Family Chronicles

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Fascinating Parsi characters fill Cyrus Mistry’s uneven collection of stories around hassled sons and lonely spouses
Passion Flower: Seven stories of derangement | Cyrus Mistry | Aleph Book Company | Pages 199 | Rs 495
Of the seven stories in Passion Flower, three have Parsis in them, and they are the most compelling; it is clear Cyrus Mistry is most effective within his own community. Perhaps why the 58-year-old found literary success— the $50,000 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature this January for his second novel, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer, after many plays and short stories—in a story set in the underbelly of the Parsi landscape. Take Mistry out of this milieu and the kernel of an interesting plot turns banal in the telling.

These stories span a broad period of contemporary Indian history, one going as far back as four decades ago. ‘Late for Dinner’ is set in 1976 and shows us a husband and wife waiting for the New Year in their flat. Husband wants them to celebrate in some fashion; she is stony and aloof. They are sad, lonely and ordinary and this has been the tone of their lives since a tragedy 23 years earlier, which they don’t speak of. Mistry builds up the tension gradually until they careen headlong into that memory, in a well-crafted story with great attention to detail:

Every evening, after her prayers were done, Sheramai would first light the small lamp of coconut oil which was placed on a low table by her bed. Shutting her eyes, she would touch reverentially the two photo frames of Zarathustra, one of which was on the same table by the lamp, the other on the wall above her bed. Then into the old cupboard, carved with tigers’ heads at its four top corners, would go Sheramai’s prayer book, whose torn binding was repaired with scotch tape.

When Mistry’s stories move to non-Parsi settings, they often aren’t as convincing. ‘Two Angry Men’ has an urban corporate context. Ashutosh and Prashant are school friends but are now boss and employee. Ashutosh asks Prashant to come home for a drink and much of the story is an inner dialogue betraying mutual contempt and manipulation. Prashant is having a platonic affair with a much younger woman at the office, and boss Ashutosh uses this to needle him. This tale culminates in a compromise and resolution of sorts, but the exchange seems artificial. For instance, when Prashant enters the house and is asked to make himself comfortable:

I will, I will, boss, thanks,’ said Prashant settling on the edge of a single-seater, ‘no hurry. I’ll help myself… I do know my way around.’

You’d better, you bum’, said Ashutosh. ‘All those years of hanging out together…’ They laughed. ‘But why so bloody late, man? I’m already starting to feel hungry.’

Childhood friends meeting daily don’t need to spell it out.

Then, in the eponymous story, Passion Flower, a schoolteacher is looking for a plant that is thought to be extinct for his thesis—the find that he expects to open a gateway to a career in the US. The twist to these established expectations doesn’t really work at the end, like some of the story’s casual characterisations, and the aftertaste is of disappointment.

The collection is redeemed by the Parsi stories, of which ‘Unexpected Grace’ is another one. Those who are familiar with the community will recognise the figure of the middle- aged bachelor living with his aged mother in a mixture of animosity and dependence, each imprisoned by the other. Thus, 34-year-old Percy Bhathena’s life is micromanaged by his mother, Banubai. However, he has a secret life she is not in on—alone in the evening, he listens to Western classical music on a gramophone. He is also part of The Bombay Gramophone Society and attends their meetings twice a week. Add a ghost, a prophecy and ultimately a form of freedom for a portrait of a tortured man.

Then, there is ‘Bokha’, again featuring the trope of the Parsi mother and son, but in a far more nasty fashion. Bokha’s mother Khorshedmai, an awful shrew, deliberately brings him up illiterate; only fit for a menial job, like delivery boy at a fire temple. Even at the age of 70, bedridden and obese, she enslaves him emotionally and financially. Bokha finds romance with a maid, but begins to obsess about what his mother will do. His is not a misplaced fear; black magic gradually escalates the drama into something of a horror story that works, despite a predictable ending. The main characters are fascinatingly ugly—Bokha has four front teeth missing, the maid he loves has a bald patch on her head and his swollen mother’s ‘own corpulence had become too much for her to carry about’. This one, especially, lives up to the book’s subtitle, ‘Seven Stories of Derangement’. Some of the others don’t.