Sunday, 2 February 2014

Maharashtra - The Long Journey of the Magi

I always enjoy discovering new literature, when I'm researching for this blog and I absolutely loved Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey (1991) - shortlisted for the prestigious Booker prize in 1991, it went on to win the 1992 Commonwealth Writer's Prize, a year later.  Mistry's novels have been nominated for the (Man) Booker prize twice since then (A Fine Balance in 1996 and Family Matters in 2002) and I definitely look forward to discovering more of his work.

Such a Long Journey is one of those novels that is so finely crafted that every word finds its perfect place in the sentence and every sentence in every chapter.  It tells the story of Gustad Noble, a middle-aged Parsi from Mumbai, who is struggling to find serenity in the changing political turmoil of India in 1971.  Mistry himself was born in Mumbai (or Bombay, as it was known then) in the 1950's, but moved to Canada in the 1970's, which is where he currently lives. 

The Magi, book illustration by Heinrich Hoffmann
The title Such a Long Journey is taken from The Journey of the Magi (1927), a poem by T.S. Eliot which tells the journey of the Magi (a.k.a. The Three Wise Men) to Palestine, to visit the new-born infant Jesus (according to the Gospel of St Matthew).  The Magi came from Persia and were followers of Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion that survives today through the religious practices of small Zoroastrian communities in Iran and the Parsi and Irani communities in India.  Interestingly, the Magi have given us the words 'magic' and 'magicians' - ie. powerful sorcerers from the East. 

I became aware of the Parsis and Zoroastrianism when I was in Mumbai. For example, I'd heard about Mumbai's Towers of Silence, where recently deceased Parsi's are left to be eaten by a local population of vultures.  It's probably the most shocking and, therefore, well-known aspect of Parsi culture but, thanks to Mistry's book, I got a fuller sense of Zoroastrianism, which is quite distinct from India's main religions.

It was great to get an 'outsider's' view of life in Mumbai and Mistry not only delivers a fantastic story, but also charts the turbulent political situation in India, Pakistan and East Bengal (now Bangladesh), a mere twenty years or so after independence. 

Theme: Corruption

Unfortunately, corruption is a theme I come across again and again, as I'm researching for my blog.  Whether it's Maharashtra, Liberia or Dorset, corruption seems to be a global problem, to which, no-one seems to have a definitive solution. Like the narrator of TS Eliot's poem, Gustad Noble feels alienated and powerless in a world that is changing around him.  Having been brought up in quite a well-to-do family, his father's business is ruined and Gustad enters adulthood with a great education and upbringing, but no wealth.  His education sees him securing a job in a bank and he lives a lower middle-class life, investing his hopes and dreams in the education of his eldest son, Sohrab.

Indira Gandhi at Madame Tussaud's, London
Despite the tricks life has played on him, Gustad starts the novel with a naive belief in the modern Indian political system that has replaced a colonial one.  The novel deals with Gustad's struggle to cling onto this belief, as he begins to understand the corruption of Indira Gandhi's government, as well as the people around him, including his friend and neighbour, the ex-Army Major Jimmy Billimoria.  Another kind of corruption, in Gustad's eyes is the betrayal by his son, Sohrab, who refuses to follow the educational path his father had been setting out for him.

Theme: Spiritual renewal

The novel opens with a great scene where Gustad is trying to concentrate on his morning prayers, whilst around him Bombay screeches, hollers, beeps loudly and distracts him.  I have to say, Mumbai is probably the noisiest place I have ever been to, so I can relate to Gustad's frustrations, as he tries to find an island of serenity in the chaos of one of the world's biggest cities. 

Gustad is an incredibly 'pure' person and he gets upset at the fact that so many passers-by (men) are urinating against the wall of the compound that he lives in, leaving an awful stench and attracting mosquitoes.  Rather than resigning himself to this state of affairs, Gustad employs a local pavement artist to transform the wall, by sketching drawings of figures and buildings from the world's major religions.  The images of Krishna, Christ and the Ka'aba deter passers-by from urinating there and, within days, the wall has become a religious shrine and a place of beauty and fragrance. 

Theme: Misplaced sexuality

2006 paperback edition, Darren Wall at Faber
Although Mistry's novel promises to explore the father-son relationship, a common theme in Indian literature and movies, actually Gustad's son is absent for most of the novel, withdrawing his story from the reader's imagination and letting us focus on another, incredibly interesting relationship - the one between Gustad and his young neighbour Tehmul.

Tehmul suffers from physical and mental disabilities, after a childhood accident and is almost completely on his own, being neglected by his elder brother.  He and Gustad form a really lovely friendship.  Gustad is the only person who can (or perhaps, makes the effort) to understand Tehmul's rapid-fire speech and, whilst the rest of the neighbours find Tehmul's disability frightening or distasteful, Gustad shows a genuine concern for the young man and tries to help him control his, often frantic, behaviour.

One aspect of Tehmul's behaviour that Gustad finds particularly challenging is his awakening sexual drive.  As part of another parallel story within the novel, Gustad's daughter wins a beautiful life-sized doll in a school raffle and Tehmul becomes obsessed with the doll, eventually stealing it and having sex with it in his room, where Gustad walks in on him on the evening of the first black-out in another war with Pakistan.  At first Gustad is angry, but then he shows compassion.  Understanding that Tehmul's physical needs have no other outlet, Gustad allows him to keep the doll.

Mistry deals with the issue tenderly and raises important questions around the taboo of disabled sexuality. I found this theme rather interesting, as it's not one that you come across often and is as taboo in the Western culture I grew up with, as it is in the Indian culture of Mistry's novel.

Other themes

It's a complex book, with many strands and themes - there are other themes that I found interesting, which I'm listing below:

The danger of superstition
The importance of education
Enforced charity-giving
Reverse racism - seeing white skin as superior
The different diets of Mumbai's religious communities
Indian (especially Maharashtran) nationalism
Fear of money
The mystification of medicine
The modernisation of India
The interdependency of physical and mental aging
The appeal of adventure in an otherwise mundane world
Death replacement (how one character's death removes the fear from another)
A life suspended (comparing Mistry's Miss Kutpitia and Dickens' Miss Havisham)

Image credits:

The image of the Three Wise men is from a book illustration and is deemed to be in the public domain

The image of the wax model of Indira Gandhi at Madame Tussaud's was taken by me and you can see more of my photos at my Flickr profile.  

The photo of part of the book cover was taken by me and is from the 2006 paperback edition published by Faber and Faber.  The cover design of this edition was created by Darren Wall


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