QUEST FOR IDENTITY: A FEELING OF ROOTLESSNESS AND HOMELESSNESS IN ROHINTON MISTRY’S SUCH A LONG JOURNEY

Kakoli Kashyap

Diaspora literature primarily revolves round the problem of one’s identity which is associated with loss of one’s homeland from where displacement ensues. It expresses and explores the troubles and experiences of migration. Rohinton Mistry’s writing is also not an exception. He gives a voice to the past bequeathed memories, oral testimonies, remembered histories and stories through his writings.

However, today in postcolonial diaspora studies the concept of ‘Identity’ is a much discussed issue. Diasporic literature explores the identities formed in multiple places, languages, religions and cultures of ‘homeland’ and ‘hostland’. Since independence of India the Indian diasporic community has acquired a new identity due to the mutual process of self - fashioning and increasing acceptance by the adopted country. Diaspora creates an encounter between cultures, languages, thoughts and people and that produces what Homi Bhabha theorized as ‘hybridity’. This hybridized state of immigrants is captured by the immigrant authors like Bharati Mukherjee, Hanif Kureshi, Chitra Benerjee, Kiran Desai etc. There is very often a misfit between a migrants’ imaginary homeland and the adopted country’s living conditions. He has to negotiate the memory of old identity and the concreteness of the new one. Bhabha rethinks about the questions of identity in his Location of Culture (1994). He sees the dislocations as a productive condition. The in-between space of migrants is the place to recast the identity of an individual. He sees identity as a process of negotiation and of articulation.

However, Diasporas try their best at first to keep their own identity in their own community. But outside of community, their social identity is lost due to their migration from homeland to adopted country. Bhabha has seen this ‘dislocation’ as a productive condition. Their ‘Thrishanku’ position is the position to reframe the new identity. Edward Said states in his Reflections on Exile:

Exile is the unhealable rift between a human being and a native place, between the self and the true home, its essential sadness can never be overcomed, the achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever. (Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, 173)

In fact, the very word ‘home’ is an elixir of the identity and personality for diasporic people. Homi Bhabha termed such people ‘unhomed’ in his famous work The Location of Culture. Here ‘unhomed’ does not means to be homeless. The sense of being unhomed is reflected through the words of Salman Rushdie when he points out:

“…that our physical alienation from India inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fiction not actually cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, India of the mind.’’  (Rushdie, 1991: p.10).

All the immigrant Indian authors have to face this dilemma of being at distant places outside India when they live in their adopted dreamland and write about India In this situation they are alleged to be dishonest to their writings. Mistry asserts:

Some people might say it’s arrogant of me not to live there and assume that I know everything…But I’m confident that I do know. It’s memory. Well I suppose that when one says memory, its memory plus imagination, which creates a new memory.’’ (Mistry, 2007: p.78 )

Many writers of Indian diaspora write about the narrative of people who travel out of their homes in order to settle abroad. The people move abroad for various reasons, such as, to develop their own future prospects, achieve economic and professional success, and  to be labelled and envied as NRIs . But while moving to a foreign land many people cannot adjust themselves to the life and community of that new land. In many cases, it is seen that financial security is attained but the sense of loneliness and rootlessness develop into very deep. They face a new culture which poles apart from the one they have left at the back. They miss the community feeling of their homeland in that alien land. Therefore the settlers try to form a community of their own with the people from their home country. It is interesting to note that in doing so they do not consider their religious or regional associations very seriously.    
      
Rohinton Mistry, the diasporic writer deals with migrant experience and his works depict Parsi cultural ethos, dilemma of migration, love for the homeland, hybridity and quest for identity.  His characters often try to bring to life the roles that have been assigned to them in Parsi lifestyle. Rohinton Mistry seems to indulge in the memories of his childhood and youth in Bombay in order to bring back to life recollections close to him.  Bombay is a place of recollections for Mistry as he had left it for Canada at the age of twenty three. So, now as he is writing from Canada he has described the city with affection and regretful yearning. It is a peaceful and balanced pastoral paradise confined to the past. While describing these recollections the focus of Mistry is on his own community - the Parsi community. Bombay is the city that is the home to the Parsi community. It is well known that a considerably large section of their community lives in Bombay. Parsi tradition and culture run through the veins of his characters and Mistry tries to intrude into that depth of reality by showing the strong emotions of detachment, loneliness, nostalgia and depression in his characters. Nevertheless, Mistry’s experience of diaspora is unique as he is twice dislocated; hence, he is a diaspora not only in Canada where he had settled in his later life but also a diaspora even in India. His characters are shown as diaspora in India not in Canada.        

In this chapter an endeavour is made to explore the themes of quest for identity, homelessness and rootlessness in two novels of Mistry and they are- Such a Long Journey and A Fine Balance. The primary concern of Mistry is to record the anxieties, problems, uneasiness and the distinct identity of  Parsi community within the boundary of India. Like all other Parsi writers, he is also concerned with the preservation of the ethnic identity of his community.

Such a Long Journey is an enchanting account of the Parsis and their home Bombay, in general, and Gustad Noble, a Parsi protagonist and Khodadad building, a Parsi enclave, in particular. The novel is a continuation of the experience in displeasure, anxieties and anguish as perceived by the characters belonging to the minority community of the Parsi in the city of Bombay. It is noticed that from the very beginning of the novel Such a Long Journey a sense of fear and insecurity are attached to the storyline.  Mistry has well studied the history, social and political condition of India during his stay in Bombay and has adapted it in the novel, which is interesting and traditionally significant. It can be said that along with the historical events as its setting and background, the novel is more of inward journey of the chief characters, inhabiting in Khodadad building. Here, Mistry employs images and symbols more decisively for the reconstruction of his past memories. Gustad’s struggles with memories of a financially secure and emotionally stable past show his family’s current struggles. His frequent remembrance of his childhood days, when his father was a rich man and again when he was declared insolvent, exposes the rich past of the Parsis in India and presents Gustad’s personal life which is full of troubles. Gustad has really lost his happiest childhood during the course of long journey of life. He recalls his peaceful childhood days when the family had servants, but now they cannot even afford to buy milk from Parsi diary:

“...remembered the days when ration cards were only for the poor or the servants, the days when she and Gustad could afford to buy the fine creamy product of Parsi Dairy Farm, before the prices started to go up, up, up and never came down.” (Mistry, 1991: p.3)

It projects the dwindling and declining condition of the Parsis in present context. This deterioration is noticed in Gustad’s life because of his rootlessness. In fact he can be considered as a tragic hero as he is passing from happiness to misery.  In the opening section of the novel Gustad Noble is seen as a god-fearing man and envy of neighbours and all:

“...his thick, groomed moustache was just as black and velvety. Tall and broad shouldered, Gustad was the envy and admiration of friends and relatives whenever health or sickness was being discussed. For a man swimming the tidewater of his fifth decade of life, they said, he looked so solid.” (Mistry, 1991: p.1).

But as the novel progresses it is noticed that his position is gradually degrading to an unhappy mourning fellow. The main reason behind this is his feeling of insecurity in the existing society where Parsis are kept at the border.

 Jasbir Jain says that,
“Rohinton Mistry’s work raises a whole lot of other questions specifically related to the ‘homeland’ and political memory. Neither nostalgia nor memory in itself can account for this rootedness and preoccupation with the homeland and the environment boundaries of the city of birth.” (Diriya, 2016: p.42).

It is already mentioned that Gustad in Such a Long Journey represents a common middle-class man in general and Parsi community in particular. Right from the beginning we find that Gustad, a caring husband, father and friend always thinks about the future of his relation. But on the contrary, life is not easy for him. Gustad is worried about his son who takes rebellious stance against his father and denies his wishes. He feels very sorry for his daughter Roshan’s illness and sudden disappearance of his intimate friend Major Bilimoria and at last death of his friend Dinshawji.  But his son bluntly refuses that he does not want to join IIT because he is not interested in it. Gustad Noble is a hopeful man who looks for prosperity and good life to his family. His dreams and aspirations are quite modest. He thinks about his son’s future. He thinks that his son should join IIT because IIT will provide him good life. But Sohrab is not at all interested in studying in IIT and he does not pay any heed to his father’s wishes. Sohrab’s rude reply to his father irritates Gustad. He thinks that Sohrab is not enough mature to think about his own future and so he is unable to judge coming life. He wonders over the careless reaction of Sohrab. He says:

What kind of life was Sohrab going to look forward to? No future for minorities, with all these fascist Shivsena politics and Marathi language nonsense. It is going to be like the black people in America –Twice as good as the white men to get half as much. (Mistry, 1991: p.55)

This statement reveals Gustads’ psychological fear about his son’s future life. He thinks that there is no future for minorities in this country because of fascist activities like Shivsena who fights only for Marathi people and Marathi language. Such fascist ideology reduced them as a black people in America. This utterance exposes Gustad’s constant awareness of their marginalization and their process of creating an identity of their own. Besides, Gustad views Sohrab’s rebellious gesture as a symptom of loss of respect for tradition and values. Sohrab’s deparature from home is also result of his identity crisis. He refuses to bear the burden of his father’s memories and his aspirations. His rebellion is a means to assert his difference, his individuality and his identity as an independent human being. Here, along with the loss of identity Mistry highlights the generation gap which seems to threaten existence of life of that Parsi family. Gustad’s increasing anxiety and feeling of insecurity is also noticed at the time of his daughter Roshan’s suffering from diarrhoea. Roshan’s illness continues to make matters worse. So, Gustad visits Dr. Paymaster to report Roshan’s continuous illness but there also he is insulted. The doctor suspects that Gustad has modified the prescription at his own will. These situations contribute to Gustad’s feeling of restlessness and land him in the dark land of suspicion.

 It can be added that through the fluctuating fortunes of the protagonist, Mistry depicts the socio-political turmoil of the sixties and seventies era and the social and political status of the Parsis in India. He focuses on the marginalization of Parsis through various incidents of the novel. The Nagarwala incident, that involved a Parsi in a scam of sixty lakh rupees, shows the down grading of his community. Through this incident he strongly reacts to the disgrace and insult of Parsis by contemporary government and reveals the feeling of fear and loss in Parsi community. Mistry especially stresses the personal implications of his version of the Nagarwala affair. So, when Gustad thinks about politically humiliated Bilimoria, the emphasis is on feeling of betrayal. Gustad feels:

“...an incomprehensible betrayal, feeling that some vital part of him had been crushed to nothingness. Years of friendship swam before his eyes and filled the piece of paper, it taunted him, mocked him, turned him into gigantic canvas of lies and deceit. What kind of world is this and what kind of me, who can behave in such a fashion? Jimmy Billimoria had trapped him, robbed him of volition.” (Mistry, 1991: p.141)

In Gustad’s opinion Billimoria has violated a universal code of behaviour. It is noticed that Gustad’s journey to Delhi reveals the prime Minister’s direct involvement with a big fraud of sixty lakhs rupees. As a Parsi in Indira Gandhi’s government, Gustad finds that he and his friend Bilimoria are used as part of a clear plan emerged by the P.M to misuse money. Here also, it can be traced that it is because of their Parsi identity they are used in this incident.

Besides these, in the opening chapter of the novel the practice of Gustad’s Kusti prayer is also symbolic of Gustad’s endeavour to re-assert his Parsi identity. By practising this he tries to create a home of his own within the four walls of Khodadad building, away from the Hindu majority outward world. Again the naming incident also contributes a lot to the sense of rootlessness. Dinshawji, a friend of Gustad also expresses his fear and grief over the matter of changing names under the pressure of Shivsena. For him, names are not only names but an identity. Changing names mean changing identity. To Gustad’s question ,what in a name?, he counter asserts that renaming is an infliction of linguistic violence on racial identity, the erasure of family names connected with the colonial past is seen as an erasure of a personal historical connectedness. According to him, names play an important role both in city and a nation as a whole. Hence, he reveals his anguish thus:

You are wrong. Names are so important. My whole life I have come to work at Flora Fountain. And one day the name changes. So what happens to the life I have lived? Was I living the wrong life, with all wrong names? Will I get to second chance to live it all again, with these new names? Tell me what happen to my life. Rubbed out, just like that? Tell me.” Mistry, 1991: p.74)  

According to Dinshawji, people want to lead their life with the seal of self –identity. The changes of names in several places symbolize certain loss of old identity. Therefore, the author’s social and moral consciousness is shown through Dinshawji’s character. In addition to this Mistry portrays anger and sense of insecurity towards India as well as Indian politics through these statements. Nationalization of banks by Indira Gandhi, also adds to their identity crisis. They remember the bygone days when Parsi were the kings of banking sector. They are not happy with the decision of Indira Gandhi. Dinshawji says to Gustad in connections with this bold decision of Indira Gandhi:

“What those days were, yaar. What fun we used to have…..Parsis were the kings of banking in those days. Such respect we used to get. Now the whole atmosphere only has been spoiled. Ever since that Indira nationalized banks.” (Mistry, 1991: p.38)   

This reveals a kind of restless feelings of a community. Infact, memory plays a great role in the novel. Gustad, whenever finds a pen in between his fingers, thinks of his school days. Immediately he goes back to his childhood. He cannot easily forget his childhood memories which are a great loss to him. Gustad separates himself from the world by putting imaginary screens around him.
Above all, it is the title of the novel itself that sets the tone   right in the very beginning.  The title Such a Long Journey has been taken from T. S Eliot’s The Journey of the Magi:

A cold coming we had of it
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey...

The title refers a symbolic significance of individual’s struggle to survive with dignity. The journey of the three wise men to the birth place of Jesus Christ is not an ordinary physical journey. It is a symbol of man’s spiritual quest in which he/she has to undergo numerous hardships. The journey of the Magi is also symbolic of re-orientation which is absolutely essential to attain higher and nobler values in the life. In this novel also, the word journey is used as a metaphor to indicate the fluctuating lives of diasporic people who are always in search of a home.  It is a recurrent theme in immigrant diasporic writing. All historical journeys of Parsis become the central motif of travel. It means a state of moving from one locale, condition or experience to another. Gustad Noble’s journey of life is close to the journey of the Magi in the sense that he is continually in search of a permanent settlement, a fixed identity of his own as well as his own community. There are also some literal journeys in the novel. There is the journey uphill to attend Dinshawji’s funeral and the journey undertaken by Gustad to visit Bilimoria in Delhi. There are other small journeys like his visits to Crawford Market with Malcolm Saldanha as also to the church of Mount Mary, the bus ride which ended in an accident and gave Gustad a permanent limp, his visit to Chor Bazar for the sake of his friend, Jimmy’s secret journey to RAW and his subsequent deteriorating condition. There is also the mental journey of the protagonist from darkness to light. He also makes frequent trips into the past to sustain the present. This is an inward journey by Gustad and he comes to a final realization that life is a rather long journey which has to be covered with patience and love. Hence the end of the book is the beginning of awareness in the protagonist. Thus, the metaphor of journey celebrates the completeness of life and the indestructibility of the human spirit.
The battle against the deteriorating existential condition of the characters is also manifested when Dr. Paymaster gets involved in the final march with more disadvantaged citizens to protest against the conditions of living. It shows a state where people have to come out to the roads to demand justice against incompetent municipalities. Though the author depicts through the character of Gustad the dilemmas of Parsis it is not only Gustad that suffers from these dilemmas. But all the characters of the novel goes through the problem of identity crisis or feeling of rootlessness in one way or other. The identities of Tehmul- Lungarra with a child’s mind in a matured person’s body and that of the taxi driver who once saved Gustad’s life, later come to know as Ghulam Mohammad- are also questionable.    

As religion and ritual play a major role in construction of human identity, Mistry uses religion, ritual and responses to those as  a central theme in his fiction. Infact, rituals and religious beliefs become the markers of ethnic, racial and communitarian identities. In Such A Long Journey Mistry’s focus on death and  three funerals – Dinshawji, Jimmy Billimoria and Tehmul-Lungraa- is an endeavour to re-assert his Parsi identity.

Finally, the demolition of the wall of the Khodadad Building which was built as an enclave completely shatters Gustad’s desire to create a permanent peaceful home of his own where he can strengthen his identity. Like all the diasporic characters his desire to search for a better life, a home can be seen now as a myth which cannot be achieved in reality. In Derrida’s term Gustad’s desire for a peaceful home is only deferred. The moment he is about to reach, it is replaced by something which again defers his ideal home. The conclusion of the novel shows that Gustad is reconciled to the imperfection of existence as he stops hoping for better times and removes the dark paper that had been on the windows since the last war, waiting for calmer days.

Thus, it is seen that the sense of loss and rootlessness act as a binding force in the novel. In fact it is the depiction of Mistry’s own diasporic condition who is twice dislocated from his homeland. So, it is obvious that Mistry has well depicted his deep attachment and nostalgia for his homeland. The socio- cultural nostalgia helped him to create a sense of loss. For the emigrant writer the concept of homelessness, separation, multiple migration, and identity are all conditional because they are related to the socio-cultural context and their content must always be constructed relative to the context. In other words, these concepts are always changeable and undergo constant transformation.


References
  • H.K. Bhabha. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 2004
  • J. Dodiya. Perspectives on the Novels of Rohinton Mistry. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2006
  • N. Gupta (2012). Themes in Rohinton Mistry’s Novels. Lapis Lazuli, II(I)
  • R. Mistry. Such a Long Journey. London: Faber & Faber, 1991
  • T. M. Pillai. Rohinton Mistry: An Anthology of Recent Criticism. Delhi: Pencraft International, 2007.
  • S. Rushdie. Imaginary Homelands. London: Gramta Books,1991

About the author: Kakoli Kashyap, M.A B.Ed is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Fishery Extension, Economics and Statistics in College of Fisheries, AAU, Raha, Nagaon. Formerly Mrs. Kashyap worked as an Assistant Professor in English in Jorhat Kendriya Mahavidyalaya, Jorhat and in Assam Women University, Jorhat, Assam. She is also a Research Scholar in the Department of English, Dibrugarh University. Besides attending a number of national and international seminars and workshops Mrs. Kashyap has published numerous literary and research articles in a number of research journals. With a view to help the students persuing English major in undergraduate and post graduate courses she has also brought out a book entitled Indian Writing in English.

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