The Mumbai-born Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry received the Lifetime Achievement award at the Times Litfest last December. It was his first public appearance in his original hometown, indeed India, since the Shiv Sena’s removal of `Such a Long Journey’ from the Mumbai University’s reading list in 2010. He spoke to Bachi Karkaria on the ban, his muse and his threatened community
Your reaction to the ban was bitter and scathing…
Bitter? Was it? Scathing, yes, because Scathing is the first cousin of Sarcastic. Useful accomplices for a writer. I think the important issue was not that a novel was forced off the syllabus but that a university was bullied and denied the right to decide, through due departmental processes, what could be taught in its courses.
You were recently quoted as saying: “Bombay is all I have. All my inspiration is drawn from it.” Is it still that way after 30 years in Canada?
This was part of a broader comment — that there was no question of accepting or rejecting the city because Bombay formed me and my imagination, and thus it was all I had. Not surprising, since I was born in Bombay and spent the first 23 years of my life there, those all-important, formative years.
In your evocative acceptance speech at the Times Litfest, you spoke of dreaming of being a cowboy roaming the prairies once your immigration papers came through …
The reference was to a childhood fantasy fed by Westerns, by books and comics. I’m sure I would have been laughed out of the Canadian consulate had I put that down as a qualification in my visa application. Although I did read in the Toronto Star the other day that there is a shortage of cowboys in Western Canada, caused by many of them switching to jobs in the Alberta tar sands where the pay is much better. So now’s my chance.
What makes stories about the Parsis so universal despite being such a tiny minority? Does the appeal lie in the ‘exotic’ quotient?
Strange as it may seem, the individuals who make up the Parsi community are human beings, of flesh and blood, heir to all the joys and sorrows of mortals, capable of behaving as nobly and as despicably as any other, as they go about the business of living life that is inevitably filled with laughter and tears and meanness and kindness. And that is why their stories are universal. Any ‘exotic’ quotient is the refuge of the lazy reviewer, the care less critic, the ambitious academic.Greatly exaggerated, I’d say .
A critic wrote that you ‘have a great eye and a huge heart’ and that ‘all your characters have a remarkable capacity for survival’. Do you think this applies as much to the Parsi community, or has it lost its essence?
Lost its essence? I don’t think so. But its capacity for survival is being severel undermined by the hypocrisy of some of its leaders and self-appointed messiahs, who present themselves as the repositories of all knowledge. Their double standards, their mendacity, their quackery — these are the challenges to survival. ‘Everyone underestimates their own life. Funny thing is, in the end, all our stories … they’re the same. In fact, no matter where you go in the world, there is only one important story: of youth, loss and yearning for redemption’ — Family Matters.
How much does this apply to you personally?
We speak about the crucial moment when a writer succeeds in finding his or her voice, and perhaps this happens when they stop under-estimating their own life. V S Naipaul has talked about this, hasn’t he? That he was able to start writing when he realized that the things he thought were of no interest to anyone, including himself — Trinidad, Miguel Street, his family , his childhood — were, in fact, his subject matter.
You were the first to win two Hart House Literary prizes and, uniquely, all your books were shortlisted for the Man Booker. What do prizes mean to you?
When my first novel, Such a Long Journey, was shortlisted for the Booker, my publishers and I were grateful for the media attention. But writing is not a competitive sport.In the best of all possible worlds we would not need book prizes to glamorize books in order to encourage people to read; books would be staples of life, like bread and water, and reading would be like breathing out and in.
Your brother Cyrus is also a noted writer. Is this something from your upbringing?
What was in our upbringing was books, lots of books, and the parental encouragement to read, and read widely.
What advice would you give to would-be writers?
Read. Then read some more. It’s never enough. Write, if you must, with enough. Write, if you must, with out talking too much about writing. Write regularly. If you like what you have written, re-write.
What was most memorable experience of this trip?
Watching the kites in flight outside my window beside the sea, the majestic birds circling and riding the thermals.
But the near-absence of the common house sparrow was saddening.