Forbidden is beautiful- I think this small statement aptly describes the man’s most primal instinct. Often, we crave for something, that is out of our reach, be it sweets for a diabetic patient, the irresistible live cricket match during an important examination, or simply an unexpected refusal from a loved one. It is a universal truth that we often run after the impossible. And perhaps, this also explains the charm of Rohinton Mistry’s inimitable novel ‘Such a Long Journey’.
Every character in this novel nurses a desire to achieve the forbidden, be it contraband money, out of bounds intimacy or the tabooed superstitious magic mantras. Everyone runs after the unachievable targets, living their lives in a mirage, only to crash land on the hard cemented floors of reality.
The novel traces the story of Gustad Noble, a Parsi gentleman, a dedicated Bank worker, a doting yet gravely misunderstood father, an unfortunate victim of a hapless road accident, and, as destiny would have it, a weak man with high morals and principles. Rohinton introduces the eccentricities of Gustad one by one, weaving a story around the mundane existence of a middle class family, during the tensed atmosphere of Indo-Pak war, during the early 1970s.
The novel begins with the description of a typical lazy morning in Khodadad building, a Parsi neighborhood, where Gustad finds his strength, despite spiteful neighbors and a stinking black wall. As the story progresses, an element of suspense builds up. Gustad had a great friend, Major Bilimoria, an Army veteran, with an overflowing patriotic zeal. It becomes apparent that he has disappeared from Gustad’s life without notice and Gustad has vowed never to forgive him, though in his heart, he is desperate to hear from him.
He tries hard to forget the reckless Billy, by adopting Dinshawji as his new companion. Dinshawji is a happy-go-lucky old man, with an uncanny sense of humor, a strong libido and an equally formidable wife. But, he is no substitute for the charismatic Billy. A few days later, Gustad, receives a letter from Billy, in which he asks for his help. In a moment of weakness, Gustad instantly agrees, but, soon, he finds out that his dear friend is indulging in some contraband activities. He is, supposedly, a supporter of Bangladesh Liberation, and is involved with some notorious people. At the same time, someone places a massacred rat and cat in Noble’s garden. The strange turn of events shake his beliefs, he feels betrayed by a dear friend, and, gets ready to help Billy to protect his own family from some unknown danger.
How Gustad deals with the invisible enemy, while retaining his good nature, with his sympathies towards the out-castes and his infallible faith in the goodness of humanity, forms the basic framework of this novel. Notwithstanding its name, the novel describes the events of just over a month, however, it traverses a long journey in terms of thoughts, change of attitudes and unmasking of dormant evil residing in innocent looking people. The novel exposes the vulnerability of man in the face of adversity and, at the same time, thread-bares man’s insatiable curiosity to know the unknown.
I just loved the novel for its recurring symbolism and the round about approach of divulging a carefully wrapped secret. Mistry, with his unmatched excellence, makes the stinking black wall of Khodadad building, a metaphor for change. It undergoes a metamorphosis to become a sacred religious place, while its residents fall in their morals and behavior- A doting mother indulges in black magic to cure his wayward son, with a child-man Tehmul becoming the target of all her ill-placed superstitious beliefs; A die-hard romantic Dinshawji becomes serious and grim; while the honest Noble indulges in unlawful activities and runs from one religion to another, to seek divine help.
Strangely, the novel appealed me and depressed me in almost equal measures. Rohinton’s masterly approach towards illness and death, his heartrendingly detailed description of the last rites, and his deep rooted understanding of human emotions and mind touched a chord in my heart. But, at the very next moment, I was unhappy with his non-veg jokes, disgustingly lengthy descriptions of slaughter of animals, and the strange jantar mantar tricks played by Mrs Noble and her eccentric neighbor Miss Kutpitia.
Throughout the novel, I was in two minds. One part of me wanted to put it down, and the other part of me just craved for this never-read-before strange story, slowly inching towards its climax. Despite, all its shortcomings and off-hand remarks, there was some irresistible charm in this novel, that kept me tethered to it till the very end. In short, it is indeed a unique novel in approach, setting and language, and is sure to jerk a strange reaction from your deepest core. A forbidden saga laden with some magic button!