Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry Plot Summary



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Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry
Plot Summary
Such a Long Journey examines the life of a handful of Parsi Indians in the turbulent early 1970's. When Britain withdraws from the subcontinent in 1948, two states are created. Muslims form one state, Pakistan. Pakistan's two parts are widely separated by its massive southern neighbor, India. In India, Hindus predominate, although society is officially secular. Parsis are a tiny, secretive religious minority.
The inhabitants of Khodadad Building north of Bombay are all Parsis. The most pious of them is Gustad Noble, the novel's protagonist. He works in a Parsi dominated bank downtown. Gustad intends that his eldest son, Sohrab, who excelled in secondary and college studies, attend the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and find a career more lucrative and prestigious than his own. Gustad bears many grudges from the past, which have limited his possibilities.
Sohrab, an artist at heart, rejects the plan. The hardheaded father and son clash and turn their backs on each other. Gustad's middle child, a son named Darius, causes only minor problems. Gustad's 9-year-old daughter, Roshan, is chronically ill, though. The illness brings Gustad into contact with a politically active doctor. Gustad's superstitious wife, Dilnavaz, falls under the sway of an upstairs neighbor who practices both black and white magic.
A Parsi mystic advises Gustad's sworn enemy. Another eccentric old Parsi rages out his window at the unfairness of the Almighty. A tragic and mentally deficient young man wanders about, delivering messages and playing. His mind was destroyed after falling from the neem tree at the center of the compound.
Although Gustad's war hero best friend, Major Jimmy "Bili Boy" Bilimoria, has vanished from the apartment complex, he writes to Gustad to ask a favor. Gustad follows his friend's instructions and receives a very large amount of cash. Gustad is forced into depositing it gradually into a false bank account. Then he is compelled to withdraw it even more rapidly. It is clear Gustad is dealing with terrorists. Gustad is forced to involve another friend, the cancer-riddled, lecherous Dinshawji. Dinshawji's hospitalization, death, and funeral force Gustad to contemplate anew the mysteries of life.
Jimmy Bilimoria reveals the sordid political story behind the money laundering, during a heartbreaking visit Gustad makes to his friend's prison hospital bedside. The shadowy lieutenant who serves as intermediary between Jimmy and Gustad makes clear Major Bilimoria's natural death in prison was a murder.
The novel's climax comes when the denizens of an especially depressed neighborhood, march to the municipal buildings to demand essential services. On the way, they pause at the wall outside Gustad's business, which a street artist has covered with depictions of the gods and holy people of all the religions of India. The municipality has decreed it will be demolished to widen the road. In a violent street fight, Tehmul, the tragic cripple into whom Dilnavaz drew her son's evil demons, dies while trying to catch a brick. Gustad's lifetime of frustrations and anger melts as he prays over the victim's body. Sohrab and Gustad embrace. Although the sacred wall is demolished, so too is the limiting, bleak past.
Chapter 1 Summary
At 6 AM, Gustad Noble begins his prayers in the courtyard of the Khodadad Building apartment complex. Down the street, an unsanitary little man sells milk to a line of housewives.
Nearing 60, Gustad is tall and broad shouldered, the envy of sicklier relatives and friends. A slight limp betrays an accident Gustad suffered several years earlier, while pushing one of his sons to safety.
Miss Kutpitia's voice rings out, condemning the milk-seller for watering down his product, but to no effect. Among the milkman's customers is Dilnavaz Noble, Gustad's wife. Dilnavaz is anxious to complete her purchase and get on with her daily chores. She remembers the days before milk rationing and rising prices.
The children fear Miss Kutpitia as a witch, but Dilnavaz tolerates the old woman's idiosyncrasies, which are reputed to include black and white magic, as well as divination. Dilnavaz may be the reclusive Miss Kutpitia's only friend.
Gustad enjoys praying at sunrise, particularly the final ritual of snapping his kusti sharply when he removes it, to expel Ahriman, the evil one. As a child, Gustad imagined stalking the jungle armed with kusti alone, and pictured himself as a Parsi version of St. George the Dragon Slayer, whose biography Gustad had found in his father's bookstore. Neither neighborhood banter nor morning radio distracts Gustad from his rituals.
Gustad has already fetched the mail and "The Times of India" and has read the headlines about Pakistani atrocities. He reads at a desk his grandfather built, and remembers how the family business, Noble & Sons, lost nearly everything to bankruptcy. Gustad's boyhood friend, Malcolm Saldanha, had helped him rescue a few pieces of furniture. Gustad remembers another old friend, Major Bilimoria, but with no fondness. Bilimoria disappeared previously but has now written to ask a big favor.
Finding eldest son Sohrab listed in "The Times of India" among applicants accepted to the India Institute of Technology (IIT), Gustad awakens Dilnavaz. As she sets up equipment to fill the household water drums before the municipality shuts off water at 5 AM, Dilnavaz remembers when their son Darius had kept tropical fish and later birds. Sohrab had collected butterflies, a hobby Dilnavaz had found cruel. Gustad wants to awaken Sohrab, but Dilnavaz stops him. Gustad looks at the sleeping 19-year-old with joyful pride, hoping Sohrab's life will not be upset like his became after the ruination of his father's bookstore and his mother's death. Gustad had grown angry and helpless, cursing each new dawn.
The crowded apartment is dark because Gustad never took down the blackout paper mandated during the disastrous war with China in 1962, the same miserable year Gustad spent 12 weeks in bed as his broken hip healed. Gustad remembers the lies of Jawaharlal Nehru and Chou En-lai, the Indian government's ringing jingoism, and the common people's eagerness to sell possessions to support the war effort. Beloved Nehru afterwards had resigned himself to political intrigues, and had worked to make his daughter Indira prime minister after him. Gustad also remembers that in 1965, when Pakistanis attacked India to gain a piece of Kashmir, the wisdom of his decision not to tear down the paper had been justified. It still hangs.
Today's paper reports a Republic of Bangladesh had been proclaimed. Dilnavaz is skeptical that a government will form. Bengali refugees are fleeing terror and bestiality. Dilnavaz wonders what Major Bilimoria would think of events. Gustad wishes not to reveal the letter from their ex-friend, who lived in their building and had been held up as an example to their children. "Uncle Major" had been a legendary war hero in 1948, the scourge of the British Army in the last days of Empire. After Uncle Major had saved Kashmir, he had gone on to many thrilling battles. Then, last year, Bilimoria had vanished without a word, wounding Gustad, who had loved him as a brother. Dilnavaz believes Bilimoria must have had a good reason for disappearing.
Gustad drinks his tea in silence and goes out to his prayers, but is annoyed when a diesel truck breaks his concentration. When he finishes his devotions, Gustad performs his daily bit of gardening, clearing scraps of paper from his vinca and mint bushes and his rose plant. Miss Kutpitia puts the vinca leaves and magical seeds to regular use in her potions.
Gustad finds a municipal notice of intent to widen the road. That will move the black stonewall even closer, making the compound seem like a prison camp or chicken coop. People shamelessly use the outside of the wall as a public latrine every night, producing a horrible stench and breeding swarms of flies and mosquitoes. Gustad dismisses the notice as just another proposal. A diesel smell persists, which reminds him of his accident and shattered hip.
Chapter 1 Analysis
Chapter 1 introduces the novel's protagonist, the pious Parsi Gustad Noble, his wife Dilnavaz, their three children, and provides a hint of their neighborhood. Gustad clearly has issues with the government, both national and municipal, since it is a system that ruined his grandfather and father. His hip still twinges occasionally from an accident nine years ago, which is often on his mind. Overall, however, he seems a contented, pleasant type. Discussion of the declaration of Bangladeshi independence allows the novel's beginning to be dated March 27, 1971.
Chapter 2 Summary
Gustad returns from Crawford Market with a live chicken. His wife is frosty and determined not to cooperate in fattening it to achieve greater flavor. Fresh chickens remind Gustad of his grandmother and a childhood filled with music and celebration. He has braved the hated marketplace to make special the celebration of Roshan's birthday and Sohrab's admittance to IIT. Gustad plans to invite his work friend Dinshawji and perhaps others. The extra expense will be worth it.
Although Gustad's father had loved bartering with shopkeepers, Gustad himself finds Crawford Market an intimidating den of thieves. He worries about riding the bus home with dripping basket of meat amidst glaring vegetarian passengers. Everything about the market is menacing filthy, menacing, and gory. Gustad has no idea how to select a good chicken, but remembers everything about beef. In the old days, friend Malcolm, a musical Goan Catholic, mixed lessons about beef with the history of Christianity in India. It was intriguing, but Gustad did not believe in people changing their religions. Gustad and Malcolm eventually had lost touch. When Hindus launched a nationwide protest over slaughtering cattle, Gustad stopped going to the public market and made do with the inferior meat delivered door to door.
Gustad rashly promises to take care of the chicken, and watches with pride as Sohrab calms the bird. Gustad jokes about how this shows his son will excel at IIT. Sohrab sharply responds that he is going crazy from all the talk about IIT. Dilnavaz rebukes Sohrab for raising his voice to Daddy. She does realize they have been concentrating a lot on this first step towards Sohrab ultimately attending engineering college in America. She understands Sohrab's feelings, but also knows that Gustad, at 19, had to pay his own college fees and support his parents.
Roshan wants to keep the chicken forever, but the butcher arrives Saturday morning. The victim escapes and leads a chase around the compound. Gustad limps badly, trying to run. To everyone's surprise, lame Tehmul, who spends his days in the compound, catches it. Tehmul's hip fracture, treated by conventional methods, had been suffered in a fall from the compound's solitary neem tree.
Residents of Khodadad Building use the tree's leaves for medicinal purposes. Even passers-by pluck its twigs to use as toothbrushes.
Tehmul was never the same since his fall. The school expelled him. Tehmul's brother, a traveling salesman, looks after him. At age 30, Tehmul still prefers the company of children to adults, because children generally treat him well. Things that move through the air enchant Tehmul, but rarely can he catch anything. Tehmul speaks at a breakneck, nearly incomprehensible pace. He is constantly scratching and sometimes caressing himself in public. Grown-ups who call him "Scrambled Eggs," find him annoying and shoo him away. Tehmul adores Gustad, who can decipher his speech and tolerate his presence. Tehmul had collected rats in Khodadad Building to claim the municipality's 25-paise bounty. When residents discovered Tehmul sometimes tortured live rats, his supply had been cut off. Tehmul does not enjoy his reputation. When he captures the chicken, it reminds residents of Tehmul's past.
As the butcher dispatches the chicken in the kitchen, Gustad asks the family who untied the celebratory victim. Roshan bursts into tears. The whole family looks accusingly at Gustad. Two crows watch through the window.
Chapter 2 Analysis
Chapter 2 introduces the major character of dense, lame Tehmul-Lungraa, cruelly nicknamed "Scrambled Eggs." Both Tehmul and Gustad have suffered hip fractures, but Tehmul has been permanently brain damaged in his accident. He has attached himself to Only Gustad, among the adults in Khodadad Building, understands and tolerates Tehmul. An escaped bird is used to introduce Tehmul and develop the character of Malcolm Saldanha.
Gustad's trip through Crawford Market provides insights into his childhood past. His self-consciousness about carrying meat on the bus suggests conflict between Parsis and vegetarian Hindus. Religious conflict will become a major theme. We learn that Gustad was early introduced to the legendary history of Indian Christianity and attended Mass with friend Malcolm, a descendant of the Portuguese explorers in Goa. We also hear about Gustad's colleague at the bank, Dinshawji, whom Gustad intends to invite to the celebration.
Chapter 3 Summary
At the last minute, Miss Kutpitia bows out, having perceived an evil omen in a lizard's wriggling tail. Dilnavaz grumbles when the doorbell rings, announcing Dinshawji. Although Dinshawji recently returned to work after an illness, he still looks sickly. He began at the bank six years before Gustad. They have known each other for 24years. Gustad has beer to offer and some Hercules XXX rum, Bilimoria's final gift before disappearing. The bottle reminds Gustad of the hidden letter from Bilimoria.
Dinshawji's wife, Alamai, to whom he refers to as the "Domestic Vulture," is not with him. Dinshawji suffers from periodic halitosis, worsened by stress. Today it is in abatement. Gustad had convinced him to consult the miraculous Madhiwalla Bonesetter, who had prescribed chewing a certain resin. This helped until Dinshawji sprained a jaw muscle and abandoned the practice. Friends and colleagues have learned to put up with the fearful stench.
Dinshawji last visited while Gustad was recovering from his accident. Dinshawji delivered news about bank events every Sunday. Dinshawji and Gustad toast the good old days, before Indira Gandhi nationalized the banks and began catering to the racist Shiv Sena. The Shiv Sena goons have recently demonstrated outside the bank, but were broken up by police. Dinshawji, perspiring heavily, asks about the blackout paper, but is spared an explanation by the arrival of Gustad's children.
Sohrab is upset when Dinshawji congratulates him about IIT. Gustad denounces his son's "idiotic-lunatic talk." Dinshawji turns the conversation to physical fitness. Darius keeps up the workout tradition begun by Gustad's powerful but timid furniture-making grandfather. Darius' grandfather had regaled him as a boy with stories of legendary wrestlers. Gustad's grandmother had also been a knowledgeable fan. Bodybuilding has been Darius' only successful hobby, since he recovered from pneumonia. Miss Kutpitia said the disquieted spirits of Darius' dead pets caused the pneumonia. Even Dilnavaz is pleased when Gustad sing his "Donkey Serenade" to Roshan, but still looks disapprovingly at Dinshawji from the kitchen.
At dinner, Darius and Dinshawji are in rapport, but Sohrab is moody. Roshan turns green when the chicken is served. Her father hastens to sing "Happy Birthday." Dinshawji tickles Roshan. The group sounds cheers to a long life for Roshan.
The lights go off. Gustad sees the whole neighborhood is dark. Tehmul is wandering. Dinshawji continues entertaining the family by lamplight. Dilnavaz frets over the food getting cold. A toast to Sohrab's success at IIT leads to an explosive argument between Sohrab and Gustad. Father and son both refuse to back down, leaving Dinshawji uncomfortably unable to joke the company out of its mood.
Chapter 3 Analysis
Chapter 3 introduces Dinshawji, Gustad's malodorous workmate and friend, a good-natured man in obvious ill health. Dilnavaz does not receive him warmly.
During dinner, Gustad and Sohrab clash openly over IIT. Sohrab wants to remain in his college arts program where he has friends he does not want to leave. Gustad is determined his able son must not allow such foolishness to hold him back in life. Uncle Major's name comes up again as example of why friendship should not be overrated.
Gustad and Dinshawji briefly discuss Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist political party whose followers have recently demonstrated outside the bank against non-vegetarians like the Parsis. Tensions are high. We hear about Miss Kutpitia's sorcery, which will play a major role later in the novel.
Chapter 4 Summary
Dinshawji leaves the party. The family argues over who spoiled the dinner. Gustad is determined to teach Sohrab obedience. The boy is not afraid. Dilnavaz throws herself between father and son as Gustad swings his belt, repeatedly striking his wife on the leg. Miss Kutpitia's voice sounds, demanding silence after bedtime. Gustad rants at Dilnavaz's witch friend. Dilnavaz hustles the children off to bed. Gustad's anger recedes, but he declares that until his son apologizes, Sohrab, whose life he once saved by throwing himself in front of a car, is dead to him.
Gustad cannot sleep. He mixes the remnants of all the bottles, and drinks the concoction at his grandfather's black desk, which Gustad had salvaged from his father's bookstore. He and Sohrab had always planned on building bookshelves for the few titles Gustad has retained, but now the boy is nothing to Gustad.
Gustad rereads Bilimoria's letter. Jimmy apologizes for having left without warning, but can explain little, for security reasons. He needs Gustad to accept a parcel on his behalf. Gustad recalls his friend's generosity to his children and role as hero to ungrateful Sohrab. Without an education, Sohrab will stand no chance in a world of Shiv Sena fanaticism.
The alcohol mellows Gustad. He reflects on the rainy morning nine years ago when he took time off from work to take Sohrab to his first day at St. Xavier's High, a hard school to get into. Gustad had misread the bus number and got into a confrontation with the conductor when he discovered his mistake. Sohrab had lost his balance stepping off the moving bus. Gustad had then thrown himself in front of an approaching taxi. Between fits of fainting, Gustad had told the taxi driver his address. The taxi driver drove him there free of charge. Bilimoria had been at the apartment complex and recommended Madhiwalla Bonesetter, rather than a conventional hospital. There would be no operation, no pins, no cast, and no bill. Jimmy had carried Gustad into the clinic and watched as Bonesetter immobilized the leg with sandbags.
Gustad now realizes how helpless he would have been without Jimmy, and begins writing a reply, using an old-fashioned nib pen, to show respect for the recipient.
Chapter 4 Analysis
Chapter 4 explains how Gustad received his hip injury and the help he had received from Jimmy Bilimoria. Gustad's anger at Sohrab's ingratitude flares after dinner, ending in a belt assault on his son that Dilnavaz steps in to endure instead. Alcohol mellows Gustad and he muses about his injury and lost friendship. We learn a bit more about the volatile politico-religious atmosphere in which the Nobles live.
Chapter 5 Summary
Dilnavaz awakes concerned about the terrible words father and son exchanged. She fills the kitchen water tank and goes out for milk. Miss Kutpitia summons her to her apartment. Miss Kupitia is also worried about Sohrab. He resembles her late nephew Farad, whom she raised. At 15, Farad perished in a bus accident, 35 years ago. Since then, Miss Kutpitia has locked up her heart, and her apartment. Dilnavaz knows none of the hidden details. Miss Kutpitia asks who might profit from Sohrab's failure, then offers a magical recipe for fighting the black magic. It begins with a lime. Dilnavaz does not notice the letters on Gustad's desk as she returns to bed.
Sohrab has always excelled in school. His parents encourage everything that interests him. Gustad is always looking for hobbies that could lead to a professional career for his son. Sohrab's only failure has been collecting insects. Because he improvised tools, the specimens disintegrated nauseatingly. Sohrab's greatest triumph has been producing, directing, abridging, and starring in King Lear. Only in college does he realize his father will not countenance a life in the arts. For Gustad, IIT is the Promised Land
Also troubled and confused by the previous evening, Sohrab awakes and read Gustad's letters and asks his mother about them. When Gustad arises, late and hung over, Dilnavaz accuses him of hiding mail. Dilnavaz is worried by Bilimoria's vagueness and possible danger. Sohrab tries to intervene, recalling old political discussions, but Gustad returns to IIT and the danger of believing what newspapers report. As flames appear to be rekindling, Dilnavaz silences her son, but Gustad will not relent. Dilnavaz leads her son to the kitchen to begin Miss Kuptitia's lime cure, which he declares unscientific nonsense.
On Monday, Gustad sheepishly visits Dinshawji's desk at lunchtime. Every day they go to the canteen together to share lame jokes about India's ethnic groups, including their own. This breaks up the drab working day. Dinshawji is normally the star, but sometimes, Gustad leads clever sing-alongs. Sometimes, they hold serious discussions about topics such as the current controversy over the Tower of Silence, which reformers demand be replaced by cremation. Dinshawji turns it into a joke about having his remains scattered all over Bombay. The two decide to walk to Flora Fountain, the hub of traffic in and out of town. Passing the tidy desk of beautiful typist Laurie Coutino's, Dinshawji makes his usual lewd comments. He is sweating heavily as he complains about the Shiv Sena leader who worships Hitler and Mussolini. They encounter an artist drawing gods and goddesses on the pavement in exchange for devotees' coins. Dinshawji becomes enraged and says that when they take over, the Marathas will change street names, rubbing out the life the Parsis have known. Gustad realizes his friend is not just a joker.
A man riding a Lambretta falls victim to a hit-and-run car and lands bleeding on the pavement near them. Dinshawji wants to help, but Gustad is overcome by nausea. Police take charge and make it clear the victim will survive. Dinshawji leads Gustad to a restaurant to recover. Dinshawji muses about what fun it would be to take Laurie to the private upper level. He orders food, but Gustad is disgusted by the establishment's filthiness, and in no mood for humor.
Gustad recognizes the victim as the taxi driver who helped him years before, whom he never managed to thank. Gustad had thought about this man the other night and marvels at the coincidence. Today Gustad had his turn to help, but he has failed.
Dinshawji asks about news on Bilimoria, and muses about his rejoining the army to fight the butchery documented in the papers. Russia and America are doing nothing to save the poor Bengalis. Gustad gives his views on geopolitical reality saying that Russia is friendly with Afghanistan, but needs Pakistan to gain access to the Indian Ocean. Dinshawji jokes that then they will be able to grab the U.S. fleet by the testicles. They hurry back to work, Dinshawji again proclaiming the agony Laurie is causing him.
The black wall's stench and the swarm of insects assail Gustad when he arrives home. His wife is ranting about his sons. Mr. Rabadi, a neighbor with whom Gustad has long been feuding, is now charging that Darius is after his daughter. Until old Tiger died of overexertion, Rabadi refused to restrain his large dog from relieving himself in Gustad's bushes. When Tiger died, his owner consulted Dustoorji Baria, a retired priest who advised Rabadi to replace Tiger with a small, white, female dog. This led Rabadi to buy Dimple, who takes no interest in Gustad's bushes. At dinner, Gustad demands to know what happened between Darius and Jasmine. Darius is indignant, but Gustad orders him to stay away from the crackpot's daughter. Flies and mosquitoes torment the Nobles during dinner. They rub on repellent to get through the night.
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