Just after 7 pm on a weekday, in weather that counts as the Mumbai winter, I make my way through the quiet bylanes of Dadar Parsi Colony.
Reviewed by Rohini Nair |The Asian Age
It’s dark enough for the narrow streets, bounded on both sides by elegant old buildings, to be nearly empty. Leaving behind the soft glow of the streetlights, I climb up the worn wooden staircase of Jesia Building. The doors I pass have little rangolis rendered before them — here a pretty fish, there, a delicate bird. It’s like stepping back in time. When Avan Jesia opens the door of her home to me, however, the illusion is dispelled. This is a bright, modern and airy room — a pair of stilettos and a leather glove are the ornaments on a low coffee table, and the plush sofas clustered around it invite you to take off your shoes and sink right in. Which is exactly what my host — a decidedly modern- looking woman — does.
This juxtaposition of the old, the deeply traditional with the new and the modern, identifies her debut novel, Tower, as well. A story that traces the loves, lives, sorrows and joys of four generations of a Parsi family, the bulk of the narrative takes place around a building in Parsi Colony itself — a structure that one of the early characters in the book (Faram Framji) builds to house his entire family, moving them from the village of Sumari to the city of Bombay.
Like many debutante novelists, the author draws on many autobiographical elements for inspiration, and it is this rich detailing that gives the story much of its heft. “What they say is true. You should write about what you know, because this is something you’re familiar with,” says Avan. The only disadvantage? “I found that I had to be a little careful with some of the characters…so that they wouldn’t be easily recognisable,” she laughs.
The characters indeed are distinctive — the ones in the foreground, as well as those who remain in the background, providing comic relief in an otherwise somber story. The paradox here is that Avan’s previous writing has shown a decidedly quirky, humorous bent, while Tower’s lead characters are all somewhat melancholic. Avan says that the “comic” characters are entirely a figment of her imagination, whereas the more melancholic ones are composites of real people (including herself). “It’s like in life, you have a balance — you always have the dark with the funny, and that’s the way it is in my writing as well. The darkness is as much a part of me as is the quirkiness,” she explains.
Apart from the central story, there is also an overarching narrative — of the three Fates who watch over the family, deciding at will or whimsy, the course of their lives. Avan said it wasn’t a device she planned. “Until I was 100 pages into the book, I didn’t even know which way it was going…I read about the Fates while researching the book, and I just found (the mythology) so interesting,” says Avan. The research also helped Avan fill in so many of the background details for the time span her story takes place over — from the 1920s, to the present day.
“Well, you owe it to yourself, don’t you? And to the reader,” she says, of the intense research that accompanied the writing. She juggled this with her day job teaching English.
Tower isn’t just about family, it’s also about community, and through her characters, Avan raises some interesting questions about the Zoroastrian practise of disposing the dead. Considering the community is so close knit, wasn’t she worried about any repercussions to the views expressed in the book? “If you’re going to sit and think about what everyone else is going to say, you might as well not write anything at all,” she shrugs. “I don’t think this makes me any more or less of a Parsi.” On my way out, Avan points out an elevator — it’s discreetly built along the building, and I’ve missed it completely — that’ll save me the descent by the stairs. Somehow, it seems like a fitting end to my encounter with the author of Tower.