25 October 2009

Rohinton Mistry's Tales From Firozsha Baag

Author: Rohinton Mistry
Published in : 1987
Pages: 303

Neighbourhood nuggets

This was my first introduction to an author who made it to the elite club of NRI writers in the 80s--- all of whom made a definite impression in the world of literature and gave Indian Writing in English the prestige it enjoys today.
Rohinton Mistry is primarily known for two of his works, Such a Long Journey and Family Matters. Yet, I'm glad I was introduced to his writing with Tales From Firozsha Baag - a book of short stories where Mistry recounts life in a middle class Parsi colony in Bombay in the 80s. Reading it makes you believe many of these experiences are the author's own childhood memories, as many of the stories relate to young boys and their growing up days. The author describes inhabitants of Firozsha Baag in splendid details, letting us into their various quirks and living patterns.

There are eleven stories in the book, each one highlights one character or a family in the colony, but essentially all the stories are intertwined. So most of them make a passing appearance in every story. This is precisely what lends a lot of charm and uniqueness to the book. There is such a lived-in feeling about the setting that you almost get the wafting smell the fish fry that is cooked in these homes.

The author does not spend too much time with any character or any one particular story, so as a reader you are not really invested in any one person. In that sense, the book is episodic, offering a slice of life. In this Bombay apartment, there are several colourful characters – and many of the anecdotes and incidents that the author narrates would be familiar to anyone who has lived in a co-operative society.

So in the first chapter, Auspicious Occasion, you are acquainted with the cranky, supercilious Rustamji, who won’t relent to contribute for the painting of the building. The chairman Nariman Hansotia decides to teach him a lesson by getting the workers to paint the rest of the building, leaving out the exterior of Rustamji’s flat alone.

One Sunday introduces you to other occupants of the colony. One of them is Najamai, who is the sole owner of a refrigerator in the colony. Another fine story is The Collectors, that describes the reclusive, shy Jahangir who would rather sit alone with his books on the steps than join the colony’s rowdy boys gang headed by the notorious Pesi. Mistry describes Pesi’s character with great flair and irony.

Another very interesting story is Squatter that talks about a boy from the colony, who goes to Canada and dreams of becoming a foreign citizen in every sense. Except that there is one small problem. He finds it impossible to perform his ablutions in the western manner in a commode. He has to squat on it, treating it like an Indian toilet, which frustrates him no end. It’s funny yet a poignant story of a man who cannot leave behind the baggage of who he really is. The author does not hesitate from sharing extremely intimate details or habits of his characters. And he has a definite penchant for scatological humour, as can be observed from many of the stories.

Exercises is about Jahangir and how he gets caught between the love for a girl in his college and his parent’s objection to the match (for no apparent reason as such).

Rohinton Mistry not only excels in giving the reader a perfect sense of the place and its characters, he describes them pithily with language that is accessible yet immensely rich. Take for example, these lines in Exercises, where he describes Jahangir’s situation at home over the girl he is dating.
“Dinner passed without any real unpleasantry. But not for many nights after that. The dinner-table talk grew sharper as the days passed. At first words were chosen carefully in an effort to preserve a semblance of democratic discussion. Soon, however, the tensions outgrew all such efforts, and a nightly routine of debilitating sarcasm established itself.”

Most of the stories give an acute sense of the increasing gap between the old and the emerging new world. That is essentially the theme of the book. As the younger generation grows older, seeks greener pastures, you see the established order being eroded slowly, thereby causing confusion and conflict. Jahangir’s parents are upset when he chooses his own partner. This is less to do with the girl and more to do with the older generation’s puzzlement over their children charting their own paths. Bombay itself becomes a character in the book, because the city has always struggled to keep its identity and old world charm alive amidst pursuit for progress. Not to forget, Bombay is home to the largest number of Parsis in the world!

All of the author’s stories are about the nostalgia associated with the past and the celebration of the future. Many of the piquant observations of on quotidian life and characters make Tales From Firozsha Baag a highly enjoyable read.

-Sandhya Iyer

2 comments:

Qalandar said...

I have read the two longer Mistry works, but hadn't heard of this collection. It sounds like a must read, thanks for the review -- it was itself very evocative...

sandhya said...

Q: Thanks q, you will like it for sure. I was happy to discover Mistry with this book. I liked his style immensely.