Such a Long JourneyI don’t know why I picked up Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey. Published and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991 it is far removed from my usual ways of reading.  Perhaps a commentator on the three movies from Deepa Mehta which I’ve recently seen, drawn to because of their proximity to India’s independence and my interest in Mohandas Gandhi, pointed me to Mistry.  Perhaps I just needed a less severe read for a week than my usual fare.  In any case I wasn’t disappointed, even elevated by his tale. 

It takes place in Bombay, in and around a crumbling old apartment building and the family of Gustad Nobel.  It is 1972 and the politics of Indira Gandhi and  East Pakistan (to become Bangladesh) declaring independence from West Pakistan, are suffused throughout the book, recipients of the metaphors of illness which several of the characters are engaged with.  Mistry has a heart-full, if sometimes sly and often amusing , take on his country of origin, from which he migrated to Canada when he was 23.

Gustad Nobel, a minor functionary in a bank,  is punched in the solar plexus by his smart oldest son’s proclamation that he had no interest in IIT, to which he, in the elite of Indian boys, has been admitted.  Gustad, grandson of a proud, independent furniture maker and son of a bookstore owner who declared bankruptcy in Gustad’s youth is flabbergasted at his son’s rebellion. 

 His sickly young daughter concerns him.  His a long-suffering wife is dabbling in black-magic solutions for daughter and son offered from a strange woman in the apartment block — affording us a glimpse into effects of passing limes around the head of a rebellious child, burning the floating severed tail of a lizard while a man with ‘scrambled eggs’ for a brain looks on. Disappointment in the disappearance of an old and trusted friend constitutes one of the major plot lines as he mysteriously reappears with a request to help launder a large sum of money, which seems to have to do with the rebellion in East Pakistan, and in the end with corruption at the highest levels of Indian government.  Another dear friend, enlisted to help in the money scheme, a randy and amusing old fellow, falls ill and Gustad becomes his nurse, because his wife –“my domestic vulture”– does not make herself available.

As with any good novel from places unfamiliar there is much that is new and exotic: the selling of aphrodisiacs by street vendors outside the main house of prostitution

In the old days when it was time for the annual procession in which the raja had to walk naked before the public with an erect phallus, to convince his subjects that the right to be ruler still belonged to him, it was the palung-tode he relied upon.

There are those who believe in immunization from mosquito bites by eating large numbers of them, ear wax pullers who have a steady trade in the local market, religious chalk drawings which become objects of veneration.   And some things seem the same: protests against government plans, newspaper drives to help the refugees pouring in from the neighboring chaos. Husbands and wives raging and loving each other, the noise and color of large tenements around the world — this one set in Bombay.

An amusing passage describes the resentments against Nixon and Kissinger –” one with rat’s eyes and the bespectacled one with the face of a constipated ox”– when the 7th Fleet is sent to the Bay of Bengal, warning India against flexing its muscles in the Pakistan dispute.

…mothers took great delight in searching through discarded papers for the faces of the rat and the constipated ox to place beneath their babies’ behinds.  The closer the Seventh Fleet came to the Bay of Bengal, the harder it was to find unadorned copies of the two pictures.  Bihmsen decided to help his slum neighbors with their anti-imperialist toilet-training.  He requested all bank employees to give him their daily newspapers whenever pictures of Nixon and Kissinger appeared.  No one refused.  They were happy to assist the war effort and keep morale high.

The oddest passages of all, and a dip into black humor which Mistry might have done more of, has to do the the burial customs of the Parsi — ancient immigrants from Persia and followers still of Zoroastrianism.  As in the funeral rituals of  Tibetan Buddhists the deceased are exposed naked to vultures, here in the Tower of Silence.  As urbanization encroaches the wealthy complain of unregulated and unsupervised vultures leaving unseemly deposits on their balconies. 

In the end Gustad’s heart grows in wonderful ways.  Though his problems have not all been solved, his life completes the arc between the two epigraphs that begin the novel.  The first, by T.S. Eliot, in his “Journey of the Magi,” gives the title to the book.

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey…

The second by Tagore, tells speaks of the resolution

And when old words die out on the tongue,
new melodies break froth from the heart;
and where the old tracks are lost,
new country is revealed with its wonders.


Such a Long Journey MovieThere is also a well done 1999 movie [and Netflix] to match the book.  Though necessarily missing some of the amusing and informative details, it does a very good job of following the story line and including all but a few of the major characters.  In fact, the brass-lunged madam of the House of Cages does a very good job leading the protesters against the government decreed demolition of the pissing-wall, now become the wall of sacred paintings.   is just as I imagined Gustad Nobel to be.   is a bit over-wrought as the crazed Tehmul but certainly remains the character we know from the novel and  is a perfect rendition of Mrs Kutpitia and her spells, charms and spider-webbed rooms. 

Going to India?  Or just want to be carried away to a little known rivulet in the river of humanity?  Be sure one or both are on your list.