Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry

I know quite a bit about India in the period in which this is set – but only at a very micro, rural level. This is an urban middle-class story set against the backdrop of the period of war with Pakistan, a world I really only started discovering through Mistry’s books. For the colour of life in the city, the stench of it, its cheapness, its noise, its horrifying poverty-strickenness, its cruelty, this book can be thoroughly recommended. To watch the small attempts to rise above these circumstances, to escape to something better is distressing…but buy a cup of fairtrade tea or a fairtrade string bag and you’ll get over it.

Having just finished it, I’m still uncertain as to whether this is the first or second time I’ve read it. I have it listed elsewhere as read, but I never felt like I was reading old words despite my realising from the moment it was mentioned, that the wall would be painted. Is there another Indian novel with that same idea? Has my memory changed so much that it is capable of not retaining a story that is really quite memorable?

There is much in this story about that nature of recollection. I wonder how many more times these ruminations will come fresh upon me?

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Update April 2016: I noticed, in connection with the banning of Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness in India, that the University of Mumbai banned this book with alacrity upon the threat of violence from a rightwing political group looking for attention. All over the world free speech is being eroded in universities, ironically from both the left side of the divide and the right. It is something both sides apparently agree upon, that people should only be allowed to say what their side wants to hear. So in the end, what is the difference between a criminal group of thugs in India arguing for the banning of a book and those of quite a different political stance who recently fought to stop Germaine Greer, a noted public speaker and thinker for 50 years, from appearing on university soil?

You can find Mistry’s own reaction to this here.

I quote from it:

“As for the grandson of the Shiv Sena leader, the young man who takes credit for the whole pathetic business, who admits to not having read the book, just the few lines that offend him and his bibliophobic brethren, he has now been inducted into the family enterprise of parochial politics, anointed leader of its newly minted “youth wing.” What can — what should — one feel about him? Pity, disappointment, compassion? Twenty years old, in the final year of a B.A. in history, at my own Alma Mater, the beneficiary of a good education, he is about to embark down the Sena’s well-trodden path, to appeal, like those before him, to all that is worst in human nature.

“Does he have to? No. He is clearly equipped to choose for himself. He could lead, instead of following, the old regime. He could say something radical — that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone [unless one counts those hired to light bonfires], not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.

“He can think independently, and he can choose. And since he is drawn to books, he might want to read, carefully this time, from cover to cover, a couple that would help him make his choice. Come to think of it, the Vice-Chancellor, too, may find them beneficial. First, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in order to consider the options: step back from the abyss, or go over the edge. Next, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. And I would urge particular attention to this verse: ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;…Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake’.”

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