Parsi Diary in Canada – a Postcolonial reading of literary fiction by Rohinton Mistry Sudeep Pagedar (2009)

The Indian Diaspora came into being in colonial times, with the migration of Indians to the various nations under the Union Jack. Crossing ‘kaala paani’ (euphemism for ‘the seas’) they would arrive in an alien land and have to learn to live with its alien culture and customs. There, according to Nilufer E. Bharucha, these ‘diasporics’ would fulfill a most important function – that of ‘imaging India to the world’ .1 The Indian Diaspora has, over the years, flourished, producing many a gem in the field of literature. This paper will deal with one of those literary gems – Rohinton Mistry. Rohinton Mistry, a writer who is now based in Canada, was born and brought up in India in a time when Mumbai was still known as Bombay, and Flora Fountain had not yet been conferred the official sobriquet of ‘Hutatma Chowk’. A resident of Bombay throughout his childhood and till early in his adulthood, Mistry migrated to Canada in 1975, in the midst of all the upheaval and controlled chaos that the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi had brought on by declaring a state of Emergency. Later on, the two year ‘1984’ that began in 1975 would be sublimated into A Fine Balance, a brilliant novel by Mistry; simple – but not simplistic – despite the complexity of the non-linear narrative. Rohinton Mistry began his career in literary fiction in Canada, starting with the publication of his first work, a collection of short stories about the Parsi community in Bombay, Tales From Ferozsha Baag. He then went on to write novels like Such a Long Journey, A Fine Balance and his latest, Family Matters. Although a Canadian of Indian origin who writes in English, Mistry cannot be typified as merely a writer of the Indian Diaspora or a writer ‘in exile’. Mistry writes of the nature of Parsi experience in India; specifically, Bombay. In Family Matters, Mistry goes one step further and writes of a class of Parsi who is alienated even more than others of his faith - the expatriate Parsi. As R. Latha Devi explains,”Expatriate Parsis are thrice removed: at first they fled from Iran to India, then from India to foreign countries, and there they do feel alienated.”2 She goes on to argue that Mistry, himself an emigrant, regrets this sort of alienation and that this is expressed through a character in Family Matters, Yezad, who dreams of emigrating to Canada.

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Bharucha, Nilufer E. (Author), Jain, Jasbir (Series Editor) Rohinton Mistry: Ethnic Enclosures and Transcultural Spaces, Jaipur, 2003 Devi, R. Latha, Family Matters: A Critical Study, published in The Novels of Rohinton Mistry: A Critical Study, Sarup, New Delhi, 2004

their geography and politics. final definition of the theory. Abrams. which allows them a postcolonial reading. & Tiffin. is his treatment of characters in various positions of power and how his characters engage with both. Having said this. This means ‘writing back’ or providing what are known as ‘counter-texts’ as alternatives to the hegemonic master narratives of the West. The subaltern is given a voice in the writings of Rohinton Mistry. writing in a European language. M. postcolonial theorists emphasize the ‘hybridization’ of the languages and cultural practices of former colonies under Imperialists. interspersing them with each other. Griffiths. whether social or ethnological. reinforcing the perspective that the author’s work can be located within the scope of postcolonial literature. London. B. 3 Ashcroft. While some might see this as forking away from the observed pattern in many works of postcolonial literature.. can serve as an agent of resistance against … the very discourse that has created its subordinate identity’.2 This is how Mistry’s novels are traditionally read – as a perspective on the Parsi experience in the city of Bombay. without assuming a single. to outline its nature and scope. In addition to rejecting any sort of master or ‘meta’ narrative. and to what extent a subaltern subject. ed. It would be more useful to list some of the main issues that postcolonial theory engages with. The aim is to establish that Mistry’s writing can be read as Postcolonial discourse. it is important to state that Mistry does not privilege his subaltern characters over the dominant ones who almost always seem to prevail over the former. that of ‘how. An aspect of Mistry’s novels. will examine Rohinton Mistry’s literary work within the context of Postcolonial theory.. This paper. which are outlined in ‘A Glossary of Literary Terms’. often creating situations wherein the boundaries between the two dissolve. an important question arises. and as a comment on the ways of this community in exile.3 As further stated in ‘A Glossary…’. It is necessary. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. H. Routledge. this tactic works in favour of Mistry’s writing as it serves to establish the ground reality of the nature of the present-day divide between classes or groups.H. in order to locate Mistry’s work within the framework of postcoloniality. 1989 . however. G.

3 To quote Jaydipsinh Dodiya & Pramod K. New Delhi. ‘is on the periphery even in India. in the prologue of A Fine Balance: ”The train still showed no sign of moving.’ said someone.’ as Nilufer Bharucha puts it. an artificially created distinction between two peoples or cultures. Colonization has evolved what is referred to as a ‘binary’.’ “5 Postcolonial literature of Mistry’s sort evolves from a process known as ‘indigenous decolonization’ which refers to the effect postcolonial theory has on indigenous communities of a formerly colonized nation. 2003 . 2004 Mistry. the ‘Occident’. and it follows that any interaction with them would be coloured by the same. Gopsons Papers Ltd. Since it was in the interests of the European powers to divide the world into ‘white’ and ‘black’. This is evident as in the example of a conversation between travelers in a second-class suburban local train’s compartment. The author’s own expatriate position makes him aware of the element of alienation. Sarup.with a certain ‘transculturalization’ through which the divisive tactics of the latter may be recognised and transcended. This is done in order to evolve a hybridity that would perhaps not allow the formerly colonized nation to ‘reclaim’ its past. postcolonialism intends to counter its predecessor by replacing the system of binaries . 1996. Something about country being threatened from inside. in literature.the ‘Orient’ vs. creating its own space within the national and diasporic context. in this manner. In the context of literary theory. … ’Maybe it has something to do with the Emergency. 4 5 Dodiya. but would certainly vindicate it by facilitating a post colonial understanding of its erstwhile colonial identity. ’What emergency?’ ’Prime Minister made a speech on the radio early this morning. Jaydipsinh. Noida. A Fine Balance. while Mistry’s novels might not ‘write back to Empire’. Pramod K. Nayar. ‘so his discourse challenges and resists the totalization of the dominant culture within India itself. Faber and Faber Ltd. that is to say. for example . Rohinton. ”The ethnocentric nature of his work discerns the assertion of difference and fragmentation of identity. the Manichean binary of the ‘Self’ as opposed to (not ‘and’) the ‘Other’ was formed by them. they manage to provide an adequate response by engaging with the problem of internal colonization. The Novels of Rohinton Mistry: A Critical Study... London.. Nayar. He is an existential outsider on one hand and on the other. influenced by such binaries.’ ’Sounds like one more government tamasha. Beliefs and opinions about other people are. It is up to Postcolonial discourse to engage with such ‘otherisation’ and counter it.’”4 Thus.

London. H. holding the railing. have unintended effects? 6 7 Ashcroft. could this appropriation that Mistry performs through the agency of his characters.4 Ashcroft. 1992 8 Morey. 2004 . Griffiths. 1991.. thus. Routledge. bringing it out through what Peter Morey has described as ‘migrations and losses’ of his characters. to be considered Indian. B. London. argues that ‘postcolonial identity is always already a hybridized formation’. ”Toba. separation. This conflict manifests as a sort of cultural hybridity within the Parsi community. Faber and Faber Ltd. and absence from the metropolitan norm’. the British – and also a disavowal of the same. in his essay on narrative techniques (‘“A Foreign Presence in the Stall”: Towards a Poetics of Cultural Hybridity in Rohinton Mistry’s Migration Stories’). Griffiths and Tiffin. Manchester University Press. blending it with dashes of Gujarati. 8 He states that the protagonists of Mistry’s novels embody this. in reference to the English language. an eminent theorist of postcolonial studies states that the process of evolving a colonial identity involves two things: identification with the colonial Other – in this case. giving the example of the critic Ajay Heble. arguing further. 6 Mistry. toba! I began to feel something wet on my shirt. An apt example of this would be the Parsi community. A dubbawalla. According to Ashcroft. in order to achieve the hybridity that is often characteristic of postcolonial literature. Hindi and even Marathi at times. G. & Tiffin. as if I was not there. in Salman Rushdie’s vein. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. And guess what it was.. ‘the most interesting feature of its use in postcolonial literature may be the way in which it also constructs difference. Standing over me. An excerpt from Mistry’s novel Such a Long Journey reads. Rohinton Mistry. Such identity. talk about how postcoloniality poses a challenge to the norms of language. that that the short stories by the latter. Peter. “Please move … my shirt is getting wet. which Rohinton Mistry addresses in his works. They say.. But. display ‘appropriation’. also ‘chutnifies’ English. Such a Long Journey. Griffiths and Tiffin (The Empire Writes Back) this is a characteristic of postcolonial literature. Rohinton. Morey also states that this has been the reason for some critics viewing Mistry’s primary characters as exemplary postcolonial subjects. can be considered a site of hybridity that lies between the colonizer and the colonized. yet maintain a cultural distance. 1989 Mistry. with its almost filial affection for India’s former Lords and Masters juxtaposed with a deep-rooted desire to have an identity of its own. … I said nicely. meherbani. …”7 Homi Bhabha.” But no kothaa. who.

His second novel. Mistry interweaves this with the main plot of the novel. Such a Long Journey. The first: in A Fine Balance. instructing him to hand over sixty lakh rupees to a Bengali man. may be read.without assuming to offer a solution to the problems they face. sympathizing with the subaltern classes . 2003 11 Bharucha. the editor of The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature. but especially. A Fine Balance. the non-linear narrative.wikipedia. and that such ‘Indianness’ causes the postcolonial novel to become a setting of ideal or rather. 2003 10 . Mistry’s writings seem to resist not just the pre-1947 colonization by foreign nations. that is to say. in some places offering multiple perspectives on the same event. the book lends itself to readings at multiple levels. in order to bring out Indian conditions. by crossing the ‘personal with the political’10. His very first novel. at one level. Nilufer E. and thus. bagginess. allows his characters to engage with the larger politic of Governmental suppression of information that could threaten its position at the Centre. A Fine Balance: Making the Subaltern Speak.. believes that Indo-Nostalgic writing – which is almost always in English – employs devices such as hybrid language. and is a far more complex work than his previous one. as a vitriolic comment on the ‘Emergency’ declared by Indira Gandhi’s Congress government in the year 1975. The second achievement of this novel is that it ‘allows the subaltern to speak’11 by bringing to the forefront.. 9 However. Such a Long Journey: When Old Tracks Are Lost.empathy is not possible owing to Mistry’s cultural isolation and Diasporic distance . All of Mistry’s novels can be read as scathing critiques of political events which drastically affected the lives of millions of Indian citizens. This novel has claim to two important achievements in the context of postcolonial studies. without playing the part of omniscient narrator.5 Amit Chaudhuri. fictionalizes the 1971 Nagarwala embezzlement controversy. avoiding any sort of meta narrative. This is a good thing. Mistry narrates the stories of multiple characters. etc.org/wiki/Indian_Writing_in_English Bharucha. It is not merely an accusation. he refrains from privileging any one perspective over the other. its reinterpretation of itself”. idealized hybridity ‘by which the West celebrates not so much Indianness … but its own historical quest. caste and class politics. as Mistry acknowledges his position as ‘outsider’ who is not an organic intellectual. the internal colonization that India has undergone in the years after political Independence. published in Rohinton Mistry: Ethnic Enclosures … Jaipur. Indira Gandhi. published in Rohinton Mistry: Ethnic Enclosures … Jaipur. Nilufer E. wherein a cashier of the State Bank of India claimed to have received a call from the Prime Minister of India. 9 http://en.

nine years of age. but then he decides to leave the doll with Tehmul. which is very effective in providing a sort of ‘imagistic postcolonial response’. who ruled India for two centuries? If this is the case. Would it be far from reason. Gustad Noble. according to Nilufer E. attempting to copulate with Roshan’s missing doll. She takes part in a raffle organized by her school for the ‘war effort’ (the book is situated in 1971. ‘could be symbolic of the fragile. extremely sensitive – she cries at the drop of a hat – and is ‘daddy’s little girl’. were it taken away from him. In Such a Long Journey. to view the doll as representing the British. At first Gustad is angered and disgusted. Roshan is Mistry’s ideal of a ‘good girl’ or of a young girl in general: she is obedient. that the British should not have left India? 12 Bharucha. the building’s resident ‘idiot’. a physically handicapped and mentally slow thirty-something man who. golden haired doll’. the story would be less effective. A student in a Convent school. each with their own perspective on life. was ‘blue eyed and golden haired’. the doll was stolen by Tehmul-Lungraa. then Mistry has made a very strong observation about the Parsi-British connection: Tehmul belongs to the older generation of Parsis.6 Another interesting aspect of Mistry’s writing is its symbolism. his daughter. the year of India’s war with East Pakistan. in-bred Parsi race itself’. Taking this into consideration. Could Mistry be commenting on a wish that older generations of Parsis have. As Gustad finds out later in the novel. has a daughter. which was stolen by Tehmul. Nilufer E. as in A Fine Balance. published in Rohinton Mistry: Ethnic Enclosures … Jaipur. She gets very attached to the doll.12 Gustad chances upon Tehmul in his flat one night during a blackout (imposed during the aforementioned war). Gustad believes. to assist the Mukti Bahini in their fight against the ‘Pakistani occupiers’) and wins the prize. and would miss it much more than Roshan. Tehmul is obsessed with the doll. Mistry rejects any kind of meta-narrative – and it is true. with their own little eccentricities. The reason cited for this is. Bharucha. a ‘blue eyed. while Roshan is of the younger generation.. and assuming one agrees with Bharucha’s interpretation of the character Tehmul as representative of the whole Parsi race. it would be interesting to further examine a statement made earlier in this essay: The doll that Roshan won. would not miss the doll as much as Tehmul would. A microcosm of the larger Parsi community. Such a Long Journey: When Old Tracks Are Lost. which has a more metropolitan view. The protagonist. the building has several Parsi residents. 2003 . The ‘doll’ is also another symbol in the book. named Roshan. had any one storyline been allowed to overshadow others – through the symbol of the Khodadad Building. and is tremendously upset when it goes missing. one which is very important. Roshan. endangered.

cfm . that made no sense in terms of my own life. This poses Mistry quite a challenge. long enough for Mistry to engage. Family Matters sets the record straight.7 Mistry’s latest novel. as regards his opinion about the influence that European culture has. up to that point in my life. Gopsons Papers Ltd. Family Matters. living abroad in Canada. In the initial parts of the narrative. one wonders whether (and hopes that) the link between Mumbai and Toronto will sustain. faced with the reality of earning a living and realizing that although I had. 2003. Mistry voices a postcolonial opinion about the author Enid Blyton’s books. 13 14 Mistry. but actually living in the West made that same music seem much less relevant. Mistry seems to confirm this in an interview to AsiaSource: “Going to Canada. on the Indian mind. in the case of Rohinton Mistry that while his Diasporic distance in terms of actual geographical miles remains the same. it encouraged children to grow up without attachment to the place where they belonged. Noida. 2004 www. once more.org/news/special_reports/mistry. his Diasporic distance in terms of years gets reduced. created confusion about their identity. through one of his characters.13 Parts of the book such as these. my own reality. has an affinity for that author’s writing. a Mumbai that Mistry was not privy to. It suddenly brought home to me very clearly the fact that I was imitating something that was not mine. Rohinton. read books and listened to music that came from the West. Yezad believes. He said he had read the same books when he was small. Yezad Chinoy. whose younger son Jehangir. His link with the city formerly known as Bombay is undoubtedly strong – it has allowed him to produce three novels located in the city – but as the years go by. I felt very comfortable with the books and the music. Faber and Faber Ltd.. reinforce the feeling that Family Matters is the closest Mistry has come to autobiography. 2002. and they had made him yearn to become a little Englishman of a type that even England did not have’..”14 It would seem. ‘it did immense harm. with the complexities of this country and his community. despite writing about a Bombay. there was a lot more involved in living in the West. London.asiasource. made them hate themselves for being who they were.

2003 Bharucha. Sarup. Rohinton.wikipedia. Jain. 2004 Abrams. A Fine Balance. and Amit Chaudhuri) . 2003. The Novels of Rohinton Mistry: A Critical Study.. Mistry. Nermeen. Family Matters: A Critical Study. (Author). Family Matters. www. AsiaSource Interview with Rohinton Mistry.. Jaipur. Noida.. Manchester University Press. M. 2003 www. Such a Long Journey: When Old Tracks Are Lost. 1991. Gopsons Papers Ltd. Bhabha. Nilufer E. 8e. published in The Novels of Rohinton Mistry: A Critical Study. Rohinton.. Geoffrey Galt. Pramod K. published in Rohinton Mistry: Ethnic Enclosures … Jaipur.asiasource. Rohinton Mistry. R. 2003.cfm Secondary sources: Dodiya. Mistry. published in Rohinton Mistry: Ethnic Enclosures … Jaipur. London. November 1. London. Nilufer E. Homi K. and Indian Writing in English. 1996. Thomson Wadsworth. 2004 Morey. London.org/news/special_reports/mistry. Harpham. Rohinton.. published in Rohinton Mistry: Ethnic Enclosures … Jaipur. Latha. New Delhi.org (entries on: Rohinton Mistry.H. 1992. Postcolonialism. Family Matters: About Happiness and Unhappiness.8 Bibliography Primary sources: Mistry. 2007 Bharucha. Delhi. New Delhi. Such a Long Journey. Faber and Faber Ltd. Noida. 2002. Faber and Faber Ltd. Nayar. Faber and Faber Ltd. Jaydipsinh. Jasbir (Series Editor) Rohinton Mistry: Ethnic Enclosures and Transcultural Spaces. 2002. Peter. Gopsons Papers Ltd. Nilufer E. Nilufer E. 2003 Bharucha.. 2004 Devi. 2004 Shaikh... 2003 Bharucha. A Fine Balance: Making the Subaltern Speak.. Sarup.. A Glossary of Literary Terms.

which is a one-act play about the failure of mankind to learn from past genocides.9 Sudeep Pagedar is a 20 year old student of English literature at the University of Mumbai. He writes poetry. India. He has also written and directed ‘e.com . and taking part in slam poetry sessions. He can be contacted at sudeeppagedar@gmail. Sudeep’s interests include trekking in the Himalayas. listening to music.g.’ (For Example). some of which is prescribed as recommended reading material in a few middle and high schools in the United States of America. reading.

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