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Book Review : Rohinton Mistry

Of moving times

TALES FROM FIROZSHA BAAG

Rohinton Mistry

By Manju Kak

What is it about 1952?  So many writers of Indo-Anglian fiction were born in that year – Shama Futehally, Vijay Singh, Urmilla Banerjee to name a few.  But quite foremost amongst them must be Rohinton Mistry, who established his literary prowess in Such a Long Journey, shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize.  Now with Tales from Firozsha Baag he is back, his craft honed as finely, his sensibilities still of the best.

These eleven tales weave through the lives of the occupants – “mostly book-keepers and clerks” – of Firozsha Baag, a run-down apartment building in Bombay run by an inefficient Parsee Trust.  The likes of Pesi Padmaroo, Jaykaalee, the Goanese Ganga, Tustomji and Mehroo, litter-throwing Khorshedbai, Najamai the infernal nosy-parker, flit in and out of them.  Rowdy kids play stoning-the-cat in the dusty compound, the men cast envious glances at Nariman’s 1932 Mercedes and the women shuffle up and down-stairs complaining of plumbing that never works and walls that grow maps with each torrential monsoon downpour.  By the time one’s through “Condolence Visit”, “Auspicious Occasion”, “The Collectors”, “The Paying Guests” etc. one is familiar enough with the Fireozsha Baag folk to feel, with the protagonist, the tug of nostalgia when as a Canadian immigrant he lives in half-worlds of here and there, as told in the finest and concluding tale, “Swimming Lessons”.  Imagining his parents’ reactions to his letter he recounts the slow snapping off of the old life even as he struggles to accept the other.

Memories, tucked into recesses like a withered rose pressed between pages, resurge, and the reader relives the haunting sense of time passing, of people growing up, of dying, of moving on.  And through this, it is finally the pain and coming to terms with being an immigrant, that unfold.

Such is the stuff the book is made of.  Does it  mean Anglo-Indian fiction buffs can shrug it off with “Er. What’! yet another down-memory-lane book”?  What if this one is about bawajis who wear sadra, kusti, dugli, phetoe  and time mathoobanoos, have Navjotes and go to the agyaari where on a rare occasion the dustoorji is found murdered (“Auspicious Occasion”).

Okay, agreed that this is a memory lane book, but not just.  For these stories have that indefinable quality of upliftment that marks writing that will survive a longer shelf life.  Some stories painfully rend, as “Swimming Lessons” .  But my own apocalypse came with “Lend Me Your Light”, the title taken from Tagore’s “Geetanjali”.  It draws out the parameters of Percy and Jamshed’s friendship.  Percy is the narrator Kersy’s older brother, (Kersy being the one who clobbers Francis with his cricket bat in “One Sunday”).

“To sustain an acquaintance does not take very much.  A friendship, that’s another thing.”   It begins from the time they were school boys at St. Xavier’s where the mass of kids ate lunch in the drill hall-cum-lunch room.  Jamshed did not eat in this crammed and cavernous exterior.  His food arrived precisely at one’o’ clock in the chauffeur-driven air-conditioned family car eaten in the leather-upholstered luxury of the back seat, amid this collection of hyphenated lavishness.”

Their friendship was twined by their mutual enjoyment of listening to music and making model planes which Jamshed’s innumerable globe-trotting relatives brought him.  The two spent long afternoons in Jamshed’s luxurious flat in Malabar Hill, far from the jostling kids pitching balls in Ferozsha Baag’s compound.  High school over, they go to different colleges occasionally meeting at concerts by the Bombay Chamber orchestra.  And after, Jamshed goes to New York and Percy to a village.

And Percy’s younger brother, the narrator, emigrates to Canada, thereby inadvertently preserving the link.  Jamshed writes to him from NY, “Glad to hear you left India.  But what about Percy?  Can’t  understand what keeps him in the dismal place…  All his efforts to help the farmers will be in vain.  Nothing ever improves, just too much corruption.  It’s all a part of the ghati mentality.”  And as the chasm between the erstwhile friends widens Percy wonders whether they had anything in common at all til… ah, but for that, one most read on… especially those of us whose minds span two continents. He says, in the particular version of reality we inherited, ghatis were always flooding the place, they never just went there.  Ghatis were flooding the banks, desecrating the sanctity of institutions, and taking up all the coveted jobs.  Ghatis were even flooding the colleges and universities, a thing unheard of.  Wherever you turned the bloody ghatis were flooding the place. With much shame I remember this word ghati.  A suppurating sore of a word, oozing the stench of bigotry.  It consigned a whole race to the mute roles of coolies and menials, forever unredeemable.