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Rohinton Mistry: Biography & Books

Instructor: Emily Manetta
This lesson is a brief biography of the Indian-born author Rohinton Mistry and a description of his highly acclaimed published novels and short fiction. The lesson addresses the ways in which Mistry's early life in India and his experience with immigration figures into his writing.


Rohinton Mistry is an Indian-born author, whose best-known works include the novel A Fine Balance and the short story Swimming Lessons, which has appeared in a number of collections. He was the 2012 recipient of the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

Early Life and Education

Mistry was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India in 1952, into a family that was part of the community of Bombay Parsis, a minority ethnic group originating from Iran, who practiced the Zoroastrian religion. He grew up in a typical Indian middle-class household; his father was an advertising executive and his mother worked inside the home. Mistry attended a Jesuit high school in Bombay and received a traditional British-style secondary education. He earned an undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Economics from the University of Bombay, where he studied alongside his future wife, Freny Elevy. Mistry then decided to emigrate with her to Canada in 1975 to seek further education and opportunities. He continued his education at the University of Toronto in English and Philosophy. Mistry's early life in both India and Canada, as well as his experience of immigration, forms the backdrop for much of his fiction.

A Bombay street scene with autorickshaws
A Bombay street scene with autorickshaws

Writing and Themes

Mistry first began to publish short fiction in the early 1980s. Many of these stories were collected into a volume called Tales from Firoszha Baag (1987), about the inhabitants of a Parsi apartment complex in Bombay. The often humorous glimpse into the daily lives and struggles of characters from all walks of life includes the well-known story Swimming Lessons, in which a Parsi Indian immigrant in Toronto grapples with culture shock and racism through writing stories for his distant family. His first novel, Such a Long Journey (1991) (later made into a film of the same title), depicts an ordinary Bombay clerk and family man drawn into the extraordinary political events surrounding the Bangladesh separatist movement.

The second and perhaps most widely-read of Mistry's three novels, A Fine Balance (1995), is again set in 1970s coastal India during a period of social and political unrest. An unlikely band of characters, including a widow, a young student, and a pair of tailors wind up sharing an apartment and struggling through poverty, corruption, violence, and uncertainty. His third novel Family Matters (2002) is about a family with an ill father who is reliving his past. Overall, Mistry's work is known for its often humorous, nostalgic description of Indian daily life, his exploration of the ties and responsibilities of family and friendship, and his critical approach to social issues for immigrants, such as racism and cultural dissonance.

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