“Un roman est un miroir…” Stendhal said. “A novel is a mirror which passes over a highway. Sometimes it reflects to your eyes the blue of the skies, at others the churned-up mud of the road.” Of course, not all novelists choose to carry mirrors of perfect clarity. Some travel with just a wicked sliver of glass, some strut along with a gleeful grin and a distorting mirror; others respectfully support a window-pane through which little is seen but the author’s own face. But when Rohinton Mistry published his first novel, Such a Long Journey (1991), we seemed to have found an author who would carry a mirror for us down the dusty highways of India, through the jostling Bombay streets, behind compound walls and into the huts and houses where the millions sit, reinventing themselves, constantly reciting the stories of their own lives and times. His documentary realism won praise. The writing seemed a world away from Rushdie’s aggressive surrealism and linguistic tricks. The prose was plain, the tone often jaunty. Human decency came shining through.
Such a Long Journey was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Governor General’s Award in Canada. It was a fluent and involving chronicle of the family and neighborhood life of a Parsi called Gustad Noble, a likable man perpetually baffled by what destiny threw at him. It was not unflawed; there was some perfunctory plotting, a strain of sentimentality. Its great virtue was that it kept background and foreground in perspective. The perplexities and concerns of small people, the citizens of Bombay in the early 1970s, were set against a threatening international situation. Their everyday aspirations and disappointments entertained us, while India and Pakistan moved toward war. In his new novel, Mistry carries us on to 1975, when Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency and suspended civil liberties.
Here again intimate dramas will be played out against the vast canvas of the subcontinent. But where the first novel began in a gentle, careful miniaturist’s manner, reminiscent of R.K. Narayan, the tone here is menacing. You had better believe me, Mistry seems to tell us: brace yourself for what is to come. In his epigraph he quotes Balzac, Le Père Goriot: “After you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well…. But rest assured: this tragedy is not fiction. All is true.”
The book begins with a railway journey. The train is late. There is a body on the tracks. The passengers are more than usually exasperated: “Why does everybody have to choose the railways tracks only for dying?… Murder, suicide, Naxalite-terrorist killing, police-custody death—everything ends up delaying the trains. What is wrong with poison or tall buildings or knives?”
One carriage contains three people with a common destination. Maneck Kohlah is a Parsi student; Ishvar Darji and Omprakash Darji are Hindu tailors, uncle and nephew, respectively forty-seven and seventeen years old. They are new to city life; the two tailors are displaced from a village in the plains, while Maneck is a long journey from his misty northern home in the mountains. It is the exigencies of displacement that bring them together, and to the tiny, shabby city apartment of Dina, a Parsi widow in her early forties. Maneck is to be a paying guest. Repelled by the squalid conditions in his student hostel, he has appealed to his parents for help, and his mother has arranged for him to stay with an old school friend of hers. The tailors are to do piecework for Dina, sewing women’s clothing for an export company.
Dina could have expected better than the cramped, penny-pinching, anxious life that she has come to live in middle age. Her father was a doctor, a selfless, hard-driven man who died from snakebite while toiling in one of the fever-ridden villages of the interior. She was twelve years old then, and her mother’s nervous collapse left her upbringing in the hands of Nusswan, her twenty-three-year-old brother, already established as a young businessman. Quarrels with Nusswan brought an early end to her education, but she married—married a man she herself had chosen, in defiance of Nusswan’s wishes—and was happy for three years, until her husband was killed in a traffic accident.
Though her brother presses her to join his household, Dina is determined to stay in her flat and to support herself. When the three men come into her life, she is wary of what their companionship may mean—loneliness is what she is used to. Besides, the tailors are uncouth villagers who scratch themselves and cannot use cutlery, and Maneck is so young, and spoiled perhaps?
The evolution of an odd, mutually dependent household is at the center of the book. The characters’ halting progress toward each other is described with great sensitivity; it is a tale of pride and prejudice, of simple affection breaking barriers. When the tailors begin to work for Dina they are sleeping on the street. They get a hut in a shantytown and gather a few possessions, but their hut is bulldozed. They are on the streets again, and eventually Dina takes them in, even though she knows that their presence is against the terms of her lease and that her landlord is looking for an excuse to evict her. She is acting against her better judgment, her heart for once ruling her head; reserved, cautious, sometimes shrewish, she is a character to whom Mistry allows great dignity.
Maneck and his family are drawn with quiet sympathy. Wealthy people who lost their lands in 1947 when India and Pakistan separated, they have built up a general store, but trade is failing now, and they feel their only son should get professional qualifications. They do not want to send him away; he does not want to go. But parents and child are blind to each other’s signals, too proud to confess their need of each other. It is a quiet, small-scale, low-key tragedy. Maneck feels his family has rejected him. A shy, fastidious, depressive boy, he takes some comfort in his unlikely friendship with Om, the childlike, boisterous young tailor. Meanwhile Ishvar impresses Dina with his quiet self-sufficiency, his ability to absorb life’s worst blows. Early in the book there is a heavy hint of something grim in the tailors’ past. The narrative loops back to the time of Om’s grandfather, and we learn what it is.
The tailors’ family belongs to the caste of leather-workers. Their work is highly unpleasant, their resources scanty. Om’s grandfather commits the crime of wishing to better himself. He sends his two sons, Ishvar and Narayan, to the nearest small town, where they are apprenticed to his Muslim friend Ashraf, a tailor. It is a huge rebellion—against tradition, against fate.
When they grow up, Ishvar stays in town as Ashraf’s assistant. Narayan goes back to the village, sets up shop, and makes a point of sewing for customers of all castes. He becomes successful, marries, builds a big house for himself, his parents, and his business. He has a son, Om, and two daughters. The author has already introduced us to the miseries of the caste system, the repression, violence, and humiliation suffered by the village people at the hands of landlords and their agents. We know that Narayan is courting disaster.
This is an intensely angry book, a political novel that pulls no punches. Mistry loathes the Congress Party, which has held power in India for all but four of the forty-nine years since independence. He sees the party as the purveyor of empty promises of amelioration, the propagator of progressive social legislation that is passed but never enforced. There is a scathing set-piece description of Indira Gandhi addressing a rally; it captures all the Prime Minister’s self-deluding complacency, all the self-serving hypocrisy of her supporters. It is as effective a demolition job as a novelist can do.
Yet when Mistry approaches the most harrowing event of his book, his tone is deceptively cool, as if indignation were bleached out, as if the facts spoke for themselves.
An election is scheduled—the date is not given, but we are in the early 1970s.
On election day the eligible voters in the village lined up outside the polling station. As usual, Thakur Dharamsi [the local magnate] took charge of the voting process. His system, with the support of the other landlords, had been working flawlessly for years.
The election officer was presented with gifts and led away to enjoy the day with food and drink. The doors opened and the voters filed through. “Put out your fingers,” said the attendant monitoring the queue.
The voters complied. The clerk at the desk uncapped a little bottle and marked each extended finger with indelible black ink, to prevent cheating.
“Now put your thumbprints over here,” said the clerk.
They placed their thumbprints on the register to say they had voted, and departed.
Then the blank ballots were filled in by the landlords’ men.
Two years on there is another election. Narayan decides he will no longer take part in the farce. He goes to the polling booth and tries to register a genuine vote. Two neighbors back him up. When we learn what happens next we understand why Mistry’s approach has been so deceptively calm. The three men are picked up by Thakur’s men and taken to his farm. They are suspended upside down and flogged, through the length of a day. Burning coals are held against their genitals and forced into their mouths. In the evening they are hanged. The corpses are displayed in the village square.
And while the torture goes on, Thakur’s little grandchildren are shut up indoors. Play with your nice new train set, he urges them, smiling. For the first time in the book we catch the whiff of the concentration camp; a mild paterfamilias steps out of his front door to exercise the rabid dog inside him. We catch the same whiff in the horrifying description of a work camp where Om and his uncle toil when they are picked up on the streets, along with beggars and pavement dwellers. The Nazi stench is overpowering when Dina’s brother Nusswan, reflecting on his country’s plight, advocates “a free meal containing arsenic or cyanide” for the “two hundred million people surplus to requirements.”
It is not that, by this point in the book, Nusswan has become a vicious caricature. What we learn of Nusswan’s bullying tactics within his family does not lead us to admire him, but he is not inherently a bad man, and Mistry makes us reflect how often such bigotry stains the lips of otherwise kindly, dutiful individuals. In the face of the world’s beauty, in the face of the self-evident fact of altruism, how can atrocious conduct occur, how can hideous beliefs survive? The question is age-old, and Mistry has no answers, but it is evident from the seriousness and weight of the present book that he believes that novelists should go on asking, and asking.
After the death of Narayan and his two nameless supporters there is worse to come. The landlords’ men rampage through the village. They carry Narayan’s mutilated body to his house and display it to his wife. They then tie up Narayan’s wife, his little daughters, and his parents, and set fire to the hut. Om and Ishvar, safe in town, are the only survivors of their family.
This atrocity, which is placed by the author about a quarter of the way through the narrative, stretches its black shadow over the whole book. Mistry’s very success in harrowing the reader will create a problem for him. We cannot read the next 450 pages without some alleviation, some lightening of the tone; yet how does an author achieve this, when he has so much more in store for his characters? The horrors of the forced sterilization program—with its potential not only for blood poisoning but for the settling of old scores—will reduce the patient Ishvar to a beggar with amputated legs, will reduce his spirited nephew to a puffy eunuch pulling his uncle on a wheeled platform. In the face of such horrifying material, the gentle humor of Mistry’s earlier book cannot help the reader along, and his occasional attempts at levity become an irritating tic. A reader can perhaps bear an escalation of disaster and misery; what is almost unbearable is the cyclical pattern of disaster in which Mistry has trapped his creations. Every time life improves a little, every time they raise their low expectations a notch, disaster strikes. In the end one feels controlled, as if by a bad god. This, no doubt, is part of Mistry’s intent.
By the closing stages of the book, no veil of irony is drawn over authorial manipulation. Shankar the beggar, known as “Worm,” is the most pathetic of all Mistry’s creations. With no legs and deformed arms, he pushes himself around on a wheeled platform like the one on which Ishvar will end his days. He is given “protection” and guaranteed his pitch by the Beggarmaster, who takes a share of the offerings made to him—and who turns out to be his half brother. Shankar keeps, for comfort, some tails of human hair; absurdly, he is accused of the murder of their original owners. Escaping from an angry crowd, he is crushed by a bus. His grotesque funeral procession is attacked by riot police, who believe the participants to be politically inspired mummers “indulging in street theatre” and the corpse to be a “symbolic dummy.”
Mistry here is making a dangerously destructive comment on his own technique. Like the Beggarmaster, the author is keen on getting a good return from Shankar. He has used him to tease and torment our most tender sensibilities; then, through a strenuous sequence of plot developments, we are primed for him to meet a gruesome end. It is a miscalculation; we see that Mistry himself has made a “symbolic dummy” of the weakest and most vulnerable of all his creations. One reviewer has already compared Mistry to Dickens, and it is plain that his energy and his panoramic ambition are on the same scale. It may be, though, that he has one of Dickens’s less-applauded traits; when his characters fall below a certain income level, he stereotypes them. It may be true that “the rich are different,” but it does not follow that the very poor are all the same. The novelist who writes in the realist tradition must take the trouble to grow his characters. Poor Worm can hardly evolve; a theatrical end is dealt out to him. He is ours to look at; he is not ours to feel with.
Images—of fate, of time, of destiny—cluster like flies around the narratives’ death throes. “The lives of the poor were rich in symbols,” Dina reflects—and again Mistry is playing with fire, for his reader may retort that all our lives are rich in symbols when we have such a determined, schematic author on our trail. The book’s great questions are not drawn together gently, but hauled weightily into the foreground. Time and fate are variously a quilt, a devouring lizard, a chess grandmaster who can never be checkmated. And yet it is the most naive images, simple and melancholy, that stay with the reader.
“If time were a bolt of cloth,” said Om, “I would cut out all the bad parts. Snip out the scary nights and stitch together the good parts, to make time bearable. Then I could wear it like a coat, always live happily.”
Calling attention to the nature of his own work, Mistry makes his characters reflect on the art and craft of story-making. “Perhaps the very act of telling created a natural design. Perhaps it was a knack that humans had, for cleaning up their untidy existences—a hidden survival weapon, like antibodies in the bloodstream.”
Mistry’s work does not need this authorial endorsement. Few readers who have weathered the six hundred pages will need to be told that this is a serious and important book, that it is the product of high intelligence and passionate conviction. It is remarkable, in a narrative so overdetermined, that the four major characters breathe and flourish as individuals. The details of their daily lives, the nuances of their feelings, are presented to us respectfully. The final pages are coarser—perhaps the book should have been longer? The “fine balance” of which one character speaks—the balance between hope and despair—is exquisitely difficult to maintain. The placing of an incident, the timing of a passage, are crucial; the urgent, almost brutal energy which Mistry brings to his project tips us to the side of despair.
In the end, Mistry chooses to divide the fates of his four companions. Maneck commits suicide, though he is young, healthy, educated—he has, so to speak, nothing to commit suicide about. The less fortunate face life with more courage. Dina ends as a drudge in her brother’s kitchen, secretly feeding the tailors-turned-beggars every afternoon, while they in turn nourish her with their warmth and their wit. Is Mistry feeding us an old line—telling us, rightly or wrongly, that what is inside a human being counts for more than external circumstance? We have been made witness to events that leave a stain on the soul; the resilience of spirit with which the tailors face their final degradation seems admirable, but slightly beside the point.
Perhaps the key lies in one of the many conversations that take place on trains. Maneck meets a man who used to be a proofreader for The Times of India—a man who for twenty-four years saw a record of his country’s daily griefs and disasters pass before his eyes. Would it be effective, Maneck wonders, if everybody in India got angry? Might that force the politicians to change their ways? Sometimes, says the proofreader, it is better to suppress anger. “Just try to imagine six hundred million raging, howling, sobbing humans…. Would the mountains explode? What about rivers, would the tears from twelve hundred million eyes cause them to rise and flood?”
This experienced man preaches not quiescence but containment. Yet one day, he admits, the very words on the page rebelled. The letters pitched and tossed and mutinied. He could not read. The paper beneath his hand became a stormy sea. His eyes watered, his head swam; he collapsed. He had developed, he later discovered, a violent allergy to printer’s ink. He had lived by the word and almost perished by it. He had explored its limits, and his own.
This is what Rohinton Mistry has done. He has lived in Canada for some years, which is perhaps as well, for this book will not make him popular in his native country. At the time of writing, the Congress Party has been humiliated in a general election, and the Hindu nationalists have formed a minority government. Their Bharatiya Janata party is widely regarded as traditionalist if not retrogressive, inimical to the lower castes and to the Muslim population. Perhaps Mistry is right and—as the odious phrase has it—what goes around, comes around.
Huge, ambitious novels tend to succumb to platitudes in the end. Unless the author is a genius, they are sucked into cliché by their aspirations to universality. This is one of Mistry’s problems. Another problem runs deeper. The novel is an optimistic form. It offers its characters some freedom, within their created nature, and an afterlife in the imagination of readers. But Mistry’s characters—even those who are not Hindu—are caught in a vast, predetermined, prepatterned design, which the author embroiders fiercely, glibly. The narrative is closely sewn and makes effective patterns. Design is necessary, but the author should distinguish his own needs from those of the characters and those of the reader; a given fate is not necessarily one to which the characters should be resigned. Here they have no choice or hope. They loiter forever on street corners, hoping to catch the bus but knowing it is likely that when it comes it will mow them down; the driver’s name is Mistry, and within his six hundred pages he will crush them all.