About the Author

Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry’s previous novel, A Fine Balance, received the Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The three-time Booker nominee is also the author of Such a Long Journey, winner of the Governor General’s Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, and the Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Born in Bombay, he has lived in Canada since 1975.

Books by this Author
A Fine Balance
Excerpt

One: City By the Sea
Dina Dalal seldom indulged in looking back at her life with regret or bitterness, or questioning why things had turned out the way they had, cheating her of the bright future everyone had predicted for her when she was in school, when her name was still Dina Shroff. And if she did sink into one of these rare moods, she quickly swam out of it. What was the point of repeating the story over and over and over, she asked herself--it always ended the same way; whichever corridor she took, she wound up in the same room.

Dina's father had been a doctor, a GP with a modest practice who followed the Hippocratic oath somewhat more passionately than others of his profession. During the early years of Dr. Shroff's career, his devotion to his work was diagnosed, by peers, family members, and senior physicians, as typical of youthful zeal and vigour. "How refreshing, this enthusiasm of the young," they smiled, nodding sagely, confident that time would douse the fires of idealism with a healthy dose of cynicism and family responsibilities.

But marriage, and the arrival of a son, followed eleven years later by a daughter, changed nothing for Dr. Shroff. Time only sharpened the imbalance between his fervour to ease suffering and his desire to earn a comfortable income.

"How disappointing," said friends and relatives, shaking their heads. "Such high hopes we had for him. And he keeps slaving like a clerk, like a fanatic, refusing to enjoy life. Poor Mrs. Shroff. Never a vacation, never a party--no fun at all in her existence."

At fifty-one, when Most GPS would have begun considering options like working half-time, hiring an inexpensive junior, or even selling the practice in favour of early retirement, Dr. Shroff had neither the bank balance nor the temperament to permit such indulgences. Instead, he volunteered to lead a campaign of medical graduates bound for districts in the interior. There, where typhoid and cholera, unchallenged by science or technology, were still reaping their routine harvest of villagers, Dr. Shroff would try to seize the deadly sickles or, at the very least, to blunt them.

But Mrs. Shroff undertook a different sort of campaign: to dissuade her husband from going into what she felt were the jaws of certain death. She attempted to coach Dina with words to sway her father. After all, Dina, at twelve, was Daddy's darling. Mrs. Shroff knew that her son, Nusswan, could be of no help in this enterprise. Enlisting him would have ruined any chance of changing her husband's mind.

The turning point in the father-and-son relationship had come seven years ago, on Nusswan's sixteenth birthday. Uncles and aunts had been invited to dinner, and someone said, "Well, Nusswan, you will soon be studying to become a doctor, just like your father."

"I don't want to be a doctor," Nusswan answered. "I'll be going into business-import and export."

Some of the uncles and aunts nodded approvingly. Others recoiled in mock horror, turning to Dr. Shroff. "Is this true? No father-son partnership?"

"Of course it's true," he said. "My children are free to do whatever they please."

But five-year-old Dina had seen the hurt on her father's face before he could hide it. She ran to him and clambered onto his lap. "Daddy, I want to be a doctor, just like you, when I grow up."

Everyone laughed and applauded, and said, Smart little girl, knows how to get what she wants. Later, they whispered that the son was obviously not made of the same solid stuff as the father-no ambition, wouldn't amount to much.

Dina had repeated her wish in the years to come, continuing to regard her father as some kind of god who gave people good health, who struggled against illness, and who, sometimes, succeeded in temporarily thwarting death. And Dr. Shroff was delighted with his bright child. On parents' night at the convent school, the principal and teachers always had the highest praise for her. She would succeed if she wanted to, Dr. Shroff knew it for certain.

Mrs. Shroff also knew, for certain, that her daughter was the one to recruit in the campaign against Dr. Shroff's foolish philanthropic plan of working in remote, Godforsaken villages. But Dina refused to cooperate; she did not approve of devious means to keep her beloved father home.

Then Mrs. Shroff resorted to other methods, using not money or his personal safety or his family to persuade him, for she knew these would fail hopelessly. Instead, she invoked his patients, claiming he was abandoning them, old and frail and helpless. "What will they do if you go so far away? They trust you and rely on you. How can you be so cruel? You have no idea how much you mean to them."

"No, that is not the point," said Dr. Shroff. He was familiar with the anfractuous arguments that her love for him could prompt her to wield. Patiently he explained there were GPS galore in the city who could take care of the assorted aches and pains-where he was going, the people had no one. He comforted her that it was only a temporary assignment, hugging and kissing her much more than was usual for him. "I promise to be back soon," he said. "Before you even grow used to my absence."

But Dr. Shroff could not keep his promise. Three weeks into the medical campaign he was dead, not from typhoid or cholera, but from a cobra's bite, far from the lifesaving reach of antivenins.

Mrs. Shroff received the news calmly. People said it was because she was a doctor's wife, more familiar with death than other mortals. They reasoned that Dr. Shroff must have often carried such tidings to her regarding his own patients, thus preparing her for the inevitable.

When she took brisk charge of the funeral arrangements, managing everything with superb efficiency, people wondered if there was not something a little abnormal about her behaviour. Between disbursing funds from her handbag for the various expenses, she accepted condolences, comforted grieving relatives, tended the oil lamp at the head of Dr. Shroff's bed, washed and ironed her white sari, and made sure there was a supply of incense and sandalwood in the house. She personally instructed the cook about the special vegetarian meal for the next day.

After the full four days of death ceremonies, Dina was still crying. Mrs. Shroff, who was busy tallying the prayer-bungalow charges from the Towers of Silence, said briskly, "Come, my daughter, be sensible now. Daddy would not like this." So Dina did her best to control herself.

Then Mrs. Shroff continued absentmindedly, writing out the cheque. "You could have stopped him if you wanted. He would have listened to you," she said.

Dina's sobs burst out with renewed intensity. In addition to the grief for her father, her tears now included anger towards her mother, even hatred. It would take her a few months to understand that there was no malice or accusation contained in what had been said, just a sad and simple statement of fact as seen by her mother.

Six months after Dr. Shroff's death, after being the pillar that everyone could lean on, Mrs. Shroff gradually began to crumble. Retreating from daily life, she took very little interest in the running of her household or in her own person.

It made little difference to Nusswan, who was twenty-three and busy planning his own future. But Dina, at twelve, could have done with a parent for a few more years. She missed her father dreadfully. Her mother's withdrawal made it much worse.

Nusswan Shroff had earned his own living as a businessman for two years prior to his father's death. He was still single, living at home, saving his money while searching for a suitable flat and a suitable wife. With his father's passing and his mother's reclusion, he realized that the pursuit of a flat was unnecessary, and a wife, urgent.

He now assumed the role of head of the family, and legal guardian to Dina. All their relatives agreed this was as it should be. They praised his selfless decision, admitting they had been wrong about his capabilities. He also took over the family finances, promising that his mother and sister would want for nothing; he would look after them out of his own salary. But, even as he spoke, he knew there was no need for this. The money from the sale of Dr. Shroff's dispensary was sufficient.

Nusswan's first decision as head of the family was to cut back on the hired help. The cook, who came for half the day and prepared the two main meals, was kept on; Lily, the live-in servant, was let go. "We cannot continue in the same luxury as before," he declared. "I just can't afford the wages."

Mrs. Shroff expressed some doubt about the change. "Who will do the cleaning? My hands and feet don't work like before."

"Don't worry, Mamma, we will all share it. You can do easy things, like dusting the furniture. We can wash our own cups and saucers, surely. And Dina is a young girl, full of energy. It will be good for her, teach her how to look after a home."

"Yes, maybe you are right," said Mrs. Shroff, vaguely convinced of the need for money-saving measures.

But Dina knew there was more to it. The week before, while passing the kitchen on her way to the wc well past midnight, she had noticed her brother with the ayah: Lily sitting on one end of the kitchen table, her feet resting on the edge; Nusswan, his pyjamas around his ankles, stood between Lily's thighs, clasping her hips to him. Dina watched his bare buttocks with sleepy curiosity, then crept back to bed without using the toilet, her cheeks flushed. But she must have lingered a moment too long, for Nusswan had seen her.

Not a word was spoken about it. Lily departed (with a modest bonus, unbeknownst to Mrs. Shroff), tearfully declaring that she would never find as nice a family to work for ever again. Dina felt sorry for her, and also despised her.

Then the new household arrangement got under way. Everyone made an honest effort. The experiment in self-reliance seemed like fun. "It's a little like going camping," said Mrs. Shroff.

"That's the spirit," said Nusswan.

With the passing of days, Dina's chores began to increase. As a token of his participation, Nusswan continued to wash his cup, saucer, and breakfast plate before going to work. Beyond that, he did nothing.

One morning, after swallowing his last gulp of tea, he said, "I'm very late today, Dina. Please wash my things."

"I'm not your servant! Wash your own dirty plates!" Weeks of pent-up resentment came gushing. "You said we would each do our own work! All your stinking things you leave for me!"

"Listen to the little tigress," said Nusswan, amused.

"You mustn't speak like that to your big brother," chided Mrs. Shroff gently. ";Remember, we must share and share alike."

"He's cheating! He doesn't do any work! I do everything!"

Nusswan hugged his mother: "Bye-bye, Mamma," and gave Dina a friendly pat on the shoulder to make up. She shrank from him. "The tigress is still angry," he said and left for the office.

Mrs. Shroff tried to soothe Dina, promising to discuss it later with Nusswan, maybe convince him to hire a part-time ayah, but her resolve melted within hours. Matters continued as before. As weeks went by, instead of restoring fairness in the household, she began turning into one of the chores on her daughter's ever-growing list.

Now Mrs. Shroff had to be told what to do. When food was placed before her, she ate it, though it did her little good, for she kept losing weight. She had to be reminded to bathe and change her clothes. If toothpaste was squeezed out and handed to her on the brush, she brushed her teeth. For Dina, the most unpleasant task was helping her mother wash her hair-it fell out in clumps on the bathroom floor, and more followed when she combed it for her.

Once every month, Mrs. Shroff attended her husband's prayers at the fire-temple. She said it gave her great comfort to hear the elderly Dustoor Framji's soothing tones supplicating for her husband's soul. Dina missed school to accompany her mother, worried about her wandering off somewhere.

Before commencing the ceremony, Dustoor Framji unctuously shook Mrs. Shroff's hand and gave Dina a prolonged hug of the sort he reserved for girls and young women. His reputation for squeezing and fondling had earned him the title of Dustoor Daab-Chaab, along with the hostility of his colleagues, who resented not so much his actions but his lack of subtlety, his refusal to disguise his embraces with fatherly or spiritual concern. They feared that one day he would go too far, drool over his victim or something, and disgrace the fire-temple.

Dina squirmed in his grasp as he patted her head, rubbed her neck, stroked her back and pressed himself against her. He had a very short beard, stubble that resembled flakes of grated coconut, and it scraped her cheeks and forehead. He released her just when she had summoned enough courage to tear her trapped body from his arms.

After the fire-temple, for the rest of the day at home Dina tried to make her mother talk, asking her advice about housework or recipes, and when that failed, about Daddy, and the days of their newlywed lives. Faced with her mother's dreamy silences, Dina felt helpless. Soon, her concern for her mother was tempered by the instinct of youth which held her back-she would surely receive her portion of grief and sorrow in due course, there was no need to take on the burden prematurely.

And Mrs. Shroff spoke in monosyllables or sighs, staring into Dina's face for answers. As for dusting the furniture, she could never proceed beyond wiping the picture frame containing her husband's graduation photograph. She spent most of her time gazing out the window.

Nusswan preferred to regard his mother's disintegration as a widow's appropriate renunciation, wherein she was sloughing off the dross of life to concentrate on spiritual matters. He focused his attention on the raising of Dina. The thought of the enormous responsibility resting on his shoulders worried him ceaselessly.

He had always perceived his father to be a strict disciplinarian; he had stood in awe of him, had even been a little frightened of him. If he was to fill his father's shoes, he would have to induce the same fear in others, he decided, and prayed regularly for courage and guidance in his task. He confided to the relatives-the uncles and aunts-that Dina's defiance, her stubbornness, was driving him crazy, and only the Almighty's help gave him the strength to go forward in his duty.

His sincerity touched them. They promised to pray for him too. "Don't worry, Nusswan, everything will be all right. We will light a lamp at the fire-temple."

Heartened by their support, Nusswan began taking Dina with him to the fire-temple once as week. There, he thrust a stick of sandalwood in her hand and whispered fiercely in her ear, "Now pray properly--ask Dadaji to make you a good girl, ask Him to make you obedient."

While she bowed before the sanctum, he travelled along the outer wall hung with pictures of various dustoors and high priests. He glided from display to display, stroking the garlands, hugging the frames, kissing the glass, and ending with the very tall picture of Zarathustra to which he glued his lips for a full minute. Then, from the vessel of ashes placed in the sanctum's doorway, he smeared a pinch on his forehead, another bit across the throat, and undid his top two shirt buttons to rub a fistful over his chest.

Like talcum powder, thought Dina, watching from the corner of her eye, from her bowed position, straining to keep from laughing. She did not raise her head till he had finished his antics.

"Did you pray properly?" he demanded when they were outside.

She nodded.

"Good. Now all the bad thoughts will leave your head, you will feel peace and quiet in your heart."

From the Hardcover edition.

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Family Matters
Excerpt

Though Roxana was their half-sister, Jal and Coomy’s love for her had been full and complete from the moment she was born. At fourteen and twelve, they were not prey to the complicated feelings of jealousy, neglect, rivalry, or even hatred, which newborns evoke in siblings closer in age.

Or perhaps Jal and Coomy were grateful for Roxana because she filled the void left by their own father’s death, four years earlier. Their father had been sickly through most of their childhood. And during brief stretches when his lungs did not confine him to bed, he was still weak, seldom able to get through the day unassisted. His chronic pleurisy was the symptom of a more serious pulmonary disease, its two dreaded initials never mentioned among friends and relatives. Just a little water in the lungs, was how Palonji’s illness was described.

And Palonji, to alleviate his family’s anxiety, made a running joke out of this coded description. If Jal, always full of mischief as a child, did something silly, it was due to a little water in his head. “You must plug your ears when you wash your hair,” his father teased. Clumsy hands meant the person was a real water-fingers. And if little Coomy cried, her father said, “My lovely daughter does not cry, it’s just a little water in the eyes,” which would promptly make her smile.

Palonji Contractor’s courage and his determination to keep up his family’s spirits were heroic, but the end, when it came, was devastating for Jal and Coomy. And three years after his death, when their mother remarried, they were stiff towards the stranger, awkward in their dealings with him. They insisted on addressing Nariman Vakeel as New Pappa.

The word stung like a pebble each time it was hurled to his face. He made light of it at first, laughing it off: “That’s all – just New Pappa? Why not a longer title? How about Brand New Improved Pappa?”

But his choice of adjectives was infelicitous; Jal told him coldly that no one could be an improvement on their real father. It took a few weeks for their mother to convince her children that it would make her very happy if they dropped the New. Jal and Coomy agreed; they were maturing rapidly, far too rapidly. They told their mother they would use whatever word she wanted. Merely calling him Pappa, they said, did not make him one.

Nariman wondered what he had let himself in for by marrying Yasmin Contractor. Neither had come together for love – it was an arranged marriage. She had taken the step for security, for her son and daughter.

And he, when he looked back on it all, across the wasteland of their lives, despaired at how he could have been so feeble-­minded, so spineless, to have allowed it to happen.…

************

Thirty-­six years had passed since. And still he remembered the Sunday evening, the hebdomadal get-­together of his parents’ circle of friends. In this very drawing–room, where the furniture was still the same, the walls carried the same paint, and all their voices still echoed from that Sunday evening….

Much rejoicing had erupted when his parents announced that their only son, after years of refusing to end his ill–considered liaison with that Goan woman, refusing to meet decent Parsi girls, refusing to marry someone respectable – that their beloved Nari had finally listened to reason and agreed to settle down.

He could hear every word on the balcony where he sat alone. As usual, Soli Bamboat, his parents’ oldest friend, semi-retired and still a very influential lawyer, was the first to respond. “Three cheers for Nari!” he shouted. “Heep-heep-heep!” and the rest answered, “Hooray!”

Soli Bamboat’s vocal machinery, despite a lifetime’s struggle with the treachery of English vowels, was frequently undone by them. His speech had been a source of great puzzlement and entertainment for Nariman in childhood.…

Meanwhile, the group responded thrice to Soli’s heep­heep-heep before commencing with an assortment of individual cheers and good wishes for his parents.

“Congratulations, Marzi!” said Mr. Kotwal to his father. “After eleven years of battle you win!”

“Better late than never,” said Mr. Burdy. “But fortune always favours the bold. Remember, the fruits of patience are sweet, and all’s well that ends well.”

“Stop, Mr. Proverb, enough,” said Soli. “Save a few for the rest of us.”

Curious about their comments, Nariman shifted his chair on the balcony so he could observe them without being seen. Now Mrs. Unvala began professing that she had always had faith in the boy to make the right choice in the end, and her husband, Dara, nodded vigorously. Their opinions were offered as a team; the group called him the Silent Partner.

Then Soli entered the balcony, and Nariman pretended to be engrossed in a book. “Hey, Nari! Why are you alone? Come and join the circle, you seely boy.”

“Later, Soli Uncle, I want to finish this chapter.”

“No, no, Nari, we nid you now,” he said, taking the book away. “What’s the rush, the words ­won’t vaneesh from the page.” Seizing his arm, he pulled him into the drawing-room, into the centre of the gathering.

They thumped his back, shook his hand, hugged him while he cringed and wished he ­hadn’t stayed home that evening. But he knew he would have to face them at some point. He heard Soli Uncle’s wife, Nargesh Aunty, ask his mother, “Tell me, Jeroo, is it sincere? Has he really given up that Lucy Braganza?”

“Oh yes,” said his mother. “Yes, he has given us his word.”

Now Mrs. Kotwal scuttled across the room, pinched his cheek, and said, “When the naughty boy at last becomes a good boy, it’s a double delight.”

He felt like reminding her he was forty­two years old. Then Nargesh Aunty beckoned from her seat on the sofa. She was the most softspoken of the group and usually drowned by its din. She patted the place beside her and bade him sit. Taking his hand in hers, which was shrivelled from burns in a kitchen accident during her youth, she whispered, “No happiness is more lasting than the happiness that you get from fulfilling your parents’ wishes. Remember that, Nari.”

Her voice came to him from a great distance, and he had neither will nor energy for argument. He was remembering the week before, when he and Lucy had watched the tide go out at Breach Candy. Some children were dragging a little net in pools of water among the rocks, searching for sea life forgotten by the amnesiac waves. As he watched them splash and yell, he thought about the eleven years he and Lucy had struggled to create a world for themselves. A cocoon, she used to call it. A cocoon was what they needed, she said, into which they could retreat, and after their families had forgotten their existence, they would emerge like two glistening butterflies and fly away together…

The memory made him weaken for an instant – was he making the right decision?…Yes. He was. They had been ground down by their families. Exhausted by the strain of it. He reminded himself how hopeless it was now – Lucy and he had even reached the point where scarcely an evening went by that they did not quarrel about something or the other. What was the purpose in continuing, letting it all crumble in useless bickering?

Then, while the children nearby squealed with excitement at a creature caught in their net, Lucy tried one last time to convince him: they could turn their backs on everyone, walk away from the suffo­cating world of family tyrannies, from the guilt and blackmail that parents specialized in. They could start their own life together, just the two of them.

Struggling to maintain his resolve, he told her they had discussed it all before, their families would hound them, no matter what. The only way to do this was to end it quickly.

Fine, she said, no use talking any more, and walked away from him. He found himself alone beside the sea.

And now, as his parents and their friends discussed his future while sipping Scotch and soda, he felt he was eavesdropping on strangers. They were delightedly conducting their “round­table conference,” as they called it, planning his married life, having as much fun as though it was their whist drive or housie evening.

“There is one problem,” said Mr. Burdy. “We have indeed shut the stable door before the horse bolted, but we must provide a substitute mare.”

“What did he say?” asked Nargesh Aunty.

“Mr. Proverb believes the bridegroom is ready, but we nid to find heem a bride.”

­“Don’t you think,” she said timidly, “that love­marriage would be better than arranged?”

“Of course,” said his father. “You think we ­haven’t encouraged it? But our Nari seems incapable of falling in love with a Parsi girl. Now it’s up to us to find a match.”

“And that will be a challenge, mark my words,” said Mr. Kotwal. “You can look as far from Bombay as you like. You can try from Calcutta to Karachi. But when they make inquiries, they will find out about Nari’s lufroo with that ferangi woman.”

“Impossible to hide it,” agreed Mrs. Unvala. “We’ll have to ­com­promise.”

“Oh I’m sure Nari will find a lovely wife,” said his mother loyally. “The cream of the crop.”

“I think we’ll have to forget about the cream of the crop,” said Mr. Burdy. “As you sow, so shall you reap. You cannot plough the stubble of the crop one day, and expect cream the next.”

They laughed, and their jokes became cruder. Soli said something insulting about ferangis who wiped their arses with paper instead of washing hygienically.

The detachment with which Nariman had been listening evaporated. “How sorry I feel for you all,” he said, unable to choke back his disgust. “You’ve grown old without growing wise.”

His chair scrooped as he pushed it away and returned to the balcony. He picked up his book, staring blankly at the pages. There was a light breeze coming in from the sea. Inside, he could hear his parents apologizing, that the poor boy was distraught because the breakup was still fresh. It infuriated him that they would presume to know how he felt.

“Prince Charming –didn’t appreciate our humour,” said Mr. Burdy. “But there was no need to insult us.”

“I think he was just quoting from a book,” said Mr. Kotwal.

“My big mistake,” said his father, “was books. Too many books. Modern ideas have filled Nari’s head. He never learned to preserve that fine balance between tradition and modernness.”

“Time weal pass and he’ll become normal again,” said Soli. –“Don’t worry, prosid one step at a time.”

“Exactly,” said Mr. Burdy. “Act in haste, repent at leisure. Remember, slow and steady always wins the race.”

Disregarding their own advice, in a matter of days his parents’ friends arranged an introduction for him. “You will meet Yasmin Contractor, a widow with two children,” they told him. “And that’s the best you can expect, mister, with your history.”

Either this widow, they explained, or a defective woman – the choice was his. What sort of defect? he asked, curious. Oh, could be cock-eyed, or deaf, or one leg shorter than the other, they said breezily; or might be someone sickly, with a weak lung, or problems in the child-bearing department – it depended on who was available. If that was his preference, they would make inquiries and prepare a list for him.

“No one is denying you are handsome and well educated. Your past is your handicap – those wasted years, which have thrown you beyond the threshold of forty. But ­don’t worry, everything has been considered: personality, family background, cooking and housekeeping skills. Yes, the widow is our number-one choice. She will make you a good wife.”

Like an invalid steered by doctors and nurses, he drifted through the process, suppressing his doubts and misgivings, ready to believe that the traditional ways were the best. He became the husband of Yasmin Contractor, and formally adopted her children, Jal and Coomy. But they kept their father’s name. To change it to Vakeel would be like rewriting history, suggested his new wife. The simile appealed to his academic soul; he acquiesced.

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