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Saturday, July 7, 2012

Mistry's Bombay: Harmony in Disparity by Ezzeldin Elmadda

Mistry's Bombay: Harmony in Disparity by Ezzeldin Elmadda
This article discusses Rohinton Mistry's portrayal of the city of Bombay as a unique locale in India and in his fiction with all the differences of its inhabitants in terms of ethnic background and religion.

The article in particular focuses on Mistry's novel Family Matters, with reference to the other novels in general as well as his collection of short stories Tales From Firozsha Baag. The focus is on the quotidian life of the people of Bombay and their harmony in living in tolerance despite all the difficulties and hardship of life in this city as depicted by the novelist. It explores the reason behind choosing Bombay as a setting in almost all Mistry's novels.

Like Dickens's London, Bombay is associated with the setting of almost all Rohinton Mistry's novels. Misrty sticks to the old name of the city even in his recent novels, although the city name has been changed to Mumbai since 1996.

The questions this paper pose: what is unique with this city? And what made the novelist fond of it? The paper will attempt to answer these questions by referring to some of Mistry's novels and some of his characters in them.

Bombay has it is significant place in almost all Mistry's novels and short stories. Sometimes it is portrayed as a protagonist and humanized. The city is depicted vividly showing its positive and negative sides with all the entailed social ramifications. Undoubtly, Bombay is used as location for some Indian writers in English like Salman Rudhdie and many others who experienced living in it. As Roshan G. Shahani argues about the narrative in Bombay in general "To locate the narrative text in Bombay, is to textualise the complexity of its realities and to problematise the unrepresentative quality of a 'typical' Bombay experience (1252)."

Family Matters
In Family Matters (2002) Mr. Kapur tells Yezad:

What I feel for Bombay you will never know. It's like the pure love for a beautiful woman, gratitude for her existence, and devotion to her living presence. If Bombay were a creature of flesh and blood, with my blood type, Rh negative- and very often I think she is- then I would give her a transfusion down to my last drop, to save her life (152).

Later on Mr. Kapur proceeds telling Yezad,"You know I 'm always talking about Bombay-how it means to me, how much it has given me (157)."

The welcoming nature of the city of Bombay against all difficulties and hardship is well appreciated by Mistry through the character of Mr. Kapur explaining to his employee Yezad:

"You see how we two are sitting here, sharing? That's how people have lived in Bombay. That's why Bombay has survived floods, disease, plaque, water shortage, bursting drains and sewers, all the population pressures. In her heart there is room for everyone who wants to make a home here'' (152)

What Mr. Kapur has said shows the strong ties and bond between the novelist and the city where he was born. The city that he left behind in 1975 when he migrated to Canada, however the memory and love of this city remained within him.

For Mr. Kapur as the representative of the novelist, Bombay seems to have many attributes and traits that it deserves to be loved and adored. These positive attributes made the city fortified and resilient to all kinds of threats that tend to crumble and bring down it is social strata and harmony. As M.L. Pandit argues that Mistry “writes most authentically about his experience in India before going to Canada (16).”

As Mr. Kapur asserts:
Bombay endures because it gives and it receives within this wrap and weft is woven the special texture of it is social fabric, the spirit of tolerance, acceptance, generosity. Anywhere else in the world, in those so called civilized places like England and America, such terrible conditions would lead to revolution (152).

Jaydipsinh Dodiya believes that "Mistry's love for his old city, Bombay, shines through loud and clear in the words of Mr. Kapur (94)."

Mistry tries hard to demonstrate the picture of Indian demography in his novels by bringing together different characters of different Indian communities, different religions and different social backgrounds.

The harmony and unity of the people of Bombay is clearly portrayed when Mr. Kapur in Family Matters describes a scene at the railway station where he was observing passengers:

I never travelled by train, I see how crowded they are when I drive past the tracks. But from the platform that day I saw something new. A train was leaving, completely packed, and the men running alongside gave up. All except one. I kept my eyes on him, because the platform was coming to an end. Suddenly, he raised his arms. And people on the train reached out and grabbed them. What were they doing, he would be dragged and killed, I thought! A moment later, they had lifted him off the platform. Now his feet were dangling outside the compartment, and I almost screamed to stop the train. His feet pedaled the air. They found a tiny spot on the edge, slipped off, found it again. (159-60)

The passenger risks his life and trusts 'strangers' to bring him to safe spot on the train.

Mr. Kapur wonders, “Whose hands were they, and whose hands where they grasping? Hindu, Muslim, Dalit, Parsi, Christian? No one cared. Fellow passengers, that's all they were (160).”

The railway station scene is a rare scene that can only be observed in India and mainly in Bombay to witness the people assist each other irrespective of what religion or caste one belongs to. The real scenes of actual daily life of this city are meticulously registered by Mistry in his fiction. Mistry excels in drawing real scenes from real life.

Dodiya remarks, “It is in this realism which makes Mistry well known (93).”

Mr. Kapur continues his admiration for Bombay “This beautiful city of seven Islands, this jewel by the Arabian sea…this enigma of cosmopolitanism where races and religions live side by side and cheek by jowl in peace and harmony, this diamond of diversity, this generous goddess who embraces the poor and the hungry and the huddled masses… (160).”

Strangely enough, Mr. Kapur the true lover of the city of Bombay has lost his life for refusing to change his shop signboard from 'Bombay Sporting Goods Emporium' to ' Mumbai Sporting Goods Emporium' when requested by two members from Shiv Sena. He wants to retain the name of the city that fascinated him if not for the city itself which he has no hands in that at least to retain the name for the shop he thinks he has full authority on it by virtue of ownership.

In Such A long Journey (1991) Mistry's rejection of changing names of streets and places is pronounced through his Parsi character Dinshwaji when he talks to his friends Gustad:

Names are so important. I grew up on Lamington Road. But it has disappeared, in its place Dadasaheb Bhadkhamkar Marg. My school was on Carmac Road. Now suddenly it's in on Lokmanya Tilak Marg. I live at Sleater Road soon that will also disappear. My whole life I have come to work at flora Fountain. And one day the name changes. So, what happens to the life I have lived? Was I living the wrong life, with all the wrong names? Will I get a second chance to live it all again, with these new names? Tell me what happens to my life. Rumbled like that? Tell me! (74)

Mistry puts the blame on Siva Sena for creating havoc in the city by changing names and sowing the seeds of conflicts between different communities of one nation. He goes far even to insult and uses derogatory words in this novel describing the leader of this group which resulted in banning his novel from being taught at University of Mumbai in addition to public burning of his book. His beloved city university rejected his book and removed it from the syllabus like Mr. Kapur in Family Matters whom denied a place on the crowded train of the city he loves.

In his novels, Mistry does not advocate zero tolerance or the use of violence, but sincerely condemned such behaviour.

Bombay is the representative of India’s multicultural society as a whole. It is the microcosm of life in India. In Family Matters we find the owner Mr. Kapur is a Sikh, Yezad is a Parsi and Husain the peon is a Muslim. They work in harmony and tolerance like members of one family at 'Bombay Sporting Goods Emporium'

In his first collection of short stories Tales from Firozsha Baag (1987) the inhabitants of the Baag building belong to different castes and religions. The same way we see the inhabitants of Khodadad building in Such A long Journey belong to major castes and religions in India. It is also materialized when Gustad asks the pavement artist to draw some gods and goddess of different religions on the building compound wall to stop the people from urinating on the wall. Although, this seems humorous, but it is Mistry fascinating way to tackle problems and to bring religions together to live in harmony despite all the differences. When the pavement artist is questioned by Gustad about his knowledge of different gods of different religions, it turns out that the artist 'has degree in world religions' then the artist smiled, "There is no difficulty. I can cover three hundred miles if necessary using assorted religions and their gods, saints and prophets: Hindu, Sikh, Judaic, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Jainist (182)." Consequently, the pavement artist carries out his job happily with the portraits of symbols and idols of all the major religions in India. When it comes to Islam he draws a portrait of 'Jumma Mosque' for Islam 'prohibits portraits of prophets'.

Mistry seems to have detailed knowledge about Indian religions which enabled him to write accurately without cultural or religious flaws.

Another instance from Such A long Journey of religious tolerance and harmony in Bombay is seen in Gustad who has no limitation as a Parsi to befriend Malcolam who is Christian even accompanies him to Mount Mary church to pray for his sick daughter Roshan as well as to interact with Ghulam Mohammed who is a Muslim.

In A Fine Balance (1996) Mistry gives full vent to his anger in various ways against the sexual exploitation of low caste women, the caste system in general and the atrocities committed during the 'State of Internal Emergency' and the disposition of poor people under the pretext of city beautification.

But still these atrocities have not taken away his love to his city and whenever there are dark sides there are lights. Mistry depicts in A Fine Balance how Hindu and Muslim families protect one another as the communal riots spark in India when the British in 1947 decided to divide the country into two (India and Pakistan). Families show solidarity and unity during this ordeal in the history of modern India as Om and Ishvar in this novel protect Ashraf Chacha's family from being exterminated by the angry mob. Furthermore, by the end of the novel we see Dina who is a Parsi still helps her Hindu tailors even when they are reduced to beggars.

From what is mentioned the answers for the questions posed at the beginning of this article can be already inferred.

Rohinton Mistry is fond of his city Bombay not (Mumbai) the city he has known since his childhood and for 23 years of his life spent in it. Changing the name means changing the history and memory.

As I resembled Bombay to Dickens's London at the onset of my argument for Dickens himself was fond of London of his childhood; the London of the couches and horses the magic of the past. Despite the fact that, trains started service in London in 1854 during Dickens' life he never brought London of trains except in one novel Our Mutual Friend. However, London of the couches and horses occupied most of his works.

The uniqueness of Bombay is seen in its people and their peaceful living together in tolerance regardless of their shades of colour, religion, caste or ethnic background. Bombay is the real example of modern India which transcends the differences of its nation and brings them together in unity and harmony. It is Mistry's Bombay which shows the harmony in disparity.

Similarly, Mistry resents any disruption of this harmony whether by changing the names or creating conflicts among the different communities of the peaceful city.

1.      Dodyia, Jaydipsinh. Perspectives on the Novels of Rohinton Mistry. India: SARUP and SONS, 2006. Print.
2. Web. 20 February 2012.
3.      Mistry, Rohinton. Tales From Firozsha Baag. London: Faber and Faber, 1987. Print.
4.      Such A long Journey. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.Print.
5.      A  Fine Balance.  London: Faber and Faber, 1995.Print.
6.      Family Matters. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.Print.
7.      Pandit M.L."Fiction across Worlds: Some Writers of Indian Origin in Canada" The Fiction of Rohinton Mistry. Ed. Joydipsinh Dodiya. London: Sangam Books, 1998.14-22.Print
8.      Shahani , Roshan G. "Polyphonous Voices in the City: Bombay's Indian-English Fiction "
9.      Economic and Political Weekly, 30. 21 (May 27, 1995): 1250-1254.Web. 04 August 2011.

Author’s Bio: Ezzeldin Elmadda is a writer.


  1. Dr. Elmadda, I am one of the admirers of your writings and the the way you deliver lectures to your students. You made me go through Mistry's works after reading this article..thanks for you and for CLR .

  2. I would love to read more about Mistry.


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