Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry Plot Summary

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Malcolm Saldanha
Gustad's boyhood friend, who helped him save a few pieces of grandfather Noble's workmanship from the bailiffs. A fair-skinned Goan, Malcolm inherited his parents' talent for music, and wanted to become a professional musician. The Saldanhas performed whenever Gustad visited their home. On Sundays, after taking Gustad to Mass, Malcolm taught him all about beef at Crawford Market and proselytized him. They lose touch for decades, but reunite by chance in the market as Gustad buys special foods for ailing Roshan. Malcolm suggests they make a pilgrimage together to Mount Mary to pray for a cure. There, Malcolm guides Gustad through the rituals and they talk a while afterwards about the old days. Malcolm has traded music for a municipal paycheck. The friends next meet when Malcolm is assigned to lead the crew tasked with demolishing Khodadad Building's sacred wall. He is torn by religious conflict, but must obey orders. During the riot, Malcolm is struck with a dead rat, but is not permanently injured - although he intends to light a candle at Mount Mary against the plague.
The Sidewalk Artist
Never named, the sidewalk artist accepts Gustad's invitation to transform the 300-foot long 10-foot high black stonewall into a vision of the gods and holy people of all religions. Gustad happened upon him drawing on the sidewalks of Bombay for coins. The artist, who has always valued his freedom, accepts with some trepidation. He has a BA in comparative world religions as well as in art, and knows all the important figures, events, and places to include. He relates stories to Gustad whenever he pauses to examine the project. The wall becomes a place of pilgrimage and devotees leave flower, incense, and monetary offerings, which the artist must supervise. He makes enough money to buy stylish new clothes and switch from crayons to permanent oil paints. He builds a modest hut to live in on site. The municipality's irrevocable decision to tear down the wall to widen the street leaves the artist desolate. He revives, however, collects his belongings - minus the oil paints - and walks on to whatever will be next, thankful to Gustad for the opportunity of having created his great work.
Dinshawji's wife, to whom he always refers as his "Domestic Vulture." Gustad finally meets her in the hospital, after Dinshawji's lonely death. Alamai is tall, thin, and humorless. She is cruel dealing with her childish, grown nephew Nusli, is haughty towards funeral workers, and is melodramatic at the funeral. Only at the end, when she stands straight and cries silent, sincere tears, does Gustad, who helps her through the ordeal, perceive she truly loved her husband, and begins to wonder what kind of life Alamai and Dinshawji might have shared together.
Soli Bamji
The local police inspector lives in Khodadad Building and drives a Landmaster. Tall, gaunt, ribald Bamji is chided as Sherlock. He is concerned about the wall being torn down by the municipality, and claims the department is undermanned to prevent people from urinating on the wall. Bamji does no more when demonstrators face off against municipal workers at the sacred painted wall. This earns Bamji Gustad's scorn. Bamji serves as a foil for introducing political topics.
Dustoorji Baria
A retired Parsi priest freely offers advice to visitors. He prescribes both the kind of dog Mr. Rabadi should purchase to replace Tiger and trandarosti prayers to recite for the animal's health. Baria provides additional incantations for his patron to use during a conflict with Gustad. Rabadi reveals to the artist that a framed photograph of Baria wept real tears. Rabadi suggests Baria be added to the pantheon on Khodadad Building's sacred wall. Others charge that Baria is a charlatan.
Madhiwalla Bonesetter
The unorthodox medical practitioner uses secret potions to heal broken bones. He tended Gustad's broken hip in 1962 following a traffic accident. Bonesetter guards the secret of his potions carefully, to prevent commercialization of cures he dispenses gratis. No one knows how he uses bare hands and right foot to realign broken bones. He seems to have X-ray eyes.
Gustad's second-floor neighbor, in his late 80's, perpetually stands in his window, registering to the heavens his displeasure at the running of the universe. Cavasji's daughter-in-law, Mrs. Pastakia, fastens a fresh sprig of Gustad's medicinal mint leaves around Cavasji's neck every day to control his high blood pressure. In his youth he had been known as Cavas Calingar because he had been round as a watermelon. Now he has grown thin as a prophet or soothsayer. His hair gleams like a halo.
Mother Claudiana
She is the principal of the St. Xavier convent school that Roshan attends.
Laurie Coutino
A beautiful, tidy typist newly hired at the bank where Gustad and Dinshawji work, Dinshawji is too openly lewd about her. When the prim Catholic girl learns that lorri is slang for penis, she is mortified and begs Gustad to force his friend to stop harassing her before she has to resign and explain everything to the manager. Even Gustad finds Laurie enticing.
Shri Lokhundi Lund
"Mister Iron Cock," the visitor to the House of Cages brothel reputedly determined to collect on its money-back guarantee. He wears out all the brothel's employees before the first prostitute takes him on again and brings him to a shrieking, moaning climax. His story is good for business.
Mr. Madon
Gustad's bank manager, a finicky, kind hearted, brusque, snuff sniffing man who guards the secret of his first name. Madon accommodates Gustad's requests for time off to follow his secret missions. Madon also offers Gustad a ride to Dinshawji's funeral.
The milquetoast 20-year-old nephew that Dinshawji and Alamai raise as a son. Gustad takes him under his wing during his uncle's funeral to save him Nusli his fears and to separate him from his tormenting aunt.
Peerbhoy Paanwalla
The House of Cages' colorful pimp, who sits cross-legged like a guru, telling stories. Peerbhoy is a moving speaker. This helps him sell potions to cure any malady and particularly elixers to help customers make the most of visits to the House of Cages. Gustad remembers Peerbhoy telling these stories back when Gustad was a boy and his father brought him to the clinic next door. Peerbhoy agrees to be an intermediary between Gustad and RAW. Peerbhoy and Dr. Paymaster lead the quixotic march on the municipal office. The march breaks down at the Khodadad Building's sacred wall, leading to the climactic street battle over the wall's destruction.
Mrs. Pastakia
Cavasji's daughter-in-law, Mrs. Pastakia is a mother of five. She is an inquisitive, short-tempered, and manipulative sufferer of migraines. Gustad dislikes but tolerates her. Mrs. Pastakia's patient, high-minded husband does the housework after he gets home from his job.
Dr. Paymaster
The Nobles' longtime physician, Dr. Paymaster has matured from a blundering young physician to a grandfatherly practitioner who enjoys amusing patients with constant patter and buffoonery. He has grown outspoken about the war with Pakistan. Paymaster emerges as a general in the quixotic march for justice on the municipal building, but is quickly deflated when violence flares and he is called upon to examine a mortally wounded Tehmul.
Mr. Rabadi
Gustad's neighbor in the Khodadad Building, with whom Gustad has a long-time quarrel. Rabadi's dog Tiger, now deceased, had enjoyed relieving himself in Gustad's bushes. Now Rabadi complains that Darius is molesting his daughter, Jasmine. Rabadi, nicknamed the "idiotic dogwalla," falls under the mystical influence of Dustoorji Baria. Rabadi advocates Baria's inclusion on the sacred wall as a true miracle worker.
When Dilnavaz realizes Rabadi is the source of the evil eye afflicting Roshan, she follows Miss Kutpitia's recipe and pours the resulting liquid on Rabadi's head from the balcony above. He is briefly blinded and stalks off threatening prosecution for molestation and now assault. He recovers. So does Roshan.
Jasmine Rabadi
Darius' school friend, whose soft brown eyes melt him. Jasmine's father charges that Darius is molesting her, but in reality he is balancing her as she learns to ride a bicycle to lose weight.
Hydraulic Hema
A prostitute from the House of Cages tries to prevent the wrecking crew from demolishing the painted wall with its image of Yellamma (protector of prostitutes).
House of Cages
A house of prostitution next door to the Noble family's physician's office, it becomes the intermediary location for contacts between Gustad and Bilimoria and the rallying point for a march on the municipality to demand improvements to the sewer system.
Khodadad Building
The compound of apartments in which the Nobles live, it lies north of Bombay. Khodadad Building is three stories high. Each floor holds ten apartments. It has five entrances. Stairways surround a courtyard and are separated from the street and an adjoining office building by a black wall.
Mount Mary
The Catholic shrine in Bandra is renowned for miraculous cures performed for adherents of all religions. The street artist first tells Gustad its story, then Malcolm Saldanha takes Gustad there to pray for Roshan, Sohrab, and Dinshawji. Its statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Infant Jesus had washed up on the shore. Mary had appeared to fishermen the previous night, when the fishermen were caught in a violent storm. Mary promised she would watch over them if they promised to build a church in her honor to hold the statue they would find. The fishermen had kept their promise. The shrine became a place of pilgrimage. The infant is said to shift arms, miraculously, once a year.
Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)
An agency of the Indian government recruits Major Bilimoria, ostensibly to aid Bengali refugees in East Pakistan. In fact, it is the private "dirty tricks" agency of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Tower of Silence
The sacred place in which dead Parsis are laid out and reduced to bones by flocks of vultures. Hindus demand the outmoded, unhygienic practice be outlawed and replaced by cremation.
Animals are prominent throughout Such a Long Journey. Sparrows cheer Gustad as he rises at dawn for prayer. Swarming, cawing crows signal unmistakably that he must undertake dangerous, illegal activities he wants to avoid, as do the skillfully decapitated rat and cat, whose carcasses the crows devour. Tropical fish, songbirds, and butterflies and moths entertain and educate Gustad's sons as collectibles. The chicken hovers between roles as pet and food, until the butcher's knife decides the question.
Cattle are significant and divide religious communities. Parsis and other religious minorities consume cattle, while Hindus worship them and long to deny non-vegetarians their legal rights. Lizard, mouse, and spider serve as ingredients in magical rituals.
Most prominently, vultures perform the sacred duty of stripping the flesh from deceased Parsis in the Tower of Silence. Only in the case of the vultures do animals come to the forefront for an extended period and become true symbols, as "vulturist" and modernist Parsis debate whether or not their ancient funereal rituals ought to be updated.
Parsi rituals permeate Such a Long Journey. The protagonist is consistent and sincere in observing daily rituals. Mistry hints that this sets Gustad apart from the body of his co-religionists. The community's insularity is brought out in the two funerals that are described. The Parsis are divided over whether or not to update some of their millennia-old practices. The schism is partly motivated by a modern revulsion at something as unpalatable as allowing vultures to consume their dead, partly in protest to the practice of excluding non-believers from communal gatherings (as mourners), and partly in defense against the Hindu majority's sensibilities.
Radical Hindus are shown demanding control of the officially secular Indian society. Beating minorities and looting occur at the most radical end of the spectrum. However examples of unrest occur in everyday life on crowded buses. Protestors urinate regularly on the Khodadad Building's black wall.
The sidewalk artist is a student of comparative religions. He embraces all the religious traditions of India in his artwork, and provides a few commentaries on notable deities and saints. Catholicism in the subcontinent is shown flourishing in its most ecumenical setting, the miracle-working Mount Mary shrine. Considerable detail is given on its running. Islam is depicted on the wall through famous mosques, since Islam forbids the depiction of personages. Islam is also depicted as being routinely disobeyed by the rulers of Muslim Pakistan.
Gustad accepts the possibility that the Christians can cure those close to him. Without abandoning his own faith, he learns the power of the prayers he recites without understanding them. Even so, Gustad experiences their mystical power over the body of a friend.
The wall's rich iconography and the rich parallelism of the two liturgical settings redeem religion from the divisive role it otherwise plays in human life.
Local, national, and international politics permeate Such a Long Journey, and receive no redemption. Municipal officials refuse to provide the services citizens expect and demand. The officials impose a ruling on the wall that the residents oppose. National figures, from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on down, are shown as being grasping, corrupt, incompetent, and savage. Only fire can fight fire.
Framed photographs of Mahatma Gandhi and the Panditi, Jawaharlal Nehru, hang over a rebel's desk. Even Nehru is shown to have been conspiring with the Chinese and to have been working to put his daughter into the prime minister's office after him. Gandhi's non-violence fails in the battle over the sacred wall.
The money laundering, which occupies much of the novel, is said to be required to fund the valiant Bangladeshi rebels. However, it is revealed to be a frustrated operative's attempt at getting a piece of the pie for his friends. The Nixon administration is humorously savaged for its support of Pakistan and is required by the rules of geopolitics to bunt Soviet overtures to the Indians.
Point of View
Such a Long Journey is written in the third person as a narrative of current events. The narrator is privy to the characters' minds. Flashbacks to the protagonist's childhood are frequent. The characters' conversations are used to debate events then current in the Indian subcontinent. The independence of Bangladesh, the brief war between India and Pakistan, massacres of innocents, a face-off between the U.S. and Soviet fleets, and, above all, widespread assumptions that the government of Indira Gandhi is thoroughly corrupt and unstoppable are all addressed. Except as a forum for these political expositions, dialog plays a minor role in moving the story forward.
Such a Long Journey is set in and around Bombay, India in 1971-72. The author incorporates an historical event, Bangladesh's declaration of independence. The volatile political and military events that rocked the entire subcontinent during that era are not only discussed at length among the characters, but also drive one of the major story lines. The action is divided between the Khodadad apartment complex, north of the city, and the unnamed bank in which the protagonist works. Setting a few scenes in an open air meat market, a bazaar, a brothel, a Christian shrine, and prison hospital allows the author to broaden the slices of Indian life he portrays.
Language and Meaning
Such a Long Journey is written in flowing, expressive, contemporary English. Shifts into Indian patois are rare, compared with other novels sharing this setting. Most of these occur when characters are fired up about political events and speak with passion. Even then, the effect is muted. Only when relating the restaurant's various signs, does the author note the region's linguistic peculiarities. Mistry's intent is to tell about the little-known, secretive, minority community into which he was born. He uses the technical terms and religious texts of his Parsi religion without slowing to explain every detail. The meaning can usually be determined from the context, immediate or extended.
Such a Long Journey consists of 22 chapters, untitled and not divided into sections. The only story line that appears to resolve itself before the climax, a father and son conflict, actually haunts the background until it is brought to the front, very briefly, in the final pages. All other story lines - the fate of an ailing daughter; the idiosyncrasies of a worse-ailing friend; and the selfish, threatening demands of a former friend-develop in parallel, fairly homogeneously, and serve as a matrix for interweaving art, religion, politics, war, superstition, and sex.
"At each demise, Darius wept bitterly and buried his departed friends in the compound beside his father's vinca bush. He spent long hours meditating on the wisdom of loving living things which invariably ended up dead. There was something patently ungrateful about the transaction, a lack of good taste in whoever was responsible for such a pointless, wasteful finish: beautiful, colourful creatures, full of life and fun, hidden under the drab soil of the compound. What sense did it make?" Chapter 3, pg. 43.
"The voices ceased abruptly, in mid-melody. Their features frozen, everyone looked at Sohrab. He sat staring angrily at his plate. The candles cast nervous shadows that shivered or yawed wildly when the flames were disturbed by breathing. "'The food is getting really cold,' said Dilnavaz, although it was the last thing she cared about now. "'Yes, we will eat,' said Gustad, 'but,' to Sohrab, 'what is the matter suddenly?' "'It's not suddenly. I'm sick and tired of IIT, IIT, IIT all the time. I'm not interested in it. I'm not a jolly good fellow about it, and I'm not going there."' Chapter 3, pg. 48.
"Now, as he wiped the nib and screwed on the bottle cap, he remembered that Daddy had showed him the holder-steel once, when the age of pencils was ending. With the age of ink came plans for the future. The dream of IIT took shape, then took hold of their imaginations. And the Indian Institute of Technology became the promised land. It was El Dorado and Shangri-La, it was Atlantis and Camelot, it was Xanadu and Oz. It was the home of the Holy Grail. And all things would be given and all things would be possible and all things would come to pass for he who journeyed there and emerged with the sacred chalice." Chapter 4, pp. 6-67.
"Mr. Madon's heart, however, was as kind as his habits were finicky. He was absurdly particular about the arrangement of things on his desk: the calendar, pen stand, paperweight, lamp, all had to be positioned just so. When old Bhimsen was low on funds, he would come to work early, unshaven, and displace things while dusting Mr. Madon's office. Then the manager would arrive, notice the misalignment, and ring for Bhimsen. Invariably, the perfunctory scolding was followed by a gift of fifty paise for a shave at the downstairs barber, which Bhimsen pocketed before proceeding to the bathroom where his razor was hidden." Chapter 7, pp. 95-96.
"Gustad continued wrapping the package as though nothing had happened. He could not pretend for long. 'Changed so completely, it's hard to recognize him.' The disquiet about the strange parcel, disappointment with Jimmy's unseemly request, now mixed with the other, deeper sorrow, of filial disrespect and ingratitude. The pernicious mixture filled his mouth with wormwood. 'Who would have thought he would turn out like this?' He pulled on the twine and it snapped. She patiently knotted the pieces together." Chapter 8, pp. 121-122.
"'Then, the CIA plan is for America to support Pakistan. So India will lose the war, and Indira will lose the next election, because everyone will blame her only for the defeat. And that is exactly what America wants. They don't like her being friends with Russia, you see. Makes Nixon shit, lying awake in bed and thinking about it. His house is white, but his pyjamas become brown every night."' Chapter 10, pg. 145.
"What was left, he asked himself, after the very purpose he had struggled and worked and waited for all these years - after that very purpose was callously shattered by his own son, and the shards kicked aside, dropped clattering in the rubbish-pail, like his application forms. All I wanted was for him to have a chance at a good career. The chance wrenched away from me. Now what is left? What is left in life? Tell me, Dada Ormuzd, what? "And so it went all afternoon: from Sohrab to Roshan, then back to Jimmy, and Dilnavaz, and Laurie, and Dinshawji. Circles, U-turns, reverse circles, till he was dizzy with thought, exhausted from anxiety, and close to being broken by despair. "But at six o'clock he was saved by his anger." Chapter 12, pp. 178-179.
"The rooms he could peek into were sordid. Bed, thin lumpy mattress, no sheet, ceiling fan, chair, table. In on corner, a basin and small mirror. Where were the scented silk sheets, the air-conditioned rooms, drinks, refreshments? The luxuries that they talked of in their stories of this place? Where were the dancing-girls, the skilled practitioners of the art said to possess secrets that could drive a man insane with pleasure? The way these women moved and displayed themselves, there was as much chance of going insane with pleasure as recovering from heart surgery performed by a beef-carving Crawford Market goaswalla. He climbed the third and final floor. It's always the same. Always, things look wonderful from afar. When the moment arrives, only disappointment." Chapter 14, pg. 201.
"'What is all this, Tehmul?' said Gustad reproachfully. 'What have you done here?' "'GustadGustadGustadverysorryGustadpleaseGustad.' He stooped to pick up his empty cigarette tin. 'Somuchmoneyallgonegonegone. Moneyforrubbingfastfastfastfast. Nicenicefeelingallgone.' He looked forlornly inside the tin.
"'Where did money come from, Tehmul?' "'Ratratratdeadratmunicipalrat.' "Of course. 'He is OK now,' he told Ghulam. 'I'll take him home with me.' Tehmul began to gather his coins." Chapter 14, pg. 204.
"Malcolm was impressed by Gustad's account of the brilliant artist who had transformed the black stone wall. 'But come with me to Mount Mary,' he said. 'Ask Mother Mary for help. She will cure Roshan and your friend. Miracles are happening every day, I have personally witnessed so many.' He offered to help pick out a chicken first, and they started walking in that direction. Gustad learned more about the church, how it had a tradition of welcoming Parsis, Muslims, Hindus, regardless of caste or creed. Mother Mary helped everyone, She made no religious distinctions." Chapter 15, pg. 222.
"But what pudding was it that night? Lemon? No, it was pineapple. Or maybe caramel? Perhaps. Even memories do not stay intact for ever. Have to be careful, scrupulous, in dealing with them. And Dinshu is dead. Tomorrow, the vultures. Then, nothing. Except memories. His jokes. About the two men whose wives. And the other one, the bicycle pump. O give me a home where the nurses' hands roam...." Chapter 16, pg. 243.
"What an amazing contrast to the wall of old, he thought. Hard now to even imagine the horrid shit-and-piss hell it was. Dada Ormuzd, You are wonderful. Instead of flies and mosquitoes buzzing, a thousand colours dancing in sunlight. Instead of the stink, this glorious fragrance of paradise. Heaven on earth." Chapter 19, pg. 286.
"And the sweat from Grandpa's palms, soaking the handle of this hammer. To darken and burnish the wood. His hands first, and then my hands. Making the handle smoother and smoother. Sohrab should have ... but Darius will. He will add his gloss to the wood. "What did it mean when a hammer like this was passed from generation to generation? It mean something satisfying, fulfilling, at the deep centre of one's being. That was all. No need to wrestle further with the meaning of the words." Chapter 19, pg. 293.
"'Thank you.' Gustad sat in the front with him. Ghulam made a U-turn and waited by the gate for a break in the traffic. 'So you are driving a taxi again after nine years?' " 'Oh, that's normal when working in RAW. Sometimes bookseller, sometimes butcher; even gardener. Whatever is necessary to get the job done.' "Gustad heard and accepted the confession. 'But you are going to continue in RAW? After what they did to Jimmy? And they even tried to kill you, on your Lambretta.' "'You know about that? Of course, Bili Boy told you. Still, much safer for me to be inside Raw than outside.' He said softly, 'Bili Boy was a brother to me. When someone kills my brother, I get very upset. Someone will pay for it.' He nodded slowly. 'Yes, definitely. And by staying in Raw my chances are much better of collecting that payment.' His words were cold fingers tracing shivering lines down Gustad's spine. It was not empty talk." Chapter 21, pp. 322-323.
"Five times Yathu Ahu Varyo, and three times Ashem Vahoo. Over and over. Five and three, recited repeatedly, with his right hand covering Tehmul's head. Yatha Ahu Varyo and Ashem Vahoo, and the salt water of his eyes, as much for himself as for Tehmul. As much for Tehmul as for Jimmy. And for Dinshawji, for Pappa and Mamma, for Grandpa and Grandma, all who had had to wait for so long..." Chapter 22, pg. 337.
Topics for Discussion
How would you justify or explain Gustad's money laundering?
How would you justify or explain Bilimoria's money laundering?
How would you justify or explain Dilnavaz's spell on Temul?
How would you explain Dinshawji's coarse humor? What does it say about his marriage?
What does the blackout paper signify, both its staying up for decades and its coming down?
How do Parsi and Catholic practices compare and contrast in this novel?
How are the super powers portrayed in this novel?
What is Gustad's greatest psychological scar? How does it affect him?
Why is Dilnavaz portrayed so regularly as glum and combative?
What does the circling, frightened moth represent at the end of the novel?

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