When Robertson Davies died last December, one of the eulogists at the Davies celebration at Convocation Hall in the University of Toronto was Rohinton Mistry, whose epic novel, A Fine Balance, had recently won the 1995 Giller Prize. Mistry, a modest, reserved younger writer from Bombay may have seemed an odd choice to eulogize the bewhiskered elder man of letters who, for many, had seemed the very embodiment of Upper Canada. And yet of all those who spoke that evening, Mistry's telling anecdotes seemed closest in spirit to the Master's own dry, subversive wit.
Mistry recalled that shortly after coming to Canada in 1975, when he was working as a bank teller, his wife suggested that he read Fifth Business, and he had refused, on the ground that he didn't want to read another book about accounting. When he finally did read the book-one of Davies's masterpieces-he said that it became one of those books that had made him want to become a teller of tales.
A few weeks after Davies's funeral, I talked to Rohinton Mistry in the South Sitting Room in Hart House, a very Upper Canadian neo-Gothic student union at the University of Toronto. This was where his writing career had begun, in a sense, because it was in the annual Hart House Literary Contest that Mistry, a bank clerk by day and a student by night, had received the first confirmation of his talents as a fiction writer. This might not have been quite so surprising had it not also been his very first attempt at writing anything more ambitious than a university essay.
Here is how Rohinton Mistry told me the story:
"It was late 1982 when I first put pen to paper. To put it very briefly, that [contest] was what made me start writing. I guess I began thinking and talking about it midway through my English courses at the U. of T. And I don't know why, but something must have happened and I began reading differently. I'd always been reading books, all through my childhood and adolescence, but suddenly-though I'm sure it's not really sudden-I began reading and wishing I could write such things, such things as The Dubliners and Bernard Malamud and Chekhov and Turgenev.
"Before that I think I read for the sheer pleasure of it. I suppose it's the shallowest level of reading, though perhaps it's not right to call it `shallow'-it's perfectly legitimate just to read for the sheer enjoyment that the book offers.but you see, now I'm thinking like a writer, and when a writer reads, he or she may not have a choice any more in the way they read. In that way perhaps one sacrifices the pure pleasure of reading, because other concerns are always flickering around the act of reading. I suppose I was looking at how things fit together and how they work, and wishing I could do that. I suppose I began asking myself what it was that made these books so great, and why was I wishing I could write like this?
"At that very early stage, it seemed like wishful thinking to me. And then I suppose I must have kept on wishing and saying that, up to the point when this competition was announced, in the fall of '82, I remember. At that point my wife said, `Why don't you try to write for this?'"
Mistry submitted a story called "One Sunday", about an incident in an anonymous apartment building in an anonymous Indian city. It won first prize. One of the judges was the then writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto, Mavis Gallant, who is said to have remarked, "There is only one writer in this contest, but he's a real writer."
He entered again the following year, this time with a story called "Auspicious Occasion", and won first prize again. These two stories, in reverse order, led off his first collection of stories, published in 1987. It was called Tales from Firozsha Baag, and it established his reputation as a brilliant new arrival. Yet if you look at his two original submissions and compare them to the final versions, you realize an astonishing thing: Mistry made only minor alterations, changing some names, enriching the characterizations, adding detail to provide links between the tales. Otherwise, his debut found him almost fully formed as a writer-with a subject, a style, and a tone that he would maintain and deepen in his next book, Such a Long Journey, which won him the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Governor General's award for fiction, the Commonwealth Prize, and a place on the shortlist for England's Booker Prize.
I was curious about whether Mistry had begun writing because there was something urgent he wanted to say, or whether he had been driven simply by a desire to write.
"I think I wanted to write about the life I had left behind. I had read something in a book by Camus-I forget which one it was-something about how one can redeem oneself-one's life-through writing, and that intrigued me and I wanted to see if it would really work. Could I redeem my life? I wasn't sure really what I wanted to do, what I wanted to redeem, and how it would work, but at the back of my mind, there was this feeling that writing would make everything all right, make everything worthwhile."
His answer suggested to me that he had been homesick, and I asked him if he felt badly about having left Bombay.
"Not badly, but I think I felt its absence more than I might have. There was definitely an emptiness where Bombay was, and I might not have expected that to be the case. I mean, the reason that I left was I felt I belonged here. This was my world. The literature, the music-everything I was familiar with in Bombay came from here, so I felt I would be more whole if I came here.
"I came [to Canada] alone. My wife, my fiancée, had come a year before me, while I was finishing my degree in Bombay, in mathematics and economics. People assume that when you migrate it's for political or economic reasons, but that wasn't the case, and it's not the case with many people, I think. For example I and a lot of my friends grew up with the idea that we didn't really fit in Indian society because of the way we were educated. This is a large-not a large, but a significant part of the urban middle class of the cosmopolitan cities-Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Bangalore-and of course it's also true at a certain economic level. For example, those who are very rich and also share my background and education wouldn't want to leave India, because they could create the West for themselves in India, whereas I couldn't. I wanted to enjoy that music, and the books and everything I felt was mine and to which I belonged, and it would take a lot of money to surround myself with that in Bombay, whereas when I come here it's all very accessible. I can go to libraries and I can buy books, I can buy records, I can buy CDs.."
I remarked that many Canadians left Canada and went to urban metropolises like New York or London or Paris for the same reasons.
"Yes, but coming from India, and looking at all those choices that were available-Australia, England, USA, Canada-there were some other concerns that weighed in with making that choice. I wasn't blinded by just culture and literature and music. I didn't just leave entirely for that-I'm qualifying what I was saying. There were things like-England was not the sort of England, the ideal England we grew up with, you know, the mother country and the source of all goodness. Race riots were in full flow, so we knew it was a lot of rubbish to think that England was going to welcome former subjects with open arms. Australia had a white Australian policy until the late sixties but that reputation carried on for a while, and I think people still remembered that. And the US wasn't as attractive as Canada either, because of its involvement in Vietnam."
The culture that Mistry adopted as his own in Bombay was a mixture of the things he was exposed to in school, what the foreign embassies provided as part of their foreign policy outreach, and the artifacts of commercial Western culture that were available. As a child, he had read the Biggles books and Enid Blyton, and later, he began to read the books that would eventually become his sources of inspiration. The American library in Bombay lent out records, and they would have regular programs showing films of Broadway musicals, documentaries about jazz, and so on. Other embassies contributed to the young Mistry's education. The British Council brought in filmed productions of plays by the Royal Shakespeare Company; East Germany provided a smattering of classical German culture; and the Soviet Union, with which India enjoyed cordial relations, brought in live ballet. Given India's official neutral status, both sides in the Cold War were competing for the hearts and minds of young Indians, and Rohinton Mistry was one of the beneficiaries.
One indication of how westernized Mistry had become was the fact that, for a while, he became the "Bob Dylan of Bombay".
"I had a friend who used to sing American folk songs, and who used to climb mountains. He was a bit older than I was, and I decided I would learn the guitar too. It started with those American folk songs like `Old Smokey' and `Red River Valley'. Then I discovered Bob Dylan-I mean we all did, `we all' meaning the group at school and university. This would have been the mid-sixties. I started learning the Dylan songs and writing a few myself, which were really awful, and I began making a little bit of money, playing the guitar and singing-this was when I had started university-and I became the `Bob Dylan of Bombay', playing the harmonica. I started off imitating Dylan, and then I included other stuff later, Simon and Garfunkle and James Taylor, Leonard Cohen."
I wondered how complete Mistry's immersion in Western culture had been. Wasn't there a local cultural life in Bombay as well?
"There was. You see, Bombay is so cosmopolitan you can find everything there, absolutely everything. But having been brought up with this background, this education, one almost sneered at this `inferior' culture. That was the brainwashing that we had gone through, that everything from the West is superior."
I pointed out that as Mistry and his friends were absorbing the music and literature of the West, Western popular culture was discovering India. We were enraptured by the films of Satyajit Ray, the Beatles were visiting India, and Ravi Shankar was becoming an international star.
"Yes, and when you mention Ravi Shankar and the Beatles, in fact that's when some of us began looking at our own culture. Oh, they're looking at it; maybe there's something worthwhile here..
"At some point, I realized that I was ignorant totally of the culture of my own country, and perhaps I should make some effort to understand and appreciate it. And I did make some effort and I think I got an inkling of its richness and profundity, but I felt at that point it was just too late, I was too steeped in the other thing, and it had really become so much my own that it was hard to give that up and devote myself to the other, which seemed almost alien to me, oddly. Paradoxically this [Indian culture] was the alien culture and the other had become mine."
If a colonial-or post-colonial-education commonly produces these cultural inversions, making the metropolitan culture seem more immediate than one's own, then exile, involuntary or self-imposed, often reverses the paradox and rights the imbalance. How many writers have left home thinking their destiny lies elsewhere, only to discover, when abroad, that it lies with what they have left behind? James Joyce, one of Mistry's favourite writers, thought of Ireland as an old sow devouring its young and left for the continent, where he wrote his grand, eccentric work; Mordecai Richler had to go to England to find the confidence he needed to write about Montreal; James Baldwin first began to come to grips with the reality of his life in America in a small town in Switzerland; and V. S. Naipaul left Trinidad, only to find his true subject-matter in Miguel Street and in his own father, immortalizing a place and a people he once thought unworthy of literature. Exile is not a necessary condition of good writing, but perhaps distance, perspective, is. The difference in this case is that when Mistry left India, he had as yet no idea that he would become a writer.
Mistry's new novel, A Fine Balance, began with a single impulse. He was haunted by the image of a woman at a sewing machine. From there, he built up the story of Dina, a widow who runs a small dress-making operation out of her flat on the edge of a sprawling urban Indian slum. To make ends meet she takes in a student boarder, Maneck, and also provides accommodation for two former "untouchables", an uncle and his nephew, who work for her as tailors. The four of them create an unlikely household that provides them with some resilience in their struggles against the rigours of life on the fringes of poverty.
The central action of the novel takes place in 1975, the year Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency to save her political life. It kept her in power for a few more years but it was a measure that brought unforeseen misery to millions of ordinary Indians, and of course one that touches the lives of Mistry's characters with brutal directness. I asked him why he had chosen to set his novel in this period.
"In Such A Long Journey, the political backdrop was the Indian-Pakistan war in Bangladesh, 1971-and having done that, I just felt that the next great event, the next great watershed-during my time, anyway, in my early life-was 1975 and the Emergency. And because I had left India in 1975, I felt I had not had the opportunity to experience it, so to go back and look at it now was an interesting thing to do."
So the decision to do so hadn't been artistic, then?
"Actually that plays a bit of a role in it, too, I think. I wanted to tell a story through the eyes and the voices of the dispossessed, the ones at the very bottom. Much has been written about the Emergency in terms of how the middle class were or were not affected by it, or how the intelligentsia betrayed their country, their society, by kowtowing, and by-what's that French phrase-the trahison des clercs? But I didn't know of any book that looked at that time from the point of view of the people at the bottom. I mean even Dina is not well-off. By our standards here, she's on the very margin of things, and yet between her and the slum dwellers there's such a big gulf. In their eyes, she's living in luxury. And to us she is living on the very edge of poverty."
Mistry said that his original idea was for a short novel, with the paying guest telling the story in the first person. I asked him what had become of that idea.
"I found that as I was working with those four characters in the apartment, I still had to know their lives, and at some point I began to feel more interested in those lives-well, not more, but equally interested in their past lives, before they arrive in the city, before they get together in the apartment-as interested in those lives as I was in the developing family in the apartment, and I felt that to tell just this story without that would be to short-change the story.
"There were also artistic concerns, like balance. I mean, once I'd decided to tell these stories and tell them separately, there could have been a way of interweaving them throughout, instead of doing what I did, having a hundred pages telling of Dina's life, and then a hundred pages with the tailors, and then another hundred with Maneck, and keeping them all separate. But having decided to do that, I had to have a scene where we would meet them all, so they are established, and after that we can follow the separate threads. So that became the prologue, which I wrote after I'd completed the first two or three hundred pages.
"You know, A Fine Balance was as difficult to write as Such A Long Journey was, as the short stories were. It was like learning all over again. I think there is only one way of telling every story successfully, and you have to discover it, and after you discover it, you've got to learn how to do it, because each story is different and there's a different way of telling it, and you've got to learn that way."
In giving his main characters a past, Mistry takes us back to their earlier lives in the Indian countryside. I had thought, judging from how rich and detailed his account of life and politics in rural India is, that he had either had direct experience of such a life, or had done extensive research. I was wrong.
"There was no research as such. The village-this was part of my plan. I wanted to set a larger challenge for myself. In the first two books, my setting was one community, one narrow focus in a city, one apartment building, one neighbourhood, and even when we go outside it is still through the eyes of that one community. In A Fine Balance I wanted to deal with more of India, not just urban life. And so I think this was a very conscious choice-the village, and then the North, where Maneck comes from, in the mountains.
"Now the village-I've never spent any significant time in a village like that, a small Indian village. You could count my time in hours in a village like that, just passing through. On my way to somewhere once, I remember we stopped in a village. Someone who was travelling with us knew someone who had relatives in that village, so we just stopped briefly. It was the driver of the car, actually, the chauffeur; our friends were taking us somewhere and the chauffeur had relatives in the village, so he said, `You must stop and meet them.' There is this great tradition of hospitality in India, and since we were passing through his relatives' village we had to stop and say hello and partake of some refreshments in their little dwelling. So that was my sole experience in a village of that sort. I think that things we read and see and hear about-somehow it all comes together, and imagination, I think, is a great architect."
One of the things you notice when talking to Mistry about his stories is how he speaks about his characters as though they had lives of their own. They are unfathomable in the way living human beings sometimes are. Their actions are clear, but their motives are always disputable. When I remarked on this, Mistry replied that you have to believe the characters have a life of their own in order to give them free rein. I asked him what he meant by "free rein".
"To be as little in control of them-I mean, you are in control but-you must let them suggest things. The more they develop, the more complex they become, the more they will reveal their possibilities. For example the rent-collector [in A Fine Balance]-the more I developed him, or the more he developed, the more possibilities he suggested to me. All these strange people he goes to for advice prophesy for him what's going to happen to his life-that seemed to me something I could do only because of the circumstances of his life, and the kind of person he has become. Well, he has not become-I have made him that, but-I don't know. I mean, I am doing it to him; at the same time, all I am doing is turning him into a more complex person.
"Or Dina. Even if Dina was a living person, and you asked her, `Why did you do this?' she might say, `I did it because of this.' But you are completely at liberty to think: Is she telling me the truth, or is there another reason that she's concealing behind this? I regard these characters in the same way. You can ask me why they do things and I can assign motives to what they do, but is that definitive or are there other possibilities?"
Part of the pleasure of reading Rohinton Mistry's work is the experience of encountering truth in fiction-not the truth of something that actually happened or existed in real time, but the truth of character and actions so rooted in human nature that they go on existing in your imagination long after you have finished reading. Some of Mistry's characters, like Beggarmaster, the boss of a rag-tag band of desperate, mutilated wretches and panhandlers, are almost too grotesque to be believed. But Mistry will hasten to assure you, in the words of Balzac in the epigram to A Fine Balance: "This tragedy is not a fiction. All is true."
This quality of verisimilitude has led some reviewers to call Mistry a great writer of moral fiction, not because his books present an ideal moral order or an exemplary clash of good and evil (in fact, Bombay, or Calcutta, or whatever large Indian city is meant to be represented, teems with moral disorder, with human suffering and injustices so blatant there is almost no imaginable recourse or recompense) but because the integrity of his characters and his story transcend the immorality and the injustice of the world he portrays.
In an essay written twenty years ago, called On Moral Fiction, the American novelist John Gardner argued for the resurrection of the kind of fiction that Rohinton Mistry has been writing. Gardner saw moral fiction not in terms of a set of values the work purports to embrace or champion, but as a product of the author's literary technique. The morality of a work of art, he suggested, lies in how a writer deals with his subject, not in the subject itself.
This direct relationship of morality to craft is something we all recognize in everyday life when we call something "an honest piece of work". The morality of a chair lies the workmanship that went into it. When we come across something that is carelessly designed and shoddily made, we feel that this says something about the state of the world. As anyone who reads a lot of current fiction and poetry could attest, there is always too much careless and shoddy writing published in the name of literature. It's a bigger problem than we generally admit, because half-baked books produce a kind of indigestion in readers, a dyspepsia that, in subtle ways, is discouraging and demoralizing. It is in this sense that the "morality" of a piece of writing may be said to lie not in its subject, but in how it is made.
Mistry creates fully rounded characters who, by and large, strive to do the right thing, though not always with the desired outcome. He has an enormous compassion for individuals but the important thing for the reader is that he has taken the patience to translate that compassion into art.
As our conversation drew to a close, we talked for a while of politics, both in India and in Mistry's home province of Ontario. After the launching of A Fine Balance last September, Mistry was uncharacteristically outspoken at every opportunity about Premier Mike Harris's "common sense revolution". Now, it is hardly unusual for writers in this country to lambaste politicians, but Mistry's remarks seemed to come from a different place-from something he may have learned in the writing of A Fine Balance.
"The worst part of a situation of great poverty is that you become blind to it after a while. It becomes part of the urban landscape and you don't see it. When one does not see that part of society that lives as subhumans, one's self is to a certain degree dehumanized. That is what people are not fully aware of when they come up against the sort of thing the Harris government is doing. In the short run, we may have more people on welfare and more people on the streets and this is terrible and we may feel pity, we may want to help. But if it keeps on for any length of time, we will stop seeing these people, and that is the final and irreversible state of affairs, when we lose our own humanity as a society."
When the interview was over, we had lunch in the Gallery Club at Hart House. Then Rohinton Mistry donned his ski-jacket, walked out into the cold December afternoon, climbed into his car, and set off for his home in Brampton, Ontario.
A Fine Balance is being published in Britain in March. Some think it will win the Booker Prize.