||Same World But Different: Interview with Rohinton Mistry
by Nancy Wigston
Rohinton Mistry burst on the Canadian writing scene in 1987 with Tales from Firozsha Baag, a brilliant collection of stories focussing on Bombay's Parsi community. Such a Long Journey, his 1991 novel, won the Governor General's Award, the Smith Books/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and was short-listed for the Booker Prize. His next work, A Fine Balance, (1995) a searing revelation of life during the Emergency, was also short-listed for the Booker, and won the Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. When Oprah Winfrey enthusiastically announced she'd chosen A Fine Balance for her book club this year, Mistry was asked whether he resented the "Oprah" logo. With his customary wry humour, Mistry said no, that he was well acquainted with logos, having had so many on his books in the past: the Governor General's, Giller Prize, the Booker Prize short-list. Mistry's third novel, Family Matters, was published in April by McCelland&Stewart. The novel focuses on a Bombay Parsi family, headed by the aging Nariman Vakeel, whose deteriorating health creates strain in the lives of his adult step-children Coomy and Jal, his daughter Roxana Chenoy, her husband Yezad, and their two sons. Rohinton Mistry was interviewed in Toronto by Nancy Wigston.
Nancy Wigston: In contrast to A Fine Balance, where we saw the horrific suffering caused by government policies, in Family Matters you seem to be concentrating on interior worlds. There are so many threatened safe havens in the novel¨from the sporting goods store where Yezad works, to his family's tiny flat, to the seven-room apartment that Nariman shares with Coomy and Jal. Is there no place, where people can feel¨in the British phrase¨safe as houses?
Rohinton Mistry: That's also the case in A Fine Balance, isn't it? Dina in her little flat is constantly threatened by the landlord, the tailors are at the mercy of the elements and the powers that be, no matter where they try and shift and scrounge, the railway station or the slum or the chemist's, the little porch where they sleep. Is there really a safe place for anyone? Is it not¨to use this grand term¨part of the human condition?
NW: Except for [Hindu political party] Shiv Sena, why don't politics play a big role in Family Matters?
RM: I suppose it's because of the kind of characters we're dealing with. [In A Fine Balance] the two tailors, because of who they are and where they come from, the caste system they are enmeshed in because of their birth, and because of that particular time, the Emergency, 1975, the political forces impacted more directly on those lives. Now we are dealing with middle-class or lower middle-class people who have homes, flats, who're not constantly on the move, searching for shelter, and for them politics are playing out at a certain remove. Also, like much of their class, they are completely jaded by politics. Yezad, at the little dinner party for Nariman's birthday, says as much, when they're joking about Michael Jackson being invited to the Shiv Sena concert, and how they're going to make a killing because they've classified the concert as a national cultural event. Yezad says, "Frankly I don't care who's in government or who's in power, they're all the same and they're not going to do any good for anyone except themselves." It's not as direct a hit from the political events on the characters. It is the same world in a way, but it is quite different.
RM: Their concerns are domestic, whereas the tailors, because of who they were, found themselves unaccommodated.
NW: At one point Yezad's friend Vilas, in a discussion with his actor friends and Yezad, refers to "a big book about the Emergency, full of horrors, real as life, 100% honest." Should we assume he means your book, A Fine Balance?
RM: If you like.
NW: He then says that "reviewers said no, no, things were not that bad, especially foreign critics"¨and specifically mentions a woman professor in England who defended the Emergency. Do you read your critics, your reviews?
RM: I read reviews and critics randomly, after a long time. These are Vilas's opinions within the context of the discussion with Yezad and the actors. There were lots of opinions. People said, "Oh, it's not that bad, I've been there, it's not that bad." They come for six weeks, they do a bit of shopping, they take back some handicrafts, interview a few people, and they're experts on the country. For that matter, very many Indians might not know what exactly happened during that year and a half. A lot of Indians would say the Emergency was a good thing because there was discipline and the trains ran on time. It was said, repeatedly. "Things are getting better, the trains are running on time." That famous phrase. And the streets are being cleaned up¨that was the other thing. "We can finally walk on the pavement." Instead of trying to make your way through clutter and dirt and human bodies lying all over. It was a big relief for lots of people.
NW: Bombay figures so largely in Family Matters; there's so much love for the city, and so much despair about what's happened to it. Is this book a love letter to Bombay, or are you saying good-bye?
RM: It's not saying good-bye, how can you say good-bye? I suppose it's trying to come to terms with what has happened and what is happening. And these are feelings shared by people who live in Bombay, who have just that little bit of luxury to step back and look at it. Those who are too fanatically caught up in the daily grind, would probably have no moment to reflect. But there are people, older people, retired people who do talk in this way: "It's a dying city, how long can this continue, how much can the city support, how much development, how much population, traffic, where is the limit?" They ask these questions and do despair. And that despair is also in some ways felt by political parties, for example, Shiv Sena. They say that Bombay is going to collapse under its own weight if we don't do something and keep all these "foreigners" as they call them, from coming in.
RM: People from other parts of the country. Not native to the soil of Maharashtra. At one point they were coming up with ridiculous ideas of having a passport to come into Bombay, just nonsense, but still we share those concerns. That's interesting, because that's a real concern for people who truly care about Bombay, the cosmopolitan Bombay, the tolerant Bombay, the all-embracing Bombay. Yet here's this very parochial, very reactionary party that has the same concern, caring about Bombay.
NW: Is tolerance your main theme in the book?
RM: Even more than tolerance, acceptance.
NW: You seem to take a hard line on Parsi traditions. Nariman and Lucy [his non-Parsi lover], a Romeo and Juliet couple, are forbidden to marry. Lucy's inability to let go ultimately causes [Nariman's wife] Yasmin's death¨or perhaps the other way round, as the women struggle on the rooftop.
RM: It's literally up in the air. You have to figure it out.
NW: Nariman calls Zoroastrianism "a religion of bigots." Are you expecting any reaction to that?
RM: I don't think so, because I haven't said anything new. There's a controversy raging in the community for decades now between the reformers and the orthodoxy. The bickering has been going on. Do we allow people to convert? In Zoroastrianism if a male marries a non-Parsi the children are considered Parsi, but if a female marries outside they're not. So there's that controversy. It's a reversal of Judaism. And there's a controversy about allowing different ways of disposing of the dead. I'm not sparking anything new here.
NW: It's this business of exclusion and inclusion, isn't it? In the book it's said that Hinduism is more inclusive.
RM. Yes, Mr. Kapur [Yezad's boss] says Bombay is like a religion, like Hinduism.
NW: His death seems like the turning point in the novel¨his romanticism, his excessive sentimentality about Bombay¨seems to die with him. Mrs. Kapur is tough, like the new Bombay. She humiliates Yezad; she later even renames the shop.
RM. Yes, she calls it Shivaji Sports Equipment; she is really embracing the new ethos.
NW: And this is such a pivotal moment for Yezad, who was already turning to religion. Whereas the others characters deepen in their natures, only Yezad really changes, surprises us in E.M. Forster's sense of a rounded character. Do you agree?
RM: Well he was tempted [to steal cash], and he came back from the brink and he was relieved that he was able to do that. It's not just a case of saying he was tested and tried and that religion gave him the strength¨I don't think it's just that¨a lot of very special and particular things happened to him. We meet him early on in the book, as someone quite likeable, a well-balanced character, who has things in the proper perspective about life, about family, about society¨he's no idealist, he can laugh and joke¨that's what his son remembers about him later on¨the father he preferred rather than this ultra-religious man. And what happens to him? There's Nariman first of all: Nariman whom he loves, whom he respects. He enjoys his sense of humour, his wit, but when they are thrown together in that small space, in that two-room flat, that friendship is strained quite a bit. The sheer physical ordeal is what he cannot accept. Also he's concerned about his wife, that she should have to slave this way. The sheer injustice bothers him. That there's this seven-room flat which is Nariman's, which he's entitled to, and he's been thrown out of that¨these things eat away at him. He copes the best he can; when the financial difficulties reach a breaking point he tries to take matters into his own hands, first with the [illegal] gambling; the day he wins the big jackpot there's a police raid. He's just baffled by these strange coincidences which seem to dog him. And he keeps waiting for Mr. Kapur to act, to fulfill his promise, put him in charge of the store and give him an increment in his wages. When that doesn't happen, he takes matters into his own hands and schemes with Vilas and the actors. When the real Shiv Sena come, Yezad is convinced that Mr. Kapur reacted the way he did because of what Yezad's scheme with the actors had lead him to believe.
NW: So it's guilt.
RM: Crushing guilt.
NW: Nariman too carries a considerable load of guilt. Both men are fathers, the heads of families, both revered by children and yet they're both¨
NW: And this is a unifying, universal thread, beyond being Parsi, beyond living in Bombay?
RM: Absolutely. The very fact that we have a family, it's like that Larkin poem.
NW: ŠThey fuck you up, your mum and dad'?
RM: Yes, then something about a coastal shelf. It's brilliant. In a superficial way, it seems that Yezad turns to religion, and at first a little religion is a good thing for him, but too much leads to misery. But it's not that simple. When he first steps into the Fire Temple after all those years, he remembers what Roxana said. "Just go here in the evening and relax. It's tranquil there, and then come home." When he's had that confrontation with Mr. Kapur and Vilas gives him advice¨which is easy to give¨he happens to pass by the Fire Temple; it looks peaceful and inviting and that is where [his extreme religiosity] starts. He's looking for a moment of serenity, and if he was passing by a beautiful park¨if such a thing still remained in Bombay¨he might have been spared all of that.
NW: He finds sanctuary?
NW: So this idea of a safe haven again seems to be paramount.
RM: Absolutely .
NW: This is a very nerve-wracking part of the book, when we see these people¨Yezad with his scheming, [his son] Jehangir cheating for money in his capacity as homework monitor, the witch-like Coomy treating her father so badly¨everyone collapsing into a cauldron caused by poverty.
RM: Like Jean Valjean taking the loaf of bread.
NW: Yes. Very early on Nariman remembers himself as a young man saying "you've grown old before you've grown wise"¨which is the fool's line in King Lear.
RM: Does the fool say that? At that stage I had not made the Lear connection. He says this to his parents and their friends who being so vulgar¨
NW: So this just popped up from your education.
RM: From the subconscious.
NW: And later Nariman makes the connection between Lear and himself?
RM: Yes, he says, "I taught Lear to so many classes, year after year, and I learned nothing at the end¨what kind of teacher was I, that I learned nothing myself?"
NW: But Nariman isn't really a Lear figure, is he, apart from the dolling out of his property which ends so badly?
RM: No, he is being a little melodramatic. He is given to that. That's how his stepchildren see him. He's an academic, so he's clutching at things to make sense of his life, too.
NW: There are so many English writers quoted in this book: Shakespeare, Yeats, Forster, T.S. Eliot. Is there still such a strong British backbone in Indian education? And are children still reading Enid Blyton?
RM: I guess now it's balanced by other things too. But all these references¨Yezad and Mr. Kapur talk about this at one point. Yezad gets annoyed with him for all these allusions to Shakespeare, to Othello and Richard II. Mr. Kapur says,"that's the problem with our education and what we were taught, to do what can we do¨it's either this or nothing."
NW: A New York Times reviewer recently referred to you and writers like Vikram Seth and Arundathi Roy as "a remarkable national renaissance of Indian writers." Do you see yourself as part of an Indian literary renaissance?
RM: I was born and brought up in India, my imagination is still engaged with it. I'm a Canadian citizen. I began writing in Canada. Those are the facts. I don't know what to do with them. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, English is an Indian language now, and has been for a while. It's no longer necessary to say "Indian who writes in a foreign language called English," as opposed to any other of the twenty-two official languages. In that sense, even though I'm not an Indian national, in a broader sense, I suppose I'm part of that group of Indians writing in English, and succeeding, I suppose.
NW: Yet many of us consider you a Canadian writer who happens to write about India. In 1987 you told me, "I don't think I'd even be writing if I were living in India, I wouldn't have been bored enough. I wouldn't have been working in a bank, for one thing." You spoke about not being able to get the perspective you needed if you'd stayed there.
RM: I suppose I've modified that a bit now; it depends on how much you believe in destiny. If I was destined to write, I suppose something might have happened there which would have unlocked that door for me the way it was unlocked here through a different route. I now believe that if that had happened¨if destiny had meant it for me¨the writing would certainly have been of a different kind. Because of the distance.
NW: But Canada did give you that chance, that curious combination of safety and boredom that we seem to offer? Whereas in Bombay, you're never bored, you step out the door and are assaulted by reality.
RM: [laughs] You're scared, you're irritated, but you're never bored.
NW: What do you say to the people who ask when you're going to write about Canada?
RM: It's not as if I've made some sort of commitment that I'm never going to write about Canada.
NW: This book ends with a celebration, [ Yezad's eldest son] Murad's 18th birthday, a huge contrast to the tragic suicide at the end of A Fine Balance.
RM: We don't know what is going to happen after. We have a son who is defiant, ready to disobey his father, and Murad is seeing a non-Parsi, like Nariman and Lucy.
NW: It seems to me that the logic of this book owes much to myth. Just as Lear was based on a myth about a king and his daughters, here we see the tug of war between good and evil¨Coomy dies by bringing her roof down on her own head, Yezad makes a ring of purity in the living room, where Coomy's cabinet is now filled with his religious artifacts, as if her presence still lives there.
RM: I'm not sure what to make of that. I'm open to suggestions. It's up to the reader to decide whether to subscribe to that myth, the fairytale, or the supernatural aura that surrounded that flat¨the "House of Unhappiness." On the other there are equally valid, real, practical, pragmatic reasons and circumstances which explain why there is this feeling in that family, and in Jehangir¨the narrator of the Epilogue¨of unease, of sadness, of worry, that little bit of unhappiness that he cannot shake off. And there are good reasons for that¨the tensions and the fights. Let the reader decide. ˛