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’.
A Parsi writer I have read from boyhood onward is Busybee, the columnist. His real name, Behram Contractor, was kept from us like a secret. His column, ‘Round and About’, would be printed on the last page of the Evening News, then Midday, and now appears in the Afternoon Dispatch and Courier, which he edits himself. The first paper is defunct, but the last two are sold from three to six o’clock in the evening at traffic-jams by urchins who dart between Ambassadors and Fiats, holding neat stacks in their arms, shouting the names without understanding the meaning of either ‘midday’ or ‘afternoon’. Busybee writes in patient, detailed prose about this inexhaustible city. His column has been the signature of all the papers I have mentioned above, the distinctive scribble, which one has grown to recognise, of a personality. From time to time, Busybee describes his own community, and writes lyrically of its cuisine: patra-nu-machhi, pomfret in coriander and mint chutney steamed in leaves, lagan-nu-custard, or ‘wedding custard’, the dessert served at Parsi weddings.
Rohinton Mistry is a Parsi writer who lives in Canada, and has already written one book of short stories, Tales from Firozesha Baag. Firozesha Baag, I presume, is his fictionalised version of Cusrow Baug, a vast colony of similar-looking houses around gardens, separated from the world outside and from the vivid shops of Colaba Causeway by a single otherworldly arched gateway. In these houses middle-class Parsis live; repose and nostalgia settle round their white children, who look like the contented, cherubic children in early Ovaltine advertisements.
The Parsis are neither Hindu nor Muslim, and seem absolved from the anxieties of modern India. Their lives are marginal and emblematic. Each one of them reflects the other’s customs and clothes and manners.
Like many other Indian writers in English, Mistry lives abroad, in Canada. The Bombay he writes about he carries inside him, for inside him are streets and institutions and the voices of other people – many voices. Inside him is the second most populous country of the world. Like most post-colonial writers in English, he is something of an accident, the fortuitous meeting-place of a local sensibility and a foreign language. He is a writer who sings of his land but has no mother tongue with which to sing of it, a kind of displaced but strangely native sensibility that could not have been created outside the unrepeatable and extraordinary Galapagos conditions of the colonial experience. Such a writer must always remain in-between, neither here nor there, alien whether in his own land or in London or in Canada. The post-colonial writer, like the test-tube baby, is a miracle of the 20th century, or, in a darker light, a curious effluent, an unwitting by-product of the great technological, industrial and economic projects of an age.
This first novel tells the story of Gustad Noble and his family, who live in Bombay in Khodadad Building. In the first five pages is the book’s most careful writing, a sustained but unambitious prose, absorbed, domestic, gracefully holding back from the theatricality that is to be found in much of the novel:
Then he began singing that Nat King Cole song, in his deep voice:
You will never grow old,
While there’s love in your heart,
Time may silver your dark brown hair,
As you dream in an old rocking chair ...
She loved it when Gustad changed the song’s words from ‘golden hair’, always breaking into a big smile at the third line.
Thereafter the plot becomes more and more improbable, but fascinating in its complete abstention from credibility: Gustad is estranged from his eldest son; his daughter falls ill recurrently; his gentle and ordinary wife, under the guidance of a strange widow, Mrs Kutpitia, practises witchcraft to save her family; Dinshawji, Gustad’s bank colleague, flirts, jokes, falls ill and dies; Gustad gets unsuspectingly involved in a government spy scandal because of his old friend Major Billimoria, who, towards the end, also dies, almost magically, as it were, after coming into existence in the book (on a hospital bed) no less magically. Billimoria is the Godot of the first three-quarters of the book, and when he finally appears he is a parody, as no doubt Godot would have been if he had finally appeared in the play. The villain of the story, by an unwitting but devastatingly comic stroke, is Mrs Gandhi, referred to unmysteriously as ‘the Prime Minister’, or simply by the sinister pronoun ‘she’. Politics enters the novel through conversations that sound like history lessons, and the Bangladesh war is indicated by black-outs, sirens, and the black paper pasted to the windows. There is Dostoevsky here, even Dickens, but one also feels the presence of the Hindi film. For in Hindi films, too, the plot is absurd and the mood sentimental, but in such an extreme way as to generate a kind of energy, a drunkenness that realises the impossible, a blind but liberating strategy. In Mistry’s plot, more tactful but as difficult to believe nevertheless, this saving quality of inebriation dwelling in absurdity is lacking.
The most joyous of the characters is Dinshawji, Gustad’s bank colleague, who entertains his friends with one joke after another in the office canteen: ‘The group in the canteen did not spare themselves either, joking about the vast reputation of the Parsi proboscis (what happens when a bawaji with an erection walks into a wall? He hurts his nose). No linguistic or ethnic group was spared; perfect equality prevailed in the canteen when it came to jokes’. We are pleased that Gustad wanders about such a lot, is such a mobile person, for with him we go to markets, are companionably trapped during rush-hour at the roundabout in Flora Fountain, are nudged sensuously by passers-by, and are occasionally served tea in opaque tumblers by the familiar curt waiters at local restaurants called ‘hotels’, waiters who have a proud and aristocratic contempt for hygiene. Joy is the real subject-matter of this novel about unhappiness, and joy and laughter are what come most naturally to Mistry and his creations. Also recorded here is the peculiar and sometimes moving bathos of Indian speech in English, bathos which is potentially richer than pathos because it wears two masks – laughter and sadness – instead of one. Later, Dinshawji, sick and dying, seems unhappy and uneasy, less about dying, it seems, than about being forced to play this new part by the author. For he is a lively man, and cannot put his heart into the role of the dying one; with his ‘shaking’ voice and his suddenly ‘rheumy eyes’, he appears embarrassed, having put on too much make-up for the scene.
There are some interesting bits about a paanwalla or paan-seller (no relation to paaniwalla or ‘water-seller’). Paan is the heart-shaped betel leaf wrapped around slivers of betel nuts and other undisclosed ingredients which many Indians chew upon tranquilly, before stooping to spit the violent haemorrhage-red clots of betel juice onto the pavement. The inscrutable operations by which the paan is made, and the loving, comical dance of the customers, are reported by Mistry with an admiring tolerance. Distracting symptoms of that Latin American virus, ‘magic realism’, are evident, however, in the descriptions of the paanwalla. The production of India as an extraordinary show has always been disquieting. The British writers who created fantasies of the ‘Raj’ (a misleading euphemism for British rule – there have been several kinds of ‘Raj’ in India, the Mughal Raj among them) wrote of tigers, elephants, nawabs, fakirs, yogis. As the India they came into contact with existed mainly in the form of clubs and favourite hill stations, they wrote, instead, about a country that did not exist. Many of the ‘magic realists’ who write about India live not in hill stations but abroad, where they continue to construct their spectacle of India. More than a century old now, the show goes on. Meanwhile that vast tract of land, incomprehensible and intricate, invents itself in ways more far-fetched than the tropes of any fantasist. It is to Mistry’s credit that, now and then, he has managed to capture at least an infinitesimal portion of this seemingly infinite entity in his work.
In a book so full of catastrophes and travails, it is the minor characters – the hawkers, the butchers in Crawford Market with their meat cleavers, a pavement artist who draws ephemeral images (which is what Mistry himself does when he is at his quietest and most accomplished) – who carry the novel to its end. In the context of the many disasters of the main story, they are gratuitous points of relief, enduring, brief, and if such a word exists, uncatastrophic. They come and go like ghosts, as they do in life, as anyone who has lived through an Indian afternoon will know. Even in the description of an emergency (Gustad’s accident) the cry of the water-seller, a sibilant and reptilian whisper, unobtrusively calls attention to itself: ‘The peculiar street sound carried well over other noises, a mixture of hissing, aspirating and susurrating. “Hss-sst-sst-sst! Paaniwalla!” ’ To walk down a crowded Colaba street on an afternoon is to come into contact with more people than one would in the course of a lifetime in Sweden. In the West, because of the climate, people get to know each other in rooms. Relationships form. So do characters. In India, the human 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. This sense of humanity as at once endlessly replenishable and dispersed, Mistry powerfully suggests through his minor characters. Subject to the more occidental practice of ‘characterisation’, his protagonists tend to be unconvincing. Neither a minor nor a major figure, the pavement artist wanders intriguingly through the book, producing image after image, reminding me of Indian villagers who publish the pictures of their gods on the walls of their mud huts, decorating the fronts of their houses like the covers of books, each house containing a different story.