C Vijayasree. Handbook of Twentieth-Century Literatures of India. Editor: Nalini Natarajan, Greenwood Press, 1996.
Introduction: History and Context
The Parsis are an ethnoreligious minority in India living mostly on the west coast of the subcontinent, largely in Bombay. As their name implies, Parsis are of Persian descent. The word “Parsi” means a native of “Pars” or “Fars,” an ancient Persian province now in southern Iran. They are followers of Prophet Zoroaster, and their religion was founded around 2000 B.C. The Parsi religion came to be called Zoroastrianism in the West because its prophet, Zarathushtra, was known to the ancient Greeks as Zaroster. After the Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century, they fled their homeland and came in large numbers to India, seeking peace and freedom to practice their religion. At the time of their entry into India, their old priest is reported to have promised the then-king of Gujarat, Jadhav Rana: “We shall try to be like this insignificant amount of sugar in the milk of your human kindness” (Nanavutty 1977, 40). They did, indeed, remain true to their promise: they blended with the Indian milieu even while retaining their distinct cultural identity and contributed richly to the socioeco-nomic life of modern India.
According to a recent census conducted by the government of India, the Parsis constitute only 0.016 percent of the total population of India. Although the Parsis are a minuscule community in the vast Indian population, their contribution to the emergence of modern India has been remarkable. They began as agriculturalists, and soon they entered various fields of economic activity, including industry, trade, commerce, social work, and technology. In every field, they set for themselves high standards of excellence and strove to live up to them. They have never been mere survivors; they have, all along, been supreme achievers. They did, indeed, secure a place for themselves in India on the grounds of merit and talent, making their community indispensable to the country.
Business and industry have undoubtedly been the forte of Parsis, but their contribution to literature, too, has been quite considerable. Their wide exposure to the intellectual movements in and outside India, their generally perceptive response to life, and their innate adaptability to the vicissitudes of cultural change—all these enabled Parsi writers to produce a significant body of literary writing, which now forms an important component in the Indian literature in English. Parsi writing falls into two phases: the early phase or “colonialism,” which includes the pre-1950 writing, written largely in imitation of the British; and the second phase, comprising works written after 1947 or, for numerical neatness, 1950, which may be termed “postcolonialism,” when Parsi writing settled into an established tradition acquiring a distinct form and identity of its own.
The Early Phase: Until 1950
Parsis as an immigrant community have displayed a remarkable linguistic adaptability. When they arrived in India in the seventh century, they willingly made Gujarati, one of the Indian languages, their native tongue. But most Parsis are bilingual, and they retained their links with Persian, the language of their culture and tradition. Parsis were among the first communities in India to have acquired acquaintance with European languages. In the first phase of European colonialism—the phase of commercial ventures—many Parsis became mediators to transact the business of the French, Portuguese, and British traders. Parsi association with the British and the English language goes back to the seventeenth century and is reflected in some of the Parsi family names, such as Merchant, Doctor, Batliwala, Sodawaterwala, Readymoney, and Paymaster, derived from English words.
The process of Westernization, thus, began much earlier among the Parsis than among other sections of Indian society. They were among the earliest to have opted for English education because they realized they needed English for social and occupational mobility under the new dispensation. When the British started the Elphinstone College to impart higher education to Indians, Parsis represented the largest number of pupils. A new generation of Anglophile Parsi intellectuals, English in “spirit,” “manners,” and “morals,” emerged by the turn of the century, and the first set of Parsi writers in English belongs to this class.
In the early phase, Parsi writers showed a preference for poetic forms. English enthusiasm for poetry was fervently imitated by young Parsi intellectuals. These writers were brought upon the English literary tradition and were immensely influenced by the British romantic and Victorian poets. They wrote sonnets, lyrics, and odes imitating the English masters of verse such as Wordsworth, Shelley, and Tennyson. Most colonial peoples and their writers went through a phase of imitation in the initial stages of their colonial experience, but Parsi attempts at assimilation into the colonizers’ culture appear to be unprecedented. As a minority group, they always believed that they could survive only by being loyal to the ruling authority. In addition, they were conscious that they owed their prosperity to the British raj. Their loyalty, therefore, sprang from conviction, and their prime objective was to follow the British as closely as possible in every aspect of life, including arts and literature.
Behramji Malabari (1853-1912), who played a vital role as a journalist, editor, and social reformer for nearly three decades and rendered yeoman service to Indian society through his intellectual and thought-provoking journals, The Indian Patriot, The Voice of India, and East and West, is one of the most important literary figures of this early phase. His long verse autobiography, The Indian Muse in English Garb (1876), was hailed as the first book of the first Parsi poet. It is a collection of poems dealing with everyday experience of life—both joyous and sorrowful, in easy and effortless language. The poem, written in rhyming couplets, offers delightfully satiric portraits of the poet’s contemporaries and contains echoes from Dryden, Pope, and Goldsmith. Satire, which was to become the mainstay of Parsi writing later, was the singular strength of Malabari’s work.
Even as Parsis sought affiliation with the British, they retained their steadfast faith in their religion. A great deal of Parsi poetry in the early phase is religious. Poets often expressed their prophet’s teachings or their own religious experience and sentiment in measured poetic lines. Maneckji Bejani Pithawala’s Afternoons with Ahura Mazda (1919) is a poetic celebration of the power of the Divine; his Links with the Past (1933) offers an authentic interpretation of the thought and ideals of the sacred books of Parsis. D. M. Gorwalla narrates the life of the prophet in his long devotional poem The Light of Iran or the Coming of Zarathushtra (1935). Khabardar Ardeshir Framji’s Zarathushtra, the First Prophet of the World (1950) consists of 101 religious sonnets that touch upon the life and teaching of the Parsi prophet Zoroaster. It is interesting to see how these poets adapt the English poetic discourses, such as a sonnet, ode, and narrative poem, to communicate the message and essence of their own religion.
Parsi poetry often turned eulogistic as the writers paid poetic tributes to their colonial masters. Parsis generally believed that the British brought welfare, prosperity and progress to India. A number of Parsi writers published occasional verses celebrating some important event or other in the colonial history. Rustom Barjorji Paymaster was, for instance, one of the most accomplished poets of this phase. His early works declare his loyalty to the British and pay handsome tributes to the rulers. The Nazrana or India’s Offerings to Her King Emperor on His Coronation (1902) and Sunset and Sunrise: Being Odes on the Death of Queen Victoria (1917) are a part of his imperialist writings.
There was also a small body of nationalist poetry. While the majority of Parsis kept off the nationalist movement, some influential Parsis, such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozshah Mehta, and D. E. Wacha, played an active role in the movements launched by the Indian National Congress. A few Parsi writers, inspired by the triumvirate of Parsi congressmen, wrote nationalist poems with patriotic fervor. Paymaster himself wrote Navroziana or the Dawn of the New Era (1917), paying a handsome tribute to Naoroji, “the Grand Old Man of Indian Politics.” F. J. Karaka’s The Fight for Freedom (1940) celebrates the sacrifices rendered by freedom fighters. Since the Parsi involvement in the nationalist movement itself was marginal, nationalism did not have much impact on Parsi writing.
A large number of Parsi poets of this period drew their inspiration from the British romantic poets, mainly Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats, and produced imitative verse of short-lived eminence. The thematic scope of Parsi romantic poetry included a wide range of human emotions, such as love and fulfillment, loss and loneliness, friendship and fellow feeling. While lyric was the most popular form, traditional metrical structures, such as ode and sonnet, were also used with deftness and felicity. However, the imagery and symbolism largely remained borrowed, and the verse lacked originality and authenticity. Fredoon Kabraji’s A Minor Georgian’s Swan Song; Fifty One Poems (1944); Homi Co-wasji Dotiwalla’s My Ramblings on the Sacred Parnassus (1939); Peshoton Sarobji Goolbai Dubash’s Romance of Souls: A Philosophic Romance in Verse (1918) and Spiritual and Other Poems (1930); and Jehangir R. P. Mody’s Golden Harvest (1932), Golden Gleanings (1933), and Verses Grave and Gay (1933) are some of the works belonging to this trend.
Drama and Theater
The Parsi contribution to the development of drama and theater in preindependence times is worth recording. As early as 1850, Elphinstone College, Bombay, had its Parsi Dramatic society for the performance of English plays. At this stage, no Indian had yet ventured into writing plays in English; this early theater staged several successful performances of Shakespeare’s plays. Sometimes, the dramatists parodied Shakespeare’s works, and such performances drew large audiences. Parsis were responsible for starting professional Gujarati theater as well. Around 1867-68, Victoria Natak Mandal began under the guidance of K. N. Kabraji. Plays dealing with Gujarati life and manners, as well as contemporary social and political issues, were performed. Fardoon Marzban and Jehangir Marzban were among the earliest to have given a boost to Parsi drama. Jehangir Marzban presented vignettes of Bombay life in his humorous plays and won the title “the Mark Twain of Parsis” for his satiric portrait of men and manners. In terms of technique, the Parsi theater blended Western theatrical traditions and local forms of dramatic representation for popular entertainment. It evolved no new forms but adapted the borrowed techniques for an effective dramatization of contemporary life.
While drama as performance was quite active, drama as literary form was almost nonexistent during this period. Historical accounts show that C. S. Nazir’s The First Parsi Baronet, a verse play in English, appeared in 1866. But this obviously remained an isolated effort and did not develop into a trend or tradition. Barring some adaptations of classical plays, such as K. H. Dastur’s The Tragedy of Nero (1905), Jehangir Mody’s Hector, Prince of Troy (1932) and a lone social play, Meherjee Peroze’s Dolly Parsen (1918), there were no published plays during this period.
There was very little Parsi fiction in the preindependence times. Kaikhusrau Edalji Ghamat’s My Friend, the Barrister (1908) is a hilarious account of a Parsi’s going to England to study law. Ardeshir F. J. Chinoy and Dinbai A. J. Chinoy published a novel, Pootli, A Story of Life in Bombay (1915), about Parsi life at the turn of the century. It is a simple and straightforward chronicle of Parsi life. D. M. Gorwalla’s Saarda the Tale of a Rajput Maid (1931) is a historical romance. D. F. Karaka is the most important novelist of this phase since he attempted serious political novels, running the risk of raising controversial issues at a politically sensitive time. A brilliant journalist and reputed biographer, Karaka published three novels between 1940 and 1944. Just Flesh (1940) deals with the English life in the early decades of the twentieth century. It presents ideological conflicts between two generations of Englishmen through the clash between a conservative father and his socialist son. There Lay the City (1942), set in Bombay, fictionalizes the impact of World War II on the lives of the city dwellers. We Never Die (1944) is a political novel focusing on the struggle for independence in a small north Indian village. Karaka’s anxiety to make ideological statements mars the artistic quality of his work. Yet, his work is significant, as it marks the end of imitation and the beginning of self-assertion. However slight the Parsi writing in the early phase may be, it reveals two of the distinctive characteristics that are to form the Parsi literary sensibility in the later phases—social reform and satire.
The Second Phase: 1950-90
The end of British rule in India in 1947 brought great changes for Parsis, threatening the community’s unity and kinship ties. Throughout the nationalist struggle, most Parsis largely maintained an attitude of aloofness, not only because they enjoyed a special status in the British government but also because they felt estranged from the ideology of Indian nationalism, which entailed a revival of cultural heritage of India, in general, and Hinduism, in particular. Parsis could not identify themselves with the process of formation of a new Indian historical consciousness, as they lacked a corresponding access and attachment to Indian history. Indian independence, hence, created a sense of insecurity, a crisis of identity, and a strong need for self-definition among Parsis.
The root of the identity crisis of Parsis lies in the consciousness of most of the Parsis of being, first of all, Parsis and only secondly Indian/Iranian citizens. Belonging to the Parsi community was not, however, in view of political social structures, dependencies, and relationships, adequate for them to form an autonomous identity. Parsis had to orient and reorient themselves to different systems and authorities—the Hindu kings of Gujarat, the Moghul rule, the British government, and the new India after independence—due to historical exigencies. The orientation of Parsis to various reference systems led to various identities, which sometimes endangered the community’s unity. Indian independence, for instance, indirectly effected further fragmentation of Parsi community. The partition of India resulted in a violent division of the minority community into two nations; the departure of the British left them in a state of stasis until they regained their will to survive and seek realignments; a large number of Parsis who felt they had no future in independent India migrated to the U.K., the United States, and Canada in search of a better break. With all these rapid changes and further dispersal, Parsis in India felt their identity menaced. Postcolonial Parsi writing, hence, addresses the problems of identity and belonging and attempts redefinitions of self and society.
The modernism of Joyce and Pound provided the suitable aesthetic for the poetic expression of postcolonial disillusionment of the Parsi poets. All the major poets of this phase—K. N. Daruwalla, Adil Jussawalla, Kersey Katrak, and Gieve Patel (popularly known as the Parsi Quartet)—began writing in the modernist mode, but, in the course of their writings, what may be called “Parsi modernism” takes shape. The first major characteristic of these modernists was setting out on a search for new values in the face of changing social and political structures. The years that followed independence were not those of fulfillment of promise. Independence did not usher in an era of the expected prosperity. The postindependence political chaos, the holocaust of world wars, the blood-baths that followed the partition, widespread corruption, scarcity of essential commodities, unemployment, and poverty, along with a general moral and ethical decline, created a feeling of futility and frustration among people. Parsis, as a progressive minority, felt disillusioned by the decline in the general standard of living. The writers, hence, urge social change and reform.
Another significant feature all the Parsi writers seem to share is the need for self-definition. They often try to reexamine their own ethnic identity and analyze their own cultural situation: what it means to be a Parsi. Third, the poets turned to secular themes. They turned away from religion and sought meaning and order in everyday existence. They moved away from the idealism and romanticism of their predecessors. They were no longer lured by the “sacred Parnassus,” “spring blossoms,” and “spiritual romances;” instead, they described the dirt, squalor, and poverty of their environs in an unsentimental tone. Finally, poets employed irony and satire as their modes of representation, since these provided them with the advantages of a binocular vision.
Keki N. Daruwalla is the most prolific and accomplished of the Parsi poets of this phase. His work is particularly significant since it steers clear of religious and sectarian conflicts seeking anchorage in the land and landscape. Talking of his religious background, he is reported to have said, “I am neither a good Parsi—hardly ever having lived like one, nor a Hindu or Muslim.” … A bit of everything which really means nothing” (Nabar 1977, 1). He does not melancholically brood over this aspect of his experience but roots himself deeply in the sociopolitical ethos in which he grew up. He is deeply involved with the predicament of his country and people, and, to him, poetry, above everything else, becomes “a social gesture.”
Social satire, demystification of myth, and realistic rendering of contemporary sociopolitical situations are the significant features of his poetry. He elaborates the contradictions, paradoxes, ironies, hypocrisy, violence, and corruption that pervade contemporary India. He exposes and lashes with his satiric whip all sections of Indian society—academicians, bureaucrats, politicians, poets, priests, pseudo-Gandhians, police officers, and the masses. In Under Orion (1970), his first collection of poems, the dominant mood is anger, and these verses cover a wide range of subjects, including curfew, riots, crime, corruption, death, disease, and poverty. Being a police officer by profession, he was exposed to life in the raw, and he turns this experience into evocative poetic images. Satire is the strong point of his second collection, Apparition in April (1971). He retells the familiar legends of Karna and Car-vak and resurrects the heroes of history, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and dispels the aura that surrounds these legendary figures by positing them in the present, which has no respect for any values. Daruwalla’s characteristic humor can best be seen in the poem addressed to Gandhi. He shows how Gandhism has become a much-bandied-about, little understood concept in contemporary Indian sociopolitical life. Gandhi is remembered once a year, says Daruwalla, on the Gandhi Jayanthi day as butchers shut up shop, and people go without mutton. In Crossing of Rivers (1976), a more serious and much better organized collection of poems, he projects the intriguing paradoxes with which the holy city of Varanasi bristles. There are filth and poverty here; there are also faith and devotion. Varanasi becomes the microcosm of India. Winter Poems (1980), as the title suggests, is a rather sad account of people’s predicament as they are faced with the violence of hostile nature; greed and avarice of power mongers; the erosion of social and religious values; and the indifference of God.
In his more recent work, Daruwalla moves out of the modernist skepticism and frustration. He begins to feel that existence extends beyond the immediate phenomenal reality and that poetry in the last 10 years has become increasingly spiritual. He now turns to religion to seek meaning in the present. The Keeper of the Dead (1982), which won the poet the Sahitya Akademi Award for 1985, deals with the themes of love, desire, and death. The poet probes the mystery of death, deriving insights from Parsi eschatology and the Islamic view of life. Daruwalla has always been labeled “a landscape poet,” and he calls his sixth collection by the same title, Landscape (1987). These poems are rooted in landscape both outer and inner and offer graphic verbal images. “The Round of the Seasons” in this collection is a powerful poetic evocation of Indian seasons: Vasantha, Grishma, Varsha, Sharad, Hemanth, and Sisir. To Daruwalla, the place is real, and the only identity one can find is with the soil where one is born.
In sharp contrast, Adil Jussawalla shows a persistent preoccupation with the theme of exile and alienation. In his own words, his writing is about the effect of living in lands he can neither leave nor love nor properly belong to (1973, 89-90). Lands End; Poems (1962), his first collection of poems, lacks a unifying focus and reads like a collection of disconnected musings, covering a wide range of themes, such as time, nature, love, man-woman relationship, autobiographical reminiscences, and contemporary social context. These early poems of Jussa-walla show the influence of British poets like Donne and Eliot. His better work is contained in the second anthology, The Missing Person (1976). “The missing person” in this anthology largely appears to be the alter ego of the poet himself and typifies a middle-class intellectual educated abroad trying to relocate himself in his own, but no longer familiar, social milieu. In “The Exile’s Story,” Jus-sawalla tells the tale of a Parsi emigrant to England. When the Mahatma and his followers got what they wanted, the Parsi community was unsure about its future in independent India. The elders advised their youth “to pack” and leave; thus arrives the Parsi emigrant in England. His only urge is to prove and to succeed. Jussawalla deals with the theme of the return of an exile in poems such as “Approaching Santa Cruz Airport, Bombay,” “Nine Poems on Arrival,” and “Immigrant Song.” Much of his writing revolves around the psychic fragmentation experienced by an exile or émigré.
Gieve Patel shares common concerns with Daruwalla and locates his poetry firmly within the social matrix. But what one finds in his work is an unvarnished tale of horror, pain, torture, and death. He is a doctor by profession, and, hence, human pain and agony are a part of his everyday experience, and he voices them in a direct, unemotional, yet forceful tone. Consequently, the reader is shocked out of his or her complacency into a sudden realization of violence and pain in all their grim reality. His first two collections, Poems (1966) and How Do You Withstand, Body? (1977), deal with the suffering of humans in a dehumanizing environment. His focus is on a tormented soul caught in a tormented body. The poet observes the ugliness and violence of the world around him with a dispassionate and ironic detachment, though occasionally involvement and emotion stage a sudden return. In a more recent collection, Mirror, Mirroring (1991), the poet moves into the postmodernist phase, calling into question the observing self in his poetry. “Postmodernism” as it appears in Parsi writing of the last decade or so is, in essence, adopted from the West and has not taken any indigenous form or shape.
Kersy D. Katrak is different from the other three of the Parsi Quartet: he avoids the serious and somber tone and chooses the comic vein, although the subject remains the social situation. His first two anthologies, A Journal by the Way (1968) and Diversions by the Wayside (1969), contain a number of personal poems addressed to his friends Keki Daruwalla and Nissim Ezekiel, to his wife, Usha, and to his newborn child. He blends gentle satire and genial mirth in these early poems. In his later work, Underworld (1979) and Purgatory: Songs from the Holy Planet (1984), Katrak shows preference for verbal effects and indulges in a great deal of wordplay. He uses a variety of new devices ushered in by postmodernism, such as parody, pastiche, collage, and intertextuality. He parodies earlier poets like Yeats and Eliot, re-creates the rhythms of nursery rhymes, and deals with the serious in a comic tone. His poems, written in mono/disyllabic lines with the brevity of telegraphic messages employing apparently unconnected images, read like jigsaw puzzles. The poet makes fun of everything and everyone: religion, God, Godmen, academe, and poets, including himself. He erases the margins between the sacred and the profane, the serious and the comic, the public and the private, dealing with all experience in playful mirth. He neither complains about, nor sulks over, his marginality but affirms it as an alternative tradition and celebrates it. Thus, Parsi poetry in English in the last 40 years, began in a rising wave of modernism; evolved an idiom and expression suitable for an effective expression of Parsi experience of change, transition, exile, and marginality; and entered a new phase of postmodernist self-reflexivity.
Drama and Theater
Unlike poetry and fiction, Parsi drama has not registered very notable gains in the postindependence period. Srinivasa Iyengar attributes the paucity of Indian drama in English to the “fact that the natural medium of conversation” among Indians “is the mother tongue rather than English” (1962, 236). The Parsi community, however, shows an instinctive preference for, and interest in, the dramatic mode. In the postindependence period, Bombay theater groups continued to play an important role in play production, and the Parsi contribution to this has been considerable. Gieve Patel, the Parsi poet, has been an important figure in the emergence of Indian experimental drama in English. His plays deal with social issues in a witty, satiric tone. Princes (1970) dramatizes a feud between two Parsi families over the possession of a male child; Savaksa (1982) is about the marriage between a 60-year-old man, Savaksa, and 20-year-old Perin; Mr. Berham (1981), his most successful play, allegorizes the colonial relationship, projecting a kind of Prospero-Caliban paradigm through the relationship between Mr. Berham and Naval, a tribal boy the former adopts.
Another important Parsi playwright of this period is Dina Mehta. She chooses real-life incidents and dramatizes them effectively. The Myth Makers (1969) is a three-act play dealing with a sudden spurt of communal violence in the city of Bombay. Her Brides Are Not for Burning (published 1993) is a powerful dramatization of the devastation wrought by the dowry system in Indian society. Despite antidowry legislation, dowry continues to be in vogue, often claiming a heavy toll of human lives. Dina Mehta’s play won the BBC prize for radio plays in 1979. Farrukh Dhondy wrote a number of plays, all of which were produced in London. Mama Dragon, Romance, Romance, and The Bride were some of his well-known productions. Romance, Romance, a play based on the Asian experience in England, dramatizes the generation conflict in the context of an immigrant population. While a father tries to have an arranged marriage for his daughter, the university-educated girl asserts her freedom of choice, and the ensuing conflict is dramatized in a comic vein. Parsi drama in English, like the Indian English drama in general, has been slight and has not been able to revitalize the Indian dramatic tradition.
The Parsi novel in English was the last to make its appearance but made quick progress in terms of both quantity and quality. Perin Bharucha’s The Fire Worshippers (1968) is the first significant work of fiction in the postcolonial phase. It gives a comprehensive account of Parsi life and culture. This novel is of greater historical and sociological value than literary interest. Minari (1967) by Nargis Dalal also appeared in the 1960s but made little impact, since it reads more like a routine film story and shows little literary merit.
The last two decades, 1970-90, have been particularly fruitful in the field of Parsi fiction. Several young Parsi writers who settled abroad published their first novels during this period, creating ripples in the Indian and the world literary scene. The fiction written by Parsis in these 20 some years has added up to form a significant portion of Indo-English fiction and has acquired the distinction of a subgenre. A large number of these novelists—Saros Cowasjee, Rohinton Mistry, Farrukh Dhondy, Firdaus Kanga, and Boman Dasai—live abroad, and this body of writing may well be described as expatriate Parsi writing. These writers have arrived on the scene after the high tide of modernism almost subsided. Most of them, living as members of minority groups in Western coun-tries—the U.K., the United States, or Canada—experience a double colonization and often address problems of postcoloniality in their work. It is, therefore, useful to look at their work primarily as “minority literature” engaged in the evolution of a counterhegemonic discourse.
The Parsi novel in English shows all the distinctive features of “minority discourse”: (1) a persistent preoccupation with the problems of identity, (2) articulation of collective consciousness, (3) political involvement, and (4) an active assertion and even celebration of marginality. At the heart of the Parsi novel is the issue of identity. The responses here range from conflicting and even shattering feelings of unbelonging and alienation to a reconciliation of differences into a multicultural ideal.
Saros Cowasjee’s writing exemplifies the first trend. His two novels Goodbye to Elsa (1974) and Suffer Little Children (1982) present the confessional autobiography of Tristan Elliott, an Anglo Indian settled in Britain. In the predicament of Elliott, Cowasjee portrays the sense of loss and rootlessness experienced by a minority community. Goodbye to Elsa narrates a series of sexual misadventures Elliott goes through in his search for love and companionship. He ends up in an asylum at the end of the novel. Suffer Little Children is more in the form of a farce and deals with Elliott’s involvement in the feminist movement and his foiled efforts to find a female companion. These half-serious, half-comic tales of expatriate living unmistakably project the exile’s pathetic urge for recognition and acceptance. Cowasjee’s short stories in the two volumes Stories and Sketches (1970) and Nude Therapy and Other Stories (1978) also generally deal with the predicament of exile, but some stories in the second collection set in India of the 1940s and 1950s such as “My Father’s Medals,” focus on the sociopolitical situation of India of the times. While Cowasjee’s handling of the theme of exile, in spite of its witty presentation, conjures up a predominantly pathetic view of emigrant life, Rohinton Mistry’s short stories deal with the same theme in a genuinely comic tone. “Squatter” and “Swimming Lessons,” both included in Tales of Ferozshah Baag (1987) and set in Canada, relate the tribulations of two immigrants—Sarosh (Sid) and Kersi, respectively. While Sarosh, who strives to become completely Canadian, abandons his obsession and returns to India, Kersi makes peace with his new home. In either case, Mistry rules out the need for pessimism.
Much of Parsi fiction, however, treats exile as a mere phase and seeks to root itself in the ethnic locale of the Parsi community. The writers, despite being expatriates, locate their work in Indian-Parsi life, more specifically in Bombay, which has always been the epicenter of Parsi culture. They write with a deep sense of admiration for their community, an intimate knowledge of its virtues and weaknesses, a warm affection for its eccentricities, and a loving consideration for the preservation of its cultural identity. They do not try to romanticize or apotheosize their community. Their preoccupation is with the commonplace emotions, habits, and rituals that define quotidian community life. The Parsi community in all its diversity comes alive in these works.
Bapsy Sidhwa’s The Crow Eaters (1978) deals with the fluctuating fortunes of Junglewallas, a Parsi family under the raj, in the early twentieth century. Fredoon Junglewalla, Freddy for short, who starts from nothing, gradually rises to the level of being listed in “the Zarathusiti Calender of Great Men and Women.” This meteoric rise, as Sidhwa ironically observes, is made possible by sycophancy, allegiance to the British, and Anglicization. Freddy, like several others of his community, views the nationalist movement with suspicion. He pointedly disapproves of the movement launched by Dadabhai Naoroji, “a misguided Parsi from Bombay,” and is afraid that independence might simply mean sharing of the national cake by the majority communities—Muslims and Hindus. Bapsy Sidhwa’s book met with initial resistance, since her frank and forthright portrayal of Parsi life was construed as an unfair representation of the community. In Sidhwa’s own words, this saga of Parsi life springs from her enormous affection for the community and is a “labour of love” (1980).
Rohinton Mistry’s Tales of Ferozsha Baag records the vibrations of Parsi life, Ferozsha Baag’s choosing a residential apartment complex in Bombay as its focus. Mistry’s focus is on the psychological problems associated with margin-ality. Firdaus Kanga’s Trying to Grow (1990) is built around the painful experience of a physically handicapped boy—Daryus Kotwal—in trying to grow into adulthood. The flowering of the adolescent sensibility is unraveled against the background of the close-knit family of the Kotwals. The novel is at once a bildungsroman and a family saga.
Boman Desai’s The Memory of Elephants (1992) has all the characteristics of a family chronicle, though presented in science fiction garb. Hormus Seervai, the central character of the novel, is a young Parsi scientist doing research in an American university. He makes a memory machine or mono scan to study how memories become encoded in the brain. The problem starts when Homi uses this gadget to relive the intensity of a sexual experience he has had with his girlfriend. As Homi repeats this replay experiment, the machine malfunctions, and he slips from his personal memory into the collective consciousness. Homi collapses into a coma physically, while his consciousness becomes a voyeur to the history of his family and race as well; and a marvelous panorama of Parsi life unfolds.
Farrukh Dhondy’s work steers clear of the pangs of alienation and lacks the ethnic identity of typical Parsi writing. A new agenda of multiculturalism emerges clearly from his writing. As a writer working in the multiracial British society, Dhondy sees his own role as a catalyst in bringing about the assimilation of, and understanding between, varied and culturally divergent groups and traditions. Most of his short stories deal with multiethnic situations and view multiculturalism as the reality of our times. This major thrust of his work is most forcefully expressed in his novel The Bombay Duck (1990). Here the two central characters—Gerald Blossom and Xerxes Xavaxa (for short, Mr. XX)— are shown to be engaged in a struggle for survival. They resort to various means, including changing of names, religion, and identity in their quest for lucrative jobs. They try their hand at different trades ranging from playacting to baby trading, and their struggle is portrayed against multicultural settings, including India, Britain, and America. Dhondy attacks religious fundamentalism and parochialism and portrays the multiethnic reality of our times in all its complexity.
As in Parsi poetry, the sociopolitical issues figure prominently in fictional writing as well. Parsi novels turn explicitly political, picking on specific political events for elaborate treatment and analysis. This political nature of Parsi fiction is significant in view of the earlier evasion of political issues. This may be viewed as the writers’ emancipation from the impact of colonization, which compelled them to remain outside the political and policy-making processes. Parsis show an accuracy in documentation and a deep involvement with the sociopolitical situation. The major political events of the last 50 years, including the partition, the emergency, Indo-Pakistan and Indochina Wars, and the Bangladesh war, find representation in Parsi accounts of contemporary life. Bapsy Sidhwa’s The Bride (1983) unfolds the travails faced by a young girl, Zaitoon, married into the tribal community of Kohistan, as she tries to break the fetters and escape back into freedom. Zaitoon is portrayed as a child of partition, since all her woes begin in her being orphaned at the age of four on account of the communal violence that broke out following the partition. Sidhwa’s next novel, Ice-Candy Man (1988), is yet another powerful account of partition. The novelist traces the impact of this important political event on human destinies.
Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey (1991) re-creates the sociopolitical situation of the 1970s in India. It is the story of Gustad Noble, a little man who puts up a brave fight against a largely hostile society as he gets entangled in a series of complications and finds himself implicated in several crimes during the Bangladesh War of the 1970s. Mistry combines fact with fiction, the real with the imaginary, and tells a compelling tale of a common man’s struggle to retain dignity in the face of crises. Gustap Irani’s Once upon a Raj (1992) is a hilarious farce dealing with the conflicts between an Indian princely state and the British government. Dina Mehta’s And Some Take a Lover Too (1993), set against the backdrop of the Quit India movement, authentically records the responses of a Parsi girl, Roshni Wadia, to Gandhism and the Indian national movement. Roshni has all the admiration for Gandhi and his way of life, but she feels like an outsider in the Gandhian scheme of things. Her response typifies the ambivalent attitude of Parsis to the Gandhian movement.
All these writers are engaged in an active exploration of marginality. Their protagonists are propelled by a desire to identify themselves by achieving some kind of centrality but they are often betrayed and remarginalized. The struggle will continue until they learn to celebrate their own marginality and define themselves through it. However, their struggle against the hegemonic systems is, in itself, a declaration of their autonomy and their refusal to be controlled by, or co-opted into, the dominant culture and is, in a way, a celebration of their own marginality.
The greatest strength of Parsi fiction lies in its successful evocation of the comic. It is fair to say that an important part of Parsi literary imagination is critical, ironic, and mockingly humorous. Parsis as a mature community have learned to laugh at themselves. All the Parsi novelists portray the oddities and eccentricities of their community more with a sense of indulgent affection than with one of chastisement. Whatever the theme they elaborate, whatever the general mood they portray, the comedy of life always breaks through, energizing their narratives and placing their works in a larger human perspective. They choose the satiric mode and view the world around them from an ironic point of view. Their satire is devoid of bitterness or didacticism. It is, in fact, accompanied by a bemused indulgence and an affectionate tolerance. The writers seem to hold that incongruity is a part of existence and is more a reason for a comic, rather than a tragic, response.
Parsi novelists, having been educated in the West and exposed to the modernist and postmodernist movements in fictional writing, show a preference for experimental constructs. They create counterdiscourses in reorienting the Western discursive strategies to the narrative needs of their own peculiar postcolonialist and marginal experiences. Saros Cowasjee’s work uses confession and autobiography as the basic mode, shares the features of the “campus novel,” and unmistakably belongs to the tradition of black humor writing. Firdaus Kanga’s Trying to Grow is a commendable achievement in autobiographical fiction. Bapsy Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy Man is historiography in the postmodernist sense. Boman Desai’s achievement lies in adapting the science fiction mode to suit the requirements of a family saga. In some of his tales, Rohinton Mistry employs a writer-narrator and uses the self-reflexive techniques of metafictional narration. On the whole, all these writers show an intimate knowledge of the life they portray and a firm control over fictional form. Their work is a significant contribution to the emergence of the new Indo-English novel.
Parsi writing in English, thus, has come a long way, moving from initial imitation to innovation, from diffidence to self-confidence, from dependence to autonomy. Parsi poets and novelists in the postcolonial period continue to draw their forms from the West, but they successfully adapted, reoriented, and sometimes subverted these borrowed structures and developed counterdiscourses to dismantle the hegemonic assumptions contained in the canonical forms. They are alert to the political implications of all contemporary sociocultural developments and respond sensitively to all forms of domination, however subtle they may be. They made a significant contribution not only to postcolonial Indian writing in English but also to the tradition of minority writing.