Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Case for Rohinton Mistry

The life and the literary career of Rohinton Mistry make a fascinating reading. Let’s begin with his literary accomplishments, first. The author has so far penned three novels – Such a Long Journey, A Fine Balance and Family Matters. All his works have been appreciated for their literary worth, making it to the Booker Shortlist. But, Mistry seems to have never been lucky enough to bag the prize. Now, he has once again been shortlisted, alongside 12 others, for the biennial Booker International Prize which is awarded to an author for his entire body of work and not for any particular piece of fiction.
If Mistry goes on to win this one, which is indeed my fervent wish, it would be a befitting tribute to his invaluable contribution to Indian writing in English. He has so far been able to impress with all his three novels, unlike many one-book wonders who have been recipients of the annual Booker prize.
Mistry is one of those writers who like to keep their prose understated. Though possessing a vigorous style, he keeps his flourish inconspicuous so that the reader does not miss out on the richness of the content while marveling at the felicity of the writing.
A major strength of Mistry’s writing is that it places things before the reader in a non-judgmental, but not amoral, fashion. The non-judgmental tone appears to be borne out of Mistry’s reluctance to indulge in any sort of propaganda. And this reluctance seems to be a product of his very deep and compassionate view of human existence, suffering and struggle for dignity. Through his writing, Mistry beckons his readers to take a deep plunge in the ocean of life and come up with jewels of their choice.
In the jargon used by management executives, one often comes across the term “interpersonal skills”, which albeit takes a contrived view of relationships between people. However, Mistry, while primarily concerned with interpersonal matters, takes a holistic view of relationships. He puts it most succinctly in the following passage:
“Curious, he thought, how, if you know a person long enough, he could elicit every kind of emotion from you, every possible reaction, envy, admiration, pity, irritation, fury, fondness, jealousy, love, disgust. But in the end all human beings became candidates for compassion, all of us, without exception…..”(Family Matters, page 358).
There are two things for which Mistry shows a concern in all the three novels he has written so far. These are the Parsi community and the city of Bombay/Mumbai. This seems quite natural as Mistry himself is a Zoroastrian who has spent his formative years in the cosmopolitan city. No wonder, in all the three novels most of the major characters are Parsis and much of the drama takes place in India’s commercial capital. However, Mistry deftly weaves his fiction in a manner that it becomes hard for a reader like me, a non-Parsi who is not well-acquainted with Mumbai, to feel that one is operating in an unfamiliar milieu. This might be, to some extent, because of the fact that Mistry imbues each and every character of his novels with enough flesh and blood. In addition, without sounding polemical, Mistry makes no bones about his outrage at the alleged sleights of hand of Indira Gandhi on her way to achieving cult status(Such A Long Journey), the tales of horror associated with the excesses committed during the Emergency (A Fine Balance) and the Shiv Sena’s over-zealous Marathi politics, especially against the backdrop of its forays into mainstream politics in the late 1990s (Family Matters).
No wonder, despite his understated and sober prose, Mistry found himself in the midst of a controversy recently when sudden discovery of profanities by a scion of a powerful family saw his debut novel being withdrawn from the curriculum of the Mumbai University. If, however, politicians took the trouble to read his works, they would certainly be left scratching their heads and wondering as to whose side Mistry was taking. Not surprising, especially when politics has become a trade meant only for the street-smart and the semi-literate.
However, this is all the more reason for me to support, and seek support from friends, for Mistry. And the best way to support Mistry is to read his works. It is not going to be a bad bargain, I can guarantee. Anyone who takes the trouble will end up gaining a handsome amount of intellectual and emotional wealth.
Those who might be curious to know more about the man, I have this small bit of information which they may find quite exciting, nevertheless. Mistry was born in Mumbai in 1952 and he began his career as a bank employee after doing his MA in Economics and Mathematics (!!!) from Mumbai University. It was at the University that he met his wife to be, Freny, to whom he has  dedicated all his books so far. Interestingly, it was Freny, who was pursuing English Literature and after her post-graduation, decided to emigrate to Canada for further studies. Mistry followed suit, leaving his bank job, where the two got married and Freny took up a teaching job. Mistry, in the meanwhile, got employed at a Canadian bank and also enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy at the University of Toronto. In the process, he began to discover his own passion for writing, something he had been hitherto unaware of. His first book was a short-story collection Tales From Firozsha Baag (unavailable to me, hence my inability to comment on it). The rest, as they say, is history


  1. Mistry is a fine writer and I read such a long journey when it was hit by dirty politics of Maharashtra and this was being used as the laungh pad of the Yuvraj of Shiv Sena. The book was banned in the universities of Maharashtra and I think this also helped this beautiful book to get some more readers in India. In a recent visit to India, a friend of mine from NewYork told me that she likes Rohington Mistry and has read his completely. I had not read him completely and trying to remove my drawback at least now when our beloved writer has been nominated and is on the way to get booker. My best wishes to Mistry

  2. Once again a woman behind a successful man! Interesting biography.
    Aapne unki writing ki itni taarif ki hai to zarur hi padhunga. Ek book to le bhi rakhi hai, just need to manage time.