Ahead of Mumbai-born author Rohinton Mistry’s 70th birthday tomorrow, three writers look at the city of refuge through its sensory world of words
Rohinton Mistry. Photo courtesy/Getty Images
The writer who killed his darlings
I had not visited a Parsi Baug before reading the tales of Firozsha Baag. But when I walked into Cusrow Baug in Colaba – to meet Gieve Patel [poet], I think – I was hit with a sense of deja vu. I knew it because I had lived it; because I had read it. I’ve read all of Mistry’s books and remember the shock of surprise to find someone readable, relatable, and enjoyable. His writing style is crisp and clear.
There’s no grease in his writing, no self-indulgence or clever postmodern posturing. It’s top-notch literary writing because it’s simple, and simplicity comes at a huge cost. Mistry killed her darlings. After reading Tales from Firozsha Baag, I knew I would come back to it again and again. Then came the ambition and know-how of A Fine Balance; the creator steps out of the nuances of a Parsi society and inspects the caste, class and profession acting on people during the emergency. Family Matters made me cry because it brought old age closer. I reread the title after the death of my friend, Mehlli Gobhai [abstractionist artist]and found it also deeply moving.
Now, suddenly, I want to reread Such a Long Journey because I especially remember the relationship between Gustad Noble and his friend. About the Parsi culture and Indianness, I remember a strange moment from one of his novels, where a young man was asked to show his biceps. It was later compared to a mango. The comparison was so startling that it stuck with me. There’s also the mention of an “empty stomach smell” that Dina Dalal—one of the main characters in A Fine Balance—identifies when two men introduce themselves as tailors. Also, its very Indian segregation of the teacups caught my eye.
Popularization of the Parsi community
I think one reads Mistry for the authenticity, for the plot, for the characters and the tumultuous arc that is life itself. I don’t think any writer has done more to demystify and popularize the Parsi community in the print media than Mistry. Genius camaraderie, charming idiosyncrasies, unapologetic social interactions, love of food, literature and life – Mistry’s books have all those aspects that make Parsis great friends to have and a singular community. .
Murzban F Shroff
Of someone who cares
Mistry’s writing creates a richly textured narrative. I love its cinematic flair for detail and the effortless recreation of familiar speech. Such a long journey takes place against the backdrop of the refugee crisis in Bangladesh; it brings to life that middle-class Parsi experience in Mumbai. The story involves a RAW officer being destroyed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. I finally read this highly recommended first novel from its last September, 30 years after its release.
It was an immersive read, especially against the backdrop of the void created by the series of lockdowns. I found myself transported to the book’s setting, a ramshackle Bombay Parsi settlement with living characters struggling with a range of social and emotional conflict, from the ever-looming threat of poverty to the disintegration of relationships. Despite the novel’s merits, I found it to fall short from a feminist perspective. Its female characters are neither well-rounded nor do they enjoy agency or a significant inner life. Mumbai’s small Parsi community, fiercely protective of its traditions, is something of an enigma to the outsider.
The Tower of Silence at Malabar Hill. Photo courtesy of WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Mistry welcomes us there. He brings out the nuances of everyday life, as well as the great moral struggles of the community, with a loving hand and a demanding eye. Far from the extravagances of the elite, the book focuses on those who live on the economic margins of society. Whether it’s the shabby home of a middle-aged eccentric looking like Miss Havisham or funeral rites in the Tower of Silence, the reader is allowed to enter secret spaces in the company of someone who knows. and cares. What struck me as special was its ability to highlight the struggles and complexities of characters that in other works of fiction would have remained ethnic caricatures.