Review: Such a Long Journey

Such a Long Journey
Such a Long Journey
Rohinton Mistry
Vintage Books, New York, NY, 1991

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — April 21, 1998, 10:00pm

Of the three works published by Rohinton Mistry to date, Such a Long Journey is the middle one, both in order of creation and of being representational of the development of Mistry’s style. Building upon the neighborhood/building stories of Tales from Firozsha Baag (see notes), Mistry adds new elements to this novel which give hints of what will come later stylistically in A Fine Balance. While Long Journey gives the impression that Mistry’s style is a work in progress (especially if one has read both of his other works), it nevertheless is an entertaining, quality novel.

Even in Firozsha Baag, Mistry’s unique talent of description shone through, and is carried through to Long Journey. Mistry has a way of painting a description of a scene and putting the reader in the middle, so that one feels as if he/she is actually seeing the sights, actually hearing the sounds, feeling, touching, and even smelling the environment that Mistry brings alive. It is as if we are actually in Delhi, India, in the Khodadad Building with Gustad Noble and his family, taking part in his Long Journey. We are illustrates, In typical Mistry onomatopoeia (bringing to mind the flip/flop of the slippers in the opening lines of Firozsha Baag), we are made aware of every detail:

‘Not going to Churchgate,’ repeated the conductor, clicking away absently with his ticket punch: tidick-tick, tidick-tick, tidick-tick. His left hand played with the sea of coins in his leather pouch, running his fingers through them or lifting a handful and letting them cascade like a metallic waterfall back into the pouch, where they landed with tinny splashes (57).

The new element that Mistry adds to Long Journey is a plot — sort of. Gustad Noble is trying to raise a family, while his son becomes rebellious, his daughter gets sick, his friend dies, and a lunatic is always causing trouble in his own innocent way. That’s beside the fact that an old friend is suddenly trying to involve Gustad in some secret plot, either against or involved with the government at the time of the war. Oh, and did I mention that there was a war?

Yes, there’s a war going on, a very real war that ended in the separation of East Pakistan into what is now Bangladesh. Long Journey in this regard does an excellent job in it’s second new characteristic: educating the reader on the political conditions at a certain point in India’s history. The excellent descriptions and explanations of everyday Indian life found in Firozsha Baag are still here and as good as (or better than) ever, Mistry mixes historical facts with common perceptions of the days of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, giving the reader a knowledge of the political corruption and its effect on the common citizen.

While we follow Gustad’s Long Journey, we therefore learn about the realities of larger political and social issues, from Indira Gandhi to Pakistan to American intervention (or lack of it). Many times, in an attempt to bring across the facts within the framework of a novel, Mistry creates contrived dialogue, such as the extra, "Did I mention in my last letter I am working for Research and Analysis Wing?" (91) to explain the acronym, "RAW," or the "RAW is the Indian Secret Service. Jimmy is no scientist, he is a double-o-seven," on the next page. Some implausibility in dialogue is probably inevitably, though, as Mistry seeks to explain to a reader concepts which most Indians would surely already know:

‘That’s True,’ said gustad. ‘Pakistan is very important to America, because of Russia.’

‘But why?"

Gustad illustrated the geopolitical reality. ‘Look, this samosa plate is Russia. And next to it, my cup — Afghanistan. Very friendly with Russia, right? Now, put your cup beside it, that’s Pakistan. ...Nothing south of Pakistan, only the sea. And that’s why America is so afraid. If Pakistan ever becomes Russia’s friend, then Russia’s road to the Indian Ocean is clear.’

One part of Mistry’s style in Long Journey that can be seen as traditional is the concept of a conclusion. The work is full of conclusions and fulfillment: Dinshawji dies and is at rest, Roshan gets well, Mrs. Pastakia gets a closure to her past and gets to start anew, the war with Pakistan is won, Gustad rids himself of problems with Jimmy Billimoria, and Gustad renews relations with his Sohrab. But throughout the story, we see hints that Mistry wants to illustrate the continuing, never-ending, always turning hand of time and affairs in such things as the destruction of the wall, the reshaping of the artist’s life, the continuing dilapidation of the businesses and surrounding community, the further corruption in the government, and even Ghulam Mohammed’s plans for revenge that in some way foreshadow the assassination of Indira Gandhi in later years. This urge to write a novel without closure was finally let free in Mistry’s latest work, A Fine Balance, creating, as its stalemate chess games illustrate, a struggle against and with life with no clear winners.

Such a Long Journey is the typical Rohinton Mistry that we always want, bringing us right to the scene of action. Although his style of plot seems in the midst of development in this work, the book is certainly worth the time it takes to read it. Again we are introduced to India; indeed, he makes us live there if only for a few hours. We get to know a little bit about India’s past, its leaders, its corruption, its religions, and its political relations. And, best of all, we get a good story to read.