on 6 July 2001
Mistry has sucessfully captured the imagination of a child, who lives in an apartment building, and subsequently has adventures. This book is not just a collection of short stories, but an entire saga of the building and its inhabitants seen through the eyes of this young boy who we see growing up and, eventually, moving to Canada. A mixture of traditions, not just Parsi but a mash of all Indian cultures, this is a book which certainly has spice; the humour will sting you, and you won't be able to put this book down till it has finished!
on 10 January 2006
Firozsha Baag is a block of flats in Bombay and these linked stories, eleven of them, tell the tales of its tenants. They are seen through the eyes of Kersi, first as a boy living with his parents and brother in the flats, and finally as a writer who has emigrated to Canada. These stories are so intimate, I sometimes felt uncomfortable, as if I were seeing things I shouldn't see, laughing at things I shouldn't laugh at. The writing is wonderful and cannot be skipped over. Every word counts. That and the writer's humanity made me keep reading to the end and then start at the beginning again - and order more of his books.
Firozsha Baag is an apartment block in Bombay where families, mainly Parsees - a Zoroastrian community of the Indian subcontinent - live. With this as a direct or indirect setting, Rohan Mistry has written eleven interconnected stories about the lives of the residents or, if they have moved away, about how living there affected their lives.
The characters of Firozsha Baag are middle class - doctors, chartered accountants, veterinarians and the stories describe how the neighbours get on, their concerns about money, employment and their children, as well as their enthusiasm for cricket and storytelling, and the requirements of their religion. But they also have to engage in daily battle with intermittent water-supply, dilapidated homes, peeling paint, falling plaster and leaking WCs, as in ‘Auspicious Occasion’. Few of the residents own a refrigerator and other tenants make use of Najamai’s in ‘One Sunday’, a story that ends up with violence that is, in part at least, due to the religious divide.
During the stories, people die, babies are born, the young are educated and frequently move away, some, like the author, to Canada [Mistry left Bombay in 1975 and has admitted to writing about a Bombay of the past]. The lives in the stories are, individually, insignificant but together they add up to a convincing and poignant slice of Indian late 20th-century life [the book was published in 1987].
Information about the lifestyles and religious observance of Parsees, most notably the Fire Temple and its slow, ancient rituals, is presented in most of the stories, sometimes with slight repetition so that the author is able to inform readers without overwhelming them. As a minority, Parsees are often excluded by the much larger Hindu and Muslim populations who feel that Parsees were favoured by the British.
The stories vary in style in style: from first person to third person, from omniscient narrator to spellbinding storyteller, which keeps the reader fully engaged. Just when one thinks that the stories are very interesting but have not really been pulled together, in the final story, ‘Swimming Lessons’ Mistry does this brilliantly, from the perspective of Kersi, who is a thread running through the book, living in Canada, receiving and sending letters to his parents. At the end of the book it feels as if one has read a substantial piece of excellent writing. With the exception of the last story, which should always be read last, the individual stories may be read in any order without losing the feel of a fully interrelated text. By the end we understand the Parsees’ struggle to survive by adapting to the modern world and worry with them whether such adaptation, within and outside India, will cause them to lose their traditions, religious beliefs and identity. Today, the numbers of Parsees a less than a million world-wide. 70,000 live in India with 12,000 being in Bombay.
In ‘Squatter’, we meet the storyteller, Nariman Hansotia, who works in the Cawasji Framji Memorial Library, a good source for his stories that enthral the local children. One involves Sarosh who finds it difficult to use Western toilets when he moves to Canada; his difficulties in overcoming this condition are described with much humour. ‘The Collectors’ describes the friendship between Dr Mody, a philatelist, and an introspective boy who find a shared interest in stamp collecting. Their relationship is all the more touching since the doctor’s own son is very badly behaved, stoning cats is just one of his games, and is eventually sent away to boarding school.
This is a beautifully judged book, leaving the reader with a cast of interesting characters and should be an excellent avenue into the author’s equally-rewarding novels.