Quiet spoken, modest and absolutely sure of himself, Rohinton Mistry put a kibosh on our interview, unwittingly upsetting the balance of my carefully laid plans. I had determined to speak with him in the well-appointed bar of the hotel where he was staying, a place where I've spoken with many authors, including Bernard Cornwell, Timothy Findlay and J.A. Jance.
"It's too noisy here," Mistry said, after an appraising look around. "Can we go somewhere more quiet?"
Not one to begin with an author ill at ease, I led him upstairs to the convention level, where we found a couple of chairs in a quiet corner. I dragged a service tray between us where I propped my tape recorder, an analog device. Before we'd gotten started, we were joined by January photographer and art director David Middleton, who often sits in on interviews, scanning the subject's face for advantageous angles and contributing with his insightful comments and unfailing wit. Mistry wasn't having this, either. "I'm not used to lecturing," he told us politely, "and once there's an audience it becomes that way for me. It's no longer a conversation if I have an audience." David took himself cheerfully back to the bar.
Determined that this interview, which had undoubtedly gotten off to a less than sterling start, be a good one, I finally began and, though Mistry is a shy and initially quiet subject, he warmed up quickly and dazzled me frequently with his brilliance and quiet wit. Unfortunately, I can share very little of that with you. Perhaps 45 minutes into our chat, Mistry said, "The light on your tape recorder keeps going on and off. What does that mean?"
I groaned, prayed and wrapped things up: "I guess it means we're done." The surface of the service cart was uneven. The analog device that had given me unfailingly good service through hundreds of interviews decided not to function at an angle and, when I transcribed the tape, I found it to be a distressingly simple task. There was very little there. The recorder had been turning itself off and on throughout our interview, the handful of resulting quotes were next to useless. And -- shoot me now, because I deserve it -- I hadn't been taking notes.
A couple of good things came out of all of this, however. One is that Mistry proved to be an astonishingly good photo subject. Astonishing only because there seem to be so few really good photos of Rohinton Mistry, and David got many. The second is that, though I've been forced to share this entirely embarrassing story with you, it does underline the essence of Mistry the writer quite effectively. He's quiet, sharp and keenly observant. He knows what he wants and won't settle for anything else. He's unfailingly polite and unwaveringly unapologetic: He made his way to where he is and he knows he didn't accomplish that by agreeing to compromise.
His most recent novel, Family Matters, is brilliant. It manages to be warm and familiar, while -- for North American readers, at any rate -- fragrantly exotic.
Like Mistry himself, the main characters in Family Matters are Parsi, members of a fringe religious community in India who follow the faith as laid down by the prophet Zoroaster. Mistry says that Family Matters is "not autobiographical." Though the story takes place in Bombay, many of the challenges the main characters face are universal, the resolutions they come to sharply and recognizably human: You don't have to be Parsi or Indian to identify with his characters and the dilemmas they face.
Seventy-nine-year-old Nariman Vakeel is a widower suffering from Parkinson's disease and being cared for by his adult stepchildren. His late wife's daughter Coomy is overbearing and overburdened, the polar opposite of her brother Jal, who is so accommodating he tends to fall in with whatever his sister wishes. What Coomy comes to wish, after a time, is for their half-sister Roxanna -- Nariman's only natural child -- to assume full-time care of her father, even though Jal and Coomy's apartment is large, while the apartment Roxanna shares with her husband, Yezad, and their two sons is barely big enough for the four of them, never mind the addition of an invalid adult.
When Coomy successfully offloads her stepfather onto her half-sister, schemes are set in motion that have far-reaching consequences. In the meantime, Roxanna and her family look poverty in the face full on as a result of the financial burden Nariman's arrival has meant.
Gaining the corner, Yezad could observe his sons on the balcony without being seen himself. Their anxious faces distressed him. How much pleasure he used to get from seeing their healthy appetites. The last few weeks had erased all that ... and Roxie taking smaller helpings every day, to leave something in the pot, but the boys weren't fooled by it ... The first time, Murad had hesitated, though Jehangla had quickly refused, signalling to his brother. Murad must have been really hungry tonight, to have asked for more bread...
Consumed with financial worries, Yezad becomes involved in an ill-fated plan to deceive his employer while Coomy plots to keep her father in Roxanna's home and out of her own.
Through all of these machinations and even through the grime and grit of modern Bombay, it is possible to see ourselves and our own families at many turns. How our familial connections can bring out the very best in us. Sometimes while simultaneously bringing out the very worst. And somehow it's lovely to see ourselves in a place so other: the Bombay that Mistry paints vividly through Family Matters.
Mistry understands the texture of life for someone of Parsi descent living in India. The author was born in Bombay and earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and economics at the University of Bombay. In 1973 Mistry and his wife moved to Canada, where he got a job in a bank. "Mindless, clerical work," says Mistry.
Ten years on, he got a sense that there had to be more to life than this and -- simply to overcome bank boredom -- he enrolled at the University of Toronto to study English and philosophy. It was while he was at the U of T that Mistry first saw himself as a teller of stories. "I always enjoyed books and I thought I'd give this a try," he says today.
It didn't take long for others to notice. His first completed short story, "One Sunday," won the Hart House literary prize. The following year he became the first writer to win it two times. Though he "was all set to receive those rejections" that new writers inevitably get, that was not to be his path.
His first book, a collection of connected short stories called Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from the Firozsha Bag, was published in 1987. But it was his debut novel, 1991's Such a Long Journey, that established Mistry as an international literary force: that book won Canada's Governor General's Award for fiction, the Commonwealth Writer's Award for Best Book of the Year, and the WH Smith Books in Canada First Novel Award, and it was nominated for the UK-based Booker Prize -- now known as the Man Booker -- and the Trillium Award.
With that type of recognition, Such a Long Journey was a tough act to follow but, in 1995, the publication of A Fine Balance demonstrated that Mistry wasn't going to be a one-hit wonder. A Fine Balance won the Giller Prize, the Los Angeles Times' award for fiction and the Royal Society of Literature's Winifred Holtby Prize. It was also an Oprah Book Club selection and a finalist for the Booker.
However, when A Fine Balance was announced as a Booker candidate, all hell broke loose. Speaking on a BBC program, the Australian writer/critic Germaine Greer reported that she'd loathed the book, adding that she didn't, in Mistry's portrayal, recognize the India she'd come to know in four months spent teaching there. "I hate this book," she told the viewing audience. "I absolutely hate it." Laughingly she said, "It's a Canadian book about India. What could be worse? What could be more terrible?"
Asked for a response at the time, Mistry said Greer's comments were "asinine." It's tough, however, not to see a riposte of Eminem/Christina Aguilera proportions in a passage of Family Matters when a character reflects on "foreign critics" who come to India "for two weeks and become experts."
Public responses to public criticisms not withstanding, Family Matters was as well received internationally as its predecessors, nominated once again for the Man Booker -- always a bridesmaid? -- and winning the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize.
Mistry says that writing is an organic process for him. "Before I start writing I know I have at least one character who I want to work with," he explains. With this single character, the journey can begin, "and I would have a vague idea of where the story might lead. Though it could change direction, I have at least a vague idea of where it might go." | March 2003
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fifth novel, Death Was in the Picture, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.