The Long Journey of Rohinton Mistry

In conversation
By Ali Lakhani

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Interviewed at the Vancouver International Writers' Festival.

Ali: You left India to come to Canada yet your writing suggests a sense of nostalgia about India. Do you write out of a sense of nostalgia?

Rohinton: No. It is funny that you should ask that. This question came up at a discussion on Thursday during the reading and the panel discussion as the writer's festival. A member of the audience asked about nostalgia, and I said that nostalgia is interesting as an emotion, but for a writer to write out of the feeling of nostalgia would be debilitating because it would make the writing too sentimental, I think. But nostalgia is a very interesting phenomenon to examine. No, I don't think I am writing out of nostalgia. I think to a certain degree it's a human failing—too much nostalgia is like too much guilt. Perhaps the two go hand-in-hand in some ways, but to order one's life or the process of writing around that would not work. I think in Bombay and India, my imagination is engaged by that place still after all these years and I think it is a healthy kind of engagement. It helps me to understand my life there. I suppose the time will come when I will stop writing about Bombay.

Ali: You are writing about a world that in a way has all but disappeared. You are from a community that has undergone a lot of transformations, in recent years particularly, and I suppose in a sense every act of creation is an attempt to hold at bay the forces of disintegration, the erosion that occurs through time. In fact this is one of the themes that you explore in your novel. To what extent would you say that your writing is a sort of antidote to amnesia, an attempt to reconstruct the past through memory?

Rohinton: Well, I am not consciously setting out to do that. I think there again it is like nostalgia. If I consciously set out to preserve, to be an antidote against forget-fulness, I think the writing would turn into something almost anthropological and a sort of a tourist guide. A sophisticated tourist guide. [laughter]

Still, I suppose it does work in that way. In a sense this novel perhaps will, when the Parsis have disappeared from the face of the earth, will preserve a record of how they lived, to some extent. But that is not my starting point or my goal.

Ali: What is your goal, to the extent you do have one?

Rohinton: To tell a good story.

Ali: Could you speak about your childhood in Bombay? You have evoked in your collection of short stories the close knit Parsi community in Firozsha Baagg [in Tales of Firozsha Baag]. You have done something similar with the community in Khodadad Building [in Such A Long Journey]. Did you live in such a community in India?

Rohinton: No. I did not live in a 'baag.' A 'baag' is the conglomeration of apartment buildings usually under the management of the Parsi 'panchayat,' and I did not live in such a 'baag.' But I had friends who inhabited these places and I had the opportunity to observe a little bit of it.

Western eyes often see this closeknit community and the neighbourliness as something very positive, something laudable. And at the same time it can be claustrophobic and intrusive—one has no sense of privacy. Everybody knows everyone else's business.

Ali: Did you personally feel this claustrophobia?

Rohinton: Yes. Especially during the early teen years.

Ali: Is that one of the reasons you eventually left India?

Rohinton: Yes. In an indirect sort of way. Leaving India was in a way decided for me by the constant opinions that were being expressed by people around me. When I say 'me,' I mean my whole generation. For example, after finishing college in Bombay or elsewhere in India, one had to go abroad for higher studies. That was the mark of success. If possible, one had to find a job after finishing a Masters or a PhD in the US or in England, get a job and settle down there. That was how success was defined. So, being brought up in that way, with a sort of lower middle class/middle class mentality; still clinging to the West—I suppose it goes on to this day. So that is why I say that coming to Canada was in some ways decided for me.

Ali: Do you feel that other people's aspirations for you limited you in some ways? This again appears in your novel in the dilemma between Gustad's aspirations for Sohrab and his rebellion against that?

Rohinton: I am going to say 'yes' to your question. My aspirations limited me. But that should not lead to the automatic conclusion the novel is autobiographical, because the same dilemma, the same limitations which I experienced, were experienced by hundreds around me. So Sohrab and Gustad and their confrontation over his refusal to go the Indian Institute of Technology and become an engineer, was played out repeatedly in home after home, in the lives of my friends and their friends. It was unthinkable that a boy should go to college and study English literature, for example. It was unthinkable. It was all right for a girl to do that, get a BA, do some fine arts, learn a little piano, get married, and then it wouldn't matter if she studied 'useless' things like English literature. But for a boy, he had to study something more substantial, more 'useful,' capable of bringing home a pay cheque. Other things were expected of him—at the very least a Bachelor of Science degree.

Ali: I believe that you mentioned that one shouldn't assume that these sort of conflicts that we have just been talking about are autobiographical. But are there portions of your writing that are autobiographical?

Rohinton: In a superficial sense, yes. For example, the novel is set in Bombay. I was brought up in Bombay. Sohrab and his father have this ongoing conflict. I had no such deep conflict with my father. I just accepted it that I was going to go to university and study science. I did a degree in mathematics. But I never defied anyone I was not, perhaps, as hot headed as Sohrab I accepted it that this was the way life was meant to be for me. So I don't even know if that is autobiographical then, because we didn't fight, my father and I.

Ali: What about the feelings of someone like Kersi in the short story that deals with his coming to Toronto?

Rohinton: There again, the resemblance, the autobiographical connection is superficial. I came to Toronto. I lived in an apartment in Don Mills. But there it ends. And I suppose things I saw and observed and heard may have found a way into the story. But I don't think that is really autobiographical, because there is some kind of transformation that takes place, even with autobiographical details when they become fiction. It would not be accurate, really, to say that they were autobiographical.

Ali: You describe in detail customs, rituals, and traditions associated with the Parsi religion. For example, the Towers of Silence, which you describe in your novel. Were these an important part of your background?

Rohinton: No, I wouldn't say they were important. They were sort of in the background, to be tolerated. We were all supposedly modern young men and women and, at that time perhaps, there was even something slightly embarrassing about these things. Being a minority and having different customs could make one defensive. And again, the whole thing about the West and aspiring to Western ways, which we did outwardly—we listened to western music: Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and Crosby Stills and Nash; we read literature that came from England and the US—yet here in the background, there were these supposedly quaint or barbaric practices going on, so one tended to leave them in the background and try to gloss over them.

Ali: One of the themes that emerges in your writing is the tension between tradition and modernity. You write with a lot of empathy, I feel, for traditions, for familial bonds. For example, in your novel there is the passage that describes Gustad observing his younger son, Darius using the hammer, and Gustad looks at him with pride and speaks of 'the passing of the hammer from generation to generation.' And similarly in your short stories as well, there is the sense of parental and filial bonding: in the story of White Hairs and Cricket, Kersi's affection for his father, or in the story called The Collectors, Dr. Mody's aspirations for his son, Pesi, and how he turns to Jehangir to fulfil some of the aspirations that Pesi has failed to deliver on. Could you comment about this theme in your writing?

Rohinton: Yes. Granted this is present, the father/son bonding, everything that you have mentioned, but I think, for me, what was more interesting in the writing of all these things was the attempt by the father—let's say by Gustad by passing on the hammer—these are ways that the individual has to, I think, deal with mortality. I think it is more than father and son. Ultimately, it is of course all futile. Hammer or no hammer, Gustad is going to die and that will be the end of it. I suppose it's the way that Shakespeare wrote in his sonnet: 'So Long lives this...' These are all various attempts to pretend that we can be immortal. And I find that it is very touching to see human beings go about dealing with mortality in these various ways. That is what I think interested me in all those passages.

Ali: This reminds me of the passage in your novel where the artist, the pavement artist, senses some discomfort with the wall that he is painting. You state, somewhere in the novel I believe, that the root of all sorrow is in this yearning for permanence, and then the artist comments, He is in a sense acknowledging the fluidity of life there. Do you see detachment as one of the morals of your book?

Rohinton: I suppose it comes out of it, although again I would disclaim any attempts to put morals in the book. As I say, tell a good story and that's it, whatever comes out of it is up to the reader.

Ali: Even though you resist any attempt to be seen as imposing a moral through the book, I did find that detachment was one of the themes that came through quite strongly. And yet I found it was a compassionate detachment and I was reminded of a passage in Bertrand Russell's Autobiography where he writes that a part of ourselves strives for knowledge and truth—and that takes us away from the world—and there is another part of ourselves, our humanity, that keeps us here, and there is this tensions between the two. Can you comment on that?

Rohinton: I find that idea appealing. It is sort of like the couplet from Alexander Pope about how we are between the angels and the beasts, somewhere in between. I can't quote it, I can't remember it, but I think it is from his Essay on Man. I like the idea of detachment with a human grounding.

Ali: This is a difficult balance to achieve.

Rohinton: Perhaps life is the struggle to obtain the balance between these two.

Ali: In every instance where values are involved, there appears to be a tension between freedom, on the one hand, and responsibility, on the other. And again a balancing is involved between those two. In some senses I think of 'traditional societies' as emphasizing responsibility more, and what we call 'modern societies' as emphasizing freedom more. Where do you fit into this continuum? How do you resolve the tension between these two? Do you lean more towards freedom or more towards responsibility?

Rohinton: I suppose, having been brought up in the old way, where the emphasis was on responsibility as you say, my reaction would be to move towards freedom. This also connects with what I said earlier about those close knit, neighbourly communities which are envied by Western eyes. They are claustrophobic to one who has been brought up there. I suppose the idea of responsibility comes out of those communities. One has to be responsible if one is living at such close range, in such close quarters with so much of humanity.

Ali: In the story, Lend me your Light, Jamshed and Kersi both leave Firozsha Baag to go to the West, one to New York, the other to Toronto. But their attitudes towards 'home' are quite different. Have you felt the same sort of tensions yourself?

Rohinton: I have seen those tensions. I have witnessed them. I suppose between Kersi and Jamshed, the difference involves their way of dealing with a new life, probably relates to their difference in their old lives. Jamshed is from a wealthy family in Bombay—that is evident in the story—and he has probably been brought up in a way where he never saw any of the poverty around him, or if he did see it, it was as part of the urban landscape. Perhaps Kersi was a little bit closer to it than Jamshed. I am simplifying things here a bit.

Ali: There is a sense in which your 'roots' are in one place and your 'home' is in another. I am thinking here of your roots being in India, your home being in Canada. I would like to know how successful you feel you have been in making the transition from Bombay to Brampton. Do you feel any tensions between your 'roots' and your 'home'?

Rohinton: A friend of mine once said that he had 'portable roots' He could put them down temporarily, wherever he found himself to be.

Ali: Yet, you can never really escape your past, can you?

Rohinton: No, I don't think so. And attempts to escape the past in artificial ways, usually lead to more trouble than it is worth. How do I deal with it?

Ali: Where is home?

Rohinton: Can I take this a step further and wonder if really the position of an immigrant who leaves one country and comes to another is really that unique, if it is really that distinct from the more general human condition, where we—all of us—leave behind a home which we can never return to. And that home could be, let's say, a small town in Ontario, somebody who leaves his or her town in Ontario, a remote suburban place, and moves to Toronto—that person has lost his or her home. The person who leaves behind—and this we all do, we leave behind our childhoods; that also is home.

Ali: But we rarely leave behind our cultural environment. There is a difference.

Rohinton: Well, the culture of Toronto is a great deal different from the culture of Newfoundland, for example. I suppose the difference is one of degree.

Ali: But that belief alone is not enough. It also takes an attitude among the community that you live in, to feel that a place is your home. In Canada, we have a multiculturalism policy. Do you feel that this policy assists or hinders in enabling immigrants to feel that this country is their home?

Rohinton: Well, there have been so many good and valid arguments on both sides. I think it is up to the individual to take from multiculturalism what he or she wants to take out of it. It can provide comfort to some extent, it can ghetto-ise the community, if taken to extremes.

You said that the ability to feel at home depends on the environment, where you find yourself, and of course we are thinking now about prejudice and racism, where one can be made miserable by society. Then I think of the racism that went on in Bombay all around me, and I would find that racism now, thinking back, so much more offensive and hurtful, coming as it did from my own community—and when I say 'community,' I don't mean to say my own community, but the community in Bombay, people who were my classmates, neighbours, my fellow country men, let's go that far, let's say my fellow Indians. I am thinking about, first of all, the whole caste system, the most insidious form of racism. I am thinking about all the harassment that went on in schools from the majority community towards the Parsis or the Catholics who were minorities. In certain parts, the Catholics in a Catholic school, for example, were in the majority. They could make life difficult for the small number of Hindus amongst them. So it wasn't all roses back there either. I don't think we can escape this basic human disease. And I really feel that that was more hurtful, that was more unjust, and more illogical coming from what I, at that time, assumed was one homogenous community of Indians. But there is no such thing, just as there is no such thing as Canadian.

Ali: For you, how does the process of writing a novel differ from that of writing a short story?

Rohinton: I started by writing short stories, and I guess I made that choice because I was working in a bank and time was restricted, and I always felt that a short story required less effort, was a smaller chunk of work, and would take a few weeks to finish, whereas a novel was a commitment of many years and I wasn't sure if I could sustain the effort for that long. Of course, once I quit the bank and I had written some short stories, the natural sequence was to see if I could handle the bigger form, see if I had the stamina for it. So at that time I thought in very mundane terms between novel and short story, in terms of time and energy and having the stamina to keep on creating incidents and making a character live for over 300 or 400 pages. Would I have enough creativity and enough imagination to flesh them out and give them life for that long? After the novel was done, I found that I really enjoyed the process and it was much more rewarding to have those characters with me for two years rather than, let's say, two weeks or two months in a short story. But then the period of recovery is also longer after doing a novel. You need a lot of R&R.

Ali: In one of your interviews you stated that your characters are quite well formed in your mind before the writing commences, and yet in another interview that I read recently, you have stated that you do a lot of revising. Could you talk about the process of writing for you?

Rohinton: I would like to do a third variation on those two. When I said that they are fully formed before the writing begins, I suppose they are as fully formed as they will be till I actually begin to write. What do I mean by that? It is like I have to take on some sort of substantial reality in my head before I can write about that. And yet, they are not fully formed in that sense till I think it is done, because they keep changing and keep evolving, and then they start doing things I did not expect them to do when I had just begun to write. So they will evolve.

Ali: Let me give you an example. The fondness that Tehmul has for flying objects becomes quite significant at the end of the novel. Was that a revision?

Rohinton: That was a revision, yes. I think I remember the point where it happened. It happened when there was a leaf floating down from the tree and he tries to... no, there was a butterfly that he goes chasing after and he stumbles and falls. I had not planned that. That sort of happened out of what I was writing then. That gave me the clue, that, yes, this will link up at the end with the way he dies.

Ali: So you have to keep all the characters very much alive in your mind and their characteristics alive.

Rohinton: Yes, and don't close off your mind to possibilities. Let things happen and see where that can lead.

Ali: One of your reviewers, Constance Rooke, has suggested that your novel, and in particular the character, Dinshawji, may offend some feminist sensibilities. Have you had any comments or feedback on that?

Rohinton: Well, if she says that Dinshawji may offend some feminists, she is quite right. Dinshawji can offend me too. But that is Dinshawji. If I was to create characters mainly to satisfy, or to keep from offending, feminists and gays and all the other constituencies whom I respect, that is not the way of writing a book. I mean, characters take on lives of their own and, like the human race, they are varied and they have their prejudices and their obnoxious characteristics and good things about them. That is what being human is. If I did not keep myself open to the possibilities of all these characters, I would be creating cardboard cutouts.

Ali: This leads to the question about freedom of expression and it calls to mind the Satanic Verses episode with Salman Rushdie. In the West that became really an issue of free speech, and yet for Muslims it was seen differently—in the same way, in a sense, that many Catholics have viewed the incident of Sinead O'Connor tearing up a photograph of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. What is your opinion as to the appropriate or legitimate bounds to the freedom of expression?

Rohinton: Freedom of expression. The minute you use the word 'bounds' with the word 'freedom' there is something impossible happening there. If there are bounds, how can it be free?

Ali: It is like freedom and responsibility, the balancing that every individual has to deal with in life.

Rohinton: It is up to each individual to decide that, and the minute a limitation is put from the outside on a freedom, then of course you can argue that one's rights cease and you start harming something else.

Ali: The title of your novel is taken from the T.S. Eliot poem, The Journey of the Magi, but while that poem suggests to me a journey to a specific destination, your novel suggests that life itself is an endless journey, a journey, as it were, without a destination. Could you comment on that?

Rohinton: Yes. Life itself, as you say, is a journey without a destination. Sort of like a wall that goes on and on with pictures.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Ali Lakhani
Ali Lakhani is a lawyer and a writer living in Vancouver.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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