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Short stories that add up to a novel

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.

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Books

Jhumpa Lahiri and Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri writes about Indian Americans. But this is really literature of globalisation and the immigrant experience — at the opposite end of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. Lahiri writes about highly qualified, professionally successful immigrants. But there is the aching loneliness of the outsider in a foreign land that will be familiar to immigrants everywhere in all stations of life.

What makes Lahiri all the more relevant and poignant is her ability to depict the gulf that separates the immigrants not only from their homelands but from their own flesh and blood — parents from children, first generation from second generation. While the parents create their Little Indias, the children are more at home in the big US of A. And that creates tensions and communication gaps. The Sound of Silence could be the theme song of Unaccustomed Earth, where Ruma and her father in the title story, despite their love and affection for each other, have become virtual strangers, unable to share their inmost thoughts.

Lahiri uses a dual perspective, showing the thoughts of both Ruma and her father, revealing the distance between them and making the story all the more touching. Ruma wonders if her father ever loved her mother. That is another theme explored by Lahiri — love, estrangement, infidelity are all explored in minute detail. Lahiri is always vivid and intimate: her characters come to life, burdened with all the flaws and expectations that make us human.

But she is too subtle a writer for me to portray adequately. Read the New York Review of Books instead, where Sarah Kerr reviews Unaccustomed Earth. The headline sums up the book perfectly: Displaced Passions. Time, while praising her, notes:

Among the things you will not find in Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction are: humour, suspense, cleverness, profound observations about life, vocabulary above the 10th-grade level, footnotes and typographical experiments. It is debatable whether her keyboard even has an exclamation point on it.

But that is what makes her writing so clean and natural and, combined with her gift for the telling detail, all the more sombre and poignant. Like these last two sentences in Going Ashore, the last story in Unaccustomed Earth:

It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.

As she says in an interview with the Atlantic:

I like it to be plain. It appeals to me more.

Also worth reading is her interview with Newsweek two years ago. Talking about how speaking to her parents every day and seeing them once a month has kept her thinking of herself as Indian, Lahiri — who is married to a Guatemalan Greek American journalist — said:

I can see a day coming when my American side, lacking the counterpoint India has until now maintained, begins to gain ascendancy and weight.

The Indian connection is fading.

None of the stories in Unaccustomed Earth is set in India. That’s a big change from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.