Such a Long Journey (Rohinton Mistry)
Part of TS Eliot’s poem “Journey of the Magi”, the eponymous phrase “Such a Long Journey” is evocative of the protagonist Gustad Noble’s strife throughout the course of the novel against myriad forces of poverty, political exigency, recurrent governmental influx into public life, and his struggle to sustain some semblance of equilibrium in his family life within these plural gravities.
Set against the tumultuous backdrop of pre-emergency India under the rule of Indira Gandhi, the novel traces the story of Noble – a Parsi bank clerk – as the country spirals steadily into the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and is witness to the ensuing secession of East Pakistan into Bangladesh. The greater part of the novel unravels in Bombay, specifically in Khodadad Building, where Nobel lives with his family in the midst of a large Parsi settlement. The travails of his neighbours – by turns solicitous and eccentric – are intricately knit into his personal life.
The novel begins on a note of euphoria – Noble’s eldest son Sohrab has just been accepted into the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT Bombay) and celebrations seem to be in order. Sohrab, the apple of his father’s eye, has just proven right Noble’s faith in his exceeding intelligence, something that has been discerned and carefully cultivated from a very young age. Sohrab is a beacon of light for the family, their one hope out of squalor. But the family is jolted out of this happy state of affairs by Sohrab’s sudden – and to Noble and his wife Dilnavaz, bewildering – declaration that he will not fulfil his father’s dream, refusing point blank to accept admission.
His son’s distressing infidelity is followed by a succession of private tragedies: Noble’s daughter Roshan succumbs to a mysterious, frequently relapsing illness, an old friend Major Jimmy Bilimoria’s inexplicable vanishing act, Noble’s deepening entanglement into what he suspects is a terrifyingly complex government conspiracy mediated by none other than Bilimoria, and the gradual worsening of the health and subsequent death of another cherished friend, Dinshawji. The manner in which Noble copes with these events dominates the trajectory of the narrative.
The novel’s thematic concerns are focussed on Noble’s relationship with the various characters who populate the novel multi-dimensionally, their interactions altering Noble’s perceptions of life and what it means to succeed, especially in the face of persistent betrayal of expectations. The novel derives much of its narrative breadth by elaborately exploring issues of fatherhood, religion, accountability within particular communities, notions of responsibility in the context of friendship and nationality.
Mistry’s writing is acutely conscious of the politics of language, sharpened by the fact that he is, in essence, recording in English the experience of a community which encounters English perhaps only tangentially. First acquaintance with dialogue in the novel might suggest a certain awkwardness of usage – to the extent that it may appear forced. (“Mua thief! In the hands of the police only we should put you!” says Miss Kutpitia, accusing the milkman of mixing water in their daily supply of milk.) But Mistry assimilates this new rhythm – not uncommon to the Indian milieu – into the narrative, even using it in instances to the effect of comic relief.
Another major theme that pervades all aspects of life in novel is that of religion. For most, if not all, of the characters religion is an element essential to their conception of each other, their social liaisons and transactions. Religious rituals are organic to their everyday existence. Noble listens to the chirping of birds “every morning while reciting his kusti prayers”. Miss Kutpitia’s expression of religion finds form in the extremes of superstition, a manifestation which Dilnavaz too takes up later to a remarkable degree. Wryly humorous, Noble’s elderly neighbour Cavasji’s entreaties are to an invisible god in the sky, who he vehemently implores to, “be careful! Year after year Your floods are washing away poor people’s huts! Enough now! Where is your fairness? Have You got any brains or not? Flood the Tatas this year! Flood the Birlas, flood the Mafatlals!” Malcolm Saldanha, another of Noble’s close friends, too, articulates a religious awareness when he takes Noble to the Mount Mary church and shows him the peculiar offerings of wax imitations of limbs by devotees in the hopes of a miraculous cure for corresponding physical deformities.
A conspicuous absence of overt religious affiliation among the younger generation seems to be Mistry’s way of raising pertinent questions about the changing face of a secular India – that the younger generation seem impervious to previously indispensable rites and customs of religious practice. Alternately, Mistry may be attempting to suggest that any form of deep religious conviction – the development of a religious consciousness itself– might be a consequence of age, that one resorts to gods, makes efforts to appease them as a natural response to a more tangible awareness of one’s own mortality.
Religion is also the fertile ground over which social transgressions are mapped: the artist commissioned by Gustad to salvage the community wall from the malodorous activities of passers-by draws a melee of gods from every possible community (even Yellamma, the goddess of prostitutes, to represent the nearby House of Cages) coexisting in harmony in the same space. This wall may be read as metonymical to the larger unfolding of Noble’s relationships with friends, family, and other significant acquaintances: these relationships are established and strengthen despite socio-religious barriers, in fact, religion occasionally grows into a source of mutual inspiration and joy. But religious concord, just as developing attachments between people, is infinitely tenuous and always on the brink of collapse: “The agreeable neighbourhood and the solidity of the long, black wall were reawakening in [the artist] the usual sources of human sorrow: a yearning for permanence, for roots, for something he could call his own, something immutable. Torn between staying and leaving, he worked on, ill at ease, confused and discontented. Swami Dayananda, Swami Vivekananda, Our Lady of Fatima, Zarathustra, and numerous others assumed their places on the wall, places pre-ordained by the pavement artist; together they awaited the uncertain future.”
Integral to the plot of the novel is the parallel subplot of Major Jimmy Bilimoria, Noble’s neighbour and trusted friend who is a cause of bitterness and sorrow since he appears to have deserted his apartment next door with no explicit reason, without – the root of Noble’s grief – a single effort at explanation before leaving. The Bilimoria plot acquires girth gradually and serves to supply the novel with an aura of conspiracy, propelling the narrative forward by synthesising what was primarily a personal narrative of domestic and occupational crises with something of a crime mystery. The Bilimoria storyline is significant in as much it immediately catapults the crux of the novel from being predominantly private to the public sphere. Major Bilimoria is Noble’s most concrete connection to the political, the nation-state. His frequent disruption of Noble’s daily life through letters, requests for favours which unsettle his comfortable routine seem to invoke the idea of the nation-state’s recurrent, ineluctable demands on the citizen, that one cannot live in the nation state without relinquishing privacy, usually to a point higher than one imagines.
This narrative is also an interesting instance of personalisation of history. More often than not, people make concessions to history only to the extent that some event in its vast, complicated, inter-structural network directly intervenes in their lives. In this context, questions regarding the nation are imperative and must be asked: To what extent are we willing to sacrifice the private for the public? What toll do the inevitable compromises take on our life and dignity of living? What is the nation? More specifically, what does our idea of India comprise of? Is the nation an interruption of or an impulse of society?
Gustad’s disability – the limp he has acquired due to the accident that had occurred in an attempt to save Sohrab from being killed by oncoming traffic about nine years before the story begins is a painful, acrimonious reminder of the sacrifices he has made for his family. In metonymy, disability in the novel can also be studied as a reflection of the government’s ruthless subjection of its citizens to an unforgiving regime of power; the body registers the measured but definite erosion of morals and practices in the government, and is helpless against it.
Subsequently, Gustad’s decline in years heightens his nostalgia for the golden age of his childhood: memories of years spent in a bookstore, with luxuries which seem a far-flung dream. But the nostalgia which returns to him the beauty of a time impossible to retrieve equally resurrects fragments of the same memories he had skated over earlier. His father is reimagined, but with all his flaws, thought of with sympathy and pity and love. “Always begins after the loss is complete, the remembering,” Noble observes once, thinking of his father. Noble collects small victories as a parent, and small failures, makes tokens of them. Parental love is portrayed as a complex entity, expanding and contracting, certainly not constant, but interminably mellifluous. Parents pin their dreams to their children, children to others, later to their own children. In the process, damage each other irreparably. But loss too redeems; loss is poetic.
Such a Long Journey, despite being an incisive investigation into issues of nation, religion, nostalgia, memory, and a tale of human endurance, falls short in certain areas: in the tussle between personal and private history, Mistry’s insertion of the political narrative (more specifically, that of the events leading upto the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 under Indira Gandhi’s regime) into Gustad’s life with designs to blend in the two is not entirely successful. The addition is not consistently effortless, but shows strain on the plot, at times to the point of rendering the main narrative useless, as if merely a prop for a history lesson. The style of narration is languorous and effectively so, suitably complementing the pace of the story. But occasionally, Mistry’s exertions to introduce the reader to how the language has been altered and adopted by certain sections of the country seems to turn the characters into caricatures, especially since most characters already seem to be vaguely reminiscent of popular types: the old crone cast into the figure of the witch (Miss Kutpitia), the faithful housewife (Dilnavaz), the nagging, disrespectful daughter-in-law (Mrs Pastakia), the local simpleton (Tehmul). The novel fails most in its portrayal of women: they do not exceed traditional roles, express emotions or fears beyond the conventional, in fact, don’t even exceed the limits of domestic space.
Conscious of these limitations, one can conclude the novel is a meditation on what forces shape an individual: identity is not restricted to some, but issues out of a confluence of a number factors, both conscious and unconscious. It is informed by ordinary acts, moments which get sanctified in retrospect.
This piece was an assignment – book report – for a literature (Indian Writings in English) class.