B. Tamilselvi Assistant Professor of English, SFR College for Women, Sivakasi – 626123. Virudhunagar District.
Rohinton Mistry is an interesting case of a writer who, as a Parsi in India and as an Indian in Canada, is part of minority or ethnic culture in both the countries. For him therefore, the minority status is a felt and fated experience in both the worlds. It is not surprising therefore that he does not attempt to focalize or problematize questions of marginality in his writings. Mistry writes about the world he knows most intimately: the world of the Parsis of Bombay within which he grew up.
There are so many Indian English Parsi writers like Saros Dara Cowasjee, Boman Desai, Firdaus Kanga, Farrukh Dhondy, Dina Metha, Gieve Patel, Keki Nusserwanjee Daruwalla, Rohinton Mistry and others. Their works exhibit consciousness of their community in a way that the community emerges as protagonists to the background. Among the leading Parsi writers, Rohinton Mistry pays more attention to the depiction of his community and his fictional works are replete with numerous details of Parsi life culture and religion. Like all other Parsi writers, Mistry is concerned with the preservation of the ethnic identity of his community. He presents his community through the different narratives of his characters who invariably express their concerns for the community and the changes that affect it. By focusing on their community in their narratives, they preserve and protect themselves and thus throw light on the existing reality.
Post – independence Parsi writing in English is ethnocentric. According to Nilufer E. Bharucha,
The Parsis are the single largest group of Ethno-religious or minority discourse practitioners amongst Indian English writers (qtd. in Dharan 100).
Mistry is fully conscious of the fact that their community is fast disappearing. The Parsi writers through their works intend to preserve their ethnicity for ages to come. Hence, creative writing is one of the media for him to express his feelings. Rohinton Mistry’s Firozsha Baag collection is engaged in ethnicity. Parsi customs, costumes and cuisine, we-consciousness among the Parsis, alienation from the majority, dominant community and downgrading of status in post colonial India all find a place in this collection.
The stories, “Auspicious Occasion”, “One Sunday”, “The Ghost of Firozsha Baag”, “Condolence Visit”, “The Collectors”, “Of White Hairs and Cricket”, “The Paying Guests”, “Exercises” focuses on Parsi community. This paper is an attempt to illustrate how Mistry has depicted the life of Parsis, their lifestyles and customs in these eight stories.The Parsis in these stories are presented without any attempt at airbrushing. The Parsis in Firozsha Baag are middle class and like other middle class persons in Bombay have to engage in daily battle with intermittent water-supply, dilapidated homes, peeling paint, falling plaster and leaking WCs.
“Auspicious Occasion”, the first tale, projects the eccentric side of the Parsi identity. Even the title of the story is highly evocative. It depicts the Parsi notion of racial superiority and the resultant arrogance. The Parsi community of Bombay is the focus of attention and the husband and wife, Rustomji and Mehroo are analyzed with keen insight. Rustomji’s language is generally peppered with Gujarati Phrases and especially abusive. This typical attitude of the Parsis and because of this they could easily be put in the realms of farcical. Such stock characters of the abusive, comic Parsi are to be found in the Parsi theatre and Hindi cinema. “Rustomji and his wife Mehroo are not stock comic Parsis; they are real human beings who at the end of the story almost become tragic characters” (Bharucha 74).
The downgrading condition of the Parsis in the post-colonial India is pointed out in an incident of the bus stop where he mistakenly expresses the general view of the Parsis for Indians as “…uneducated, filthy, ignorant barbarians” (TFB 18). As a result, Indians from the crowd came in confrontation with the Parsis. His encounter with the ‘ghatis’, at the bus stop, focuses on the confrontation between the Parsi identity and Indian identity. In this encounter, Rustomji has to resort to playing the clown to escape being physically assaulted by the crowd.
“There are several other tropes that this story deals with Parsi which makes it a good one to introduce the collection to the readers. The first of these deals with the general Parsi felling that the Parsi Panchayat in Bombay is either inefficient or dishonest, or both, in handling the huge trust funds and properties entrusted to them” (Bharucha 75). The reason why the Firozsha Baag buildings, like other Parsi trust properties in Bombay, were in such a condition was that,
…these flats had been erected in an incredibly short time and with very little money. Cheap materials had been used… Now during the monsoon season beads of moisture trickled down the walls, like sweat down a coolie’s back, which considerably hastened the crumbling of paint and plaster. (TFB 8)
Another aspect of this story which finds an echo in other stories too is the relationship between Parsis and mainstream Hindus. Most Parsi is rather isolationist and living in ethnic ghettos like Firozsha Baag only exacerbates this tendency. The only contact they had with their Hindu co-nationals is through the domestic servants who work in their homes. This restricted contact at times intensifies their sense of superiority vis-à-vis the Hindus. But Mistry is careful to point out that most Parsis treat their servants well and Mehroo is no exception to this rule.
Apart from this, the readers find Mistry very sentimental in his depiction of the rituals of the Parsis. Mehroo, the wife of Rustomji, is a pious woman and gives much of her time to prayers and frequently goes to agiary. She believes Dustoor Dhunjisha, the priest, as a holy man. She is heartily shocked when she learns about the murder of Dustoorji. This incident clearly indicates the sense of unease that the Parsis experience in post-colonial India. She feels extremely sorry for her servant Tanoo who is old and whose deteriorating eyesight leads to breakage of dishes. Rustomji also like to feel sorrow and compassion but, he was afraid that it is unworthy and inappropriate to feel sorrow or compassion or pity in this country. Mistry, the omniscient narrator says:
He had decided long ago that this was no country for sorrow or compassion or pity – these were worthless and, at best inappropriate (TFB 10).
“Apart from a feeling of compassion mingled with helplessness, Parsis also objectify their Hindu – other. This is especially true of Parsi men and Hindu women. The Parsi men tend to see the young Hindu women who sweep and mop their home as objects of convert sexual lust. This objectification of the ‘Ganga’ (a generic name bestowed by Paris on their entire women servant) is not again restricted to Parsi males, as women servants who work for their Indians too,
often find themselves sexually exploited. This also clearly visualized with Rustomji towards his servants”(Bharucha 76).
Rustomji paradoxical character conveys some of the concerns of the Parsi community. As in all traditional societies, Rustomji executes a balancing act between the desire to embrace modernity and the need for the perpetuation of ancestral customs. He also conveys, despite his clowning, some of the sense of insecurity of minorities in a land increasingly resonating with fundamentalist rhetoric.
Mistry has meticulously detailed the Parsis’ rituals and customs, from the observance of certain holy days (such as Behram roje), to the decoration of the main entrance doors with chain of fragrant flowers, to the adornment of the threshold with auspicious chalk designs – studded with coloured powdered – to the cooking of special dishes, to the tying and untying of the sacred thread, to the wafting of sacred smoke around the home from small hand-held fire-containers and the visit to the fire temples. Mistry is very clear eyed about how much or how little these rituals mean to the Parsis. He is also fairly critical about the Parsi priests, who he sees as rather human and consequently as often lascivious men.
“Rustomji’s forgetting that he no longer belonged to an elite section of society, protected by their closeness to the colonisers shout at the paan – chewer. This turns the other commuters rather nasty and they gang up on Rustomji and he is saved from a severe beating only by playing the clown” (Bharucha 78). This feeds into the crowd’s stereotypical notions of Parsis as ‘mad bawaji’ – crazy old men and Rustomji gets away unscathed. Behind Rustomji’s self-directed joke lies the trauma of the realisations that in spite of the Parsi’s continued belief in their superior status, in post-colonial India that they have been downgraded to the unenviable status of a community of eccentric old men and women. Rustomji’s nostalgia differs qualitatively from that of expatriate Parsis like Kersi in “Lend Me Your Light”. His predicament is shared by many Parsis today since they are painfully aware of the ‘new’ reality. Mistry effectively brings out the dilemma and ambivalence of the Parsi community in this tale.
The story “One Sunday” deals with the notion of the Parsis as subalterns, but seen as elite, by those even more subaltern in the Indian social order. This story “amply reveals the hysteria and the anxiety that the Parsi community experiences when it feels itself threatened by an outsider, even when there is no threat and the very idea of the outsider seems absurd”. Mistry makes a comment on the persecution of Francis, the odd-job man in Firozsha Baag, chased by the entire Parsi colony for a petty theft he commits to allay his starvation. It is precisely the fear of the “other” that haunts many Parsis today. “Though the Parsi community fruitfully adapted in India their ‘Chosen Land’, the westernized Parsi continues to regard themselves as aliens, representing the ‘other’. A strong feeling that they are ‘marginalized’ in the Indian society pervades the life of the westernized Parsi community”(Somalatha 116).
The majority of the Parsis are not rich. Not all of them have access to upper middle class domestic conveniences like refrigerators. This was especially true in 1960s and 70s. This is evident in this story where a very few of the tenants of Firozsha Baag owned a refrigerator. One such fortunate fridge-owner was Najamai. Tehmina, who lived alone, mainly used the fridge and the Boyce family, made a more substantial use of the fridge and stored their weekly supply of beef in the freezer compartment, neatly divided into seven packets. Unlike the Hindus most Parsis eat beef, even though the cow is sacred to both the religions. Also, beef is cheaper than mutton and hence more within the reach of poorer Parsis like the Boyce.
“In Tar Gully (Lane), where the really destitute of Bombay lived, the bat-wielding Parsi boys were unwelcome. They were resented as representing the race that considered it superior to
them. The term ‘ghaati’ is a descriptive term for people who live in the Western ghats, but as used by the Parsis, acquires a pejorative sense and generally means an uncouth, barbaric person” (Bharucha 80). From this we can understand the place of Parsis in post-colonial India.
“The Ghost of Firozsha Baag” has a non-Parsi narrator, a Goan Woman, Jacqueline known as Jaakaylee a change of perspective and leads to an external perspective on the Parsis of Firozsha Baag. Jaakaylee felt that she was lucky to have been accepted by a Parsi household as they normally preferred lighter-skinned ayahs from Mangalore. She says,
Parsis prefer Manglorean Catholics, they have light skin colour. For themselves also Parsis like light skin, and when Parsi baby is born that is the first and most important thing…. But if it is dark skin they say, arré what is this ayah no chhokro, ayah’s child.
The colour prejudice exhibited by the Parsis was also echoed by the subalterns from Tar Gully
and cries of ‘Blackie, Blackie’ (TFB 53) followed Jaakaylee whenever she went shopping there. Mistry’s tale is a subtle dig at the Parsi notion of racial purity.
“Bai’s word for having seen a spectral creature, being weightier than Jaakaylee’s could ever be serious measures is taken to rid ‘c’ block of the apparition. Parsi priests are summoned and prayers chanted to scarce away the evil spirit” (Bharucha 86). The story takes a bizarre turn with the two women exhibiting female solidarity and trying to summon the ghost by using a cane winnower, in an interesting combination of Parsi and Goan folk lore and superstition.
The ethno-religious of the Parsis in this collection of stories, which began with Behram roje and visits of agiaries is now extended to funeral rites in the story entitled “Condolence Visit”. The story recounts the cultural and ritualistic aspects of the Parsi identity. This is a dignified and truly tragic in its tone as its main protagonist, the newly widowed Daulat Mirza. Following the Parsi custom, friends and relations were expected to pay a condolence visit to the bereaved family. These visits in the time-honoured manner would begin after the dusmoo or the tenth day ceremonies in honour of the departed soul. Some more tactful persons would hold back till after the masisa or the first month anniversary. However, the majority would start streaming in after the dusmoo. So, Daulat in a very pragmatic fashion begins to prepare for this influx. Daulat’s neighbour Najamai offers to help out by lending her chairs and glasses to cope with the flow of visitors. Najamai like several ageing Parsis in Bombay had Children who lived abroad and rarely visited home.
“Another common trope deals with the question of superstition and blind dogma that besets the Parsi zoroastrian community. This matter had been considered within the context of the supernatural in this story. The main focus is on superstitions and rituals connected with death and funeral rites. Daulat Mirza in spite of her grief-stricken condition stands up bravely to the demands made upon her by dogma and ritual prescribed by ‘concerned’ relations and neighbours. According to Parsi orthodoxy, the lamp should be extinguished after the fourth day – Charam ceremonies. This would enable the soul to sever ties with this world and go quickly to the Next World” (Bharucha 88). Najamai advised,
…quickly-quickly go to the Next World. With the lamp still burning the soul will be attracted to two different places: here and the Next World. So you must put it out, you are confusing the soul
… (TFB 75)
Daulat get around this objection by shutting the bedroom door so that the burning lamp would not offend the eyes of the orthodox. She does not put out the contentious lamp.
The central symbol in the story is the pugree of Minocher which connects the past and present. Daulat sorts out Minocher’s clothes for giving away to charity. “Among the items she
sorts out is Minocher’s pugree, the tall, black hat worn by Parsi men on ceremonial occasions such as weddings and navjotes. Minocher’s pugree was a particularly splendid specimen and well-preserved. Young Parsi men no long wore pugrees at their wedding and new ones were thus not manufactured any more. This made Minocher’s pugree an antique piece and rather valuable” (Bharucha 88-89). The opportune reading of a small advertisement in the Parsi newspaper – Jam-e-Jamshed – where the advertiser wanted just such a pugree made. Daulat call him up, in a hope that Minocher’s pugree would find a fitting home. This little by-play allows Mistry to offer his usual understand comment on the jettisoning of traditions and traditional grab by present day Parsis.
Daulat’s decision to dispose of her husband’s pugree is, in reality, a bid to keep Parsi custom alive. The pugree stands for a rich Parsi tradition which modern young Parsi refuses to carry on. The young man, who volunteers to buy the pugree, is traditional in dress as well as in outlook. He says, “Mrs. Mirza is selling Mr. Mirza’s pugree to me… In correct Parsi dress and all” (TFB 87). The gesture of a true Parsi, though he is a stranger to her, brings relief to Daulat. She tells him, “But let me tell you, my Minocher would be happy to give it to you if he were here
… so if you want it, take it today” (TFB 89).
“In almost mock-tragic manner this woman – Moti, falls upon Daulat’s neck reeking of eau de Cologne, is uttering loud cries of distress. The eau de cologne is incidentally an almost inseparable part of the toilette of Parsi woman of a certain age. This cologne is normally associated with the sick room and in the Parsi psyche. A Parsi patient is often soothed by the discreet application of a little eau de cologne on his/her forehead. A Parsi corpse is kept smelling fragrant by liberal sprinklings of this perfumed water. At Parsi funerals, a corpse bearer or junior priest sits by the corpse with a big bottle of eau de cologne, and his only role in the ceremony is to periodically sprinkle it over the body” (Bharucha 89). Hence, it was the most appropriate fragrance to be worn on a condolence visit. Thus in this story, Mistry gives a vivid account of middle class Parsi life at cultural and ritualistic levels. He does not scoff at the Parsi customs, though he is an expatriate. His treatment of Parsi life is sympathetic to a high degree.
“In “The Collectors”, the narrative mode is overtly ironic. This story reveals Mistry’s keen insight into the nature of human affections, and the way in which a man’s life and destiny are closely intertwined with them. Mistry depicts the boredom and ennui of the Parsi community living in a ‘Baag’, far removed from the realities of life. The two protagonists in the story, Jehangir and Pesi are drawn as foils to each other. Dr. Mody’s passion for stamps is a survival- strategy: it is a desperate bid to conquer ennui which characterises life in Firozsha Baag”(Somalatha 117). Jehangir is popularly known as “Bulsara Bookworm” by his friends. Jehangir’s philately interest was encouraged by Dr. Mody and this made his jealous of the fact that her husband spent most of the time with the Bulsara boy and ignored their own son, Pesi. Mrs. Mody creates distrust on Jehangir about the Spanish dancing lady stamp, but after the death of Mr. Mody, she fells sorry for she did and gave the entire collection to Jehangir. By this time Jehangir, loses interest in stamps. He takes the collection to home and puts it under the bed. Soon cockroaches and white ants destroy the entire collection. He feels neither happy nor sad – only relief. In this story, Jehangir’s self is revealed through the exorcism of the past and the acceptance of the present. The tile of the story suggests the mental baggage carried by individuals in their collection of experiences, feelings, memories and in particular for the Parsis.
““Of White Hairs and Cricket” is a tale of education of Kersi, a fourteen year old boy. Nostalgia, which is an essential part of the Parsi consciousness, pervades the narrative” (Somalatha 117). Mistry deftly reconstructs a Sunday in Firozha Baag in bits and pieces. Here,
time performs the function of a destroyer. Cricket on Sunday mornings, which was a regular event for the boys in Firozsha Baag, ceases with the passage of time. Thus, Kersi’s nostalgia is the outcome of his painful awareness of the decaying Parsi life. The parents of Kersi represent the typical frustrated community in the Parsis. Disillusioned with India like most westernized Parsis, his father opts for a luxurious life abroad, “And one day, you must go, too, to America. No future here” (TFB 136).
The protagonist in this story, Kersi, often pulls out the grey hairs from his father’s head, so that the latter could cling a little longer to the illusion of youth. Kersi’s grandmother like most Parsis was firmly convinced that hair was a thing of evil and could be used for purpose of black- magic. This is the reason why most orthodox Parsis keep their heads covered with a white cloth (in case of women) and with a cap (in the case of men). So by making the boy pull out his grey hairs. Kersi’s father was in the eyes of his grandmother committing a sin. Kersi’s Mamaiji was not only superstitious about matters concerning hair, but was also a rather devout woman who spun wool for Kusti – a sacred thread worn by Parsi men and women around their waists – and wove them herself. Thus, in this story, Mistry discovers the beauty of life in the ordinariness of the world around him.
“In “The Paying Guests”, Mistry depicts the quandary of the middle class Parsis. His treatment is both original and sympathetic high degree”(Somalatha 118). At one juncture, Boman, the protogonist of this tale cries out:
There are laws to protect the poor … and laws to protect the rich. But middle class people like us get the bamboo all the way (TFB 162).
Boman’s economic insecurity and Khurshedbai’s frustration, born of an unfulfilled dream, represent the typical Parsi life. In this story, Mistry highlights the evil consequences of communication gap. Boman’s failure is to view his tenant’s suffering from a sympathetic perspective. Boman is desperate and knows that the only person who would speak up in court was the Muslim who lived in the next flat. ‘But desperate Boman was. He would not stoop to that; to ask him to testify against a fellow Parsi’ (TFB 168).
There are two interesting things happening in this refusal to approach, one is the fact that the Parsis like most minority communities have a ‘closing-of-rank’ approach to their problems. A minority does not invite attention to one’s self of expose one’s internal weaknesses, to other community. Moreover, there would be the question of the inherent distrust that most Parsis still harbour towards Muslims because of the expulsion from Iran of their forefathers by the Muslim Arabs. The other interesting matter connected to the Muslim tenant of Firozsha Baag is a more practical one. Baag was a property managed by a Parsi trust – the trustees are reviled often in most of the stories. It is surprising to find a Muslim in such a housing estate. Parsi trust funded housing is available for Parsis only and even those Parsi men who marry non-Parsi women and whose children have been admitted into the Parsi religion find themselves sewed with legal notices to vacate their flats in Parsi baags and colonies.
“The story “Exercises” opens with Mr and Mrs. Bulsara seeking the aid of their family guru, Bhagwan Baba, to convince Jehangir of how unsuitable the girl was for him” (Bharucha 100). The Hindu element of a guru (Bhagwan Baba) is introduced into the text – an element which is alien to Zoroastrianism which does not allow mediation between the believer and his/her God. However, some of the dominant community’s beliefs have leaked into the Parsi way of life.
Jehangir is an introvert whose helplessness is typical of the young in the Parsi community. His sense of sterility and isolation is suggestive of the generation gap in the
Zoroastrian community. In this story, Mistry contrasts the two states – one in which there is motion, activity and life and the other which is characterized by effeteness and frigidity which is almost archetypal in Parsis life. Mistry sets part of the story in Hanging Gardens.
“Mistry’s focus here on the near oedipal nature of the mother – son bonding is once again not peculiar to the Parsi community in India, but manifests itself in the mainstream Hindu society, as well as among the Muslims” (Bharucha 102). Among the Hindus, the desire for a male child was linked to inheritance laws, wherein only the male heir could inherit his parent’s property and to funeral rites which again could only be performed by a son. “The Muslims too have a male-favouring inheritance laws. All of these above mentioned reasons do not apply to Parsis and yet they too by virtue of being Indians, also favour their male children. A blatant example of this male domination is the fact that male Parsis, when they marry non-Parsi women, can have their children admitted into the Zoroastrian religion and they can claim all the benefits and privileges of other Parsi Zoroastrians – except rights of residence in a Parsi housing estate. However, a similar privilege is denied to Parsi women who marry outside the Parsi community” (Bharucha 103).
Rohinton Mistry, thus, record Parsis’ social circumstances, sense of isolation, and rootless ness, tie them together and make them forge a bond of understanding as they struggle to survive. Mistry’s Tales from Firozsha Baag is a well-structured imaginative story collection which portrays the realm of dramatizing this Parsi world – view. The burden of these tales is to dramatize the conflict and adaptability of the Parsi community to the fast changing milieu in India and abroad. In any case, the Parsis are immigrants, be it in India, Canada or Britain, their alienation is relative yet fruitful. But one thing is certain whether it is the East / west, they have maintained their identity, values and traditions. Thus, in Mistry’s work Zoroastrian world-view ultimately acts as a propelling force and provides an excellent medium for adaptability.
Bharucha, Nilufer. E. Rohinton Mistry : Ethinic Enclosures and Transcultural Spaces. Jaipur
:Rawart Publication, 2003. Pg: 72-118.
Dharan N. S. “Ethnic Atrophy Syndrome in Rohinton Mistry’s Fiction”: Parsi Fiction Vol. 2.
ed. by Kapadia, Novy. New Delhi. 100-107.
Harishankar, Bharathi V. “Problems of Selfhood: a study of Rohinton Mistry’s Tales from Firozsha Baag”. Littcritt 33.2-64 (Dec 2007): 121-136.
Somalatha, Y. “History, Expatriation and the Parsee World-View: a study of Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey and Tales from Firozsha Baag.” The Atlantic Literary Review Quarterly 9.4 (Oct-Dec 2008): 105-120.
Rohinton Mistry, 1987. Tales from Firozsha Baag. Penguin Canada. Also published as Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag (1989).