Review: Tales from Firozsha Baag

Tales from Firozsha Baag
Tales from Firozsha Baag
Rohinton Mistry

Review Copyright © 1997 Garret Wilson — December 16, 1997, 7:00pm

Tales from Firozsha Baag is a collection of short stories centered around the inhabitants of an apartment, Firozsha Baag, in Bombay, India. These stories, many of which have been published separately in modified versions, loosely come together in an attempt to provide a taste of India to one who has never been there, although in this respect the result is less successful than his latest novel, A Fine Balance. Were it not for the last chapter, the sum of these stories would hardly portray any sort of cohesion besides the various allusions to characters and events that one may sometimes chance upon.

The last chapter, however, provides a suitable summary that explains the stories as the creation of a former resident of Firozsha Baag who has eventually emigrated to Canada and has written these stories from pieces of childhood memories. This, of course, is an allusion to the author, Rohinton Mistry, who came to Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1975 from Bombay. The ending remarkably draws the stories together, leaving a book with chapters independent enough that they may be read separately in almost any order, yet so bound together by the ending that the reader will not feel cheated of a satisfying finality.

The stories themselves are not only independent in content, many are unique in style; from Parsi’s to Catholics, from first person to third person, from omniscient narrator to lovable storyteller, all keep the reader from tiring of reading of seemingly endless hardships in afar-away land. The variation may not serve as a replacement for an overarching plot to some readers, those of whom may quench their thirst by reading A Fine Balance. The reader who is instead looking for something to read while sitting in a coffee shop on a cold night will not be disappointed — in the winter it has surely served many readers in just this way in the province of Ontario where the author lives.

This first novel of Mistry displays the same descriptive prose that is found in A Fine Balance, with the content manifesting some of the same themes. The ending leaves the reader with no doubt that time continually marches on, leaving memories, oh, so many memories, never snuffing out hope but yet never bringing reward or closure to the past. Firozsha Baag relays this message in a much kinder way, however, without crushing from the reader any hope for a better future.

Mistry’s descriptions are excellent, as usual. While most of Mistry’s writing technique is to provide the hard facts in a descriptive way, without adding hidden messages or colorful imagery, a few gems of this sort shine out in the book. One such section could easily provide the basis for a poem or a song, while at the same time bringing a clear picture of a woman whose troubles you cannot imagine but whose aching heart can nevertheless almost be felt as she remembers not accepting a portable cassette recorder which, in this instance, provides an outlet for her sorrows:

Now she wished she had accepted the gift. It could be handy, she thought with bitterness, to tape the details, to squeeze all of her and Minocher’s suffering inside the plastic case, and proffer it to the visitors who came propelled by custom and convention. When they held out their right hands in the condolence-handshake position (fingertips of left hand tragically supporting right elbow, as though the right arm, overcome with grief, could not make it on its own) she could thrust towards them the cassette and recorder: "You have come to ask about my life, my suffering, my sorrow? Here, take and listen. Listen on the machine, everything is on the tape. How my Minocher fell sick where it started to pain, how much it hurt, what doctor said, what specialist said, what happened in the hospital. This R button? Is for Rewind. Some part you like, you can hear it again, hear it ten times if you want: how nurse gave wrong medicine but my Minocher, sharp eyes even in sickness, noticed different colour of pills and told her to check; how wardboy always handled the bedpan savagely, shoving it underneath as if doing sick people a big favour; how Minocher was afraid when time came for sponge bath, they were so careless and rough — felt like number three sandpaper on his bedsores, my brave Minocher would joke. What? The FF button? Means Fast Forward. If some part bores you, just press FF and tape will turn to something else: like how in hospital Minocher’s bedsores were so terrible it would bring tears to my eyes to look, all filled with pus and a bad smell on him always, even after sponge bath, so I begged of doctor to let me take him home; how at home I changed dressings four times a day using sulfa ointment, and it two weeks bedsores were almost gone; how, as time went by and he got worse, his friends stopped coming when he needed them most, friends like you, now listening to this tape. Hun? This letter P? Stands for Pause. Press it if you want to shut off machine, if you cannot bear to hear more of your friend Minocher’s suffering..." (p. 61).

That is truly the best paragraph in the book. A shorter excerpt, another one of the aforementioned gems, must be passed along as well:

The doctor explained that Grandpa’s hip did not break because he fell, but he fell because the hip, gradually growing brittle, snapped on that fatal day. That’s what osteoporosis does, hollows out the bones and turns effect into cause. It has an unusually high incidence in the Parsi community. We are the chosen people where osteoporosis is concerned. And divorce. The Parsi community has the highest divorce rate in India. It also claims to be the most westernized community in India. Which is the result of the other? Confusion again, of cause and effect. (p. 230).

Tales from Firozsha Baag is full of diversity—"The Ghost of Firozsha Baag" provides the viewpoint one of the lower members of the society, "Squatter" brings humor, "Of White Hairs and Cricket" did not provide enough entertainment for me to remember its content, while "The Paying Guests", intentionally or unintentionally, foreshadows horror throughout, leaving the reader with a surprising ending, if not a sheepish feeling of being cheated. All these Tales and more are within the pages of Firozsha Baag, and the stories grow better over time through memories, as their characters (and their author) have already learned.