States of Emergency

Rohinton Mistry
Rohinton Mistry; drawing by David Levine

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…

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