Monday, February 23, 2004

Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry was born in 1952 in Mumbai, and shifted to Canada in 1975, when the emergency was declared. In the same way that Thomas Hardy sets the action in his novels against the backdrop of fictional Wessex, Rohinton Mistry uses Bombay as a setting to explore the complexities and moral dilemmas which face his characters and their families as they struggle with poverty, questions of religion and prejudice, bringing to life the reality of what it is like to live as part of the Parsi community.

Rohinton Mistry's Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag(1987), describes the characteristics of middle class Parsi life and, in these eleven interconnected stories, the daily life of the residents of an apartment block, their relationships, the uniqueness of community living and issues of economic hardship and alienation.

Set in 1971, during the time when India went to war over what was later to become Bangladesh, Mistry's first novel, Such a Long Journey(1991), navigates issues of the public and private, as the protagonist, Gustad Noble, attempts to define himself in relation to his family and the shifting concerns of his country. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and Trillium Award and won Canada's Governor General's Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book of the Year and the WH Smith Books in Canada First Novel Award.

The action in A Fine Balance (1995)is based around four characters whose lives are changed by the state of emergency in India in 1975, when Indira Gandhi suspended many aspects of the constitution in order to hold on to power after being implicated in a scandal. Mistry gives a layered account of the unlikely friendships built between people in times of upheaval.

Mistry's most recent novel, Family Matters(2002), centres on a Bombay-based, modern-day Parsi family whose priorities shift when their father, a 79-year-old man suffering from Parkinson's Disease, breaks his ankle and is bed-ridden, forcing them to face the reality of his illness and their attitude towards it. Through the means of the novel, Mistry deals with a dilemma which is only too familiar, a universal morality tale filtering through the colours and smells of an overcrowded, Indian apartment block.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Night of the Scorpion

I remember the night my mother was stung by a scorpion. Ten hours
of steady rain had driven him to crawl beneath a sack of rice.
Parting with his poison -- flash of diabolic tail in the dark room --
he risked the rain again. The peasants came like swarms of flies
and buzzed the Name of God a hundred times to paralyse the Evil One.
With candles and with lanterns throwing giant scorpion shadows
on the sun-baked walls they searched for him; he was not found.
They clicked their tongues. With every movement the scorpion made
his poison moved in Mother's blood, they said. May he sit still,
they said. May the sum of evil balanced in this unreal world
against the sum of good become diminished by your pain.
May the poison purify your flesh of desire, and your spirit of ambition,
they said, and they sat around on the floor with my mother in the centre.
the peace of understanding on each face. More candles, more lanterns,
more neighbours, more insects and the endless rain.
My mother twisted through and through groaning on a mat.
My father, sceptic, rationalist, trying every curse and blessing,
powder, mixture, herb, and hybrid. He even poured a little paraffin
upon the bitten toes and put a match to it.
I watched the flame feeding on my mother. I watched the holy man
perform his rites to tame the poison with incantation.
After twenty hours it lost its sting.

My mother only said:
Thank God the scorpion picked on me and spared my children

By Nissim Ezekiel