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Rohinton Mistry

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Back in Bombay

Rohinton Mistry would like to write a novel about Canada. But India keeps getting in the way.

Whatever else he is or will be as an author – bestseller, Governor General’s Award winner, Booker Prize nominee – let him be known, now and forever, as having been Oprahed. For some so chosen this might present a problem, but Rohinton Mistry isn’t one of those. Not for him any Jonathan Franzening about how the embrace of thousands of new readers might in fact be some kind of middlebrow ambush. “It was a delightful experience, very pleasant,” Mistry is saying on a March mid-afternoon, smiling his mild, melancholic smile two months after he and his 1995 novel A Fine Balance were summoned to Chicago. “Oprah Winfrey is a great host, makes you feel very comfortable,” he says. “The people I met, the people who discussed the book on the show, were lovely to meet. It was all-around – lovely. It was a gift, really. What else can I call it?”

Rohinton MistryThe timing wasn’t bad, either: last fall, when he got the call from Oprah, Mistry had just finished the last draft of a new novel, Family Matters, which his readers, old and manifold new, will see in bookstores starting in April.

If Mistry is or has been fazed, frightened, exhilarated, or bewildered by success and the exposure that accompanies it, no witnesses have as yet come forward. His life, he maintains, is the same one he had before. Sales of A Fine of Balance may have exploded – in the United States, Publishers Weekly reported that prior to the Oprah broadcast, Vintage had sold 542,000 copies of the 700,000 it printed in anticipation of demand – but Mistry admits to no outsized celebrations or spending sprees. “Things have remained pretty much the same,” he says. As he tells it, humility is his anchor. “When you return to writing, it’s such a profoundly difficult task, if there’s any trace of a swollen head, you quickly lose it when you realize again how little you know.”

The 50-year-old writer has never been one to reveal much of himself. He doesn’t move much in literary society. He has writer friends, he says – Alberto Manguel, Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart – but no one he sees on a regular basis. Interviewers who seek to visit him at his home in Brampton, near Toronto, are amiably denied. Indeed, he’d rather not involve Brampton at all; word comes that he’d be more comfortable meeting in the murmurous anonymity of a downtown Toronto hotel. This seems to be more a matter of Mistry’s natural reserve than a painful shyness: in person, there’s confidence and warmth, along with a playful energy in his eyes, beyond the gentle voice, the courtly manners, the carefully considered answers that just happen, much of the time, to wander away unfinished into the underbrush.

His rise as a writer might have been borrowed from the pages of one of his own books. Born in Bombay in 1952, he left India in July of 1975, not long after Indira Gandhi declared the state of emergency against which the action of A Fine Balance unfurls. With Freny, the woman who would soon become his wife, he landed in Toronto. With a degree in mathematics and economics from the University of Bombay in hand, he tried for jobs at banks and insurance companies, but none of them had any to offer. In desperation he applied for a place behind the counter at McDonald’s. He was told that to get the job he’d have to shave the beard he wore then. He said he would. But he never got the job.

When, later, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce had an opening for a clerk in the accounting department, keeping the beard was no problem. He did, however, have to write two tests, one in addition and multiplication, the other in English. Somehow, with his degree behind him and a career as one of the country’s most celebrated novelists ahead, he managed to pass them both.

After that, he didn’t start writing seriously until the early 1980s when, two years running, stories of his won a literary competition at the University of Toronto. By 1987 he had a collection of stories published, Tales from Firozsha Baag. The stories were praised – though not as much as his first novel, Such a Long Journey, was when it appeared four years later. Along with the Governor General’s Award and the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, it won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book and was shortlisted for Britain’s Booker Prize.

Like A Fine Balance, Family Matters is set in Bombay. As a book in which hope and human endurance keep the characters buoying along, it also picks up some of its forerunner’s preoccupations. But for Mistry at least, the connections are negligible. “I wanted to do something completely different here,” he says. “The word family might suggest there is a carry-over, because the poor in A Fine Balance did indeed come together to constitute their own family, which sustained them for a while. But I think it’s a different world, an entirely different world here.”

For one thing, the novel is set in the mid-1990s, and while the world through which the characters pass is rich enough, the background isn’t as naturally dramatic as it was with A Fine Balance’s depiction of the emergency. And if in the previous novel Mistry took up with poor, dispossessed characters through whom he could explore, in his phrase, “history from the bottom up,” in the new one he settles in with 79-year-old Nariman Vakeel, a former professor of English slowed increasingly by age and the onset of Parkinson’s. Fot the first part of the novel, he lives with two of his adult stepchildren, Jal and Coomy, in an apartment building called Chateau Felicity. Of course it’s neither a chateau nor particularly felicitous, least of all for Nariman.

In A Fine Balance, Mistry has said, family is all. Not just blood relatives, but the people around you, with whom you work, in your community, your church or temple. “Family,” he said during his Oprah broadcast, “redeems everything, ultimately.”

Not so much in the new novel, though. For Nariman, the matter of family is an altogether painful one. He’s frail, to be sure, but does he really deserve to be treated (by Coomy, in particular) as a chronically misbehaving child? Harried in the present, Nariman is also haunted by a past, which Mistry tells in flashback, wherein he was forced by his family to give up the woman he loved in favour of a more, well, suitable candidate.

As told to Oprah, A Fine Balance sprouted in Mistry’s imagination from a single image, of a woman working at a sewing machine. Family Matters he traces back to a short story he wrote in the 1980s. “I don’t want to make a direct connection with that,” he says. “The story was in the first person, and the narrator was an old man in his eighties. And I think I enjoyed what I did there, so I think it may be related to that, I wanted to do more of that, in a bigger way. I think that could be in some indirect manner the starting point. That idea of writing a story about an old man. Because that story deals with – well, he feels he’s been rejected by his family. He feels that they’re undervaluing him. Underestimating his capacities.”

It took some time, Mistry says, for the new book to come together in his mind. “A Fine Balance was occupying a lot of my time – for years after its publication. So I never really got time to sit down and work at this.” The story was there, he recalls, fermenting in his mind, for almost two years before he sat down, in late 1999, to start writing. “So it took two years,” he says. “Three drafts, which is normal for me. Or maybe four.”

He admits to a false start or two: “For a while I toyed with the idea of writing it from Nariman’s point of view, in the first person. And then I played with the idea of using multiple first-person narrators. I played around with that. But it began to feel too much like an exercise. Not real storytelling. And anyway I always like to tell everything – or as close to everything as possible, which requires an omniscient narrator. So I abandoned the first person.”

Unusually for Mistry, the book’s title presented itself early on in the process. “I always have a lot of trouble with titles,” he says. The title is the very last thing I find. I usually finish three drafts of the novel before I get a title. With this one, I had the title roughly half or two-thirds of the way into the first draft, which is absolutely amazing for me. I was suspicious, but then it worked so well. I mean, I already knew what I was doing and what the rest of the first draft was going to be. So there were no doubts.”

With the writing behind him and months of the public part of being a novelist ahead, Mistry says he’s still in a kind of twilit state of mind. “There is relief that the book is done. Because when you begin a novel you never know whether it will ever be worth anything. So there is relief that – yes, this works, this goes together. You’re glad that it’s over. But very soon you start to miss the work.”

While he says his rule is not to react one way or the other to reviews – “if you start believing them, you have to start believing the veracity of the negative as well as the positive” – Family Matters revives the case of a singular exception. In 1996, when the Australian writer Germaine Greer attacked A Fine Balance on British TV – “I hate this book,” she declaimed. “It’s a Canadian book about India. What could be worse? What could be more terrible?” – Mistry responded by calling her comments “asinine” and “brainless.”

In Family Matters, he goes back at Greer again, enlisting a character named Vilas to the cause of deriding those who dared attack a novel about the emergency. “A big book, full of horrors, real as life,” the character enthuses. Though Greer isn’t named, Vilas bristles about “one poor woman whose name I can’t remember made such a hash of it.” But Mistry’s anger has turned to Vilas’s pity: “you felt sorry for her,” he says.

Along with the interviews, the publicity tours, the signings, the readings, one of the things that gets in to fill the space left by the work is the question of where Mistry fits in as a writer. At a literary conference in February near New Delhi, V.S. Naipaul argued that while Indian literature had bloomed in the past 20 years, almost all of it was being written, published, and criticized abroad, by expatriate writers, from Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Shashi Tharoor to Amitav Ghosh, Bharati Mukherjee, and Mistry himself.

Mistry, who was invited to the conference but didn’t go, isn’t sure that Naipaul told the whole story. “Maybe that’s true of writing in English – yes, the greater part of the writing is coming from abroad. But that’s not all there is to Indian literature. Who are we talking about? Are we talking about audiences in the West? Then, yes, their perception certainly would be that it’s Indians outside India who are presenting India to the world. But there are all the India languages, most of them very rich in their own literature. In terms of a national literature – I don’t know. You see, I don’t have access to all those languages, first of all. How does one judge?

“There is no national culture. But that’s all right. What keeps India together, I think, is the idea of India as a secular nation where different languages, different cultures can co-exist peacefully. Or not so peacefully, sometimes. That is the idea. The encouraging thing is that poll after poll, even in villages where illiteracy can be very high, when people are asked, how do you identify yourself? They identify themselves as Indians.”

As for Mistry, he’s not certain how he identifies himself. Does he consider himself an Indian writer or a Canadian? He shrugs at the question. “I’m referred to more often as a Canadian writer than an Indian writer. Or – what is it they say? A Canadian-writer-born-in-India. And I’m certainly more of a Canadian writer than an Indian writer, because I have no sense of being part of any group or school or generation of Indian writers. But that doesn’t really interest me at all. All I try to do is tell a good story.”

He can’t say, yet, what the next story will be. He would like to write a Canadian novel – but then he has almost from the start. “The obstacle, if you can call it that, is Bombay” he smiles. “It keeps getting in the way. “When I finished Such a Long Journey I thought that, yes, perhaps my next book would be set here. That didn’t quite happen. The same thing after A Fine Balance. So maybe the next one. I’m as certain as I can be. But it may be that elusive holy grail. We’ll see.”