Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Rohinton Mistry's "Such A Long Journey"

Rohinton Mistry's debut novel is not an optimistic book. The communal courtyard of Khodadad Building, so lovingly described at the beginning of the work, is destroyed by municipal authorities for the purpose of urban development at the end. The morcha organized to protest peacefully against government corruption turns into a deadly riot. Ordinary Indian citizens are helpless against the powerful machinery of government, just as Gustad Noble the novel's kind-hearted protagonist is caught up unwittingly in the corruption of the Indira Gandhi years. The only things salvageable from the mess, but at great costs, are family, friends and art.

Mistry writes very well about the complicated relationship between fathers and sons. Gustad idealizes his grandfather, a strong man and a furniture-maker, and his father, an intellectual and a bookseller. He wants to be his grandfather and father to his son Sohrab, but the latter resents history's domination in his life.  He does not wish to live out his father's dreams, even though his own dream of pursuing art is vague and unrealized. He rebels by leaving home but returns at the end of the novel like the Prodigal Son to see why his father is so admirable.

Gustad is admirable for his enormous capacity for friendship. He got into trouble for the sake of his old friend Major Jimmy Bilimoria, an agent of RAW, the Indian version of the CIA. Deeply grateful for acts of kindness, he cannot forget how Jimmy carried him in his arms, when he was injured in a road accident, to the Bonesetter who healed him almost miraculously. In his bank colleague Dinshawji, Gustad looks beyond the man's clownishness to see his zest for life despite chronic illness. The comic-tragic portrait of Dinshawji is one of the best things in the book. The erotic satire throughout the novel is sharp and humorous, but the deepest feelings seem, to me, to be reserved for these friendships between men. When Tehmul, the local idiot, died from a flying brick thrown by a rioter, Gustad carried him in his arms away from the street and up to his apartment so as to give the dead man his final dignity. The action, an imitation of what Jimmy did for him, is a moving tribute to friendship between men.

The third thing that can be salvaged from death is paradoxically saved by being lost. Exasperated by the human filth along the compound wall, Gustad invites the itinerant pavement artist to draw the deities of various religions on the wall. The pictures of the deities, saints and sacred places soon make the smelly latrine into a fragrant shrine. Though the wall is demolished along with the communal courtyard at the end, the pavement artist regains his former sense of freedom and detachment. He will move elsewhere and draw again in chalk, instead of of oils. Mistry's prose, usually accurate and invisible, rises to lyricism when he describes the spiritual freedom that the pavement artist has lost by attaching himself to a place:

But the artist began to have misgivings as the wall underwent its transformation. Bigger than any pavement project he had ever undertaken, it made him restless. Over the years, a precise cycle had entered the rhythm of his life, the cycle of arrival, creation and obliteration. Like sleeping, waking and stretching, or eating, digesting and excreting, the cycle sang in harmony with the blood in his veins and the breath in his lungs. He learned to disdain the overlong sojourn and the procrastinated departure, for they were the progenitors of complacent routine, to be shunned at all costs. The journey--chanced, unplanned, solitary--was the thing to relish.

It is of course no coincidence that the last sentence alludes to the novel's title. There are more than one kind of journey in the novel. The journey of life that Gustad Noble undertakes, full of communal yearning and sorrow. And then there is the journey of art--chanced, unplanned, solitary. Both resonate in the writing of Mistry who migrated from Bombay to Toronto but who writes as if he has never left.

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