Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Don’t take my book away

A Mumbai University student responds to the Shiv Sena’s syllabus censorship.

rohinton_mistry I am just another Mumbaikar who has lived all his life in the suburbs. The 50-minute Harbour Line local train journey from Vashi to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus brings me to south Bombay every day. I am also a regular 18-year-old college student, for whom south Bombay signified Malabar Hill wealth and the cafés of Colaba. And I thought of it as a haven for backpackers — until I read Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey.

By Adhitya Dhanapal / Express India

His vivid descriptions of the lives of middle-class Parsis dwelling in Grant Road and Byculla in the ’60s and the ’70s became my window to the undercurrents of the city’s life. I read the book last year — my first year at St Xavier’s English Literature undergraduate course. The book is recommended reading in my second year, but I felt my SoBo christening would be incomplete without it. I was keen to learn more about Parsi society, and was further intrigued as Mistry is a St Xavier’s alumnus.

Now, while the book might have been scrapped from our syllabus, the controversy has, contrary to its intended effect, fired the curiosity of readers, who can’t wait to get their hands on the sole copy available in our college library. Attempts are in vain — the copy’s already been issued.

Students have taken part in raging debates, and the faculty has resigned itself to mute yet evident disapproval. Principal Fr Frazer Mascarenhas’s overt disapproval of this act by the Shiv Sena’s youth wing, Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena, helped us find our own voices too. St Xavier’s had to play a role. After all, Aditya Thackeray, who apparently incited the withdrawal of the book, is a student here. Not all his collegemates share his views: some have started a Facebook campaign to question the procedure through which the syllabus was changed. About 500 students and academics have already signed up. To me, this isn’t a “political” issue — it is just a matter of being allowed to read good literature.

Gustad Noble, the main character of the novel, is, as his name implies, a noble man. He’s a Mumbaikar Everyman who works at a bank and prays several times a day. He’s particularly special to me because his son spurns IIT and leaves home. My father is a stockbroker, my mother a math teacher, and my brother studies engineering at IIT Roorkee. There was always pressure on me to become an engineer, and my parents took a while to accept my choice to study literature. “What future does it have?” they asked. But I didn’t relent.

We all struggle with issues of choice and identity — like Gustad. His identity is deeply rooted in Parsi society, but he’s perpetually in fear of being stereotyped as a minority. Gustad’s south Bombay has changed. The small houses he talks about are replaced by skyscrapers, but the trials of the community remain the same.

In one of my favourite incidents in the book, Mistry describes Gustad conducting a Parsi praying ritual in which he imagines himself as St George, who defeated the dragon. I was fascinated by his likening of a Parsi religious ritual to an English and Celtic myth.

Reflecting on the content of the book, I fail to discover anything politically derogatory. All Mistry does is chronicle the social and historical times in detail, with startling finesse. I especially enjoyed the remarkable way voices shift in his prose. A prostitute sounds like a prostitute and a street-vendor speaks like he ought to. That was precisely why I also found it fascinating that a middle-class Parsi, frustrated with the trivialities of life, uses a so-called derogatory word in something he says against the Shiv Sena. As a student of literature, I might overlook it as a character’s tragic flaw, not as grave as what you’d find in a Shakespearean tragedy. But politics has dragged it out of context — that is the real tragedy.

In our second year, we studied a course on censorship, which always provoked heated debate. Now that we face the problem for real, those discussions feel ironic. Petitions have been signed and indignation has been expressed, but the disrespect to the writer will be hard to efface.

St Xavier’s has always had a close relation with its alumni: writers, actors and celebrities often come to visit their professors. Rohinton Mistry, though, has never returned. Nor has he expressed his displeasure at the current controversy. It reminds me of the story of one of his own characters from Such a Long Journey — the street artist who paints portraits of gods and goddesses on a wall of a Parsi building compound. The artist protects the wall from being turned into a public urinal, and also manages to earn a living from the money that people leave by the images. Ultimately, the authorities bring down the wall, but the artist says he will find another wall.

As told by Adhitya Dhanapal

Excerpted from ‘Don’t take my book away’