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Posts Tagged ‘literary fiction’

Such a Long Journey

 

I am tempted to  summarize my thoughts about Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey with his own words – quite a bit of a journey, but that would both be highly unoriginal and oversimplified, if not completely untrue. There is much that I enjoyed about the book and little that I can honestly kick up a fuss about.

Such a Long Journey (1991) is set in the early 1970s and its characters are overwhelmingly and colorfully Parsi and middle-class. The protagonist, Gustad Noble, is a middle-aged bank employee whose life, if not quite beset by tragedy, has been singularly unsatisfactory. He works hard to achieve respectability despite struggling to manage the needs of his family (a wife and three kids) on his small income. Already embittered by his circumstances, Gustad’s frustrations are aggravated by his eldest son who refuses to join the prestigious IIT and instead elects to pursue a lowly arts degree; by what he perceives as betrayal by one of his closest friends; by his daughter’s persistent sickness which weighs heavily on the family’s finances; by the suffering of his ailing colleague and office clown; and a host of other everyday problems, including his building’s wall being used as an open toilet. There are many, many characters: colleagues, neighbors, friends, community members, some eccentric, some pitiable,  and some mysterious. Although Mistry takes the time to develop Gustad’s character and explore his past, his weaknesses, his thoughts and actions, I felt that he could have delved more deeply into some other (non-minor) characters and their motivations.

Politics, both local and national, provide a backdrop of unrest and disquiet, and Mistry’s characters frequently criticize the Shiv Sena, and the policies of Indira Gandhi and her “car manufacturer” son, RAW (India’s intelligence agency), and deplore the (East-Pakistan) refugee situation and the resulting mandatory refugee tax. Mistry pretends prescience when a vengeful character declares a thinly veiled threat:

I may collect my payment tomorrow, or next year, or after ten years. From whoever is responsible. If it’s the car manufacturer, he will have to pay. Lots of possibilities – his car might explode, for instance. He also likes to fly aeroplanes, so: bhoom, crash, the end…Mummy herself has many enemies. Makes more and more every day, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu. Any one of them could do it.

The “car manufacturer” died in air crash in 1980, and “mummy”, of course, was assassinated by her bodyguards in 1984.

India’s unsuccessful war with China, and its ongoing war with Pakistan are also a frequent topic of office banter. Mistry seems to presume a fair amount of knowledge of the politics of the Indian subcontinent. For those unfamiliar with it, some homework is definitely called for.

Mistry excels at capturing the everyday difficulties of the common man, the dynamics between the various members of the Noble family, as well as their interaction with others, as does he shine at depicting the close-knit Parsi community and its practices. I enjoyed his description of the clinical setting and methods of traditional bonesetters; but had mixed feelings towards the “black magic” that is employed by Noble’s wife  to try to manage their wayward son. While the concept, in an Indian context, is not quite alien to me, I was mildly disturbed by the use of nail clippings and lizard tails to ward off the evil eye.

But for me, the segment that provoked most thought was the debate around the traditional Parsi system of disposing off the dead – The Tower of Silence – a flat open air auditorium with three concentric circles, where dead men, women and children are left to be consumed by vultures, and their bones bleached by the sun. Parsis, traditionally, are averse to cremation, burial, or submergence because they consider fire, land and water to be sacred, and corpses to be unclean. However, the ancient ritual is often incongruous with glamorous luxury high rises. Vultures scattering titbits and body parts on million rupee balconies do nothing to endear the practice to city dwellers. Moreover, traditionally, scavenging birds consumed the body in a matter of hours. With the  dwindling vulture population, this process is often protracted and bodies lie decomposing on the tower, and raising quite a stink. Aviaries to breed vultures, and solar reflectors to accelerate the decomposition notwithstanding, this subject continues to evoke a raging debate between the orthodox, or “vulturists” as Mistry calls them, and the reformists.

Gustad Noble’s is a long journey, from troubled to accepting, from bitter to considerate, and though a tad slow, I found Mistry’s drama to be engaging and rich in details.

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The Marriage Plot wasn’t as unequivocally applauded as Jeffrey Eugenides’ earlier, more popular works, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex. Luckily, I was spared the mental chore of subconsciously examining The Marriage Plot to see if it lived up to the high expectations set by the others, because, I am ashamed to admit, I don’t remember much about either of his earlier books. I could refresh my memory by reading up a plot synopsis on Wikipedia or some such source, but it wouldn’t help me recollect my uniquely subjective response to them. These lost thoughts are precisely the impetus behind Happy Reading. And Happy Thinking.

I know I enjoyed The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, and was intrigued by the mixed response to The Marriage Plot. It is entirely possible that I was expecting a mediocre to above average reading experience and that might have contributed to how totally enjoyable I found it. Well-constructed, engaging, and a very pleasing read.

The Marriage Plot is a rather un-classic love triangle, and an un-classic coming-of-age tale that follows the lives of three Brown graduates in the early 1980s. Madeleine Hanna is a pretty, privileged English major in love. Leonard Bankhead, the object of her affections, is brilliant, utterly charming, poor, and a manic depressive. Mitchell Grammaticus pines for Madeleine, as he ponders his relationship with God, and in some ways, the meaning of is life. The ‘marriage plot’ in the title refers to Madeleine’s honors thesis, as well as an honors seminar that she takes in college, both of which deal with mainly Regency and Victorian novels that revolved around the ‘marriage plot’ – “the suitors, the proposals, the misunderstandings”, the wedding itself, and reached their artistic peak when the heroines faced their disappointing married lives with admirable fortitude. So, yes, The Marriage Plot is about courtship, unrequited love, marriage, and disappointment.

Leonard’s mental illness, and Mitchell’s obsessive yearning for Madeline are two parallel themes that run through the story. I did not fully understand Mitchell’s preoccupation with faith and its relation with his excessive affection for Madeleine, and am not  familiar with the ways in which manic depression manifests itself, but I did enjoy Eugenides’ treatment of the subjects.

With three fairly brainy main characters, a lot of the story involves academic chatter, often about philosophy and God (that students of the subjects will better be able to appreciate), such as a student’s contention with Barthes that “that the act of writing is itself a fictionalization, even if you’re treating actual events.”

Madeleine is a budding Victorianist, and her love of books and women writers, in particular, is apparent right from the first page. She realizes why Victorian women writers were such pioneers:

Women were restricted from owning and inheriting property in early Victorian Britain. They were restricted from participating in politics. And it was under these conditions, while they were classified literally among idiots, that Madeline’s favorite women writers had written their books.

Seen this way, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, especially that written by women, was anything but old hat. Against tremendous odds, without anyone giving them the right to take up the pen or a proper education, women such as Anne Finch, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes, and Emily Dickinson had taken up the pen anyway.

Leonard clearly has an exceptionally brilliant and well-informed mind, so while it does not surprise me that he knows the origin of the word ‘paradise’…

“You know what paradise means?” he asked.

“It doesn’t mean ‘paradise’?”

“It means ‘walled garden’. From the  Arabic…”

…I am a little intrigued. Leonard is presumably referring to the Arabic word firdaus, which I understand means something like ‘the highest level of paradise’. In The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, Hooman Majd talks about paradaeza, high walled Persian gardens, as the origin of the word. If they are both correct, as Persian and Arabic certainly have influenced each other, which way is it? Did firdaus come from paradaeza or vice versa?

Eugenides takes his time to develop the characters, and builds a rich, layered drama. His writing is smooth and inviting. This is not a book I rushed to finish in a night – I savored it over a week. The Marriage Plot might not be a magical novel, but underwhelming it is not.

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