Such a Long Journey is the first novel from Canada-based Indian writer Rohinton Mistry. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize (in 1991) as were his next two novels. Complex, but not long, it is the story of a middle-aged Parsi man in 70’s Bombay, Gustad Noble, as he navigates his way through a maelstrom of family, friendship, urban and national tragedies on a journey towards inner peace and reconciliation. Although it has attracted controversy more recently, it was not deserved. Though certainly not benign, it ought to be experienced for its human story and not burned for hurting the feelings of those who have not read it.
Each morning Gustad Noble rises before 6AM, ascends to the roof of his Bombay apartment building and prays eastward to Ahura Mazda, whipping his kushti to drive away Ahriman. A tall, broad-shouldered man, masculine with his thick black moustache, he walks with a limp after an accident a few years ago where he saved the life of his eldest son, diving in front of a taxi.
Despite minor grievances; such as his altercations with annoying neighbours, escalating milk prices, a water quota, disruptive local construction work, frequent power failures and the possibility of war with Pakistan; Gustad has much to be grateful for. His eldest son, Sohrab, has aced his exams and will soon enrol at the Indian Institute of Technology and his daughter Roshan, now eight, is the greatest joy in his life. His main source of unhappiness is the sudden disappearance of his best friend, Major Jimmy Bilimoria, an absence that broke his heart and one he can only interpret as a serious betrayal.
Things are fairly well for the Noble family, but Gustad is not one for optimism. He recalls only too well a past that promised much more. His grandfather had once owned a successful furniture store before hard times and bankruptcy ended it. Gustad’s father’s bookstore had suffered a similar fate when his ill father handed control to his drinking, gambling, uncle. Gustad’s father forgave his brother for his failure, something Gustad cannot abide by. The family came perilously close to poverty. It was an anxious and angry time that had claimed the life of his mother.
The small apartment they now inhabit has a dark and depressing aspect. The windows are covered with blackout paper, put up nine years ago in 1962 during the war with China. The defeat to China had been humiliating. Gustad believes Indian Prime Minister Nehru was slow to react to the war, in denial that a brother country would behave so and, once accepting its reality, was heartbroken. Increasingly bitter and rancorous, Nehru lost focus on running the country and fixated instead on succession to his daughter Indira. Gustad, also feeling betrayed by a friend, does not allow himself to live in denial, he is all too aware of the challenges and inequities of life, but he too is fixating on his ambitions for his eldest son for whom he would sacrifice anything and has already risked his life for.
The blackout paper has not been removed however. Three years after the war with China came a war with Pakistan and more blackouts. With the newspaper headlines covering turmoil in East Pakistan and a Republic of Bangladesh declared, Gustad knows better than to take the paper down now. Gustad’s cautionary hesitance is soon rewarded. A family dinner with guests to celebrate Sohrab’s exam results explodes into a violent argument between father and son. Sohrab rejects Gustad’s dream of his becoming an engineer, wanting instead to enrol in an arts programme and be with his friends. Gustad declares that until Sohrab apologises, he is dead to him.
Through harsh, Gustad’s decree is bound with love and fear for his son. Gustad remembers the tears of his own father when the failure of the bookstore meant he could no longer afford to send Gustad to college. Gustad fears that his son does not appreciate how precarious life can be and an opportunity like acceptance to a prestigious school should not be so easily thrown away. He fears that his son does not appreciate how difficult it can be for minorities to get ahead, especially with all the “fascist Shiv Sena politics and Marathi language nonsense” going on, and that a respected education can be a great leveller. And what good are friends when even your best friend can abandon you?
The truth though is that Gustad has received a letter from his friend the Major. Though apologetic for leaving so hastily, the Major says it was a matter of national security and he is writing now because he needs Gustad to do a small, but illegal, favour for him.
Things are never that simple of course. Gustad and his wife, Dilnavaz, both find the Major’s little favour disturbing but their hesitation is met with violent threats. Meanwhile, daughter Roshan is increasingly ill and no treatment seems to be helping, millions of refugees are streaming into India from East Pakistan and Gustad continues to quarrel with his son who moves out of their apartment. Gustad feels his life is collapsing and he can do nothing to stop it.
This is the turmoil that author Rohinton Mistry pulls the reader into; one of family drama and tragedy; of espionage and office politics; of bureaucracy and destructive modernising; of civil wars both military and cultural and the economic precariousness of the middle class. Before discussing some of the elements I enjoyed from this first novel of Mistry’s, a Booker Prize short-lister in 1991 (it lost to Ben Okri’s The Famished Road), I have to mention its notorious second-life.
These days, many avid readers enjoy participating in ‘Banned Book Months’ or ‘Banned Book Weeks’. I like the concept but have never joined in. Mostly because good books that deserve to be read for their own merits, but happen to have been banned for some reason or another, are in plentiful supply. I frequently find myself reading books that have been banned in some place at some time without the need to give it any special thought or attention. And, without needing to get into an argument about free speech, books can find themselves banned for some very silly, fickle or indefensible reasons. Among them is Such a Long Journey.
Almost twenty years after first published, the novel found itself at the centre of violent criticism. At one demonstration, copies of the book were burned and protestors said that if the author was present, he would be burned as well. The focus of the outrage centred on the fact that a character in the book criticises a real-life political figure and the movement that figure was a part of (as you can tell from the quote from the book I included above). Relatives of the figure took offense and followers called for the book to be removed from the syllabus at Mumbai University and to be banned outright. Some protestors admitted to not having read the novel, only being shown the excerpts that incensed them and arguing that those excerpts were sufficient for their conclusions. To book was quickly removed from the syllabus, much to the concern of the academic faculty that the university would bypass the established due process for dealing with such matters and submit to the demands of a violent, intolerant, minority.
I do not want to encourage a debate on freedom of speech, the right to offend, here. Plenty has been said already, especially in the wake of Charlie Hebdo. Suffice to say that my position is that the submission of Mumbai University was cowardly, the demands of the protestors is indefensible and the point of contention within the book is trivial.
I said earlier that while I do not participate in Banned Book Month’s, I like the concept. That is because perhaps nothing can better inform a position on free speech than reading a banned book and asking yourself why it was banned. What ideas does it contain that are so heinous to warrant outright exclusion? What offence has been committed and to whom? What motives are behind those who would demand a book to be banned? And what right or authority does anyone have to dictate what may or may not be said, read or thought?
These questions do not come into play here. It is difficult to reconcile the perceptions of the offended with the material in the novel. The outrage can only be interpreted as the political agenda of a group that is violently intolerant of criticism.
Rohinton Mistry did make a statement on the banning of his book (you can hear it being read here). It is worth hearing. His statement is as firm as it is elegant. He reminds the university chancellor of his responsibility for academic independence and freedom of expression, questions the priorities of the political party who burned his book and suggests to both that they might benefit from reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Tagore’s Where the Mind is Without Fear.
Getting back to the book and that point of contention, the interpretation of Such a Long Journey as a political novel is inescapable. The political figure that drew the ire of the mob is one of several figures and movements that characters in the book wish to speak frankly of to each other. In fact, it can be argued that the opponents of the figure in question attract a lot more criticism in the novel than the figure himself! Whether the novel is respectful or even-handed in these views, whether Mistry is using his characters to express his own views, is beside the point. The aim of these views is, I believe, to illustrate the character’s frustrations and feelings of powerlessness; that they are being swept along by political, bureaucratic and cultural forces much larger than themselves.
Those familiar with modern Indian history will know from the start of this novel that, being set in the early 70’s, the biggest event of recent Indian history looms on the horizon – the Indian Emergency. Every nation experiences large, tragic and controversial events that inevitably find expression in literature. The Emergency does so frequently in Indian literature and plays a part in the climax of this novel as it does in Mistry’s next novel, A Fine Balance (review here), and most famously in Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children.
Despite this grand, ambitious scope, it was the little things I liked best in this novel. I like being transported to 70’s Bombay, though I am unsure if other readers would experience it the way I have. Though I have never lived there, I have travelled to Bombay at least once every few years for my whole life, visiting relatives living in apartment blocks which are the modern-day equivalents of those the Noble family live in in the novel.
I like the ‘local flavour’ of some of the eccentric minor characters. Particularly Miss Kutpitia; a wealthy elderly spinster who comes across like an Indian Miss Havisham. The subject of local urban myths, Miss Kutpitia lives a life frozen in time with a heart closed after a tragedy in her youth. Also in their apartment complex is Tehmul, a physically and mentally handicapped man who looks up to Gustad with great affection and helps bring out Gustad’s understanding and compassionate side.
Gustad’s office workmate, Dinshawji, is a well-liked walking repository of politically-incorrect and offensive jokes and anecdotes – especially at the expense of his wife, the never-seen “domestic vulture”. Everyone enjoys Dinshawji’s company, but are unsure what to make of him, how seriously to take him and wonder what his humour might be hiding.
The second half of the book is far more poetic and emotive than the first. Gustad is a man who likes stability in his life and the turmoil of his son’s rebellion, his daughter’s illness, his friend’s illegal favour and numerous other adventures and inconveniences, uproots him and sends him on his journey. Though he may remember this as an unhappy and stressful time, others, such as the street artist he has befriended, find Gustad’s notion of happiness through routine and security to be a fantasy that can never be realised. Nor will a life of routine allow him to come to peace with his past or find reconciliation and forgiveness. In uncertain times, “the journey – chanced, unplanned, solitary – was the thing to relish”.