtly linked to discourses that regulate Indian bodies and Indian space: he essentializes his own racial identity and internalizes dominant Euro-American discourses on normality, progress, and modernity, all of which prevent him from claiming a place in Canada.

Appropriately, the story begins with Sarosh in a compromised position. The boys discover him “depressed and miserable, perched on top of the toilet, crouching on his haunches, feet planted firmly for balance upon the white plastic oval of the toilet seat.” He suffers this position, having “no choice but to climb up and simulate the squat of … Indian latrines,” because “no amount of exertion [while sitting] could produce success” (153). Sarosh is a patent figure of transcultural anxiety. His posture does not fit with the space he occupies, and as the language of the passage suggests, his inability to make it fit is emotionally debilitating. As far as he is concerned, he cannot shit correctly, even in his own apartment.

Sarosh's inability to fit into his adopted space produces even more anxiety when he has to use public toilets. There the links to the imperial discourses underwriting his sense of displacement and imprisoning him in an abject racialized body begin to reveal themselves: “In his own apartment Sarosh squatted barefoot. Elsewhere, if he had to go with his shoes on, he would carefully cover the seat with toilet paper before climbing up. He learnt to do this after the first time, when his shoes had left telltale footprints on the seat. He had had to clean it with a wet paper towel. Luckily, no one had seen him” (155-56). The footprints Sarosh leaves on the toilet seat are reminiscent of the footprint on Crusoe's beach: signifiers of otherness that carry with them the colonial burden of savagery, in this case connected to evacuation practices instead of cannibalism. They are read, at least in Sarosh's mind, as signs that he does not belong in this Canadian space. Like Anderson's abject Filipinos, he imprints his own impurity on the seat every time he squats on the sit-down toilet. His attempt to wash away the footprints signifying that impurity exposes the anxiety he feels, and ultimately the sort of cultural erasure he sees himself having to embrace if he is to adapt successfully to this new territory.4

Of course, as the subsequent passage reveals, even when Sarosh learns to avoid leaving telltale footprints on the toilet seat, he is overdetermined by signs of otherness that promiscuously breach the privacy of the toilet stall:

But there was not much he could keep secret about his ways. The world of washrooms is private and at the same time very public. The absence of feet below the stall door, the smell of faeces, the rustle of paper, glimpses caught through the narrow crack between stall door and jamb—all these added up to only one thing: a foreign presence in the stall, not doing things in the conventional way. And if the one outside could receive the fetor of Sarosh's business wafting through the door, poor unhappy Sarosh too could detect something malodorous in the air: the presence of xenophobia and hostility.


For Sarosh, the toilet stall is an interpretable space that can be surveyed and surveilled through sights, sounds, and smells. The signs gathered by the senses are interpreted according to a set of well known conventions or regulations to distinguish between the foreign and domestic, the impure and pure. And Sarosh sees himself signified as racial other by the interpretive conventions applied to this space. The signs identify him as a squatter, invoking the racialized trope of the squatting Indian in need of regulation. Most importantly in the context of his attempt to successfully adapt to this new nation, they identify him as a squatter on Canadian territory, challenging his entitlement to occupy this well regulated space.

Through Sarosh's dilemma as it is represented in the passages above, “Squatter”'s central metaphor does seem a debasement trope, its representations of evacuation consistent with other postcolonial representations of the same. However, as the remainder of this paper will suggest, the story recuperates this trope and problematizes the essentializing notions of identity encoded by its deployment in neocolonial contexts. It effects this recuperation in two complementary ways: first, by revealing the discursive contingency of identity, unveiling the ideological apparatuses by which identity is produced and regulated; and second, by situating those regulating discourses or signifying systems next to and within a carnivalesque narrative to register the ambivalence of the trope and to reinvest it with regenerative potential.

The regulatory nature of Nariman's stories themselves is fairly transparent, as my preliminary reading of Sarosh's dilemma suggests. Nariman, as storyteller and thus “repository of the community ethos” (Malak 110), gathers the boys in the baag around him and relates tales that address Parsi anxieties about displacement and desires for emplacement. The stories Nariman tells, then, impart cultural regulations and act as vehicles of cultural containment, as illustrated by the fact that when the stories begin, the baag watchman, who has the equally important duty of keeping riff-raff out and keeping the boys in, can take a break from his surveillance duties (148). Both stories operate within several discursive modalities to effect this regulation.

Nariman's story of the greatest Indian cricketer, Savukshaw,5 who was only prevented from single-handedly defeating a famous British team when interrupted by rain, operates within national and cultural discourses to emplace Parsi pride and underscore the centrality of Parsi values to the nation. The national discourse manifests itself through an oppositional framework that sets India up against Britain in a cricket match, symbolically reenacting the national struggle for independence and legitimizing India's desire to be seen as an equal to its former master. The cultural discourse on success is specifically Parsi, traceable to pre-independent India, where the thoroughly Westernized group experienced a disproportionate measure of success and power under the Raj. Obviously, the discourse legitimizing the pursuit and determining the compass of success is not restrictive to Parsis in India. However, in the context of this story it is made to seem so: this discourse is invoked to legitimize the place of Parsis within the national framework. The story of Savukshaw not only affirms national identity, but hinges its success on Parsi intervention. The hero intervenes on behalf of an Indian cricket team on tour in England when their star batsman contracts influenza—an inversion of the colonial trope in which the Englishman contracts an illness in the colony. This sick national body is replaced by a healthy Parsi body. Through his example, Savukshaw signifies how the marginalized Parsis could ensure India's success were they to resume their central place on the national scheme/team.

Sarosh's story operates within a comparable set of discourses, though with the distinctive goal of harnessing Parsi fears of displacement to regulate emigration. When he follows a threatening demographic trend, seeking happiness or emplacement “in the land of milk and honey” (168) instead of within the community of Bombay, Sarosh enacts what Nilufer Bharucha characterizes as the double displacement of the Parsi diaspora (57): as a Parsi, he is a squatter on Indian territory, and he is identified—or, at least, he identifies himself—as an Indian squatter on Canadian territory. Several discourses combine to overdetermine his identity and to further his sense of displacement. His emigration is determined by the cultural discourse concerning success we saw in Savukshaw's story. And in light of Savukshaw's story, we must again read its deployment as culturally restrictive. Sarosh seems unable to achieve the ideal of Parsi success within an independent India because he is caught in a historical and national discourse that signifies him as comprador and cultural other. And in Canada he is caught within an inherited colonial discourse that overwrites multicultural policy to elide cultural specificity, signifying him as racial other and lumping him “together with other Asian groups—specifically Indians” (Bharucha 58). Finally, when he returns in defeat to Bombay and to the comfort of the local, he finds himself in an even greater state of displacement, written out of the discursive space of the Parsi community whose “patterns” have changed in his absence, leaving him “alone” “forlorn,” and “woebegone” (Tales [Tales from Firozsha Baag] 167). Through his example, Sarosh thus signifies the dangers of emigration and the importance of knowing one's place.

The overt regulatory imperatives of both stories are problematized by the framing narrative containing them. As Ajay Heble persuasively argues, “Nariman's own patterns of behaviour implicitly work to undermine the impact of his stor[ies]” (53). I would retool Heble's argument on the poetics of cultural hybridity in “Squatter,” arguing that Nariman's narrative practice problematizes the regulatory imperatives encoded by his stories. It does so through reflexivity: first, by operating within a set of complex and often conflicting discourses to make the process of cultural regulation transparent; and second, by liberating auditors/readers from such regulations to call attention to the discursive contingency of their own cultural identities.

Again, Heble provides a useful way of reading Nariman's narrative practice. “Rather than simply proceeding on the basis of an opposition between the new world (as a source of alienation) and the old world (as the only authentic source of values),” says Heble, “Mistry interrogates the relationship between diverse cultural groups and dismantles traditional structures of authority which privilege an essential cultural purity” (53). This interrogation begins with the very ritual by which Nariman indicates that he is ready to tell his stories: while polishing “the apple of his eye,” a 1932 Mercedes Benz (145), he whistles Western show tunes: “Rose Marie,” a song popularized by Slim Whitman from a Hollywood film (1954)6 and operetta (1924) by the same name; then “Colonel Bogie March” from Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). These show tunes and the Mercedes—which Heble rightly sees as signs “that post-colonial identity is always already a hybridized formation” (53)—undermine the regulatory imperatives of Nariman's Parsi stories by situating them beside other cultural narratives that operate within similar discursive modalities to effect similar regulatory imperatives.

An expanded reading of these filmic allusions should make this process clear. Rose Marie, a musical romance set in Quebec but filmed in the Rockies, tells of how a dutiful Mountie falls in love with a French-Canadian girl while pursuing her love interest, a trapper suspected of murder. The Mountie, like the cricketer Savukshaw, is an idealized hero, who, in bringing order to the chaotic space of the Canadian wilderness—especially the culturally indistinct “Indians” in that wilderness—encodes and legitimizes white presence in Canadian space. Order in this space hinges on a white presence. Clearly, though the power dynamics informing the two stories are very different, the indigenizing discourse7 operating through this film resembles the discourse of emplacement in Savukshaw's story. And the colonial discourse eliding the cultural specificities of indigenous people in Canada is reminiscent of that operating in Sarosh's story. Rose Marie deploys these similar discourses in the service of its own regulatory imperative: authority—specifically, white authority—is necessary to ensure order in this wild place. Bridge on the River Kwai tells of a British colonel in a Japanese POW camp who becomes so obsessed with building a bridge across the River Kwai to prove the superiority of British culture and efficiency that he loses sight of what his success might mean to the war effort. The colonel's actual imprisonment mirrors Sarosh's discursive imprisonment. Both men operate within cultural discourses of success: one Parsi, one British. And both, though from different perspectives, operate within disabling orientalist discourses on race that prevent them from overcoming a sense of displacement to negotiate effective identities in new contexts: the colonel's assumptions about the inferiority of the Japanese and the superiority of the British—stirred by his sense of displacement from the centre of power and a concomitant need to reassert his natural right to control the colonized space—blind him to his duty to block the bridge's construction; Sarosh's internalization of racist discourses prevents him from overcoming his sense of double displacement in Canada. The regulatory imperative of Bridge, reminiscent of that in Sarosh's narrative, concerns the importance of knowing one's place. These two films—combined with the Mercedes, which operates within both Western and Parsi discourses of success—undermine the regulatory imperatives of Nariman's stories by showing how similar discourses can be deployed in different cultural contexts for similar regulatory purposes.

The mixed signals encoded by Nariman's narrative practice carry over to the allusive stories themselves. Savukshaw's story alludes to Swift's Gulliver's Travels—in the fielder who is “a veritable Brobdignagian” (148)—and Thayer's “Casey at the Bat”—in the cricketer himself arrogantly lifting his bat, ignoring two balls that are only slightly wide of the stump.8 And the story of Sarosh alludes directly to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina—“unhappy families are unhappy in their own fashion” (158)9—and Shakespeare's Othello—“I pray you in your stories … [w]hen you shall these unlucky deeds relate, speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice: tell them that in Toronto once there lived a Parsi boy as best as he could. Set you down this; and say, besides, that for some it was good and for some it was bad, but for me life in the land of milk and honey was just a pain in the posterior” (168).10 Again, these allusions invoke the regulatory imperatives of other cultures, making transparent those informing Nariman's story. Nariman inverts the imperatives of Swift and Thayer, both of which might be said to address an overweening sense of stature and place, to show in relief the true stature and rightful place of the meek Parsi, Savukshaw. And he deploys the imperatives of Tolstoy and Shakespeare, both of which again might be said to address the issue of knowing one's place—the former within a gendered hierarchy, the latter within a racial hierarchy—to buttress the imperative against emigration in Sarosh's story.

In the midst of all this discursive play, much of it revolving around place and belonging, Mistry situates the governing trope of the short story, the squatter. Pivotal to the process of unveiling the various discourses regulating identity, this trope invites auditors and readers to reflect critically on the imperatives circumscribing Nariman's narrative practice and informing his stories. And the fulcrum of this reflection is the bodily lower stratum of the carnival.

The carnivalesque nature of the story—introduced by the playful nature of the title itself—is never far from sight, even when, as my reading of Sarosh's troubles with the toilet suggests, it appears to be subsumed by colonial discourse. The audience must be willing to recognize and negotiate the ambivalence of the governing trope, however, if the carnivalesque potential of the narrative is to be realized. As the sophisticated listener, Jehangir, suggests, “ultimately … it [is] up to the listener to decide” (148). But the listeners' liberation from regulatory imperatives depends upon them making the right choice.

Sarosh's enlistment of Canada's multicultural machinery in the service of his problem exemplifies how the story invites its audience to recognize and negotiate that ambivalence. On the simplest level, the narrative invites its audience to see how the regulatory imperatives of colonial discourse intersect with the regulatory imperatives of multicultural policy. In multicultural Canada—which, as defined by a sceptical Nariman, “is supposed to ensure that ethnic cultures are able to flourish, so that Canadian society will consist of a mosaic of cultures” (160)—the kind of cultural erasure Sarosh seeks through his radical adaptation should not be crucial to successful immigration. Nevertheless, when Sarosh seeks help from the Indian Immigrant Aid Society, a local group affiliated with the Multicultural Department, he is led down the path toward a more radical transformation with the help of the same medical discourse that installed the toilet in the colonies to regulate racialized bodies and imperial space. Dr. No-Ilaaz, an immigrant specialist, tells him of a new device, the CNI, or Crappus Non Interruptus, which can be surgically installed in the bowel and operated with the help of a device much like a garage door opener. Clearly, the kind of progressive medical solutions to adaptive problems Dr. No-Ilaaz prescribes will provide a quick fix to Sarosh's problem with the sit-down toilet. However, it will treat the symptoms of his cultural constipation while it actually perpetuates the disease of racial and cultural essentialism by making Sarosh a regular Canadian—even if slightly mechanical in his regularity. By the same token, the Multicultural Department that funds such a project must be recognized as an instrument of neocolonial discourse, facilitating the ultimate admission of his abjection: “he was nothing but a failure in this land—a failure not just in the washrooms of the nation but everywhere” (162).

The problem with such a reading, however, is that it totally ignores the carnivalesque humour of the incident. And the carnivalesque nature of Nariman's narrative, its humorous emphasis on the bodily lower stratum, works to deregulate and deterritorialize the colonized body. Like much carnivalesque humour, it deploys the bodily lower stratum to subvert dominant discourses—in this case, the same discourses that regulate colonial bodies and imperial space through texts and toilets. Dr. No-Ilaaz, whose name means “no remedy,” is a farcical representation of internal and internalized Western medicine, a narrative device emphasizing the bizarre nature of Western attempts to regulate colonial bodies through medical discourses. And the Crappus Non Interruptus is equally farcical and equally challenging to the dominant discourse. The Latinate phrasing highlights the pretense of Western medical discourse while forecasting through the variation on coitus interruptus that Sarosh's operation will not lead to a regenerated sense of self and place. Moreover, it highlights the inadequacy of the technological instruments used to regulate other bodies, especially given the fears that someone with a rogue garage door opener will release Sarosh's sphincter muscle, making him more regular than he might choose to be, and creating a mess in his trousers.

The story of Sarosh and the CNI is utterly ridiculous, which is in fact the point. For so are the regulatory narratives that reduce colonized subjects to gaping anuses. Sarosh's facile acceptance of the imperialist narratives that degrade his body to regulate it, reducing him to a squatter in multicultural Canada, can be countered by the production of narratives that degrade to produce the regenerative and equalizing laughter of the carnival. The degrading bodily lower stratum humour of the carnival is subversive and equalizing; it makes transparent the mechanisms of dominance and, in Bakhtin's terms, “digs a bodily grave for a new birth” (21).

Thus, Nariman's degrading story must be understood for its regenerative potential. The story breaks the rules of decorum he himself has established over his years as storyteller, leaving the boys responsible for negotiating not only the meaning of this unprecedented story, but the meaning of his departure from narrative convention. This departure from convention, unlike Sarosh's departure from bathroom convention, is a great success: Nariman produces, according to Jehangir, “the best story he had ever told” (168). Interestingly, Nariman's successful departure from convention also gives us cause to reconsider our judgement of Sarosh's lack of success in the world of washrooms.

Clearly, there are a few ways of understanding his failure. As I suggest above, we can read it as the predictable ending to a regulatory story told by Nariman in a feeble effort to preserve Parsi culture. If he is going to convince the boys in the baag to stay in India to preserve the community, he is going to have to attend to transcultural failures. However, Nariman prefaces his narrative by admitting that Sarosh's situation is unique, calling attention to the successful immigration of two Parsi girls, Vera and Dolly (153). And the story itself suggests that Sarosh's failure lies in his own self-conception, rather than in a failure to live up to external conventions. His is a failure of interpretation. Indeed, Sarosh's compromised position at the beginning—which is actually the end—of the story, can be read as a sign of his successful transculturation thwarted by limited interpretive conventions. He is “depressed,” “miserable,” and “suffering” while he squats on the plastic oval of the toilet because he cannot see beyond the dominant conventions of interpretation in this space to read the signs of his success. He allows those dominant conventions to override the success of his manoeuvre, his ability to balance on an instrument that is not meant for such contortions to effect the catharsis he seeks. Yet through the vehicle of the carnivalesque narrative, which inverts dominant conventions, Nariman's listeners and Mistry's readers are invited to recognize and acknowledge the subversive and successful nature of Sarosh's balancing act.

In my focus on the carnivalesque nature of the narrative, I offer a supplement to Heble's otherwise sound reading of resistance in the story. He suggests that we read “Sarosh not in terms of alienation, discomfort and failure, but rather in terms of a resistance to hegemonic practices” (54). In his critical framework, Sarosh is not failing to adapt, but is resisting on some unconscious level the discourses that would contain and essentialize him. I propose another reading, building on Heble's call to read resistance in “Squatter,” but locating that resistance in a different place: in the reflexive carnivalesque nature of the narrative itself. Instead of focussing on Sarosh as the locus of resistance, then, I propose a reading that focusses on the production of the reflexive carnivalesque narrative—manifest in the ambivalent trope of the squatter—as a means of deregulating the evacuated colonial body.

Indeed, the ending of the short story privileges this reading of narrative resistance. As Nariman ends this tale of the transcultural toilet, the boys clamouring for more stories of the indomitable Savukshaw, he signals his own understanding of his achievement. He agrees to tell another story of Savukshaw, but not the one they want, not the story of Savukshaw the mighty hunter: “Next time it will be Savukshaw again. Savukshaw the artist. The story of the Parsi Picasso” (169). This decision reveals Nariman's own understanding of his story's regenerative potential. His shift from the simplistic story of Savukshaw the Cricketer and Savukshaw the hunter to Savukshaw the artist shows that his tale of degradation and regeneration has created a space for new kinds of hybridized heroes, ones who will redefine cultural spaces and boundaries through the imagination.

As I suggest at the opening of this paper, Mistry's deployment of the trope of the squatter in this short story should prepare us to read the preponderance of excrement in his narratives. Obviously, not all of his representations of squalor are cast in reflexive carnivalesque moulds. Yet the philosophy behind the carnivalesque deployment of bodily lower stratum—the unifying and regenerative nature of bodily functions—does come into play in all his fiction. Mistry's fiction, coming as it does from the Parsi diaspora, is preoccupied with issues of place and homelessness. And quite often, the representations of evacuating bodies are tied to this preoccupation. From Gustad of Such a Long Journey, who tries to make his home healthy by stopping itinerants from using the compound wall as a latrine; to Ishvar and Omprakash, the untouchable tailors from A Fine Balance, who squat by the railway tracks with the other homeless men; to Nariman Vakeel of Family Matters, who is shifted from his home when Parkinson's disease makes him incontinent—in all of these fictions evacuation is tied to homelessness and to the basic indignities faced by the disenfranchised.11 In these contexts, shit and shitting do not debase Mistry's human subjects in a racialized discourse but elevate them, acknowledging their basic humanity to challenge discourses that would overdetermine and further disenfranchise them. If his fiction is full of shit, then, that shit is a fertilizer, nurturing a fundamental respect for humanity and its persistence even in the most dire of circumstances.


I am indebted to Richard Cunningham, Richard Davies, Lance La Rocque, and Bob Perrins for their comments on this paper. I would like to thank Acadia's School of Research and Graduate Studies for their generous financial support of my research.


  1. I cite both sources here because I first learned of the controversy through Ross's article and because Ross himself seemed to be quoting from a questionable internet resource. I have also verified part of the quotation in a report from the Edmonton Journal, “Greer Grating, Mistry Complains.”

  2. Mistry's response was both effective and ineffective. On the one hand he questioned Greer's ability to make an assessment based on “four months teaching the daughters of high society” in Mumbai. On the other hand, he indulges in insider exclusivism, suggesting that his twenty-three years in India prior to emigrating puts him in the most appropriate position to judge India. While the latter defence does have merit, it also seems essentialist in its prescriptions about the critical license to form judgements. Fortunately, Mistry does qualify that essentialism, if only moderately, in Family Matters. Vilas, the friend of one of the main characters, Yezad, recalls this story in the context of a discussion about injustice in India and how human beings “say things to make themselves feel better. Or they deny the injustice” (202):

    A while back, I read a novel about the Emergency. A big book, full of horrors, real as life. But also full of life, and the laughter and dignity of ordinary people. One hundred per cent honest—made me laugh and cry as I read it. But some reviewers said no, no, things were not that bad. Especially foreign critics. You know how they come here for two weeks and become experts. One poor woman whose name I can't remember made such a hash of it, she had to be a bit pagal, defending Indira, defending the Sanjay sterilization scheme, defending the entire Emergency—you felt sorry for her even though she was a big professor at some big university in England. What to do? People are afraid to accept the truth. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”


  3. While a comparable analysis of British deployments of the trope of the squatting subject remains to be written, historical sources do suggest that the British manifestation of the trope operated much like the American one. As Radhika Ramasubban points out, controlling sanitation on the Indian subcontinent was an imperative of the Crown after it had assumed control from the East India Company in 1857 (38). A series of cholera outbreaks traced to India and spreading across the world, presumably through imperial trade routes, compelled the British to act. On the home front, these cholera epidemics led to the Sanitary Act of 1866, which, among other things, made local governments responsible for maintaining sewers and water supplies in England. In India—Britain's most precious colonial asset, housing a third of all British troops—territorial interests were at stake. There was therefore a practical need to “make British India liveable for the British” (Ramasubban 38), which manifested itself in the creation of a cordon sanitaire between troops and the population, and that population's “nightsoil” in particular. As Ramasubban points out, that cordon sanitaire was prescribed by the racialized pathology of cholera, which was often transmitted through fecal matter: “The perception of the ‘native’ population as a secondary source of infection required the sanitary machine to encompass them, particularly for an understanding and prevention of the ‘more obvious causes of disease’ in their midst” (42). Given the actions taken in Britain to deal with the sanitary problems that lead to cholera outbreaks within its borders, this racialized pathology should be read as a part of a convenient deflection of a universal problem onto other bodies and places as part of a process of producing and regulating Indian space and Indian bodies, and of legitimizing imperial interventions. David Arnold describes a similar process in his consideration of the racializing pathology of Malaria in Imperial Bangladesh (79). And David Spurr's reading of journalistic representations of AIDS in Africa alerts us to new manifestations of this debasement trope (89-91).

  4. This act of cultural erasure is complemented by his name change: Sarosh changes his name to Sid upon arrival in Canada, overwriting his connection to his Parsi community with this new name.

  5. Savukshaw is a Parsi name, variously spelled as Savakshaw or Savaksha.

  6. There were two versions of this film, the first released in 1936, the second in 1954. Despite the fact that the 1936 version was immensely popular, I have assumed that the allusion is to the 1954 version of the film for three reasons: first, because that would make it contemporary with Bridge on the River Kwai, the other film Nariman alludes to through his whistling; second, because the 1936 version of the film was often called “Indian Love Call” to avoid confusion with the later version (Paquin); and third, because Slim Whitman's 1955 cover of the song was immensely popular, holding the number one spot for a record twelve weeks on the British pop charts (“Slim Whitman”).

  7. Here I make use of Terry Goldie's notions of indigenization to characterize a specific discursive mode. According to Goldie, “In their need to become ‘native,’ to belong here, whites in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia have adopted a process which I have termed ‘indigenization.’ A peculiar word, it suggests the impossible necessity of becoming indigenous” (13).

  8. Thanks to Paul Milton, who called my attention to this allusion before I had read “Squatter” for the first time. Nariman alludes to the following lines from Thayer's poem:

    And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
    And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
    Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
    “That ain't my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.
    From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
    Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
    “Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
    And it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.
    With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
    He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
    He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
    But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two!”


  9. Nariman alludes to the opening lines of Anna Karenina: “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Tolstoy 1).

  10. Nariman alludes to Othello's final speech:

                        I pray you, in your letters,
    When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
    Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
    Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak
    Of one that lov'd not wisely but too well;
    Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought,
    Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand
    (Like the base [Indian]) threw a pearl away
    Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdu'd eyes,
    Albeit unused to the melting mood,
    Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
    Their medicinable gum. Set you down this;
    And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
    Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
    Beat a Venetian and traduc'd the state,
    I took by th' throat the circumcised dog,
    And smote him—thus.


    It seems telling that he has omitted from his allusion the simile of the base Indian throwing away a pearl richer than his tribe. This omission is consistent with the regulatory imperative of his narrative, which ostensibly suggests that Sarosh's error is in leaving Bombay, not in leaving Canada, the equivalent of pearl-like Desdemona.

  11. For this explicit connection between evacuation and homelessness in Mistry's fiction, I am indebted to an unknown participant who attended my session at the triennial conference of the Association of Commonwealth Language and Literature Studies in Canberra, Australia, July 2001.

Works Cited

Anderson, Warwick. “Excremental Colonialism: Public Health and the Poetics of Pollution.” Critical Inquiry 21 (1995): 640-69.

Arnold, David. Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India. New York: Cambridge UP, 2000.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and his World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Bharucha, Nilufer E. “‘When Old Tracks are Lost’: Rohinton Mistry's Fiction as Diasporic Discourse.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 30.2 (1995): 57-64.

Bridge on the River Kwai. Dir. David Lean. Perf. Alec Guinness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, Geoffrey Horne, James Donald, Andre Morell, and Ann Sears. Columbia, 1957.

Churchill, Winston. “We Shall Fight on the Beaches.” The Winston Churchill Home Page. The Churchill Center, Washington, DC. 31 December 2002. <

Esty, Joshua D. “Excremental Postcolonialism.” Contemporary Literature 40.1 (1999): 22-59.

Goldie, Terry. Fear and Temptation: The Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Literatures. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1989.

“Greer grating, Mistry complains.” Edmonton Journal 18 November 1996: B7.

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

Malak, Amin. “The Shahrazadic Tradition: Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey and the Art of Storytelling.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 29.2 (1993): 108-18.

“Mistry calls criticism of his book ‘asinine.’” Canadian Press (London). Canoe: Jam!Books. 17 November 1996. 31 December 2002.

Mistry, Rohinton. Family Matters. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2002.

———. “Squatter.” Tales from Firozsha Baag. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. 145-69.

Mukherjee, Arun. “Narrating India.” Toronto South Asian Review 10.2 (1992): 82-91.

Naipaul, V. S. An Area of Darkness. 1964. London: The Reprint Society, 1966.

Paquin, Alexandre. “The Singing Mountie Gets His Man, Hollywood Gets an F in Geography: ‘Rose-Marie’ (1936).” June 23, 2001. August 1, 2002. <

Ramasubban, Radhika. “Imperial Health in British India, 1857-1900.” Disease, Medicine and Empire: Perspectives on Western Medicine and the Experience of European Expansion. Ed. Roy MacLeod and Milton Lewis. New York: Routledge, 1988. 38-60.

Rose Marie. Dir. Mervyn LeRoy. Perf. Ann Blyth, Howard Keel, Fernando Lamas, Bert Lahr, Marjorie Main, and Joan Taylor. MGM 1954.

Ross, Robert L. “Seeking and Maintaining Balance: Rohinton Mistry's Fiction.” World Literature Today 17.2 (1999): 239-44.

Shakespeare, William. Othello. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974. 1198-1248.

“Slim Whitman.” BBC Online-Radio 2-Country-Artist Database. British Broadcasting Corporation. 12 August 2002. <

Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Suleri, Sara. The Rhetoric of English India. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Thayer, Ernest Lawrence. “Casey at the Bat.” Selected Poetry of Ernest Lawrence Thayer (1863-1940). Representative Poetry Online. University of Toronto English Library. 31 December 2002. <

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. New York: Norton, 1968.

Deepika Bahri (essay date 2003)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13574

SOURCE: Bahri, Deepika. “The Economy of Postcolonial Literature: Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey.” In Native Intelligence: Aesthetics, Politics, and Postcolonial Literature, pp. 120-51. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Bahri examines Such a Long Journey and contends the strength of Mistry's writing comes from mixing native Indian dialects with the English of his primary reading audience.]

No Realist contents himself with repeating forever what is already well known; that would not demonstrate a living relation with reality.

—Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Werke (translated by author)

In an otherwise complimentary review of Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey (1991), Glenn Carey is chagrined to note a “serious flaw,” to wit, the lack of an “appendix of Hindi expressions used in the story, with English translations” (127). David Ray's review of the novel in the New York Times Book Review also draws attention to Mistry's use of various languages: “The novel frequently poses a problem for all but the polyglot reader. Words from several Indian languages are dropped in liberally. Some passages are veritable pastiches of two or more languages. A glossary would have been welcome” (13). Although not traditionally part of the bailiwick of critics, book reviews and jacket notes—the extra-textual surround of literature—increasingly function as crucial accessory signs of the dynamics of the production and consumption of postcolonial products. Necessary handmaidens to the “marketplacing” of postcolonial intellectual and artistic goods, they serve to provide telling tales of the vectoring of the artist and critic in the ideological graph mapping intellectual exchanges in the global market. Quite apart from the fact that the appendix proposed by the first reviewer would not be too helpful to the general reader in understanding the many Parsi-Gujrati expressions also used by Mistry—a fact Ray at least is aware of—what is recalled by the reviewers' observations is a much earlier debate on “intelligibility” and “universality” in “emergent” literature (Wlad Godzich's term), and its import for a contemporary reckoning of the historical dimension of aesthetic norms.1

More than a decade ago, in his review of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood, John Updike bemoaned the profusion of untranslated Swahili and Kikuyu words in the novel. As Reed Way Dasenbrock notes, Updike was hardly alone then in making an implicit appeal for universality, a tendency Chinua Achebe had earlier denounced as synonymous with “the narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe” (11). Carey and Ray's comments on the polyglossia of Mistry's novel once again raise the issue of linguistic bondage to the colonial center; equally importantly, they unwittingly exhort an examination of the larger question of the orientation and purpose of postcolonial literature, criticism, and pedagogy, and consequently of their place within the First World academic marketplace that has proved so hospitable to all three. While the presence of the English-language postcolonial novel may be said to function as a potent sign of a lamentable de facto glottophagia that disappears vernacular scripts from the larger postcolonial text, the anglophone postcolonial novel that repeatedly challenges standard English obliges us to conceive of polyglossia not only in terms of discrete languages but within the same one. In the case of an overtly polyglot novel like Such a Long Journey, vernacular language use functions as a blatant sign of what we might also consider the larger question of literary codes. The distress caused by the elision of vernacular “postcolonial” literatures and the displacement of “real others” often illogically obscures the problems arising from a politics of reading favoring either the consumption model or a hermeneutic of suspicion of “successful” literature. If “literature itself is a social institution,” as Annette Kolodny points out in her observations on the theory, practice, and politics of feminist literary criticism in “Dancing through the Minefield,” “so, too, reading is a highly socialized—or learned—activity” (153).2 Compare, too, Derek Attridge's observations about the expectations held of South African literature:

The demand that the production and judgment of literature be governed by its immediate effectiveness in the struggle for change (or against change) has been immensely powerful, and has given rise to a suspicion of anything appearing hermetic, self-referential, formally inventive, or otherwise distant from the canons and procedures of the realist tradition.


Those sorts of readings of texts that refuse to accord literature its literariness or deny the imbrication of sociopolitics within an aesthetic scheme are no less motivated by the technologies of inclusion and exclusion than the process of canon formation that “selects certain kinds of authors, texts, styles, and criteria of classification and judgement [including language], privileging them over others which may also belong in the same period” (Ahmad, In Theory 123). Without a critical commitment to a method capable of incorporating literary and aesthetic concerns, the text's strategies of revolt against literalism are likely to remain underappreciated.

As it stands, Such a Long Journey, yoked to its First World context, can be used (and apparently is used) to invoke a predictably smelly, chaotic mass of others who reinforce the superiority of the West, doubly so because the more resourceful among them, the author and many an expatriate postcolonial critic attempting to explicate the work, inter alia, have clearly voted on this issue with their fleet, transnational feet.3

Rohinton Mistry's need for peace, order and (relatively) good government—Canada, Brampton version—is understandable when you read his novel, Such a Long Journey. It is a tidal wave of humanity at its smelliest and most chaotic.

(Ross 2)

The easy slippage evidenced in Ross's comments between Mistry, the smelly subalterns, and the whole civic and governmental structure available to this “tidal wave of humanity” should convey something of the challenges posed in particular by postcolonial texts that operate in the mimetic register of realist fiction. The realist mode of Mistry's “fiction” and the ensuing propensity for it to be read as a representative and transparent text of postcolonial India further complicates the issue, for it is bootless to insist that it is, after all, a fiction and must be read with an apprehension of the ambiguities of “realistic” literary representation. The literary and disciplinary revetment behind which such a “retreat” (for this is how it will be seen) might have been possible (through what will inevitably be construed as “withdrawal” into discussions of techniques of storytelling, or of the dignity of the individual hero, or into the intransigence of the signifier, for example) has been unprofitably and prematurely eroded by the same wave of political interests that brought postcolonial cultural work into the purview of First World academe in the first place.

If attention to “the historic positional value” of the postcolonial and its commodification enjoins that we teach the conflicts (as Gerald Graff suggests), or the market (as Bishnupriya Ghosh argues), however, it also introduces us to an ideological context in which the order of aesthetics has been suppressed. Confronted with the economy of postcolonial literature in the global marketplace, criticism has attended but poorly to the development of an organon capable of dealing with the economy of the individual text—its functional arrangement of elements within a whole, its thrifty and careful management of its “resources,” and those components of value that contest its reduction to exchange value alone.

The particular challenge of Such a Long Journey is that of unlocking the complexities of mimetic representation in the tradition of realism in the precise historic moment that demands representation from the postcolonial text. If realism is all too glibly associated with naive epistemological assumptions, mimesis—its modality—occasions considerable anxiety in a great deal of contemporary discourse. If Plato's critique identifies the danger of mimesis in its “undermining of a stable notion of truth,” contemporary suspicion of mimesis is directed toward “a false belief in the fixity of meaning” (Jay, Cultural Semantics 121, 120). In the traditional estimation, mimesis is a “conservative reproduction of existing signs,” as Barthes insists (quoted in ibid. 120). Apt to engender “confusion of linguistic with natural reality,” mimesis in the realist genre can be a risky trope for the postcolonial writer because it is associated with such terms as “copy,” “reproduction,” and “imitation,” and so in danger of contributing to rather than challenging the problems of fixed identity that postcolonial discourse has consistently struggled against. In the register of realism, the slice of life was traditionally expected to reproduce the totality of social relations through a faithful copy of the world in which it is placed. The formal order of the novel—which also alerts us to its artifactuality—sometimes reinforces rather than attenuates this expectation. Mimesis allied with the powerful literary convention of realism can lead us to mistake the representational for the representative, the artistic copy for exact replica, the particular for an undifferentiated tidal wave of smelly subalternity, the representation of a character's discomfort with the crowd for an auctorial and textual stance of rejection of the masses. A whole set of conceptual exchanges can be precipitated not only despite our understanding of instrumental commodification but precisely because of it.

For Adorno, however, mimesis can function as a valuable resource in the struggle against the reigning power of instrumental rationality in the modern world. “If art were simply equivalent to rationality,” he argues, “it would disappear in it and die off” (Notes to Literature, I, 147). Adorno points out that mimetic comportment “does not imitate something but rather makes itself like itself” as a contiguity rather than an appropriation or domination (Aesthetic Theory 111).4 This interpretation of mimesis capitalizes not on the arbitrariness of the sign so much as it does on the foundational understanding that “the mimesis of artworks is their resemblance to themselves” (104). As Adorno insists even when conceding the status of art as fait social, “Artworks detach themselves from the empirical world and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity” (1). The danger that mimesis will produce the illusion of “knowledge” is rejected in Adorno's scheme of artistic nonfulfillment of the concept:

The survival of mimesis, the nonconceptual affinity of the subjectively produced with its unposited other, defines art as a form of knowledge and to that extent as “rational.” For that to which the mimetic comportment responds is the telos of knowledge, which art simultaneously blocks with its own categories. Art completes knowledge with what is excluded from knowledge and thereby once again impairs its character as knowledge, its univocity.


Without the awareness of this nonfulfillment in the text's negotiation with its object, the “struggle for the sign” (Voloshinov's phrase) ends in the establishment of rational knowledge and the surrender of the text to the rule of equivalence (earlier referred to as “identity thinking”). The mimetic comportment of art may well be a response “to the telos of knowledge,” but its success lies not in its reproduction but in its disjunctive modes of integrating into its fold that which exists in another order of reality:

In artworks, the criterion of success is twofold: whether they succeed in integrating thematic strata and details into their immanent law of form and in this integration at the same time maintain what resists it and the fissures that occur in the process of integration.


Form, thus broadly conceived, is the internal economy of literature. The saturation of content in form permits literary art its unique realm of experience. It is the formal comportment of art that intimates to us the proviso that if art has a cognitive content, it is not available as series of propositions. If there is a truth-content to art, it resides in its engaged alienation from a material world governed by instrumental reason and the rule of equivalence. Its immanent laws disallow the transparency we expect in identical thinking. In Notes to Literature, Adorno insists that “[art's] idea is as different from propositional language as aesthetic resemblance is from resemblance to things” (I, 171).5 It is precisely what Adorno refers to as the principle of “nonidentity” that allots to art this peculiar privilege:

Inherently every artwork desires identity with itself, an identity that in empirical reality is violently forced on all objects as identity with the subject and thus travestied. Aesthetic identity seeks to aid the nonidentical, which in reality is repressed by reality's compulsion to identify. Only by virtue of separation from empirical reality, which sanctions art to model the relation of the whole and the part according to the work's own need, does the artwork achieve a heightened order of existence.

(Aesthetic Theory 4)

Even experimental forms that challenge traditional genres, or traditional disciplinary boundaries—as is the case with much historiographic fiction—are recognizable owing to certain considerations of form that are closely imbricated with content. Marcuse insists that “a work of art is authentic or true not by virtue of its content (i.e., the ‘correct’ representation of social conditions) nor by its ‘pure’ form, but by the content having become form” (Aesthetic Dimension 8). Although it may be true that the aesthetic is inherent not only in form but in ways of reading that uncover its operations as essential to content, to seek precise correspondences between content and form is to succumb to another sort of fantasy of transparency in service of the sociopolitical. To stop at the historical-biographical significance of the novel is to cheat ourselves of the intelligence available from attention to stylistics and form; to engineer a contrived correspondence between sociohistorical significance and the text's formal elements, however, is to miss the point of the un-containable transformation of content becoming form, or that of the ways in which intention is extinguished in the content (Adorno, Notes to Literature, I, 161). Attention to the conjunctions between the formal and thematic choices can reveal both how figuration and narration work together as well as the gaps that emerge in the process of transformation.

To propose that the unique experience of art (in this case literature) cannot be separated from its immanent law of form is not to subscribe to formalism as we traditionally understand it. Although devotees of “close reading” and formalism come in many guises, a certain sort of formalism understood by what Murray Krieger has referred to as “a very narrow definition” that “equated formalism with aestheticisim as a doctrine which would cut the art object off from the world while treating only its craftsmanlike quality as an artifact” has been all but totally discredited (96).6 New formalisms have by now succeeded new criticism's early expression of interest in form. Krieger himself relates formalist aestheticism to a philosophical aesthesis or “immediate sense perception” (97). Immobilization of the principle of aesthesia, in the classic sense of “the capacity for feeling and sensation,” prevents us from recognizing the artistic object as an “intentional object” (Krieger 97). Krieger's useful discussion of the intentional object as aesthetic would seem to sound a timely tocsin as the dangers of conflating mimetic as real grow in the reading of postcolonial literature. Krieger insists that “the peculiar nature of the intentional object as aesthetic—whatever else it is—is surely duplicitous” (101). To be blind to our own collusion in the process of taking “the mimetic as real” is to deny the extent to which the intentional object, here Krieger refers explicitly to drama, “wants us to be alive to this doubleness” (101).

Herbert Marcuse has argued in The Aesthetic Dimension that “literature is not revolutionary because it is written for the working class or for ‘the revolution’”; rather it is revolutionary, as, “in a meaningful sense only with reference to itself, as content having become form” (xii; emphasis mine). Part of Mistry's novel's innate structure is polyglossia, linguistic and otherwise. The novel's “serious flaw,” then, is precisely what points us in the direction of what I have earlier referred to, pace Adorno's view of philosophy, as the Sisyphean labor of interpretation. Robert Scholes had reminded us almost a quarter of a century ago in Structuralism in Literature that “there is no single ‘right’ reading for any complex literary work” but that readings are “more or less rich” (144-45). It is not “multiple readings,” however, that are indicated by the concept in my reading of the novel, so much as polyglossia as a constitutive structural principle in the work, and of that play between sign and signification that Benjamin describes as the “foreignness of languages” (75). Moreover, if each language is an entire culture, as Upamanyu Chatterjee suggests in English, August, the métissage of language(s) in Mistry's novel reveals a material context that has itself been creolized and rendered considerably more complex than any one model or interpretive grid alone can explain. In fact, if in the current moment Mistry's is a diasporic tale in the West, in a precolonial context, that of the Noble family is a continuation of an older diaspora, dating back 1300 years to the expulsion of Zoroastrians from Persia at the time of the Arab invasion when a handful fled to India and were given sanctuary by Yadav Rana. As a persistently unintegrated minority with a millennial residence in the subcontinent, the Parsi fragment of the Indian nation is also a minor fragment of world history, scattered by a much older colonial order that Islamized the Zoroastrian lands of Persia in its own bid to globalize.

The slow accretion of complexities that have resulted over the course of a long and tumultuous, often contested past in the history of the cultures described in the novel should render futile any simple recovery of an underlying and suspiciously serviceable teleological structure. Although a formalistic reading of the text may reveal the technics of textual design, the novel as a social text cannot be reduced to a puzzle that must be pieced together to yield a serviceable and representative profile of the cultures that form its subject, unless we are willing to concede, with Adorno, that “this puzzle is constituted in such a fashion that it remains a vexation” (Aesthetic Theory 121). To confuse the novel's particular rendition of human suffering with the representatively aggregate condition of the postcolony is to fall prey to the oldest of colonial fallacies, one that Memmi refers to as “the mark of the plural”: “The colonized is never characterized in an individual manner; he is entitled only to drown in an anonymous collectivity (‘They are this.’ ‘They are all the same.’)” (85).7 If “this” can only happen in India, if “this” is how “they” are, the postcolonial can never be other than an amorphous other serving dubious needs and anxieties in those with the power to name and judge, creating an aggregare object “riddled,” as Benjamin puts it, “with error with doxa [conjecture]” (Charles Baudelaire 103). Sybil Steinberg's review of Such a Long Journey captures the spirit of this exchange in a metaphor celebrating the consumption model; the novel, she notes approvingly, “serves up an exotic feast” (66). The reception of the text constitutes something of its context, but it is scarcely the constitutive content of literature. Adorno specifically castigates that form of commodity consumption that uses art as target practice for subjective projections, whether they are sentimental identifications or disdainful ones:

Insofar as the now typical attitude makes the artwork something merely factual, even art's mimetic element, itself incompatible with whatever is purely a thing, is bartered off as a commodity. The consumer arbitrarily projects his impulses—mimetic remnants—on whatever is presented to him. … As a tabula rasa of subjective projections … the artwork is shorn of its qualitative dimension. … What the reified artworks are no longer able to say is replaced by the beholder with the standardized echo of himself, to which he hearkens.

(Aesthetic Theory 17; emphasis mine)

If the economy of the culture industry permits art to be treated as “merely factual,” in the alternative economy of art and literature, the distilled model of the phenomenal world carries analogies and resonances, not dutifully representative reductions or unmediated reflections of the real world. The capacity for aesthetic sublimation, moreover, is hardly confined to poetry and drama alone; “The realistic novel,” too, as Marcuse insists, “must transform the reality which is their material in order to re-present its essence as envisioned by art” (Aesthetic Dimension 44). Mimesis, within this economy, “is representation through estrangement, subversion of consciousness” (45). For Adorno, mimesis affords an alternative form of knowledge, representing an attempt to approximate nature and that which is not there—a notion intimately tied to the prospect of utopian thinking.

The revolutionary potential of art resides in this alternative economy, itself suspended in a geopolitical economic context that both enables and restricts it. If anything, Marcuse proposes that it is the aesthetic experience that is capable of “breaking through the mystified (and petrified) social reality, and opening the horizon of change (liberation)” through “its invocation of the beautiful image (schöner Schein) of liberation” (xi, 6). “The only requirement” for a “historical reality” to challenge the world, Marcuse maintains, is that “it must be stylized, subjected to aesthetic ‘formation’” (44). If it is at all possible to talk about utopia in Such a Long Journey, it is so not because Mistry's portrait of middle-class Parsi family life in 1960s and 1970s Bombay alludes to it in the characters' conversations or narratorial asides, but precisely because the miniaturized world of the novel, operating within a mode we recognize as realism, has undergone a process of formation. Language is thus “tightened or loosened, forced to yield insights otherwise obscured” while “restructuring takes place through concentration, exaggeration, emphasis on the essential, reordering of facts” (Marcuse, Aesthetic Dimension 45). Its order and its language operate within the work as a whole to carry the import of aesthetic transformation. If this process “turns into indictment,” it also becomes “a celebration of that which resists injustice and terror, and of that which can still be saved” (45). Art's treatment of utopia is scarcely confined to content alone. Indeed, at the level of literary plot resolution, the triumph of liberation would seem to serve as little more than hollow promise. The fracturing of the image of liberation by reality remains one of art's more potent means of indicting that reality. In the alembic of content having become form, the image of liberation surfaces not as a politically correct vision, but one that can only be politically correct if “it is also correct,” as Benjamin insists, “by literary standards” (quoted in Marcuse, Aesthetic Dimension 53). One might argue that the vision may actually bypass the arena of praxis altogether, thereby remaining inaccessible to it, but nevertheless calling praxis up and into question. The very possibility of conjuring up this image of liberation, as transgressive of the known reality, thus lies in its inadequation to this reality.

In the reading that follows, I will pay particular attention to the novel's use of walls and journeys, literal and metaphorical, personal and collective, cognitive and spiritual, as they function within the economy of the text. These figurative devices manage the burden of content in the book, organizing mimesis and diegesis into an interactive whole. Girded by an elaborate formal structure, the novel is organized such that its cosmos (etymologically, “adornment” in Greek, a connotation tied to aesthetics) perforce recalls the absence of order in the world without. The tight construction of the novel, tying in various motifs—of journeys begun and ended, undertaken and delayed, mourned and celebrated and of the many types of walls that protect even as they limit—overworks the principle of order, recalling in every plot resolution all that is left unreconciled in reality. The stuff of the poetic is lodged in the disadequation between this “ordered” world and that reified world which is administered but lacks the symmetries and resolutions that would reconcile it with truth and nature. The political import of the text's allegorical construction of the problem of utopia lies precisely within the purview of its aesthetic dimension rather than in its availability as a portable program for change. In the aesthetic dimension it becomes possible to allude to the possibility of a vision neither conceivable nor understood in the language of a world dominated by the rule of equivalence.

Such a Long Journey's traffic with the problem of utopia begins with its framing troika of epigraphs. The lament for a world gone wrong, the flickering hope of redemption, and the longing for a new language, a different set of tracks, and “a new country … revealed with its wonders” are signaled in three epigraphs that draw upon Firdausi's Shah-Nama, T. S. Eliot's “The Journey of the Magi,” and Tagore's Gitanjali. The aged priests of Firdausi's Shah-Nama are asked, “How did they [the kings who had once possessed the world] … hold the world in the beginning, and why is it that it has been left to us in such a sorry state?” Sounding an age-old requiem on a familiar ubi sunt note, the question hovers over the tale of journeys to follow, issuing from an anonymous “he” who assembles the priests and invites their narrative response. The next epigraph, from “The Journey of the Magi,” seems to float into view as a solemn response: “A cold coming we had of it, / Just the worst time of the year / For a journey, and such a long journey …” The calculated ellipsis inserted at the end of the line bespeaks a narrative that continues, but one that must be syncopated to leave the sound and sense of journey lingering without further explanation. The final epigraph ends on a hopeful note: “And when old words die out on the tongue, new / melodies break forth from the heart; and where the / old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders.” A relentless will to hope for a better prospect than one yet seen seems to prevail, one nevertheless full of cautions against an old language and a recourse to old paths that have yet to lead to the “new country.” Pregnant with nostalgia for an unknown past gone by and a future-oriented longing for what is yet to be understood in the old language or arrived at through familiar tracks, the first and last epigraphs straddle, amphimacer-like, the visually shorter middle epigraph with its promise of a narrative accounting “a journey, and such a long journey. …” and the difficulties indicated in “a cold coming.” The phrase “such a long journey,” plucked out to serve as the title of the novel, looms into view as one turns the page, braced by the framing text no longer in sight. Encapsulated cryptically in the very title, then, is the notion of utopia, “no-place,” the move toward which will be “such a long journey” because it is not only that the end is nowhere in sight but that the destination itself is unknown, the language of its melodies not yet understood in the old lexicon, and the old tracks have yet to be abandoned.

The novel's formal rendition of these thematic concerns labors to resonate with the dialectic between old and new, progress and regress, journeys and ends. Selected figurative elements in Such a Long Journey expose this dialectic in a macroscopic view of the text as whole. Mistry's use of the figures of allegory (including national allegory, one admits) in the journey motif, symbolism in the references to the black paper on the windows and in the references to insects, and the triangulated metaphor-symbol-metonymy in the recurrent references to “the black stone wall” exploit the resources of figurative language not so much to approximate significance to signification as to strain through the tension between them. The novel's fundamental and delimiting “problem” with language thus rests at the heart of various sorts of incommensurability: between art and its object of representation; between a reconciled nature and its message of liberation; between content and the content having become form; between enunciation and understanding; between the singular and the typical.

The politics of representation makes the example exemplary, the representation representative. In this dominant scheme, postcolonial literature cannot be credited with singularity even as the area-based “knowledge” produced in postcolonial literature is forever barred from access to universality. The geopolitical division of knowledge confines the postcolonial production to parochialism while pronouncing universal appeal for writers like Joyce and Proust. One might certainly argue that Such a Long Journey is exemplary of prototypical postcolonial concerns in many ways. It is parochial in that it is interested in a small part of the world, and a part that does not feature as globally “central.” It is representative of the postcolonial condition in that it situates itself in the aftermath of a complicated colonial takeover with a conflicted legacy in which the battle between tradition and modernity constitutes a driving motif. Its choice of the novel genre, its recourse to the realist mode of telling, and even its predictable use of figuration betray this legacy as much as its content. If we pursued the narrative thread provided by Mistry's repeated return to the wall, for instance, we would find a useful broadly aesthetic and architectonic device for the exposition of what we have come to think of as paradigmatically postcolonial thematic concerns: the nation and its fragments, postcolonial disillusionment, the transformation of a physical and mental landscape by the technology and ideology of colonialism. We would also find, however, a symbolic internal system that exceeds these purposes, obliging us to conceive of those human concerns that are not usually allowed a spotlight on the postcolonial stage: love, loss, the individual libidinal psyche and its travails, the dailiness of postcolonial life that is at once bigger and more trivial than we usually credit, and the protest of the particular against the generic that is lodged in the inner history of the individual. At the same time, then, that the wall stands as a potent symbol of the sundering of individual experience from a total view of reality, it also points to the loss of interest in the individual in a world organized by reification and its reorganization of human relationships. Against a society that administers and manages all aspects of human life, the novel's focus on the sensuous structure of the individual's existence—a mode that might be considered outdated and outpaced by developments in the artistic marketplace—can constitute a subversive reminder of whom the dreamed-of-revolution is for, who dreams of it and in what imperfect, fragmented ways. Plot elements that recall the postcolonial predicament are thus constantly sized and shaped by the privatization of the political and the social.

The novel begins with the protagonist, Gustad Noble, facing eastward to offer his orisons to Ahura Mazda. The early invocation of religious filiation will continue throughout the novel to undercut affiliation with the national narrative on various levels: in the relationship of the subject to the nation-state and of religious minority to majority. As yet, however, the world invoked in the first few pages is sealed off from these realities, its dimensions reduced to a compound shared exclusively by Parsi families who coexist with varying degrees of harmony. The sounds one hears are those of pots and pans clattering in neighborhood flats, of birds chirping in the compound's solitary tree, the noise of the world without yet to intrude. As the narrative focus shifts further into a progressively interior spatial dimension, the heterodiegetic narrator takes the reader into Gustad Noble's psychic world where some of his disappointments and his hopes, his fears and desires briefly unfold. The narrative focus zooms in and out through these differently sheltered and confined spaces, revealing the primary denizens of Khodadad Building, a Parsi enclave shielded from the noise and dust of a busy thoroughfare and the prying eyes of “nons” by a black stone wall. Behind the stone wall surrounding Khodadad building live some of the characters who will play major and minor, noble and ignoble roles in the story. The Noble family includes Gustad's superstitious wife Dilnavaz and their three children: the brilliant older son Sohrab, fifteen-year-old Darius, and a young daughter, Roshan. Sohrab is clearly the repository of Gustad's hopes and aspirations, his own having been destroyed when Gustad's father was forced into bankruptcy and Gustad into early employment at a bank. Gustad's outraged surprise when Sohrab secures and then rejects a coveted seat to study at the Indian Institute of Technology—“the promised land”—creates a devastating rift between father and son, providing one of the plot's dramatic tensions in the novel (67). With the onset of his daughter's lingering illness, Sohrab's unexpected change of plans, and his friend Major Jimmy Bilimoria's audacious request for help with transferring government funds, Gustad's relatively safe world behind the wall is about to be rocked by fear and uncertainty.

Sharing the compound with the Noble family, among other minor characters, is the elderly Miss Kutpitia who claims to know of the medicinal properties of herbs, of black and white magic, and of the import of auguries; Mr. Rabadi, engaged in an ongoing feud with the Nobles over their son Darius's interest in his daughter; Major Jimmy Bilimoria, the retired major who has gone missing for a year only to reappear in Gustad's life in the form of a mysterious note that draws the latter into the seamy politics of Indira Gandhi's ambitions; and lame and dimwitted Tehmul who will die in the riots staged around the wall at the conclusion of the novel. Beyond this wall is a frightening world in which the proverbial heat and dust of India and the smelly effluences of its anonymous masses assail the senses; where the fundamentalist Shiv Sena is busy renaming city streets and staging a bid for a unitarian Marathi Bombay (known, as of even date, as Mumbai); where suspicious women eye Gustad's shopping basket askance, lest it contain offensive nonvegetarian victuals. Beyond this wall, too, is a world of political intrigue and government corruption Gustad will learn of through bitter experience.

Functioning alternately as symbol, metonymic sign, and pregnant metaphor, the wall does not stand (or fall, as it does in the end) for any simple correlative meaning. A spatial construct, it is the site of projection, of limit, of boundaries that invite convergence with cognitive and psychological parallels while also discouraging literal parallelism. The limit space of the wall functions as a central device in the novel with multiple significations, among them are the symbolic limits of representation in the national and minority narrative, a visual symbol of the internal religious and social divisions within the nation, a metonymic pointer to the threatening excess that lies beyond, on either side, and the wall as a freighted metaphor that unfolds in various ways. Gustad's repeated return to meditate on the wall, the role of the wall in the collective and personal drama that unfolds, and the problems and protections posed by the wall make it integral to the narrative of the novel. In a critical sense, then, although sometimes a wall is just a wall, here we are faced with a story wall, a wall in a story, an intentional wall, a wall beyond auctorial intention, and a wall with a story.

At the time of our introduction to it in the first chapter, the wall is already under attack. Gustad has just received a municipality notice suggesting that a road-widening project is likely to push it back several feet:

The compound would shrink to less than half its present width, and the black stone wall would loom like a mountain before the ground-floor tenants. More a prison camp than a building, all cooped up like sheep or chickens. With the road noise and nuisance so much closer. The flies, the mosquitoes, the horrible stink, with bloody shameless people pissing, squatting alongside the wall. Late at night it became like a wholesale public latrine.


The intrusions of the world beyond have been suggested earlier in the introductory chapter through Gustad's growing apprehension of it through smell and sound. Engrossed in his prayers despite the familiar clatter and chirping, Gustad is beginning his recital of the Sarosh Baaj silently “when the domestic sounds of the building were drowned by the roar of a diesel engine” (15). The “thundering lorry” pulls away shortly after, “leaving a cloud of diesel fumes to linger at the gate.” “By and by,” we learn, “the morning air carried in the acrid smell” (15). It is this smell that draws Gustad to the gate and to the municipal notice pasted on a pillar, proposing the road widening. The municipality's project is inextricably associated with the disturbing sounds and smells of a threatening world, its plans for modernization including an expansion as well as closing in. We might read within these conjunctions the arraignment of a selective and disjunctive interpretation of modernization that renders the idea of “progress” necessarily conflicted. Like a sheet that will not stretch to cover all that seek its warmth and shelter, it is extended in one direction, only to rob others of its protection. The contradictory projects of modernity are partially visible through the struggles over the wall in Mistry's narrative. Interestingly, the movement of the wall is more or less irrelevant for the majority of the people. The road widening benefits the common man but little. If the foul assaults on the wall by a citizenry bereft of public facilities is a continuing source of annoyance to Gustad, it is also a dismal reminder of those who are kept out of the city's protected enclaves, obliged to perform even their private ablutions in public. Statistics suggest that nationwide about 70 percent of the population has no access to sanitation ( The mass concentration of populations in the major cities renders this problem far more visible than it would be in the rural areas. The bodily deposits of this hapless population at the wall bespeak this abjection, defiantly so.

The city, one recalls, is the locus classicus of modernity. Its spaces under contest, its time is regulated by the workday—Gustad associates the air raid siren with the thought that it was “Ten o'clock already … Should have been at my desk by now” and its spaces are regulated by division of labor (143). Its size capable of “[absorbing] a highly diverse variety of services,” the city also encourages specialization and adaptability to consumer needs (Simmel 420). Gustad's description of the neighborhood in which his physician's, Dr. Paymaster, dispensary is located, suggests the sprouting of these goods and services as the area is transformed to offer “transistors, toasters, tyres, auto parts, plastic crockery—everything essential for the magic which swallows up a hundred years of history and propels a country stuck in the nineteenth century directly into the glories of the twentieth” (154). Gustad's negotiations with the metropolis introduce us to its teeming variety, its diversity regulated and unified by nothing more than the money economy that has created the city, its assault on the senses relentless.

Denial and the blocking out of sensory stimuli, we might recall, was offered as a classic psychological response to the sensory overload of an overpopulated, underserviced city in Georg Simmel's comments on the problems of modern urban life in “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Challenged spatially from forming a community on this large a scale, self-preservation demands from the individual the ability to close out and seek shelter from the random and relentless profusion of stimulants of city life. Reserve stems not only from indifference but a revulsion that Simmel describes as “mutual strangeness and revulsion,” which is likely, moreover, to “break into hatred and fight at the moment of closer contact, however caused” (415-16) as they do toward the end of the novel when “spontaneous emotions, bottled up for God knows how long … [pop] their corks” in a spirited demonstration against the city's municipal corporation (Mistry 329). From Gustad's perspective, the wall offers a retreat from the maelstrom of a burgeoning and hostile metropolis seeking to reorganize the space of the city in the name of development or in the majoritarian quest for a univocal identity by replacing colonial street names with nationalist ones (74). Written over by the bodily effluences of the “bloody shameless people,” the wall is unsurprisingly illegible to Gustad as a sign of one of many problems that neither the nation-state nor the ordinary bourgeois individual has been able to confront meaningfully.

If the black stone wall thus “stands” for various sorts of internal boundaries within the nation, it also embodies the self-sought isolation of the Noble family and by extension that of both the Parsi community and others like them who live within their relatively safer enclosures, blind to the deprivation in the world beyond—notwithstanding Gustad's occasional acts of compassion for the poor and otherwise deprived—and the way in which modernity shapes their space and time as well as their individual psyches. The stink of the unsavory realities of a world held temporarily at bay, however, pursues Gustad as the diesel smell persists, “following him through the compound as he returned home” (16). A powerful mnemonic, it joins his consciousness of the current dilemma with two unpleasant memories: one of the bailiff's men driving away with the contents of his father's bankrupted bookshop in their lorries, and the other of an accident nine years ago that has left him with a limp. As he walks back into his flat, his hip beginning to hurt, Gustad wrinkles his nose and wishes “the wind would change” (17).

The accident, we will learn, is caused when Gustad and his son are forced to leap off a city bus by a surly conductor who informs them that the bus is not headed toward their destination and that they must either get off in the middle of traffic or buy a ticket. “No free ride,” proclaims this denizen of a money economy (57). The hitherto stationary bus in the middle of sluggish traffic jerks forward just as they are alighting, and Gustad suffers the fall that will leave him limping as he kicks his son out of the way of an oncoming taxi. We are told that “the smell of diesel fumes was strong in his nostrils as he blacked out' (58). As he comes to in the street, a water-seller is demanding money for the water used to splash on his face, incurring the ire of some who find him heartless and the support of those who understand that it is unfair that he should be “left out” of the profits that the doctor and the hospital would not relinquish in the name of humanity. “They [the residents of the city] share,” as Simmel points out, “a matter-of-fact attitude in dealing with men and with things; and, in this attitude, a formal justice is often coupled with an inconsiderate hardness” (411). As his son Sohrab hands over a rupee to the water-seller, Gustad himself “wanted to say something to him about counting the change carefully” (Such a Long Journey 59). Spawning an ever greater “right to distrust which men have in the face of the touch-and-go elements of modern life,” the city both requires and is produced by an internalization of the money economy and a concomitant blunting of discriminative capacities of the relative value of things (Simmel 415). The only individual who does not want “to profit from … [Gustad's] pain” is the taxi-driver who drives him home and then to the traditional bonesetter for free (Such a Long Journey 60). But then, again, he will turn out to be in the employ of Jimmy Bilimoria and the Indian Secret Service and capable of considerable ruthlessness when Gustad hesitates to perform Bilimoria's requested monetary transactions. Although the “internalization of the money economy” can scarcely be confined to urban life alone—the rampant and exploitative practice of usury in Indian villages can hardly have been without consequence for the structuring of social relations, for instance—the city as the seat of the money economy may well provide the first such model of a commercial relation of the individual to the life around him by virtue of size and scale. The instinct to seek refuge from the ravages of metropolitan life and its production of one-dimensional subjectivity progressively isolates the individual. The prospect of greater proximity to the chaos without and the impending “exposure” to its ugly realities lead Gustad to hope that nothing will come of the “pernicious proposition” to reduce the buffer zone provided by the wall further (90).

In a bid to protect the wall from human soiling, Gustad hits upon the brilliant solution of getting a sidewalk artist to fill the wall with holy pictures. “Will you be able to draw enough to cover three hundred feet?” he asks the young artist. Gustad's attempt to develop an indigenous, not to mention ingenious solution, to deal with the insalubrious assaults on the wall make it an experimental field for the kind of autoplasty needed to heal the wounds of fundamentalist politics that have appropriated nationalist discourse in India. His reply suggests the lie not only of any unitary discourse of the Indian nation, but even of a Hindu one: “There is no difficulty. I can cover three hundred miles if necessary. Using assorted religions and their gods, saints and prophets: Hindu, Sikh, Judaic, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Jainist. Actually, Hinduism alone can provide enough” (182). The proliferation not only of alternative emblems of cultural presence but of the central emblems of a Hindu one suggest the impossibility of any essentialist notion of nation, fundamentalist or otherwise. That these proliferations are themselves located on the border space of the wall should alert us to its status as the limit site of cultural representation where nation-space is in the “process of the articulation of elements: where meanings may be partial because they are in medias res; and history may be half-made because it is in the process of being made; and the image of cultural authority may be ambivalent because it is caught, uncertainly, in the act of ‘composing’ its powerful image” (Bhabha, “Introduction” 3). The evolution of religious fundamentalism in India as deeply complicit with modernity rather than as a simple foil to it is discussed at length in the following chapter. For now, suffice it to register its presence in the narrative through the ambivalent sign of the wall.

In Mistry's tale of a Parsi family, if the wall interrupts the narrative of a continuous nation by revealing its disruptive other, it is also presented as a possibility of sorts. Over time, the wall “had verily become a shrine for all races and religions” (286). On the wall the Hindu trinity jostles with Abraham, Zarathustra, Our Lady of Fatima, major and minor Christian saints pantheon, Yellamma, the patron deity of prostitutes, and even a few dubious holy men. The subsequent evolution of the wall from public latrine to sacred shrine for a disparate band of devotees is pronounced a miracle by those who have so long suffered a heady assault of undesirable sights and smells. There are complaints, to be sure, about the “all perjaat gods on a Parsi Zarathosti building wall,” but they are dwarfed by the miracle of “smell … gone, nuisance gone, mosquitoes gone” (213). The smell of incense and joss sticks mingled with the “heavenly fragrances” of roses and lilies now continuously fills the air as devotees of various faiths and religions stop to offer their orisons and their scented offerings. “What an amazing contrast,” Gustad thinks, “to the wall of old. Instead of flies and mosquitoes buzzing, a thousand colours dancing in the sunlight. Instead of the stink, this glorious fragrance of paradise. Heaven on earth” (286). It is not incidental that Gustad so often and so fondly remembers a period in his life when he was part of “a wonderful world” in his father's furniture workshop and bookstore, “where even the air had a special quality”: “Time and the world stretched endlessly then, before the bad days came and everything shrank,” and one might add, would also begin, quite literally, to stink (141). The transformed wall literalizes the plugging of these stimuli and the pleasing separation and freedom this grants to the community within its confines. The aesthetically appealing wall then provides a dramatic symbol of hindrance to the reciprocal interaction of the various elements that only speciously comprise a “society,” because “the bodily proximity and narrowness of space makes the mental distance only the more visible” (Simmel 418).

The reliance of this solution on the mystifying force of religion and art, moreover, betrays a habitual evasion of other fundamental divides. The powers of religious ideology and art combine to provide the Khodadad building Parsis with the buffer they have so long desired, but they do so by masking and aestheticizing the nature of the various divides. The common person's needs are merely displaced by these diversions, for one imagines that another wall somewhere is now serving the purpose thus far performed by the black stone wall, one unadorned and naked in its grim testimonial to a failure to meet the needs of the masses. Sacralized with dizzying speed through the tireless efforts of Gustad's hired artist, the wall, a shrine to secularism and religious pluralism and a certain sort of bourgeois utopian possibility proves, perhaps predictably, to be a fragile bulwark. As the novel ends, municipal workers are chiseling out the mortar between the stone slabs after a bloody confrontation with a spirited, multireligious group of protesters. In the violent confrontation, the disabled half-wit Tehmul, who was foolish enough to leave the protection of the compound, has been fatally wounded, an unwitting sacrifice.

In the heat of intramarginal politics and the hegemonic designs of the nation-state and the enthusiasm for development, even the sacred is no longer sacred. The sacred wall's ultimately multiple failure to resolve the problems that beset those on both sides of the wall suggests the mortifying limits of both secularism and aesthetic representations of tolerance in the face of unaddressed social needs. Neither is adequately equipped to face the onslaught of modernization, its unequal distribution of resources, and its new challenges to old problems of social and religious divisions. Nor, indeed, is religious commitment a bulwark against the more “modern” of devotions displayed by the denizens of the city: it is scarcely a matter of random chance that Laxmi, Hindu goddess of wealth, is the first to be recognized and garners the first of the many devoted offerings that will appear at the wall. Alongside the more traditional gods on the pantheon, we are told, is Parsi holy man Dustoorji Baria who is famous for helping people not only “with health problems, pet problems,” but also “stock-market problems, business-partnership problems, job-finding problems, merchant-banker problems … and so on” (288). The wall then comes to function as a powerful mise-en-scène for a thoroughly commodified society that is both unified and divided by the same force.

The wall painter's growing pride in the power of his art is also fated to be humbled. In an ironic twist, it is Gustad's old friend Malcolm Saldanha who turns out to be in charge of the municipal operation to destroy the wall. Himself a musician who “used to summon the notes like magic” but proved unable to make a living, Malcolm is “now supervising pickaxes and churning concrete” (331). The pavement artist observes his approach with apprehension, crumpling when Malcolm breaks the news to him:

He gathered up his paints and brushes, boxes and belongings, and dropped them in the compound. There he sat, cross-legged, unable to summon up even a trace of the resources that had fuelled his wanderings in the old days.


Initially an unassuming sidewalk crayonist, the usually humble artist has not earlier been without some aspirations to social relevance. By the time the wall is slated to be destroyed, he has come to see it as “my wall” (329). A specialist in world religions and in religious art, he is quite able to generate enough representations from the Hindu pantheon to cover 300 feet of wall; “But,” he suggests, “I always like to mix them up, include a variety in my drawings. Makes me feel I am doing something to promote tolerance and understanding in the world” (182). The artist has nevertheless attempted, thus far, to cultivate a studied insouciance and humility about his work: he had learned “during his years of wandering and drawing … that impermanence was the one significant certainty governing his work. Whenever the vicissitudes and vagaries of street life randomly dispossessed him of his crayoned creations, forcing him to repaint or move on, he was able to do so cheerfully” (212). The success of the wall art, however, leads him to dream of greater glory for his work: “From now on, no more crayons. All pictures in oil and enamel only. Completely permanent. Nothing will spoil them” (212-13). By this point in the narrative the artist has quite forgotten a lesson he had earlier learned, “to disdain the overlong sojourn and the procrastinated departure, for they were the progenitors of complacent routine, to be shunned at all costs.” The work on the wall was “reawakening in him the usual sources of human sorrow: a yearning for permanence, for roots, for something he could call his own, something immutable” (184).

In the face of unexpected success, the artist's desire to create an enduring, meaningful “miracle” through his work is rudely exposed as misplaced pretension when the beautiful, sacred wall proves no match for the municipality's plans. The abrupt end to his brief moment of glory reminds him that “the journey—chanced, unplanned, solitary—was the thing to relish” (184). As the Khodadad building inhabitants' worst fears are realized, the artist is packing away his crayons, all he will need, he says, for his journey. Gustad asks him where he is going. The artist shrugs and replies, “In a world where roadside latrines become temples, and temples and shrines become dust and ruin, does it matter where?” (338). It is not necessary to read into the pavement artist's fate the prediction of the end of art so much as its precarious position in a larger world of uncertainty and change, its future unknown, and its purpose ambiguous. Without even the cryptic clue of a guiding star, it is clear that the artist's quest for alternative futures, like the people's, is also going to be such a long journey.

Gustad, meanwhile, has had the opportunity to come to his own bitter conclusion that “nothing is beyond the government. Ordinary people like us are helpless against them” (338). Standing against the mobility signified by the dominant motif of “journey,” the wall also operates as a counter to change, national or personal, public or private. The protagonist, thus, also erects walls against experience and change; he refuses, in other words, to make a necessary journey for much of the novel. Gustad's embittered awakening at the conclusion of the novel has come at considerable cost, and it is one that follows upon a literal train journey to the country's capital. Early in the novel an animated exchange between Sohrab and his father suggests the latter's staunch unwillingness to countenance stories of governmental corruption. As Gustad is dragged into Major Bilimoria's scheme for siphoning money into an illegal account, ostensibly to aid the revolutionary Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini army in its war for liberation from Pakistan, sinister aspects of statecraft and political ambition begin to reveal themselves. Mistry's use of this story line is based largely on a historical event involving a Parsi agent from RAW, a branch of the Indian Secret Service. Arun Mukherjee explains that

The actual event that Mistry focused on is known in India as the Nagarwala case. In the winter of 1971, it was reported in the papers the Head Cashier of the State Bank of India in Delhi had given six million rupees to Mr. Nagarwala on the basis of a phone call from Mrs. Gandhi who, he claimed, had asked him to take this great risk in the name of Mother India. After he had delivered the case to Mr. Nagarwala in a preassigned place, the Head Clerk had doubts about his act and went to the police. Mrs. Gandhi denied that she had made any such telephone call and the Head Clerk was suspended. Nagarwala was arrested a few days later and confessed that he had mimicked Mrs. Gandhi's voice.


The novel recounts a similar tale, with Major Bilimoria playing the fictional role of Nagarwala. Gustad's growing misgivings about the state's capacity for terrorizing the private individual develop into horror in a final confession scene in a Delhi prison hospital where Bilimoria is being held. The enfeebled Bilimoria's halting revelation of his manipulation by the prime minister and his progressive physical and mental decline after police torture leave Gustad in no doubt that the corruption they have all taken for granted as a part of Indian life exists at a level that confounds belief. Bilimoria himself knows that it is bootless to talk to lawyers or newspapers, since “everything is in their control.” His own plan is to weather his four-year prison sentence and “then forget about it” (280). By the time Gustad returns to Bombay after what will turn out to be his last meeting with his friend, India is openly at war with Pakistan over the very liberation movement in Bangladesh Gustad had mistakenly thought he was aiding when he agreed to divert government funds.

Gustad's reconciliation with Bilimoria leaves him in good spirits, but not yet shorn of all his illusions. His nationalistic zeal, his pride in the Indian army betray an unchanged faith in the power of the nation-state to protect its citizens as he extols the might of Indian antiaircraft guns and patriotically repairs the blackout paper on his windows, first affixed nine years earlier, during a by now almost forgotten war with China in 1962. Gustad's wife's pleas to remove the old paper have long fallen on deaf ears. “Long after the 1971 war with Pakistan has been won,” the narrator observes, “after the euphoria of flags, banners, and victory parades had passed … after the billboards and hoardings were divested of wartime exhortations; after the blackout was lifted and cities returned to light … after all this, Gustad still did not remove the paper from his windows” (309-10). The insistent use of anaphora in a paragraph-long preamble to the final sentence with which the above quotation ends impresses upon us Gustad's inability to make a final, necessary gesture. He seems to sense that it is time to make this move, but finds it difficult to overcome his reluctance.

Although he dismisses Dilnavaz's renewed petition to remove the paper with a brusque, “Why the big rush?” Gustad finds that her “gibe about the blackout paper was buzzing inside his head.” “By and by, however,” the narrator notes, “the wall's fragrances wrapped their rich veils over him and made him forget” (310). What is sweet to the senses can also numb them into complacence. Aesthesia, the capacity for feeling and sensation, may be vital to an intelligent understanding of the complexity of human and economic relations and indispensable as a tool for human liberation, but it is no guarantor of it or of personal emancipation. Gustad finds himself all too easily beguiled away from his personal journey by the lulling scents, and all too susceptible shortly after to “moving stories of how Bangladeshis had cheered the arrival of the first Indian troops in Dacca” (310). As he pores over the newspapers over the next few days, “like everyone else, Gustad had begun to feel the glow of national pride.” A smaller item in “an obscure corner” of the paper one day jolts him back to his senses: “When he read it, the glow of national pride dropped from him like a wet raincoat.” The item in question is a small paragraph “which stated that Mr. J. Bilimoria, a former officer with RAW, had died of a heart attack while serving his four-year prison sentence in New Delhi” (311). Incidentally, Nagarwala, Bilimoria's real-life counterpart, is also said to have died under suspicious circumstances.

The other notice in the paper is one that alerts Gustad to his friend's funeral at the Tower of Silence. Grateful that some unknown person has brought Jimmy's body from Delhi, Gustad joins him, part of the way, on his final journey up the hill to the tower, where scavenging birds can reduce the body to bones. Despite his grief and rage, Gustad is glad to “watch the fire, listen to his prayers. And to offer sandalwood, sprinkle loban in the afargan.” In the scene now focalized through Gustad's senses, a powerful synesthesia is orchestrated: “Powder bursting into fragrant flames. Like shining from shook foil. Frankincense and myrrh, and sandalwood glowing red. Colour of the rising sun. And Jimmy's face through the thick white smoke” (315). The oblique reference back to one of the framing epigraphs from “The Journey of the Magi” in the evocation of the scented offerings to the funereal fire recalls Eliot's description of a journey that retains a final, unsettled paradox:

This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

It is believed that the magi were Zoroastrian priests and that the sign in the heavens had been long prophesied. This time, however, frankincense and myrrh are unambiguously offerings to death, their red glow in the fire nevertheless suggesting, even if they cannot promise, the “colour of the rising sun” and another birth so long ago and such a long journey made for the occasion. Both birth and death lie at the conclusion of the original expedition referred to by Eliot, the redemption of mankind necessitating the crucifixion, its collective rebirth requiring this death. Whether there is any prospect of redemption in the death Gustad now grieves, however, is impossible to discern through the fragrant but obscuring veil of smoke. That it is impossible to return unsullied by the terrible knowledge embodied in his friend Bilimoria's death might be deduced from the words that follow in Eliot's poem, suggesting that they and we can be “no longer at ease … in the old dispensation.”

Gustad returns home to the novel's closing scene in which the wall will be destroyed, the artist will set off on his unending journey, and another journey will end as Tehmul loses his life to a stray brick thrown by protestors. The cement mixers, waiting lorries, the milling crowd around the wall, and Tehmul's uncontrollable babble quickly apprise Gustad upon his arrival at the scene: “For the briefest of moments he felt the impending loss cut deeply, through memory and time; the collapse of the wall would wreck the past and the future” (329). As the raging mob vents its fury on construction workers formidably armed with pickaxes and crowbars, the frightened Parsis watch from within the compound, while Gustad attempts to keep Tehmul away from the fascinating flying objects without. Before he realizes it, however, Tehmul slips away, to be caught on the forehead by a flying brick. Gustad rushes into the melée to grab the unconscious frame and drag it into the compound. The doctor's ministrations come too late. As the others ponder where to put the body for the hour or so it will take for the hearse to arrive, Gustad silently approaches the body, lifts it in his arms and bears it safely home, two floors up to his flat. This sacred task done, Gustad begins his prayers for the unfortunate orphan. What strange redemption there is in the crippled boy's death, what gain in this tragic loss, it is not clear, but with the prayers tears long held within begin to flow. Gustad turns from his prayers to find that his son Sohrab, who has been visiting his mother, has joined him in Tehmul's flat. Whether or not their differences over Sobhrab's choices will be resolved, some reconciliation is clear in their embrace.

Returning to the compound Gustad finds the air “rank with the smell of diesel fumes” and a nauseating stench from the barrel of sewer sludge overturned by protestors. Engulfed in the putrid odors of a world that cannot be checked in its relentless process of change and progress, Gustad will finally “come to his senses.” In a finely tuned sign of dramatic irony, the author makes a double gesture through the climactic event of the destruction of the black stone wall. While the symbolic protection of the wall is destroyed along with the literal wall, Gustad seems to begin to dismantle the metaphoric wall that exists between him and self-awareness, a gesture transferred from the events transpiring outside the home to the darkness of his flat where he starts to remove from the windows—as his family has bootlessly been urging him—the black paper he had affixed several years earlier. As Gustad pulls at “the paper covering the ventilators,” it is not only the light beyond that is let in, however, but the heat of “the sun-flooded compound” (339). Gustad's inevitable journey out of his protected retreat into the open, if threatening, spaces of shocks and experience is masterfully captured in the double signification of this culminative moment. This delayed figurative rendition dramatizes the cognitive lag between experience and its apprehension; Gustad has long before now been ejected out of his protected Parsi enclave into the full fray of national politics, but his confrontation with the import of his experiences is perforce linked thematically and figuratively in the ending.

But not so fast. For all the walls that tumble, some yet remain. Gustad may have confronted his illusions about the state's power and corruption; he may have understood the basis of his separation from his son, but this adult bildungsroman ends with a limited epiphany after all. It is unclear how Gustad intends to reconcile his hopes for Sohrab's future as the technologically sophisticated heir to Indian modernity with the latter's interest in the arts. Moreover, notwithstanding the powerful symbolism of the light flooding in after the removal of the black paper, there is little evidence that Gustad has connected meaningfully with the reality of those who remain identified in his mind with a “horrible stink.” Till this noble hero learns to develop a nose for the sources of inequality and injustice that have created walls around and between people, his coming of age should be construed more as a point of departure than arrival.

The content-form vinculum in the use of the wall as a figurative device clarifies the ways in which the novel is in a fundamental sense about walls of various kinds. Given the comments from reviewers with which this chapter began, it might be instructive to now pursue this line of inquiry with specific regard to the question of language. Mistry's use of English might be characterized by what Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin refer to as “abrogation” and “appropriation,” the former constituting a strategy of “refusal of … the imperial culture, … its illusory standard of normative or ‘correct’ usage, and its assumption of a traditional and fixed meaning ‘inscribed’ in the words,” while the latter “is the process by which the language is made to ‘bear the burden’ of one's own cultural experience. … Language is adopted as a tool and utilized to express widely differing cultural experiences” (38-39).8 Mistry's use of “a glorious foreign accent,” duly noted in the jacket notes excerpting a review from the Philadelphia Inquirer, challenges standard English usage in an attempt to capture the cadence of certain types of Indian English usage while also freighting it with occasionally untranslatable cultural specifics. Significantly, however, the use of vernacular words and slang challenge not only the Western reader but the so-called insiders to this culture as well, requiring us to reimagine the operative scale of difference.

Mistry stages a scene within the novel that brings the issue squarely to the fore in the exchange between Gustad's friend at the bank, Dinshawji, and Laurie, the new typist, whose curvaceous beauty they both admire, the latter much less respectfully than Gustad. Dinshawji's tomfoolery and steadily worsening campaign of sexual harassment of Laurie as he gets sicker from a fatal disease reaches a new low one day:

He stopped singing, and said, panting, “Laurie, Laurie, one day I must introduce you to my little lorri.” She smiled, ignorant of the Parsi slang for the male member. “Oh yes,” he continued, “you will love to play with my sweet lorri. What fun we will have together.”

She nodded pleasantly, and around them, the men guffawed, digging one another in the ribs. Gustad winced. Dinshawji was going too far. But Laurie smiled again, a little puzzled, and uncovered her typewriter.


The intransigent walls posed by the multilingual references and puns in the novel also stand among those we would think of as belonging on the same side in one indistinguishable mass that supposedly enjoys mutual intelligibility. In his discussion of a Renaissance Society exhibition of Shahzia Sikander's work at the University of Chicago, Homi Bhabha comments on the artist's use of a Durga/Kali figure overlaid “with the enigmatic veiled woman” (“Miniaturizing Modernity” 151). In doing so, the artist brings together not the East and the West, Bhabha notes, but “the East and the East” (151). The net result is to highlight “the nearness of difference, the intimacy of difference that can exist in any culture” (151). Mistry's elaborate doubling of the joke thrusts difference into the usually unexplored realm of those read as univocally different. Not everyone in that part of the world is on the inside for this inside joke either. The “lorri” joke succeeds (or fails) by capitalizing on incomprehension by one specific member of the audience and a sharing of the joke with at least one other. Typically, the slanting of the notion of postcolonial has shown selectivity with regard to both time and place, locating the postcolonial hybrid in international space as opposed to the postcolony, which, of course, is also hybrid and transcultural and has never been a “pure” space. In a different context, Ivan Karp wryly observes that “any good Bakhtinian knows that hybridity and conflicting complexity are part and parcel of the constitution of all selves and others, even in one locality and at one point of time. In any case, even the dispersed live in one place at a time” (292).9

The bases for celebrating texts for their transnational and transportable content lie in the privileging of hybridity as produced within global movements of the present, the emphasis on movements away from originary postcolonial locations rather than also inside them, and movements toward the former as well as newly emergent imperial centers. These selective emphases allow the postcolonial thus dislocated in the West to be mobilized as the desirable other in a largely dehistoricized context. The confusions of transnationalism and globalization, moreover, predispose us to attribute a diachronic flux and dynamism to cultures being produced by global movements of the present and toward the West—and to relegate the cultures of the postcolony and the “stationary” local to a state of synchronic stasis. The performance of translation across the intimacies of difference in Mistry's use of the joke layers anew the very notion of difference as capable of multiple figurations across and within what we describe as “culture(s).”

It is, therefore, not merely the move from one language to another that exposes the borders and limits of comprehension, but the more complex operation of variant codes within it, making monolithic others other to themselves even as they are other to the dominant subject who consumes the text that speaks otherwise. Dinshawji's many scatological jokes occasion pleasure for his male (Parsi) colleagues who obtain what Freud calls “fore-pleasure” “due to the momentary suspension of the expenditure of energy upon maintaining repression” (40). The sexual charge of Dinshawji's linguistic and code switching, moreover, alert us to another sort of erotics of communication: the invitation and the teasing, and the abrupt denial that throws up an unforeseen wall. The grammar of the self-other relationship thus includes both the thrill and the danger of externality that are inherent to the text; it is the other with which we choose to engage in quest of pleasures that quicken desire without always slaking it with the fulfillment of communion. The full charge of this relationship can only be explored in a view that accords literature its productively alien status:

Sited somewhere on the ground of familiar language, Literature entices only to refuse, appears complicit only to cold-shoulder. Literature is always somewhere else: that which, being literate, we have not read or cannot read. Literature admits us to reading so that we can take the full measure of our exclusion: its effect is to display the secretive knowledge which is always possible but never possessed.

(Eagleton, Criticism 165)

For Benjamin, the attentive critic must treat “texts as containers of untapped sacredness,” such that interpretive unveiling will not “destroy the secret” but will constitute a revelation that does justice to the truth (quoted in Lunn 180; Arendt 41). According to Benjamin, language itself must be seen as a “symbolic mystery” rather than as an “instrumentalized system of signs used for the purpose of communicating ‘something (other than itself),’” through the task of literary interpretation. To wish for a glossary that can exhaust the literary mode of signification and render the communicative act transparent constitutes a willful disacknowledgment of the mediateness of language, symptomizing a wish to possess language to erase otherness, to deny that its silences are as meaningful as its sounds. Moments of what Adorno calls “unintelligibility” in the text “render … the usual intelligibility suspect as being shallow, habitual—in short, preartistic” (Notes to Literature, II, 95).

The presence of inside jokes in the linguistic exchange instantiated in the novel are not merely playful insertions qua play alone. The meaning of Dinshawji's tasteless jest escapes Laurie for the moment but when she discovers that Dinshawji's reference is not to “his daughter or niece, or something like that,” she finds her own name “ruined” for her because it reminds her “of the dirty meaning” (176). Gustad, to whom she has been complaining, tries to assure her that “Laurie is a beautiful name. That will never change just because of some silly slang word” (176). In confiding to her that Dinshawji is “also very sick, though you wouldn't think so from his jovial attitude,” Gustad tries to convince her that he did not mean anything by it. In the ensuing admonitions he ministers to Dinshawji, Gustad “minced no words, wanting them to be as deadly as the goaswalla's knife that went bhup!” leaving his victim with a bloodless countenance (180). Following the exchange exhorting him to “stop your jokes and teasing with everyone,” we are told that “Dinshawji changed utterly” (180). It is only later that Gustad understands that Laurie was wounded by the residual moraine of Dinshawji's intent by his jests, the meaning of which has also escaped Gustad, for his friend meant no less than to prolong his survival by his capacity for projecting a jovial self, suggesting anew the ways in which “all expression is the trace left by suffering” (Notes to Literature, I, 83). This meaning, local to Dinshawji's own psychological needs and excessive to the reading of others, is no more transparent to Gustad than to anyone else, fluent in Parsi argot or otherwise, even though he is aware of the connection between his friend's dwindling vitality and growing ribaldry:

Day by day, he worried more and more for Dinshawji, for his ailing appearance, the face like parchment, the eyes battling to hide pain. But he also despaired about his embarrassing ways and the demise of his self-respect. Dinshawji was acting with abandon, in the manner of a medieval plague victim who knew that since the last vestige of hope was lost, clinging to dignity and other precious luxuries affordable by the healthy was of little use.


Some measure of its import and its irreducibility to transparency communicates itself to the dying man's friend when he witnesses his transformation: “When Gustad came across him later in the day, he was surprised at how authentically Dinshawji projected his new image. Till he remembered that it seemed authentic because Dinshawji was no longer playing a role; reality, at last, had caught up with him; and Gustad felt awful for confiscating his mask” (181). As Gustad confesses this we begin to realize that the import of his jests has escaped even Dinshawji; his self-assumed mask has sustained him in ways even he cannot know till he no longer has it available. Issuing from unknown cognitive needs, this intelligence escapes even that character to whom it is “native.”

Ideational, cognitive, psychological, generational, and linguistic walls, the novel reminds us, exist in many forms. They separate and isolate; they create commonalities and separations; they protect and they hem us in; sometimes they are sacred and sometimes they keep us from seeing what is on the other side. Enclosure prevents disclosure even as it creates communities of meaning and protection from the shocks of experience. If we wished to read it as a metaphor, it would be in the sense in which Max Black presents it, as “a species of catachresis” that “plugs the gaps in the literal vocabulary” (33, 32). For I. A. Richards, metaphor is “a transaction between contexts” (95). Richards uses metaphor “to cover all cases where a word, in Johnson's phrase, ‘gives us two ideas for one,’ where we compound different uses of the word into one, and speak of something as though it were another” (116). In Mistry's usage we would find, if not “the forty-nine levels of meaning in the Torah” (94), as Benjamin writes in describing his hermeneutic practice, numerous and sometimes conflicting contexts ripe for multiple harvests (Briefe, vol. 2, 524).

In his references to the wall, Mistry ultimately gives us not only a metaphor for intransigence but also a space of irresolution, deferral, and endless regression. And yet this is the fragile medium in which the future must be drawn. The wall is the site for also projecting the capacity for envisioning the prospect of liberation from the tools of the “old language.” One recalls that the artist decides to include in the pantheon upon the wall a mise-en-abyme that presents “the wall featuring a painting of the wall featuring a painting of the wall featuring a …” (288). Mistry's description of the mise-en-abyme is itself narrated in a regressive string of the same words, suggesting both the closure of an enclosed system and the unlikelihood of exposing its contradictions in the “old language.” This gestural moment in the text broaches the question of exterior referentiality frontally through a somewhat oblique type of parabasis that exposes the framework of the performance in progress. If the pavement artist is a figure for the artist, the wall, we may recall, is the very canvas upon which the artist works out the possibilities. If the writer's canvas is the text itself, and language his uncertain medium, it is not only non-English words that function as a linguistic wall in the middle of the flow of communication, but language itself that is the bulwark, the barrier, the bastion, and the battlement. This, too, is part of the design in Such a Long Journey.


  1. Godzich defines these as “literatures that cannot be readily comprehended within the hegemonic view of literature that has been dominant” (274).

  2. The educational institution that produces pedagogical apparata is far from being a value-free neutral space. For discussions on this topic, see hooks and Wiegman.

  3. In speculating on the unprecedented success of two first novels by Canadian ethnic authors, Mistry's Such a Long Journey and Nino Ricci's Lives of Saints, Smaro Kamboureli elaborates on this problem. She suggests that the novels in question “exemplify the expectations multiculturalism has generated from ethnic writing” by “importing otherness into Canadian literature as otherness,” and thus thematizing “not the foreignness of ethnics in Canada but the concept of the foreign itself imaged as Canada” (55). Respectably distanced from their immediate location, both authors in these novels “write about their origins without contaminating them with any elements of Canadianness” (55). The implications are clear: the minority text can thus be used to deflect attention away from the immediacy of the presence of the “other” within by rewarding it for keeping its distance. While I am loath to ascribe such loaded intentionality to the authors, I would suggest that they are likely to be read without an adequate understanding of the context of their production or an understanding of the disguisement of their status as resident Canadians and their novels as part of Canadian literature as they are used to fulfill the inside/outside contract that gives such literature its currency.

  4. Unless otherwise indicated, all references in this chapter are to Aesthetic Theory.

  5. Adorno accords the status of art only to that art that “resembles itself” (Notes to Literature, I, 171). The saturation of the artwork with its immanent form defines art for Adorno.

  6. On the decline of new criticism, see Stanley Aronowitz, especially 45 and 153.

  7. Sturla Gunnarson's adaptation of the novel for the screen consciously moves away from this sort of representational politics. Gunnarson claims that his is “not a film about a Parsi or an Indian. It's about a man trying to lead an honest life in a corrupt world, having to deal with the betrayal of his best friend, a son who is rebelling, and the death of his surrogate son. Things become universal by being particular” (quoted in Verma).

  8. Chantal Zabus describes the use of English by African writers in terms of a radical “relexification” or a “third code.”

  9. For commentary on Bakhtin and hybridity, see Young's elaborate discussions in Colonial Desire.

Peter Heinegg (review date 10 March 2003)

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SOURCE: Heinegg, Peter. “Wandering Between Two (?) Worlds.” America 188, no. 8 (10 March 2003): 30-2.

[In the following review, Heinegg judges Family Matters as a novel that combines a grand scope with paying attention to meticulous details.]

In Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse (1855) Matthew Arnold famously agonized over being caught between two conflicting worlds: a beloved, but dead faith and whatever unknown, but no doubt chilling, forces that would replace it. Compared with the complex predicaments facing Yezad Chenoy and other characters in this splendid new novel by Rohinton Mistry, Arnold's dilemma was a piece of cake.

Mistry himself is a Parsi, born in Bombay 50 years ago, but domiciled in Toronto since 1975. The Parsi extended family whose fortunes he recounts [in Family Matters] is nominally headed by a gentle, retired, widowed professor, Nariman Vakeel, 79 years old and suffering from Parkinson's disease. The great love of his life was a Christian from Goa, Lucy Braganza; but his family pressured him into marrying a Parsi widow, Yasmin Contractor (sic), with two children, Jal (a boy) and Coomy (a girl). Yasmin bears Nariman a wonderful daughter, Roxana, but the wounds from Lucy and Nariman's mutilated passion will not heal.

Lucy gets into the habit of climbing out on the roof of the Vakeels' apartment complex, where she teeters on the ledge until Nariman comes and coaxes her down. But one day a bitterly jealous Yasmin rushes up and tries to drag off her tormented rival. Nariman reaches out to rescue the women from their perilous perch, but in vain—they both plunge to their death. It is a shattering tragedy, but the family's troubles have just begun.

Jal and Coomy grow up to be stingy, shriveled, unmarried loners. They barely tolerate their ailing “Pappy” (whom they blame for their mother's death); and when he breaks his ankle, they hustle him off to the tiny apartment where his daughter lives with her husband, Yezad, and their two young sons. The move is supposed to be temporary, but Coomy goads Jal into bashing in the ceiling of their stepfather's room with a sledge-hammer and then using the “accidental” damage as an excuse for permanently delaying his return.

Meanwhile, the Chenoys' problems multiply. Nariman grows more feeble and bedridden. Yezad makes a valiant effort to move his family to Canada, but is turned down by a nasty Canadian-born Japanese immigration officer, who refers to the cultured, courteous and immaculately dressed Chenoys as “you people” and then rejects their application when Yezad, who is a sporting goods salesman, cannot answer some stupid trick questions about ice hockey.

Desperate to do something to advance his career and fend off poverty, Yezad attempts to convince his boss, Mr. Kapur, to go into politics and let him run the store alone. He even hires a couple of actors, who impersonate thugs from the Hindu fundamentalist party Shiv Sena, to barge into Kapur's office and shake him down (as an object lesson in just how bad life in Bombay has gotten). But Kapur merely flies into a rage; and when some real Shiv Sena operatives show up soon afterward with the rather modest demand that he retitle his “Bombay Sports Emporium” the “Mumbai Sports Emporium” (Mumbai being the city's new nationalistically correct name), Kapur again goes ballistic and is murdered. His vicious, icy widow then fires Yezad, and he never finds another job.

Financial disaster is averted, however, when the guilty Jal decides to fix the sabotaged ceiling and invite his stepfather back home. Unfortunately, he lets an incompetent do-it-yourselfer tackle the repairs; a beam collapses and both the “handyman” and Coomy are crushed to death. Now completely awash in guilt, Jal invites the whole Chenoy family to move in with him. They sell their apartment in an off-the-books cash transaction (honesty, it seems, is an unaffordable luxury in Bombay), so that even with no steady income, they can muddle through. Nariman eventually dies (in his last moments he is serenaded by a woman violinist from the Bombay Symphony playing his beloved “Brahms Lullaby”). The jobless, disappointed Yezad turns into a Parsi fanatic, poring over sacred texts round the clock and praying at the fire temple, cursing his sons as they become more secular, Westernized and eager to cuddle with non-Parsi girls. Roxana grits her teeth, pours her love out on everyone and keeps peace in the family. Jal, now a benign, clueless “Uncle,” fiddles with his hearing aid and watches from the sidelines.

The many worlds Mistry's characters inhabit simultaneously are intricate, contradictory and all-but-impossible to endure. Mistry's India is a political nightmare, wracked by ubiquitous corruption and violence, savage and petty, religious and otherwise. The caste system continues to perpetuate its age-old cruelties. Women are oppressed and treated as chattel. Parsism is a marvelously rich tradition, but there are only 125,000 Parsis left on the planet (mostly in and around Bombay), and their numbers are dwindling. (Parsis do not accept converts; modernity and intermarriage slash away at the community.) Other Parsis may be rich and influential; but the Chenoys are trapped in shabby gentility amid a chaotic, filthy, ungovernable megalopolis, a gilt-edged slum packed with 14 million people. They speak English better than most Anglo-Saxons (along with Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, etc.). They know all about Shakespeare and W. B. Yeats, Milton, Churchill, Jackson Pollock and the Beatles. They are exquisitely cosmopolitan—but what does it get them? They live in run-down, absurdly named properties like Chateau Felicity and Pleasant Villa, where moments of felicity and pleasure are very hard to come by.

The stresses, indignities, pains and humiliations of ordinary life grind away at them day and night. Forget the threat of nuclear war between India and Pakistan; forget the poisonous relations between Hindus and Muslims; forget the population explosion, the surging rate of AIDS and so on. Just coping with “family matters” is a heroic and utterly exhausting task.

Mistry, whose earlier stories and novels (Swimming Lessons, Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance) have garnered both critical praise and a batch of prizes, tells this tale with unsentimental tenderness, deft humor and ironic intelligence. His book combines grand scope with meticulous detail. Recent years, of course, have seen a spectacular proliferation of talented Indians and Pakistanis writing in English, but Mistry has to be rated among the cream of the crop.

There is, alas, an ugly footnote to this fine record. Mistry now refuses to visit the United States, because, thanks to paranoid terrorist-profiling, he has been subjected to intrusive, insulting interrogations by American officials. And, in fact, the Canadian government is currently advising any of its citizens and residents who happen to look like Middle Easterners to follow Mistry's example. What a world.

Frederick Luis Aldama (review date July-September 2003)

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SOURCE: Aldama, Frederick Luis. Review of Family Matters, by Rohinton Mistry. World Literature Today 77, no. 2 (July-September 2003): 77-8.

[In the following review, Aldama offers a positive assessment of Family Matters.]

In Family Matters, Rohinton Mistry beautifully colors a contemporary Bombay peopled with characters whose lives are filled with mundane—but no less grand—struggles and accomplishments. As with his earlier short-story collection, Tales from Firozsha Baag, and novel, Such a Long Journey, Mistry carefully crafts a narrative that heightens our sense of the vital life of a Parsi family—one filled with sibling rivalries, lost loves, secrets, and also the growth pains of the young alongside the deep sufferings of the old.

Set in 1990s Bombay, Mistry invents Nariman Vakeel—a septuagenarian, retired professor of literature—as the story's gravitational center. Here, we follow his coming to terms with a degenerative Parkinson's Disease and the various responses that his need for twenty-four-hour care elicits from his children. Stepdaughter and stepson, Coomy and Jal, accept his money but refuse to shoulder the responsibility of caring for him; they fail to see that by stubbornly resisting their mandates he is trying to control himself and his environs, and, ultimately, they cannot seem to forgive him for betraying their mother. As the flashback sequences reveal, Nariman continued a romantic liaison with his true love, Lucy, while married to their mother. The story also reveals how Nariman's destiny was determined by his parents (those he identifies as “willful manufactures of misery”), who forced him to marry not for love but for money and familial duty. However, Coomy and Jal's inability to forgive and forget—together with their self-identified “do-it-yourself” American attitude—leads less to fulfillment and more to bitterness and regret. Although the daughter Roxana and her husband, Yezad, live in a much smaller apartment with their two children, they take in Nariman. As his condition worsens and he finds himself increasingly taking refuge in daydreaming and telling the grandchildren, Murad and Jehangir, stories of his past, the narrative focuses on Roxana and Yezad's ups and downs. The reader learns of Yezad's foiled attempt to immigrate to Canada and how financial woes lead to a “tightness around his heart.” We learn of Roxana's feelings of estrangement under a growing emotional and financial duress that eventually wrenches her apart from Yezad. Importantly, we learn of how the grandchildren survive the family's struggles. Meanwhile, the sensitive Jehangir immerses himself in books—the British Famous Five stories in which “everything was beautiful”—as well as in his grandfather's stories. Along the way, we also learn of other people that live in the same apartment building, including the clumsy and self-inflated Edul Munshi, who “fancied himself a talented handyman,” and the “Matka Queen,” a woman of mystery and intrigue who gambles and reads fortunes.

For Mistry, there is much to be revealed beneath the veneer of family. As he delicately scratches surfaces of this Parsi family's life, the uncertainty of present-day existence is pushed to the foreground within the larger sweeps of history and politics. Thus, while Roxana comes to terms with Yezad's escape into Zarathustrianism, we also feel the dangerous presence and the violence of Shiv Sena—persecuting willy-nilly those deemed Other. Mistry's gift at showing—instead of just telling—makes patent the need for human contact and bonding, displays the possibility of remaining faithful to one's individual dreams while preserving the family framework, and exhibits a love of family that can include the expression of desires and ambitions from each one of its members. In Family Matters, finally, Mistry affirms deeply the role of storytelling as the glue that brings family members together and, as an older Jehangir reflects at the end, as a way to gain a better understanding of the topsy-turvy, postcolonial India and the complexity of its people.

Further Reading

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Bemrose, John. “Salaam Bombay: Rohinton Mistry Again Recreates His Birthplace.” Maclean's 115, no. 16 (22 April 2002): 54.

Provides a short examination of Mistry's career.

Craig, T. L. “Letters in Canada 1991.” University of Toronto Quarterly 62, no. 1 (fall 1992): 21-53.

Provides reviews of numerous works published during 1991, including Such a Long Journey.

Curtis, Sarah. “Beyond Mumbai.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5168 (19 April 2002): 4.

Review of Family Matters judging Mistry as highly skilled in creating characters that resonate with readers.

Davis, Rocío P. Review of Family Matters. Canadian Ethnic Studies 34, no. 1 (spring 2002): 159-60.

Provides a brief plot synopsis and positive evaluation of Family Matters.

Gorlier, Claudio. “CanadIndia: Reality and Memory in Rohinton Mistry's Tales from Firozsha Baag.Journal of Indian Writing in English 30, no. 2 (July 2002): 11-16.

Provides explanation of such concurrent themes in Tales from Firozsha Baag as the symmetry between Canada and India and the notion of a foreign ‘otherness.’

Houser, Gordon. Review of Family Matters. Christian Century 120, no. 4 (22 February 2003): 65-7.

Lauds Mistry's attention to detail in Family Matters.

Hussein, Aamer. “Madam's Fatal Hand.” New Statesman & Society 9, no. 394 (15 March 1996): 36, 38.

Review of A Fine Balance focusing on character development within the book.

James, Jamie. “The Toronto Circle.” Atlantic Monthly 285, no. 4 (April 2000): 126-30.

Provides an examination of several South Asian writers who have immigrated to Canada.

Kröller, Eva-Marie. “Why Family Matters.” Canadian Literature, no. 178 (autumn 2003): 158-60.

A positive review of Family Matters, examining the book as a “family saga,” praising Mistry's characterizations.

Mistry, Rohinton, and Robert McLay. “Rohinton Mistry Talks to Robert McLay.” Wasafiri, no. 23 (spring 1996): 16-8.

Provides discussion of A Fine Balance, examining such themes as exploitation and oppression.

Thorpe, Michael. Review of Such a Long Journey. World Literature Today 66, no. 4 (autumn 1992): 782.

Brief review of Such a Long Journey, focusing on such issues as oppression, poverty, betrayal, and India's internal problems.

———. “Canadian ‘Globalism’: Conflicts and Contradictions.” In Nationalism vs. Internationalism: (Inter)National Dimensions of Literatures in English, edited by Wolfgang Zach and Ken L. Goodwin, pp. 293-98. Tübingen, Germany: Stauffenberg-Verlag, 1996.

Examines the works of several immigrant Canadian writers and their role in broadening Canada's literary influence and reputation.

Updike, John. “Home Care: A Family Novel from Bombay.” New Yorker 78 (30 September 2002): 94.

Review of Family Matters, in which Updike likens Mistry's work to that of nineteenth-century novelists. Updike notes Mistry's attention to detail and his descriptions of daily life, crediting him for displaying compassion in his novels.

Additional coverage of Mistry's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 141; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 86, 114; Contemporary Canadian Authors, Vol. 1; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 71, 126; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; Literature Resource Center; and Short Stories for Students, Vol. 4.


Rohinton Mistry World Literature Analysis