From bank clerk to writer, from obscurity to the Oprah Winfrey Show, Rohinton Mistry’s path as a writer has taken a series of unlikely turns
Every country has a sport that captures the imagination of its boys. In India, that game – a vestige of British colonial roots – is cricket. And in 1963, 11-year-old Rohinton Mistry is just another kid in Bombay who likes the game, likes to knock the ball around his apartment compound with other kids from the building. He hits the ball with a crack of the bat, breaks toward the wicket, run scored. If it rains, doesn’t matter, they simply shift inside to the building’s hallway to play an indoor version they’ve devised. Balls ricochet off the wall, smack. There’s adolescent rowdiness, goofiness. Adults tolerate it, wishing for the rain to let up, that noise to stop. But the shrieking notes of the boys’ high-pitched voices will continue; weather and adults are quickly forgotten as the game carries on.
That same year, Mistry is in junior school, fifth standard, and he gets a creative-writing assignment, the kind schoolteachers everywhere dole out regularly to Encourage Imagination. He likes this kind of stuff. He decides it would be neat to write a story about a cricket bat. He writes it in the first person, as though he’s a willow tree in Kashmir who is chopped down and fashioned into a bat. He’s then sent to a sporting goods store in Bombay. A dad enters the store, buys him for his son. The boy uses him to play cricket with school friends. The End. The teacher likes the story, and it’s even chosen to be in the school magazine at the end of the year. But, says Mistry, “that’s as far as my literary efforts went.”
Mistry writes no short stories outside of school. He does not become a teenager who scribbles away at fiction, or a twentysomething who works furtively on the Great Novel. His best-selling books, Such A Long Journey, A Fine Balance – and the recently released Family Matters – are half a lifetime away. And right now, at age 11, he has better stuff to think about, anyway. Badminton, cricket, hanging out with his friends, reading Enid Blyton adventure stories in the three-room flat that he shares with his two brothers, sister and parents. It will be more than 20 years between publication of “Autobiography of a Cricket Bat” and his first collection of short stories.
I meet Rohinton Mistry in a small conference room on the top floor of Hart House. It’s a warm spring day, and a weak sunlight struggles through the leaded panes, settling on the heavy wooden table and green leather chairs. Mistry, in wire-rimmed glasses and a purple cotton turtleneck, enters quietly, almost deferentially: hello, nice to meet you. He has just begun a book tour for Family Matters, a novel about a Bombay family whose lives shift profoundly when Nariman, the 79-year-old patriarch who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, breaks his ankle and becomes bedridden. Two households – one containing his stepson and stepdaughter, the other, his daughter, son-in-law and two children – struggle to cope with their father’s diminished state. Disturbing family dynamics bubble to the surface: a bitter stepdaughter harbours resentment over the difficult relationship that existed between Nariman and her mother; a gentle, passive stepson prefers to turn a deaf ear to family discord; a son-in-law increasingly deals with stress by directing anger toward his wife and sons. “He’s dealing with issues of morality, making moral decisions in a complicated world,” says Ellen Seligman, Mistry’s editor at McClelland & Stewart. “He’s dealing with the restrictions that this world places on the characters’ lives.”
And, as in all Mistry’s novels, the setting in which these moral struggles take place is Bombay. Like James Joyce’s Dublin or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, Mistry’s Bombay is a character in and of itself. Shiv Sena corruption, Zoroastrianism, the after-effects of the Babri Mosque riots, the Parsi community: all are discrete threads in the city’s fabric. But – as in Joyce’s work – the city, its families, its people also serve as a microcosm of humanity. Nariman and his family could be plunked down in Balgonie, Saskatchewan, or Mont-Royal, Quebec, and their struggles, their love for one another, their fallibilities, would resonate just as deeply.
However, given that Mistry spent the first 23 years of his life in Bombay, questions of autobiography dog him incessantly. “Depending on how broadly you’ll define the notion, I think all fiction is, in a sense, autobiographical,” he says. “And what do I mean by that? I mean that a fiction writer describes the world, and the world is what he or she perceives with the five senses. So it’s my five senses, therefore it’s my autobiography, if you want to go that broadly.” He points, as an example, to his short story “Swimming Lessons” in Tales from Firozsha Baag, in which the narrator has emigrated from Bombay to Canada. “And the immediate question is, is this an autobiographical story? Well, if that’s the only detail you want to focus on – emigration – then yes, because I have done the same thing. But it’s not an autobiographical story, because what happens in the story is completely imagined.”
Imagine Rohinton Mistry at 19 years old. It is now the summer of 1971 and he is at an open-air concert, 100 miles outside of Bombay, in farm country. Thousands of kids sprawl on the grass while India’s rock bands play the music of such groups as the Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull, the Moody Blues. Mistry describes the similarities between the event and Woodstock: “It was three days of rock and roll and drugs.” Stops. Catches himself. Ahem. “Well,” he jokes quickly, “I didn’t inhale.”
The teenage Mistry isn’t in the audience, listening to the music, sunlight on his face. He’s on the stage, in front of the crowd, with a harmonica. He’s strumming a guitar and singing. Mistry is a folksinger. He has a 20- to 30- minute gig, and will do another one tomorrow night. Mostly he performs the works of such North American singers as Bob Dylan. He also plays in clubs and restaurants and at college functions, and occasionally is an opening act at a rock concert.
He has been playing, in some form, for five years. At 14, he was captivated when an older family friend sang and played the guitar at a get-together. The friend gave him some rudimentary tips, then Mistry picked up a harmonica. An old violin in the Mistry household was sold off, and the proceeds paid for a guitar. He taught himself to play – and to sing – mostly by listening to Dylan’s greatest hits album. “Mr. Tambourine Man.” “Blowin’ in the Wind.” “The Times They are A-Changin’.” He also wrote some of his own stuff, which he’s now quick to dismiss. “It was very derivative – about love, and the usual adolescent nonsense,” he says. “It was more trying to be like Bob Dylan than to express anything original.”
He also learned by mimicking Simon and Garfunkel – and Leonard Cohen. “There’s no one like Leonard Cohen,” I inject, rather lamely. It’s a banal statement to make in the presence of another Canadian: like saying hockey’s fun, or the Rockies are nice. “Yeah, especially that voice,” he says. He delivers a dead-on parody in deep, portentous Vincent Price style: “Suzanne takes you dowwwn.” Then he straightens himself. “Anyway.”
At 19, Mistry is also a student at the University of Bombay. He is studying mathematics and economics – not because of any burning desire to be the next Srinivasa Ramanujan, or to enter the business world – but because in India, young men are expected to pursue science, not arts, degrees. “The BSc was the lowest thing expected,” he says. “The more ambitious fellows became engineers and doctors, and so, lacking in ambition, I chose the lowest rung of what was expected.”
He has also made use of a handy loophole in the curriculum: by majoring in math and economics – as opposed to, say, physics or chemistry – he has to attend college only in the morning. No hard science, no afternoon labs. It frees him up to spend his afternoons in the college canteen, knocking back cups of tea, hanging out with friends, talking about “the stuff of life.”
Shortly after graduating, Mistry moves to Canada. Much like earning a science degree instead of an arts degree, there was an expectation – from family, from society – to emigrate. “It wasn’t as overtly expected as the whole education thing, but that’s the sort of idea you grew up with in the ’60s and ’70s: that real progress was to be made in the West. Opportunities were limited in Bombay. To make something of your life you had to go away,” he says. “You were the outpost, and life was elsewhere – not where you were.”
When he comes to Canada in 1975, at age 23, Mistry makes the employment rounds. He fills out applications at McDonald’s. Drops off resumés at banks. Makes inquiries at department stores. Within three months, he finds a job at a Toronto bank. After starting as a clerk in the accounting department, Mistry works his way up to higher echelons – or darker recesses, depending on your point of view – of the banking pyramid. For the last two or three years, he is supervisor of the customer-service department, and the most difficult customer complaints inevitably land on his desk. “I didn’t mind that, because I usually let the customers know that my sympathies were with them, and the bank was a nasty institution that had all these rules and regulations and I really had no choice,” he says. “I was just a pawn, doing their bidding. And that helped.
“Soon after I started working at the bank, I discovered it wasn’t going to be my career, it wasn’t really satisfying, although I ended up spending 10 years there,” he adds. “I knew it was a way station.” Within a few years, he decides to take some night classes at York University. The next year, he transfers to U of T.
For four years – two evenings a week in the winter, four in the summer – Mistry takes the subway from work to the St. George Campus. Focusing on English and philosophy, he’s working on a three-year BA, which he will earn in 1983 at Woodsworth College. He reads for his classes on the subway, on his lunch hour at the bank, in the E.J. Pratt library or the Robarts library before class. He devours the poetry of Whitman and Frost, and novels by Hawthorne, Trollope and Eliot; Thackeray’s Vanity Fair; Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift; Melville’s Moby Dick. His wife, Freny (BA 1981 Victoria, BEd 1982), also takes classes, and will eventually become a high school teacher. “The day at the bank was really boring and tedious. Since I enjoyed reading and my wife enjoyed reading, we thought taking some courses and studying things that interested us would make life better,” says Mistry. “I’m sure that people will laugh when I say that I came to night school in the pursuit of happiness. But I did find a lot of it very interesting.”
And through it all, he is still searching. He still doesn’t know what he wants to do. He has propelled himself thousands of miles from home, he has taken this huge risk, but he’s still just another twentysomething kid suffering from career angst, trying to get through the day and find some meaning in it all. What has been consistent in his life? he asks himself. Reading. He has always loved to read. OK, what can I do with that? Could I? No. Hmm.
He turns 29. Then 30. His quiet, careful thoughts grow louder. He has on his resumé, at this point, a handful of torch songs and the Cricket Bat story in a junior school magazine. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” he says wistfully to his wife, “to be a writer?”
This is the beginning.
Soon afterward, in the fall of 1982, The Varsity carries an advertisement announcing the first Hart House Literary Contest. His wife shows it to him. “I’ve been hearing you say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be a writer,'” she says. “So why don’t you see if you can write something?”
He performs a minor act of deception: the bank stipulates that if an employee is sick for less than three days, he doesn’t need a doctor’s note. So he phones in sick on Thursday. And on Friday. During his four-day weekend, he spends six to seven hours a day at the typewriter, writing the first draft of “One Sunday,” a story about one boy’s discomfort with his hidden misdeeds – an uneasiness that surfaces after a homeless man sneaks into a neighbour’s apartment. “That was the first time I’d ever sat down to write, and I think I was fascinated by the process itself – watching the words appear at the typewriter,” he says.
He enters the competition. The panel of judges, headed by poet Dorothy Livesay (BA 1931 Trinity, DIP SW 1934, DLitt Sac. Hon. 1987), awards the story first prize. “It was very encouraging, of course, but I thought that it was just a lucky fluke. I hadn’t written anything before; how could this happen? But I kept writing,” he says. He enters again the following year, with the story “Auspicious Occasion.” This time short-story writer Mavis Gallant (DLitt Sac. Hon. 1994) is at the helm of the jury, and she awards him another first prize. She also tells editors John Metcalf and Leon Rooke – who are compiling a short-story anthology – to take a look at this new young writer. They select Mistry’s work for inclusion in The New Press Anthology: Best Canadian Short Fiction. “It’s like a fairy tale, really,” he says, laughing, “the way it all happened.”
Except, unlike a fairy tale, there’s a little more than luck in the brew. In late 1984, Mistry applies for and receives a Canada Council Grant, a literary endowment that allows him to quit the bank and leave customer service permanently behind. His short stories are published in some of Canada’s top literary magazines (only one will ever be rejected), and using this published material together with five or six new stories, he compiles a collection. In 1987, Tales from Firozsha Baag – a series of intertwined stories that focus on the lives of tenants in a Bombay apartment complex – is published by Penguin Books Canada.
Four years later, Mistry follows up the collection with his first novel, Such a Long Journey, which introduces his genius for weaving the smallest moments of daily life with issues of overarching political and social concern. The story’s protagonist, Gustad Noble, is a bank clerk whose modest life begins to crumble after his son defies his wishes for him to attend university. Then, after doing a favour for an old friend, Noble becomes caught up in the back-alley politics taking place during India’s 1971 war with Pakistan. The book is shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and wins the Governor General’s Award for fiction, beating out such works as Margaret Atwood’s short-story collection Wilderness Tips. In 1998, the novel is made into a movie by Sturla Gunnarsson, winning three Genie awards. In 1995, Mistry publishes A Fine Balance, which again is shortlisted for the Booker, and this time wins the Giller Prize. The story is a sweeping, heart-wrenching tale of four people whose lives are profoundly affected not only by each other, but by India’s crushing poverty, the caste system, political corruption and the state of emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s.
In the current Can-lit climate marked by highly stylised prose, Mistry’s work harks back to a more traditional mode of storytelling. His accessible language and rhythms are unpretentious, clean, straightforward, and this pared-down style leaves the reader free to focus on the characters and their plight. “His style is precise, deceptively simple. It’s writing in which the author doesn’t seem to want to call attention to the writing itself,” says editor Ellen Seligman. “The writing is there to serve the story and the characters, so it always reflects those two things.”
It’s November 13, 2001. Mistry has been out doing some errands. Home again, he checks his messages and hears the voice of American talk-show host Oprah Winfrey asking him to call her back. Working from home, Seligman calls in for her messages and receives a similar voice mail from a representative of the show. They’re quick to phone back, and find out that A Fine Balance has been selected as the next pick for Oprah’s book club. The title will be announced on November 30 – giving the folks at McClelland & Stewart little time to complete a hefty printing. “There was much hustle and bustle, as we had to achieve a large printing in a miraculously short period of time – all completely secretively,” says Seligman. She declines to give the exact number printed, but does say that, in North America, more than 750,000 copies were churned out after the book became an Oprah pick.
Mistry spends four days in Bombay in December taping an opening segment for the show. In early January, he travels to Chicago to spend three hours with Oprah and four guests; this will be edited down for the book-club portion. Mistry appears overshadowed by more gregarious guests – particularly a retired Purdue University professor who claims the spotlight with great gusto. But he also appears humble, eloquent. More than seven million people will watch the episode.
Mistry himself doesn’t say much about the experience. He says it was “quite fun.” He says, “Oprah is a lovely person. Really warm, and makes you feel at home, and the four guests who had been invited to discuss the book were delightful people.” In other interviews, he repeats this mantra. Oprah is delightful, she is warm, she is lovely. He reveals little more. A famously guarded interview subject, Mistry has the ability to deflect unwanted queries in a highly courteous manner, and his graciousness is an effective armour. It allows him to reveal what he wants – and hide what he doesn’t want seen – in gentlemanly style. The media have called him “reclusive” and “intensely private,” and in a world that can’t discern the vast chasm between quiet and shy, he is often saddled with the timorous adjective.
“He’s a reticent person,” says David Staines (BA 1967 St. Michael’s), a friend and dean of arts at the University of Ottawa. “He’s an observer more than he’s anything else; he observes the human condition.” Mistry’s wariness is no doubt fuelled by the dangers of media interpretation; after all, just as fiction can distort fact, facts can be selectively presented. As one character in his short story “Swimming Lessons” notes: “Fiction can come from facts, it can grow out of facts by compounding, transposing, augmenting, diminishing, or altering them in any way; but you must not confuse cause and effect, you must not confuse what really happened with what the story says happened, you must not lose your grasp on reality, that way madness lies.”
One cold March morning, well before I interview Mistry, I visit the York University archives, which house some of his works and correspondence. A librarian in his early 20s brightens when he’s told I’m here to look at Mistry’s papers. There are boxes of requests for interviews, for speaking engagements, for endorsements for novels, for advice. I wonder about the difficulties of being a private man faced with such an avalanche of public pleas; the letters – despite being deferential, despite being punctuated with “please” and “thank you” – seem to amount to a sort of collective clawing. Hundreds of anonymous hands reaching for answers.
Toward the end of the afternoon, the archivist approaches to ask me if I need any more help before his shift is done. His gelled spikes of hair sprout toward the ceiling like blades of grass. “A Fine Balance is one of the best books I ever read,” he says. He pauses, tilts his head, spikes now on a slight angle. “It’s like cigarette smoke. It stays on you for a long while afterward.”
Whether Mistry would like his work associated with the noxious odour of cigarettes is anybody’s guess. Yet I suspect he would understand the analogy: his novels are full of the stench of life. His characters sin and are sinned against; they are battered by the cruelty of the world around them. But despite their own flaws, despite the lousy, sleight-of-hand tricks that life pulls on them, they often persist in struggling to find a state of grace, to find meaning, to find happiness, to be good people. Perpetual spiders in the waterspout.
“With [my] characters, I’m interested in what makes a human being, and I don’t have any agenda that I start out with, that this person shall illustrate greed and this person shall illustrate the spirit of generosity,” says Mistry. “I do not start out with a theme or a scheme that I want to illustrate or work with.” Then he pauses and asks himself, “What do I want to do?”
What do I want to do? It is a question that followed him through his early adult years. But now he is almost 50. A lifetime of choices has led him here, and his answer comes easily. “I want to tell a darn good story.”
Stacey Gibson is associate editor of University of Toronto Magazine.