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 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 (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.
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.