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Rohinton Mistry The Case of the Missing Author

New California Media, Sandip Roy Posted: Nov 13, 2002

If you live in the United States, award-winning novelist Rohinton Mistry will probably not be coming to a bookstore near you anytime soon. The Indian-born Canadian author had just embarked on his American tour to promote his new novel Family Matters, when his publisher announced Mistry was cutting it short and returning to Canada. The problem was not the reviews. The book had been nominated for a Booker Prize and just won the Kiriyama Prize for fiction. From his home in Toronto, Mistry told the radio show UpFront "I indicated to my publishers that I would not be continuing with the book tour because I was worn out by the constant 100 percent frequency of the so-called random checks at the airports."

Though Canada had recently issued a travel warning for its citizens who were born in several Muslim countries, Mistry was actually born in India. He is a Parsee, descended from the Zoroastrians who fled to India from Persia almost 1300 years ago and settled on the West coast of India. Though he has lived in Canada since 1975, all of Mistry's novels have been set in India often against the backdrop of major political upheavals. For example A Fine Balance, once an Oprah Book Club recommendation, takes place as then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declares a state of emergency and cracks down on anyone opposed to her government. "Books like A Fine Balance show history from the bottom up, through the eyes of the people who were dispossessed. It was an account of four characters and how decisions in higher places affect them" says Mistry. Now Mistry is getting a taste of what he had only researched before - the impact of decisions in high places and the security state vs the little guy trying to get on with his life. Its nothing new for many people trying to fly after the events of 9/11. The ACLU has already filed a lawsuit against most of the major airline carriers for racial discrimination.

A mild-mannered, unfailingly polite man, Mistry is rather unhappy that controversy around the book tour has almost become bigger than the book. "This was a personal decision" he says carefully "I don't want to call a press conference about it." He explains that he has nothing against security. If someone sets off the metal detector, he is all for a thorough checking. What has upset him is the "random" check that can happen while boarding the plane. "It's a very peculiar kind of random when it happened to me and my wife 100% of the time" says Mistry. "You have to step aside and while your fellow passengers board the plane, they watch you getting the second going over - where you are made to open your bag, take out your wallet, take off your shoes, undo your belt and hold up your pants while they check."

The checks got so annoying that for a while he even considered shaving his beard. "Paranoia is a very powerful thing and when a person appears to be subjected to what appears to be on all accounts different treatment, paranoia quickly sets in" he explains. Coming from a country like India, he is not unused to government officials and bureaucrats and traffic cops wielding tremendous power like the airport officials who pulled him aside. But he thinks there is a significant difference. "In India the petty officials do it for one thing only - bribes" says Mistry. "The traffic cop is so poorly paid that he has to indulge in some extracurricular activities to pay the bills. I am sure no one is expecting a bribe here in the third world sense."

Mistry is uneasy with his new cameo in the grand war on terrorism. "This is becoming an interview about security rather than the book" he complains. He wants to talk about writing, about what inspires him. He explains "I usually start with an image of a character. It's not very clear at first. In Fine Balance it was a woman at a sewing machine. In Family Matters it is an old man with Parkinson's disease. I don't know where the image comes from but then I get a barrage of questions I need to answer about it. Who is he? Where does he live? What does he do? What year is it?" The answer to those questions ends up being sprawling novels that can span generations. Perhaps the next image that will spark a novel for Mistry is not going be set in Bombay. Perhaps it will be an image of a bearded man being pulled aside as he tries to board his plane.

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