Sunday, June 01, 2008

Rohinton Mistry's books - impressions.

I read two books by Rohinton Mistry - Family Matters, and A Fine Balance.

Mistry is an accomplished storyteller. In both the books, each sentence is lovingly composed, perfectly worded, and it tells you the story on your face. No innuendos, nothing incomplete. It just gives you the facts.

The characters in his books are very real - very grey characters. The situation affects their behaviour, and it is not always right, but it is very real. The words and the language and the expressions they use is also very close home - it is language that you and I would use talking to each other.

He also has a great eye for detail. Each book is like watching a movie - all the details are very clear, all right in front of you!

There are a couple of unique aspects in Mistry's writing.

One is that he uses words that are so simple, so beautiful, and yet, strangely, in all the reading I have done, I hadn't encountered any of them. A simple example is the word "Laity" for "lay people". It is such a simple word, but how come I hadn't come across it anytime? The book is scattered with words like these!

Another aspect is that his characters have the habit of seeming like people you really know. A couple of days ago, after reading a particularly heartbreaking sequence in the book, I almost said to S~, "You know, poor thing, such and such a thing happened to such and such a person." I stopped, and I laughed at myself - what was I thinking? But if I closed my eyes, I could swear that I knew this person in the book. It is an eerie feeling.

This could be the reason why I actually broke down crying, with real tears running down my cheeks, while reading some passages in both the books. Or it could just be that Mistry's storytelling is so powerful. Whatever the reason, I have very rarely experienced this. I have laughed, felt unhappy, yes, but actually bursting into tears reading a book? Very, very rare.

And what are the books about? Family Matters is about an old Parsi gentleman Nariman Vakeel, who lives with his unmarried step children. When he breaks his ankle, and his condition is aggravated by an onset of Parkinson's, his stepchildren conspire to send him away to stay with his daughter Roxana and her family. The effect of this is tremendous on Roxana's loving, close-knit family. What happens after that is beautifully narrated. The change in Roxana's husband Yezad, from loving to annoyed to angry, to accepting, to Nariman's helplessness, to how her children suddenly grow up - lovingly put together by Mistry. Compelling.

A Fine Balance is about - well, it is about India. About four characters who, in a way embody what life is all about - a struggle for existence. Dina Shroff is a lady striving to preserve her dignity and independence after the death of her husband. Maneck Kohlah is a boy from the mountains who comes to Bombay to study, but traumatized by the ragging in his hostel, comes to stay with Dina as a paying guest. Ishvar and Omprakash Darji are an uncle-nephew duo, who come to Bombay looking for work, fleeing from the caste-based atrocities in their village. How these four characters get together, and their stories, and the sub-stories, all set in the time of the Emergency - is one amazing read.

Devaki recommended it to me when I wrote about perspectives. She is right. The book is all about perspectives. For example, Mistry tells you how annoying Dina's brother Nusswan gets, and you start getting angry, and all of a sudden, he switches and continues the story from Nusswan's point of view. Bam! You realize what has been troubling Nusswan and start empathizing with him. The book is full of such instances. It takes a rare talent to see both sides of a situation, and Mistry has used it very well to weave this story. Look at Devaki's review for more.

The only grouse I have against both the novels is the undercurrent of suffering, and unhappiness and disquiet. Yes, I know, life is not all roses, but sometimes you just want a happy ending :D But to give credit to Mistry, there is never an actual tone of sorrow - there is always subtle humour, light banter... - you know what, just stop reading this, and go read his books instead. Really.


shyam said...

Shruthi, what a strange coincidence - if there IS any other kind - I've just finished reading Family Matters, too! :) I've long been a fan of Rohinton Mistry for all the reasons you've quoted. His writing is realistic, not melodramatic. Doesnt he have a sort of quiet way of writing, if you know what I mean? Compellingly readable.

Adu said...

Another coincidence...just yesterday I was thinking of starting a Rohinton Mistry fan club :) I just finished reading 'Tales from Firozsha Baag' (which, btw, I highly recommend as a next book to read), and it reaffirmed my faith in him. A Fine Balance was an amazing read. Although it's true what you said about happy endings --- I couldn't put the book down and just read on and on, motivated by the need to see a happy ending :)

Supremus said...

Except for "A Fine Balance" I found most of Mistry's books downright depressing and very monotonous. Yes, Fine Balance is indeed (in my opinion) his best book - I have mostly read all his books, and none matched this book in terms of characterization, especially Maneck.

Deepa said...

I completely agree with your reviews of both books. I had read both a couple of years ago and was deeply touched by each. I am with you about the happy endings part, I actually had to take a few months after I read "A Fine Balance" to read "Family Matters". I just had to get some light reading in after the first book! (I think I read "Bridget Jones Diaries", which hit the spot!)

HaRi pRaSaD said...

The third coincidence...

This is EERIE. Seriously eerie. I cannot believe this. It is only yesterday that I started reading "A fine balance". I have just finished the first part "A city by the sea" and am waiting to get home to continue the rest.As I forgot your blog url I googled "Puttachi" and what do I find on reaching here - A post about Rohinton Mistry and A fine balance. And what else do I find - the first two comments about similar coincidences.

Strange, don't you think?

And yes the book has been wonderful so far and it is compellingly readable. I did not read your post fully fearing you might have given away something!!

shilpa said...

Mistry is such a pessimist, but still I get drawn by his books. I've read all his books and started tales from Firozshah bhag again.

Devaki said...

Lovely review Shruthi. And thanks for linking up to my post - I'm glad my tip-off was useful.

rajk said...

I loved RM's books, but I hated the endings...He makes us fall in love with the characters..feel for them like they are our friends and then, just when you think "Everything is going to turn out fine", Bam!! Terribly sad endings for terribly nice people...It was too heart-rending for me..Which is why I stopped reading his books after the 2 that you mentioned!!

Diviya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Diviya said...

I found 'A Fine Balance' extremely depressing, as if he can never let good things happen to his characters. I haven't picked up Mistry's books since.

I recommend Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' as a counter point to 'A Fine Balance'.

Niveditha said...

Nice review.
I read this at a time where I was thinking of what books to read... I'll surely read this!

Anil P said...

He is a fine writer. His Tales from Firozsha Baag are remarkable for its simplicity, and like you said an undercurrent flows through them.

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