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Rohinton Mistry "Tales from Firozsha Baag" - on records, yarn and writers' memories

I finished reading Rohinton Mistry's "Tales from Firozsha Baag" last week - it's another great book from him. "A Fine Balance" is my favourite book of his - it reminds me so much of my impressions of India and Delhi, though he tends to write more about Mumbai.

This book is a collection of short stories, each one focusing on a family or character who lives in the Firozsha Baag building complex, and describing one of their memories or stories. Some of the characters cross into other stories, having a smaller part in other people's lives. It's a fairly close-knit group, though there are cantankerous characters and some who keep to themselves. It's as I've always imagined the buildings in Indian cities. I've always thought there seems to be more of a community in the cities in India - perhaps because there needs to be as people have to help each other out in order to live and survive. It was one of the things I noticed when we'd drive through the streets - people tended to stop and talk to each other, and they seemed to recognize or know others in their local area. This is different to the apartment blocks I've always lived in - perhaps it's just my blocks, or me, but people in the places where I live seem to barely know each other apart from recognizing someone on the stairwell as they enter their apartments. In the stories, the people of Firozsha Baag are involved in each other's lives - one woman owns a refrigerator and another apartment stores their meats in it in exchange for helping her with other chores. The difference between parts of India and Australia could also be that people in Australia tend to have their own "stuff" and don't need to share it as often, so there are less causes to know your neighbours. And many Australian's live in separate houses not apartments so there is also the separation of space and land dividing the different families, and people don't live in extended families as often as is done in India.

The book is of course written beautifully, so I'd recommend reading it to anyone who wants to know more about life in India. The section below is from the story called "Of white hairs and cricket" caught my eye as it's about yarn & spinning yarn and also music and records - a few of my interests. In this telling, Mistry seems to weave together the simple moments in life as he describes the spinning wool - blending the movements of the yarn with the nuances of their everyday lives, setting the scene for how the family lived.


pages 131-133
"Mamaiji came out and settled in her chair on the veranda.
Seated, there was no trace of the infirmity that caused her to
walk doubled over. Doctors said it was due to a weak spine
that could not erect against the now inordinate weight of her
stomach. From photographs of Mummy's childhood, I knew
Mamaiji had been a big handsome woman, with a majestic
countenance. She opened her bag of spinning things,
although she had been told to rest her eyes after the recent
cataract operation. Then she spied me with the tweezers.

'Sunday dawns and he makes the child do that duleendar
things again. It will only bring bad luck.' She spoke under her
breath, arranging her spindle and wool; she was not looking
for a direct confrontation. 'Plucking out hair as if it was a
slaughtered chicken. An ill-omened thing, I'm warning you,
Sunday after Sunday. But no one listens. Is this anything to
make a child do, he should be out playing, or learning how
to do bajaar, how to bargain with butcher and bunya.' She
mumbled softly, to allow Daddy to pretend he hadn't heard
a thing.

I resented her speaking against Daddy and calling me a
child. She twirled the spindle, drawing fibres into the thread
from the scrap of wool in her left hand as the spindle
descended. I watched, expecting - even wishing - the thread
to break. Sometimes it did, and then it seemed to me that
Mamaiji was overcome with disbelief, shocked and pained
that it could have happened, and I would feel very sorry and rush
to pick it up for her. The spindle spun to the floor this time
without mishap, hanging by a fine, brand new thread. She
hauled it up, winding the thread around the extended thumb
and little finger of her left hand by waggling the wrist in little
clockwise and counter-clockwise half-turns, while the
index and middle fingers clamped tight the source: the shred
of wool resembling a lock of her own hair, snow white and
slightly tangled.

Mamaiji spun enough thread to keep us all in kustis. Since
Grandpa's death, she spent more and more time spinning, so
that now we each had a spare kusti as well. The kustis were
woven by a professional, who always praised the fine quality
of the thread; and even at the fire-temple, where we
untied and tied them during prayers, they earned the covetous
glances of other Parsis.

I beheld the spindle and Mamaiji's co-ordinated feats of
dexterity with admiration. All spinning things entranced me.
The descending spindle was like the bucket spinning down
into the sacred Bhikha Behram Well to draw water for the
ones like us who went there to pray on certain holy days
after visiting the fire-temple. I imagined myself clinging to
the base of the spindle, sinking into the dark well, confident
that Mamaiji would pull me up with her waggling hand
before I drowned, and praying that the thread would not
break. I also liked to stare at records spinning on the old 78-rpm
grammophone. There was one I was particularly fond of:
its round label was the most ethereal blue I ever saw. The
lettering was gold. I played this record over and over, just to
watch its wonderfully soothing blue and gold rotation, and
the concentric rings of the shiny black shellac, whose
grooves created a spiral effect if the light was right. The
grammophone's cabinet's warm smell of wood and leather
seemed to fly right out of this shellacked spiral, while I sat
close, my cheek against it, to feel the hum and vibration of
the turntable. It was so cosy and comforting. Like missing
school because of a slight cold, staying in bed all day with a
book, fussed over by Mummy, eating white rice and soup
made specially for me.


the other section that really caught my notice was in "Swimming Lessons" story, where the author's mother and father are discussing his memories in his writings. and how memories can be changed or writers change them and how there needs to be some time between a writer's memories and them being able to write about them. it reminds me a bit of Susan Sontag's "On Photography" and some of the ideas about memories in her book / essay.

pages 296-297

Mother said what she liked best was his remembering
everything so well, how beautifully he wrote about it all,
even the sad things, and though he had changed some of it, and
used his imagination, there was truth in it.

My hope is, Father said, that there will be some story
based on his Canadian experience, that way we will know
something about our son's life there, if not through his letters
then in his stories; so far they are all about Parsis and
Bombay, and the one with a little bit of Toronto, where a
man perches on top of the toilet, is shameful and disgusting,
although it is funny at times and did make me laugh, I have
to admit but where does he get such an imagination from,
what is the point of such a fantasy; and Mother said that she
would also enjoy some stories about Toronto and the people
there; it puzzles me, she said, why he writes nothing about it,
especially since you say that writers use their own experience
to make stories out of.

Then Father said this is true, but he is probably not using
his Toronto experience because it is too early; what do you
mean, too early, asked Mother and Father explained it takes
a writer about ten years time after an experience before he is
able to use it in his writing, it takes that long to be absorbed
internally and understood, thought out and thought about,
over and over again, he haunts it and it haunts him if it is
valuable enough, till the writer is comfortable with it to be
able to use it as he wants; but this is only one theory I read
somewhere, it may or may not be true.

That means, said Mother, that his childhood in Bombay
and our home hereis the most valuable thing in his life just
now, because he is able to remember it all to write about it,
and you were so bitterly saying he is forgetting where he
came from; and that may be true, said Father, but that is not
what the theory means, according to the theory he is writing
of these things because they are far enough in the past for
him to deal with objectively, he is able to achieve what critics
call artistic distance, without emotions, interferring; and
what do you mean emotions, said Mother, you are saying he
does not feel anything for his characters, how can he write so
beautifully about so many sad things without any feelings in
his heart?

But before Father could explain more, about beauty and
emotion and inspiration and imagination, Mother took the
book and said it was her turn now and too much theory she
did not want to listen to, it was confusing and did not make
as much sense as reading the stories, she would read them
her way and Father could read them his.


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