Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry
Tales from Firozsha Baag is a charming collection of short stories – and unusual too. Published in 1987, Rohinton Mistry’s first book describes an India I remember all too well. An India where it took years to get a telephone, months to get a refrigerator. Now even slum dwellers have mobile phones and television sets.
But life was more laidback then. People once they found jobs could expect lifetime employment. Workers were seldom fired. Companies that went into the red were taken as “sick industries” by the government, which kept on the workers. That might have made the economy sluggish, the country poor – and the bright and ambitious emigrated in droves – but there was a stability, which seems enviable amidst the uncertainties unleashed by globalisation.
Mistry describes the lives of Parsis living in a rundown apartment complex in Bombay, now called Mumbai. They include clerks, salesmen, lawyers and a vet. Few own cars, residents use their neighbours’ phones and fridges. But they like their drinks, send their children to English medium schools, celebrate Christmas and New Year while at the same time maintaining their own Parsi traditions.
Each short story centres on the occupants of one apartment. One is about a Goan maid working for a Parsi family, another about a widow, a third about a lawyer.
Mistry describes their lives in intimate detail. He describes the interaction between neighbours, the escapades of their children who play in the compound, the interaction between the children and the adults.
The stories flow from one into another, documenting life in the apartment complex with the passing of years. A mischievous boy is sent off to a boarding school, a popular resident dies, his wife adjusts to widowhood, another boy goes to college, finds a girlfriend and then realises he is gay. Another boy becomes a social activist.
Mistry shows how unpredictable and variable life can be. While the apartment complex itself remains unchanged, and there is no change in the lifestyle of some of the residents, others undergo a sea change. Like the boy whose brother becomes a social activist. In the last story of the book, he has emigrated to Canada. Even his parents, still living in the old apartment, are surprised when a parcel arrives and they find a book of stories inside. Their son has become an author.
It could be the author’s own story. Rohinton Mistry, born in Bombay (Mumbai), immigrated to Canada and became a famous writer.
Simply written, Tales from Firozsha Baag is hard to to put down. And as one story follows another, it becomes clear that these short stories are really episodes in a novel. That is what makes it so unusual.