(Published in the Business Standard, December 8, 2014)
“Mother said what she liked best was his remembering everything so well, how beautifully he wrote about it all, even the sad things, and though he changed some of it, and used his imagination, there was truth in it.”
– “Swimming Lessons”, Tales From Firozsha Baag
The group of women queuing for their lattes at the Times of India literary festival at Mehboob Studio held copies of Rohinton Mistry’s novels aloft with the triumph of successful autograph hunters. None of the books were new; one woman, a nursery schoolteacher in her 20s, had brought her college copy of A Fine Balance, while her friend clutched a second-hand, now 10-year-old copy of Tales From Firozsha Baag that she’d bought from a pavement bookseller on Flora Fountain.
One girl had brought her student copy of Such A Long Journey from her days at University of Bombay. She had graduated in 2009, the year before Mr Mistry’s novel was, memorably and disgracefully, burned by the student wing of the Shiv Sena, and dropped from the syllabus at the university. “It feels good to get his signature on this,” she said. She did not complain directly about the burning or the banning of the book, but she said, “I liked reading it when I was a student. People should be able to read good novels, no?” She traced Mr Mistry’s signature as she was talking, her fingers touching the ink lightly and with love.
When Mr Mistry had read from his works the previous day, she and her friends had been among the group of readers at the back who had been identifying characters and passages, annotating his readings with their whispered sharings as they compared their memories of his novels.
In comparison with many writers, Mr Mistry has a small oeuvre – three collections of short stories, of which Tales From Firozsha Baag is probably the best loved, and three novels, Such A Long Journey, A Fine Balance and Family Matters. But the collected works have a power that exceeds those of many longer bibliographies. His novels tend to stay in readers’ memories in a way that many more experimental novels don’t – Mr Mistry said in one of his interviews that he prefers honest books to clever books, which is a succinct description of his own writing.
Mr Mistry came to writing relatively late; he studied mathematics at the University of Bombay and had a job in customer service at a Toronto bank when he took a course in literature along with his wife, Freny. She graduated from the course and became a teacher; he began writing short stories, almost pitch-perfect right from the start, and soon left the dubious pleasures of customer services behind in favour of the writing life.
In one of my favourite stories, “Swimming Lessons”, a man in Canada decides to finally learn how to swim, remembering the sea off Chowpatty (“it seemed that the dirtier it became, the more crowds it attracted”); his memories are punctuated by the exchanges between his father and mother at home in India, sharing the stories their writer son has sent them by parcel post. Their wonder – “our son is a writer and we didn’t even know it, here we are thinking he is still clerking away” – is followed by a set of quiet exchanges between them: does the writer write about India because he is unhappy in his new country, or is he just, as the father argues, using his memory and his experiences to shape his fiction?
They share the stories back and forth, taking it in turns to read each one, and the argument over what fiction is for and what writing should be continues, parallel to the main narrative.
That set of exchanges on the need for stories and the art of storytelling came back to me when Mr Mistry read from his works on the second day of the festival. His voice is resonant and controlled, and he has a flair for timing, honed perhaps from his many years of performances as a folk singer. His friends say he is not so much a recluse as a very private man; even so, set him in front of an audience, and he becomes as eloquent a storyteller off the page as he is on it.
He had – finally, after several years of people trying and failing to persuade him to make a public appearance in India – given in to the persuasion of the organisers. In April, Bachi Karkaria reported that Aditya Thackeray, who had led the protest against Mr Mistry’s novel in 2010, had been asked at a meeting in Dadar’s Parsi Colony if Mr Mistry could revisit the city of his birth without fear; Mr Thackeray had said that the author would be free to come. Mr Mistry mentioned the Shiv Sena in passing: “My first thought [on hearing about the ban on Such A Long Journey] was, did it take them 19 years to come across it? I’ve heard of slow cooking, but slow reading? I heard that the sales of the book went up after that.” The audience roared in appreciative laughter.
He stayed in form when he accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday. “A lifetime achievement award is a funny sort of thing, like a death or a funeral,” said Mr Mistry. “When an author gets one, it reminds me of his or her books. It is also the beginning of the end.” And then he took over the mike, singing Don’t Fence Me In and old Bing Crosby numbers, reminiscing about his Bombay childhood and his memories of listening to The Beatles and old Broadway musicals.
Mr Mistry has won many prizes over the years – the Giller Prize, the Neustadt and the Commonwealth among them – but some celebrations are particularly special, and some victories are quiet, not noisy, triumphs. It had been just four years since the city had been told that Mr Mistry was off limits, but now Mumbai gladly rose to celebrate one of its favourite authors and outside Mehboob Studio readers bought his books without fear or fuss.