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Books The Toronto Circle

In accomplished stories and novels South Asian writers who are exiles in Canada are re-creating the worlds they left behind

by Jamie James

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

SOME of the finest English-language fiction of our time is being written in Canada. Perhaps the most famous of that country's authors is Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient, who was born in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. A writer whose work deserves to be as well known as Ondaatje's is Rohinton Mistry. One of the most important events in my life as a reader was my discovery of A Fine Balance (1995), Mistry's second novel, which is set in an unnamed city that appears to be Bombay, the author's native city, in 1975. This was the year that Mistry emigrated to Toronto -- and the year that Indira Gandhi proclaimed a state of emergency, setting herself up as India's virtual dictator.

The novel has four major characters: two tanners, uncle and nephew, untouchables who flee the caste violence in their village to make a better life for themselves as tailors; a proud middle-aged widow who defies her family in her determination to remain independent; and a dreamy young man from the mountains whose family sends him to study in the city. The four of them meet on page eight, and their lives intertwine with gathering dramatic intensity as the city descends into chaos in a narrative of superb Chekhovian irony spiced with earthy wit. Imagine -- four fully formed characters! Most of the new American and British novels I see have only one character to whom things happen -- a shadowy stand-in for the author.

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"Delirious in a Different Kind of Way," by Gary Kamiya (November, 1996)
An interview with Michael Ondaatje in Salon.

A Fine Balance has a complicated, engrossing plot, not for the sake of creating suspense per se (though I found myself putting off dinner or staying up too late in order to read just one more chapter) but because life is complicated, and to chronicle four lives satisfactorily requires narrative complexity. I believed in Mistry's world as I did in those created by Dickens and Trollope, and I cared about his characters as I did about Jean Valjean. It is a passionate story, expertly told -- a nineteenth-century epic novel of conscience, written in a suburb of Toronto in the last decade of the twentieth century.

Although the vessel is a literary atavism, purely European in form, the contents are authentically Indian. In that sense, too, the book is Dickensian: Bombay is endowed with all the racy vividness of Mr. Pickwick's London and populated by a large cast of unforgettable minor characters, grotesque and humorous. Rajaram, for example, who supports himself by collecting and selling barbershop sweepings, is a man of Micawberish optimism for whom the worst disasters in life are "only small obstacles."

Like every book, A Fine Balance is flawed. In my view, Mistry does not fully justify the tragic fate that befalls one of the principal characters. His prose style is flexible and polished, but occasionally it strays into the overly ornate. Earthiness at times descends into adolescent scatology. Yet in the context of his overall achievement these are trifles, and may flow from one of Mistry's best qualities: his exuberance.

The story of how Mistry became a writer is itself like something out of a Victorian novel. After graduating from Bombay University with a degree in math and economics, he emigrated to Toronto, where he found work as an accounting clerk. He took literature courses at night school, reading Dickens, Trollope, Chekhov, Joyce -- names that would later be linked with his in reviews of his books. In 1982 his wife, a schoolteacher, drew his attention to a prestigious Canadian short-story contest called the Hart House Literary Contest. He devoted a couple of weekends to writing his first story, which won first prize. The next year he wrote another story for the same competition, and again he won the top honor. Classic in form and wry in tone, these stories tell of life in a Parsi apartment building in Bombay.

Mistry's talent was waiting for him, educated, confident, and fully formed, when he conjured it up. It's as though someone spent years listening to Arthur Rubinstein records and then, without taking piano lessons, sat down and played like Rubinstein.

More stories followed the prizewinners, and were collected in a 1987 book called Tales From Firozsha Baag (that's the name of the apartment building where the stories are set; in the United States the book is called Swimming Lessons and Other Stories From Firozsha Baag). Then Mistry wrote his first novel, Such a Long Journey, also set in an apartment building in Bombay -- this time in 1971, when India intervened in Pakistan's civil war. (One learns a lot about recent Indian history, painlessly, by reading Mistry.) The novel revolves around the moral dilemma of a naive bank clerk who is drawn into political intrigue by an old friend who works for Indira Gandhi's secret police.

Such a Long Journey doesn't seem like a first novel; the author isn't a character, as authors are in so many first novels, yet he is present on every page. Elegantly plotted, inhabited by a large cast of vivid characters, written in luxuriant prose, it reads like the work of a master at the top of his form rather than that of a young writer finding himself. The novel won prizes that brought with them bags of cash, and was made into a film, which had a great success in Canada and has just been released in the United States. Next Mistry wrote A Fine Balance, which accrued even more prizes -- including the Giller, Canada's top book honor -- and yet more bags of cash, a dozen foreign editions, and another film deal.

M. G. Vassanji also took up fiction as a second career, though his switch was perhaps more spectacular: before becoming a writer he was a successful nuclear physicist, with advanced degrees from MIT and the University of Pennsylvania. And if Mistry, a Bombay-born Parsi, seems an exotic transplant to Toronto, Vassanji is even more cosmopolitan: a descendant of Indian immigrants in East Africa, he was born in Kenya and raised in Tanganika, a country that no longer exists (in 1964, when Vassanji was in his teens, it merged with Zanzibar to form Tanzania). After studying in the United States, Vassanji moved to Toronto.

Vassanji's finest novel to date, The Book of Secrets (1994), was chosen as the inaugural winner of the Giller Prize. The story begins in East Africa at the time of World War I, as German Tanganyika and British Kenya are about to go to war, and sweeps forward to the present day. It has a complex narrative structure in the manner of Conrad, including omniscient storytelling about the past, quotations from letters and journals, and the first-person narration in the present of a Goan schoolteacher named Pius Fernandes. Fernandes comes into possession of the 1913 diary of a colonial administrator named Alfred Corbin and resolves to find out more about the man. He uncovers a coil of espionage, miscegenation, and adultery, of love and magic and war, set in jungle villages, in Dar es Salaam, and in London, as he traces the transition of Vassanji's homeland from colonialism to independence to socialism.

The Book of Secrets is Vassanji's third novel. The first, The Gunny Sack (which I haven't been able to get my hands on), is a loosely autobiographical account of the novelist's immigratory past, his rootless roots. He once described the book in words that shed some light on his methods in The Book of Secrets: "I imagined a person with a gunny sack with lots of memories, half remembered. The young man picks out a memory from a gunny sack and it becomes part of a story. A way through which he gives order to his memories. What the narrator is doing is what the author is striving to do -- to give shape to the past. He has his gunny sack. I have the book."

Vassanji's second novel, No New Land (1991), about the problems facing an immigrant family in Toronto (again Indians from East Africa), has a sketchy feel to it. It's more a series of vignettes than a plotted story, with mild humor touching on a Muslim's first taste of pork and first sip of alcohol, and sentimental pathos about the protagonist's difficulties in finding work. Though competently done, it gives no hint of the masterpiece that was to follow.

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)


Jamie James is the author of The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe (1993).

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; The Toronto Circle - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 126-130.