My first introduction to Rohinton Mistry was in class ten. The school library stocked his books and there was something about his 2001 novel Family Matters that appealed to me. We were allowed to borrow a book for a week at a time and I remember devouring the 400-plus page novel in a matter of a few days – quite a feat for a board exam year.

Over the next few years, I read his other books A Fine Balance and Tales from Firozsha Bagh. Mistry hasn’t written a book in nearly two decades so when I bought Such a Long Journey in 2021, I saved it as a treat for the right time. I finally decided to read the book a few days ago – the heat is unbearable and the screen tires the eyes, Mistry seemed like the friend to turn to on a tiresome day.

The Nobles and friends

From the very first sentence, I was reminded of why I love Mistry’s fiction so much. Lengthy descriptions of the Parsi life, South Bombay before it was SoBo, and humdrum of life which is simultaneously unexciting and poetic. The streets are dirty, there’s a permanent shortage of water, and the milkman expertly dilutes the milk with water – the residents of Khodadad Building live in dismal conditions but their strong sense of self and community makes them worthy of a novel’s subject.

Gustad Noble, the protagonist, is a middle-aged man who prides himself on his honesty, uprightness, and being the true family man. He’s a bank employee with a meagre salary but his son successfully clearing the IIT entrance exam has brought him relief and joy. Never mind that the young man has no interest in studying engineering. Gustad’s friend at the bank, Dinshawji, is given to flirting with the mini-skirt-clad Catholic assistant and making crude jokes but Gustad is devoted to his wife and does not feel the need to speak poorly of her to fit in with his friends.

His other friend, Major Bilimoria was once a respected army general but the change in national circumstances – this was the time when India was trying to help Bangladesh attain independence from Pakistan – throws him into a sticky situation where he’s forced to do corrupt bidding on behalf of the prime minister. Gustad and his wife Dilnavaz are in obvious distress when Bilimoria draws Gustad into his plans and makes him undertake journeys through shady lanes of Bombay and an overnight train ride to Delhi to see the deceit to its end.

In the meantime, Gustad’s youngest daughter Roshan falls sick – an unexplained stomach ailment that doesn’t go away with tried and tested medicines, and the doctor’s intervention. Defeated by constant sickness, Dilnavaz asks her spinster neighbour Ms Kutpitia for help – a staunch believer in black magic and evil eye, her every new remedy is more bizarre than the last.

Tehmul, the resident retard, inadvertently gets caught up in Dilnavaz and Ms Kutpitia’s madness. A moving shadow in the Khodadad Building, he is witness to secrets that the Noble family – and perhaps everyone else – is trying to hide. His slurred speech, ungainly ways, and limited physical and mental capacity make him an easy target for the resident’s uncaring cruelty. Only Gustad sees him for what he is – a slow child trapped in a man’s body, and tries to be kind to him as much as he can.

The wheels go round and round

Like all of Mistry’s novels, the cast of characters in Such a Long Journey is diverse and abundant. I have always taken pleasure in reading about the Parsis of Bombay, their foods, rituals, and distinct manner of speaking. The South Bombay of the 1970s is charming despite its infrastructural shortcomings. Remarkable shifts in political landscapes hurry on their slow-moving lives.

Indira Gandhi is at the helm and the common man is getting sick of her. Mistry’s sharp criticism of Mrs Gandhi’s regime is highlighted through the Nobles’s struggle to make ends meet as inflation and taxes reach record highs. Her despotic thwarting of opposing voices brings no assurance either. The only ray of hope in this misery is Bangladesh’s spirited fight for independence and India’s support for a just cause. The men in South Bombay cheer Pakistan’s downfall as Bangladesh’s courage grips their spirits. The nation’s collective pride at being on the right side of history is unmissable.

A lot of things go wrong with the Nobles – starting with when Gustad’s father loses his business and wealth thanks to a scheming uncle. Since then, his life has been marked with all manners of sadness if not always full-blown tragedies. Personal strife aside, Gustad is unexpectedly drawn into the war that until now he was happy to witness from the sidelines.

As the Nobles try to make sense of their daughter’s illness, a rebellious son, eccentric neighbours, and friends who appear and disappear, Gustad makes the fated – if solitary – journey into his own heart. He’s tossed around between life and death and secrets and morality as he tries to preserve as much of his (and his family’s goodness) in an increasingly turbulent world.

As always, Mistry’s strength lies in his wickedly humorous descriptions, intimate portrayal of family life and bringing alive a time in history in precise, evocative detail. Though ultimately a story of a five-member family, the author does not shy away from criticising the fascist politics of the Shiv Sena and Congress and India’s tendency to incite riots at the slightest provocation. Set in the 70s and written in the 90s, Mistry’s warnings would ultimately be ignored time and again as Bombay and various other cities find themselves in the throes of ghastly violence.

Mistry has published three novels till now, all of which have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize – the only writer to achieve it. At 71, it’s unlikely that Mistry will come out with a new novel anytime soon. The Parsi community that exists so vibrantly in his novels are dwindling in numbers too. Nevertheless, he has given us books that are not just marvellous documentation of one of India’s smallest minorities, but also timeless in their moods and worthy of several revisits.

Such a Long Journey, Rohinton Mistry, Faber and Faber.