- Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry
Faber, 339 pp, £13.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 571 16147 2
The Parsis of Bombay are pale, sometimes hunched, but always with long noses. They have a posthumous look which is contradicted by an earthiness that makes them use local expletives from a very early age; and a bad temper which one takes to be the result of the incestuous intermarriages of a small community. The Parsi boys in my class had legendary Persian names like Jehangir and Kaikobad and Khusro. Their surnames, however, can be faintly ridiculous in their eloquence, like ‘Sodabottleopenerwalla’.
Vol. 13 No. 9 · 9 May 1991
In Amit Chaudhuri’s review of Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry (LRB, 4 April), he describes the Parsis of Bombay as ‘bad-tempered, incestuous, always with long noses, emblematic, marginal and absolved from the anxieties of modern India’. Shallow lists of stereotypes such as these have been used against the Jewish community in the past and one cannot help feeling that such prejudice is tinged with more than a shade of envy. The Parsis number approximately 100,000 in India and for a tiny community their achievements in public life have been notable. Dadabai Naoroji, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress, became a Member of Parliament for Finchley Central, using his position in the Commons to make fiery speeches against the British in India; Jamshetji Tata founded the largest industrial empire in the country, and is famous for his philanthropy and his fair-mindedness, a reputation which has been strengthened by successive generations of the clan; Dr Homi Bhabha was head of the Institute of Atomic Energy and the brains behind India’s early entry into the small group of nations with nuclear capacity. One might add to the list the half-Parsi Rajiv Gandhi, along with other Zoroastrians like Zubin Mehta who have made a substantial contribution to modern Indian life. It is quite well known that it was largely through the toil of its Parsi ship-builders and entrepreneurs that Bombay gained its wealth and status as the most renowned port in the country. Much of this acquisition of wealth and property (at the end of the last century three-quarters of the city’s land was owned by the Parsis) was made possible by the preferential treatment they received from the British; a lot of Parsis enjoyed the British Raj and have never stopped moaning about its demise.
One of the many achievements of Mistry’s book is its ability to display the convivial and tolerant nature of Bombay’s Parsi, Christian, Muslim and Hindu citizens. The Parsis have their faults – too many are inward-looking, ethnocentric and eccentric – but this makes for interesting storytelling and Mistry uses his insider knowledge with sympathy, insight and humour: Mistry’s new home has not produced in him a lofty and supercilious disdain for the denizens of his mother country. Amongst Indians, it’s not just the Parsis that Mr Chaudhuri has it in for. According to him, the Indian face, as opposed to the Western face, ‘being part of a river of faces, refuses to lend itself to characterisation, disappears, like a hint, soon after appearing, remains ghostly, without inwardness’. Why is a sea of faces in Bombay any different from a sea of faces in Euston Station? ‘In the West, because of the climate, people get to know each other in rooms. Relationships form.’ Presumably, in India it is too hot or too cold or too wet to form relationships, people do not meet in rooms, life is just an endless swarm of ‘chance encounters, minor characters and ghosts’. It makes me wonder where all those delicately painted Narayan portraits – the English Teacher, the Seller of Sweets, the Guide – come from.
Vol. 13 No. 11 · 13 June 1991
I was surprised to read Mr Vakil’s somewhat rancorous letter (Letters, 9 May), in which my feelings about Parsis are compared to anti-semitism. To make this point, Mr Vakil has picked up, at random and out of context, phrases from my review, strung them together, and put misleading quotation marks around them. I am left breathless at the enormity of his accusations, especially as they seem to have been provoked by the two rather affectionate paragraphs with which I began my article: I am sorry that Mr Vakil missed the affection of the language in which I noted the oddities of the Parsi community. The achievements of this community are indisputable, but as I was not writing a pamphlet publicising the deeds of its notable members, I described it impressionistically, as a part of my memory of Bombay and my childhood. It is the very human peculiarities of the Parsis rather than their ‘achievements’ I remember most vividly. Peculiarities and oddities are, as a matter of interest, what V.S. Naipaul records when he describes the Hindu community in Trinidad, and Flannery O’Connor when she writes of the Americans in the South. If the notation of such oddities constitutes prejudice, then literature has a long history of prejudice.
My remark about Parsis being absolved from the anxieties of modern India is echoed in a poem by Gieve Patel, one of the first and most well-known Parsi poets writing in English, called ‘The Ambiguous Fate of Gieve Patel, He being neither Muslim nor Hindu in India’, which begins: ‘To be no part of this hate is deprivation.’ It is a short, fierce, ironic piece about violence between the two communities, and his own place as an onlooker in this period of history.
Mr Vakil takes issue with me about my comments on the way climate and geography may affect the formation of a society, its modes of social intercourse, and even its literary concepts and archetypes. By quoting out of context, however, he neglects to present a fair or complete account of my argument. He thinks my claim that ‘relationships’ form only in the West is excessive. Perhaps I should put it in this way: relationships do form in India, but in most of India, with its extended family and its own social codes, surely they do so in quite different ways. It is instructive to note that in neither Hindi nor Bengali is there a word that can be translated into ‘relationship’: the word samparka, which comes closest, is used to speak of ‘bad or good relations’ with a person. My point was, anyway, that specific and untranslatable cultural experiences produce different literary notions in different cultures.
‘Why is a sea of faces in Bombay any different from a sea of faces in Euston Station?’ Mr Vakil asks. I am surprised he does not know why. Half of the population of a street in Bombay consists of beggars, idlers with transistor radios, hawkers who set up stalls during the day with a Crusoe-like ingenuity and fold these up at night and go to sleep on the pavement, all this being made possible by the climate. As Naipaul once said in an essay on London:
It is a matter of climate. In a warm country life is conducted out of doors. Windows are open, doors are open… It is easy for the visitor to get to know the country. He is continually catching people in off-duty positions. In England everything goes on behind closed doors. The man from the warm country leaves the door open behind him. The man from the cold country closes it: it has become a point of etiquette.