Cyrus Mistry's play Doongaji House (1977) won him the Sultan Padamsee Award, positioning him in the limelight when he was just 21. Despite this early claim to fame, Mistry has preferred to remain unobtrusive, a refreshing attribute at a time when promotional publicity and media hype (rather than intrinsic merit) appear to have become the primary stepping stones to literary "greatness".
Passion Flower: Seven Stories of Derangement is Mistry's first collection of short stories and follows on two novels, The Radiance of Ashes (2005) and Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer (2012), which got the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014.
Mistry's spin on "derangement" makes the stories recognizable narratives of contemporary angst. In Passion Flower, Anand, an ambitious young botanist in search of the reportedly extinct Passiflora, discovers the futility of an obsession that has distanced him from his wife and unborn child. His no-exit situation is enhanced through Mistry's unsparing depiction of the less pretty side of the hill station where he now teaches, with its strident beggars and loud tourists.
The discord between Anand's personal life and his professional aspirations, his dreams of wanting to make it big and the mundane job he takes up to realize them is universal enough, something we have experienced in different ways, as is the ironic twist at the end of the story with its mixture of salvation and loss. His near-death experience becomes a way of learning to live with the reality that "a single sprig of manna in the palm of your hand equals ten thousand in the imagination…"
Mistry's sense of his community's inheritance of loss (he was born a Zoroastrian) has been a recurrent theme in his work and three of the seven stories included in this collection depict 'Parsi-ness' in some detail- not the Parsi-ness of the elite but of the Parsi "Colonies" and "Baugs", along with their attendant eccentricities.
But Mistry does not create stereotypes even when his themes appear to run parallel, as in 'Percy' and 'Bokha' where the protagonists engage in mother-son rituals of dependence and revolt. Though both mothers are widowed, sharp-tongued and domineering, with community gossip suggesting that widowhood has merely transferred their authority from husbands to their conflicted sons, they are also individualized.
Percy's mother, hocking homemade bhakras, pickles, sweet malido and other Parsi delicacies in the neighbourhood, is less sinister than the obese woman who had mothered Bokha while their sons share only a superficial similarity in being odd-looking outcasts with repressed sexual needs.
Percy uses his Mumma's absences to waltz round their tiny room with an imaginary wife, "his first love, a fair and elegant beauty with a small nose and dimpled chin", and any young woman seated beside him on a bus arouses absurd testosterone-ridden fantasies: You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen… Come… Come closer, my love, my angel… Don't be afraid.
Unlike Percy's simplistic daydreams, Bokha's fantasies are more grounded, focused on the ayah Serafina whom he has befriended in the park, but his bottled-up anger and his mother's malevolence tip him over the edge in a brutal denouement.
Within Mistry's fictional gamut of dysfunctional relationships, a new mother's resentment of her infant is mixed up with suspicions of her husband's infidelity. A cook's tortured mind makes her believe that everyone, including her long-time employers, are out to get her in some way. Two friends, now co-workers, allow their competitive streak to erode their friendship.
An old couple lives out their empty life in a cycle of waiting, not daring to voice their inmost anguish. Anand's dilemma arises out of his reluctance to accept his responsibilities, Percy's only friend is a ghost who confronts him with fearful prophecies, and Bokha's mother ensures he can never realize his hope of escape.
Mistry's skill with language and his eye for detail make for some delightful passages. In Passion Flower a botanic expedition makes Anand momentarily forget the irritations that overwhelm him: "Mist had risen sharply from the valley below; all the multicoloured grasses, herbs, climbers, trees and branches were shrouded in an ominous chiaroscuro of grey and white. The air had turned chill…"
Faced with his mother's death, the subservient Percy's grief cannot suppress his sense of liberation: "His mind danced like a flame in a strong breeze…. He rearranged the furniture in his head… He must join the two beds now, so he could roll and sprawl over them as he liked."
For the most part however Mistry's people, possessed by demons both self-made and imposed, move through fictional worlds where humour, irony, fantasy, even compassion are inadequate props to support their eventual failures. Even where there is a kind of redemption, as when the young mother's weird, old, surreal visitor reconciles her to her little one, the reader's sense of entrapment remains. There is very little "passion" in the stories despite the book's suggestive title, and derangement takes on a scary dimension, bordering as it does on near normalcy.
Note: Vrinda Nabar is an author, critic, and former Chair of English, Mumbai University