Rohinton Mistry has not lived in his native India for many years; but like many expatriate writers, he continues a relationship with his country in his writings and has enriched his readers’ understanding of it. In his first two novels, Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance, Mistry set his humorous, heartrending, Dickensian view of Bombay under the shadow of tumult under Indira Ghandi’s rule in the 1970s.
Four years after publishing a collection of stories, Swimming Lessons: And Other Stories from Firozsha Baag in 1987, Mistry released his first novel. Such a Long Journey, which follows a bank clerk’s unwitting descent into corrupt political dealings in 1971 Bombay, was short-listed for the Booker prize and won Canada’s Governor General’s Award. Next came A Fine Balance, Mistry’s sweeping story of four strangers forced into sharing an apartment in 1975 Bombay. Again the Booker short list, and top Canadian honor the Giller Prize.
The selection of A Fine Balance for Oprah’s Book Club in 2001 changed the nature of Mistry’s career, as it has for many authors. While already respected, he had now earned a recognition with a new readership in the hundreds of thousands – a readership that was by and large unlikely to pick up a sprawling book set in 1970s India. Mistry told the show, “[India] remains my focus and makes it all worthwhile because of the people…their capacity for laughter, their capacity to endure….Perhaps my main intention in writing this novel was to look at history from the bottom up.”
As a result of the Oprah publicity, a greater weight of expectation may have rested on Mistry’s third novel than it might have otherwise; this is true not only because of the increased pairs of eyes on Mistry’s work, but because he is a writer who is clearly still evolving. His earlier books encountered some criticism for heavyhandedness, particularly where the injection of political and social commentary were concerned. In 2002’s Family Matters, Mistry moves away from a charged national backdrop and focuses more on family politics, though his keen observance of Indian culture remains a strong element. Charting the effects of one partriarch’s physical decline on his extended family, Family Matters moves forward in Bombay time to the mid-1990s and uses the Vakeel clan as a lens through which the author views (critically) religious fundamentalism.
Mistry’s consistent performance as a novelist, and ever growing awareness of his talents among American readers, promises a long and fruitful career. One Atlantic reviewer, beginning a review of Family Matters, put it this way: “[Mistry] has long been recognized as one of the best Indian writers; he ought to be considered simply one of the best writers, Indian or otherwise, now alive.”
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Although he left India in 1975 and does not often go back, Mistry told a British magazine that he feels no hindrance in writing about his home country. "So far I have had no difficulty writing about it, even though I have been away for so long," he said. "All fiction relies on the real world in the sense that we all take in the world through our five senses and we accumulate details, consciously or subconsciously. This accumulation of detail can be drawn on when you write fiction..."
After emigrating to Toronto in 1975, Mistry got a job as a bank clerk and ascended to the supervisor of customer service after a few years. His dissatisfaction in the job led to his taking classes in English, first at York College, and ultimately pursuing a degree part-time at the University of Toronto.
Mistry had no ambitions to be a writer until he got to Canada and began taking classes in literature at the University of Toronto. Encouraged by his wife, he set out to win a university literary contest by writing his first short story. He called in sick from work, devoted several days to the story, entered it, and won the contest.
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