Such a Long Journey, 1991
A Fine Balance, 1996
Family Matters, 2001
Tales from Firozsha Baag, 1987 (pb. in U.S. as Swimming Lessons, and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag, 1989)
Rohinton Mistry spent his first twenty-three years in predominantly Hindu Bombay, where as a member of the Parsi community, he was considered an outsider. The Parsis had fled Persia in the eighth century and, as followers of Zoroaster, were looked at askance by Indian traditionalists. They were open to modern technology and education and tended to be successful in business and industry. They also engaged in a rite in which the bodies of their newly deceased were brought to a mountaintop to be devoured by vultures.
Mistry’s youthful interests were in music, mainly the protest songs of Bob Dylan, and he performed in small nightclubs while earning a B.A. in mathematics and economics from the University of Bombay. In 1975, Mistry and his wife, Freny, moved to Canada, where career opportunities were more promising. The Indian economy favored engineers, doctors, and lawyers, specialities that held little interest for Mistry. The young couple settled in a suburb of Toronto, and Mistry became a bank clerk. Even after earning a promotion, he found that the job lacked the stimulation he needed, so he began taking night classes at the University of Toronto in subjects that interested him, earning a second B.A. in English and philosophy in 1984.
Mistry found that the most exciting and challenging aspect of his course work was the written assignments. At his wife’s urging, he submitted a short story to a literary competition and not only won the Hart House Prize that year but the next also. Later, a Canadian government grant allowed him the time and money to hone his craft and quit his job.
Though Mistry was born into a moderately affluent family, his writings most often focus on the lives of ordinary people who battle impoverishment in the teeming streets of Bombay. The authenticity of the portrait he paints of the city he left and only visits on occasion has been brought into question, but Mistry feels that all memory is interwoven with the creative and that the impressions gained in youth have given him insight into everyday life.
Every one of his works has been favorably received. His first novel, Such a Long Journey, is set in the 1970’s and deals with the suffering of those living in poverty under a repressive government. It won the Canada Governor-General’s Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. His second novel, A Fine Balance, is set in 1975 during a period of political upheaval when Indira Gandhi’s government imposed the Maintenance of Security Act, resulting in such atrocities as detentions without trials, media censorship, the imprisonment of academics opposed to governmental policies, forced sterilizations, and a questionable public welfare policy offering free radios for vasectomies. The book won the Giller Prize, the Royal Society of Literature’s Winfried Holtby Prize, the 1996 Los Angeles Times award, and was also selected for talk-show host Oprah Winfrey’s book club in December, 2001. It was touted as a masterpiece, with a Time critic concluding that no one “will look at the poor–in any street–in quite the same way again.” His third novel, Family Matters, explores the problems inherent in caring for the aged. It won the Kiriyama Prize for fiction. These three novels by Mistry have been short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize, with A Fine Balance also being the basis for a 1998 film.
Mistry has been compared with Charles Dickens, Salman Rushdie, and James Joyce. Hope Cooke, The New York Times book reviewer, says that his “ability through antic humor and compassion to make the repellent [or sad] story material . . . life affirming, even ebullient, is astonishing given the horrifyingly stunted lives he depicts.” When an interviewer from Artsworld suggested that his work was fueled by rage, Mistry bristled, saying “Fueled by rage? It paints a negative picture of the politics of India but I think [my books are ones] of humanity and optimism. The fact that the characters endure and survive and are able to laugh at the end is for me evidence of clear optimism.” Charges that he is unrelentingly grim, pessimistic, and despairing puzzle him, for he feels that prevailing, surviving, and looking to a new day should be enough of a happy ending for anyone. His characters undergo unspeakable misery–botched vasectomies, loss of limbs, torture–but they maintain their humor. That they can still rise above, catch nuances of irony, spot the absurd, and enjoy the moment is what makes his prose so readable and pleasurable. He writes of the humanity that everyone is capable of, as well as the depravity into which all people can fall. He writes of the daily, the ignoble thoughts, the bodily functions, sometimes with grim detail, that spell actual existence. The reader, though perhaps separated by culture or circumstance, can identify the impulses that drive his people.