Since the 1950s, the decade in which writer Rohinton Mistry was born, deaths in India’s Parsi community have reportedly outnumbered births. The short stories and novels of this reticent and renowned author have documented the daily lives of this small, endangered and influential people credited with the commercial rise of the city of Bombay.
Germaine Greer, who had spent four months teaching in India, famously dismissed one of his novels as “a Canadian book about Indians. What could be worse?” She couldn’t recognise the India she had come to know in his portrayal. Amit Chaudhari wrote a review of Such a Long Journey that characterised Parsis as having “a bad temper which one takes to be the result of the incestuous intermarriages of a small community.” In some ways, it is unsurprising that books about a little-understood group of people in India would draw rejection and stereotypes from critics.
But his books – just three novels and one collection of short stories, besides the odd single story here and there – have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Mistry has been on the Oprah Winfrey show after she chose A Fine Balance for Oprah’s book club – it was only the second non-American book she had ever selected. Each of his novels has won or been shortlisted for a major literary prize. Such a Long Journey edged out Margaret Atwood for the Governor General’s Award for fiction. His short story Swimming Lessons is considered to be one of the finest examples of the genre and is included in numerous anthologies of short fiction. Mistry is quiet, courteous and reserved in interviews. His fiction is well-known, but little is known about how the man himself thinks.
The inheritance of books
Mistry grew up in a family that valued music and books. His grandfather owned a bookshop. His brother, Cyrus, went on to become a playwright and award-winning novelist, whose novel Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer , which won the DSC Prize for South Asian literature in 2014, is an interesting companion to his brother’s books as it brings to light a marginalised community that carries and cleans dead bodies for the Parsis.
Whereas Rohinton Mistry emigrated to Canada at the age of 23 to join his fiancé, Cyrus has spent his entire life in India. As a result, Mistry is sometimes said to be depicting a world steeped in nostalgia. But perhaps Mistry’s feat is exactly that he has preserved a moment in time in Bombay’s history. Nostalgia is often a charge levied at diasporic authors, but Mistry’s work pays attention to the domestic and political tragedies of his time. If he has embalmed his characters in empathy, it has only served to make them precious to readers.
In a particularly revealing statement in an interview, Mistry said “I don’t like clever books; I like honest books.” His long-time editor, Ellen Seligman, pointed out that Mistry doesn’t want the reader to notice the writing itself. She explained, “The writing is there to serve the story and the characters.” Mistry’s novels aren’t short – but readers read them from cover to cover for his simple, clear prose. The plot does not slow down to accommodate a lyrical paragraph. Which is not to say that Mistry does not offer significant insights into his characters, but that he manages to do both simultaneously. As the miniscule, unrelenting rigours of daily life are narrated, the prose allows the characters’ thoughts and motives to come through.
What has charmed readers, Indians and non-Indians, is his choice of humble characters who enter unusual (but not unheard of) situations. Take for example a widow whose refusal to remarry leads her to start a sewing business that creates an alternative community for her. Or an ageing patriarch cared for by his step-children. Or a bank clerk drawn into fraudulent activities by the government. Though Cyrus has said he recognises certain images and tropes in his brother’s writing, he says that most of Rohinton’s books are based on his imagination.
Of Blyton and Dylan
How did Mistry start writing? And when? Like many metropolitan, middle-class children of the time, he grew up reading Enid Blyton. As a teenager, Mistry was a performing musician who strummed a guitar and sang the then-popular songs of Bob Dylan. He fulfilled two expectations of young men of his time – he studied for a BSc and he emigrated to Canada where he took up a banking job.
Mistry and his wife, Freny, attended literature classes at night school because of their love of books. One day, Mistry made a calculation – if he wrote five pages every weekend three weeks in a row, he would have a short story. That’s how he began writing while working and studying at night school. One week he called in sick and in four days he wrote his first story, On Sunday, which won the Hart House literary prize. He has published one collection of short stories, Tales From Firozshah Baag.
Mistry relies on his own opinion alone to write his books. Even though he shows the finished drafts to his wife first, he says he probably wouldn’t make any “radical alterations” based on her or anyone else’s opinion. He dedicates each book to her with the simple words “For Freny”. After his books began to sell well, he quit his banking job to write full-time. Mistry’s avatar as a musician made a comeback at an award ceremony for a lifetime achievement award where he surprised his audience by singing during his speech.
Is Mistry one of the real greats? He has been accused of writing one-dimensional women. Hilary Mantel once thought Mistry played a bad god with his characters who he led to their doom. But he is a writer whose yellowed, dog-eared books sit on many bookshelves. His characters are hard to forget – we see them in our everyday lives.
The only question that matters. His last novel, Family Matters, was published in 2002. Will he write another one?