Passion Flower has a cover of such exquisite charm that, like the hero of one of the stories in the seven short stories in the collection, one is drawn almost hypnotically to it. Anand, an amateur botanist who teaches at a school in the Palni Hills of Kodaikanal, in South India, is fuelled by hidden hungers, one of which manifests itself in an almost besotted search for the plant that he describes as Passiflora boliviana . Is this a form of dementia as the sub-title suggests or the hunger of the modern existential hero in search of meaning in our mundane world?
Cyrus Mistry never lets on, which is what give his, at times, rambling narratives such an edge. Even in The Radiance of Ashes, set in Mumbai just on the cusp of the Babri Masjid era, we get a series of short stories strung inside the head of the young Parsi dreamer and drifter, Jingo (short for Jahangir), who traverses the many layers of the urban jungle searching for a more human version of a “Passion Flower”.
Mistry has the inspired storyteller’s knack of taking up a small detail in the large canvas of a city — most often Mumbai — that he pinpoints for us with the skill of a documentary photographer. By taking random images of the panorama of life and making us care enough for the transient moment, he suggests that it may also create is own meaning. These glimpses may be fractured; they may be highly flawed narratives, as in both these collections of life stories. They speak of different types of obsessive attachments — or derangements, as he calls them — but they also fill us with momentary glimpses into the profligacy of such lives. Mistry’s characters can swirl around their families; burn and destroy those closest to them with a ferocity that creates its own sense of a terrible beauty.
So it is with the cover. It’s an illustration by Beth Phillip, an artistic rendering half botanical, half a pattern composed into a Victorian cartouche and merchandised into a selling cover by Bena Sareen. A branching tendril of the white starry flowers with their crown of thorns and stigmata curls across the black satin background. Their rich glossy palm-ate leaves clutch outwards in search of the Sun, in the darkness of a tropical forest. The artist has placed one pendant berry in coral hanging from a calyx of dry gold on a curving wire stem with three pearls dangling at the lower tip.
You cannot stop looking at it, or reaching out to touch it. For it evokes not just the convoluted arrangement of the passion flower itself, with its symbolic imagery to the Passion of Christ, but brings memories of the old Parsi matrons sallying forth wearing just the same type of shiny Chinese silk with the rich embroidery that was a legacy of the China trade that their husbands undertook.
Cyrus Mistry is most often seen as the painter of the interior world of the Parsi “Baugs” or old exclusive Parsi habitats of Mumbai. The Radiance of Ashes, his first full-length novel, is much closer to the Parsi milieu of Mumbai. It has been re-issued by Aleph after Mistry’s rise to literary fame by winning the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature in 2014.
As in so many of his stories, there is a certain ambiguity in his portrayal of the pious Parsi women forever repeating their prayers and keeping the faith of the strong Zoroastrian traditions that have welded the small community together in the good times. As the once-proud cosmopolitan elite of the city of Mumbai — read Westernised leaders in the educational, social and mercantile arenas — the loss of the collective prestige of the Parsi community has often been mythologised in print and film and theatre.
What makes Mistry’s narratives somewhat different is that his heroes tend to step out of their bungalows and baugs . In any case, he belongs to — or at least appears to — the more oppressive milieu of the Parsi middle class. Without appearing to be cynical, it may be that he has much less to mourn or to leave behind. If not quite as winsome as a Woody Allen character, though he plays such a role at the start of the Ashes novel when he circulates zombie-like through an evening at the home of a rich girl-friend named Dubby, his hero Jingo has the same self-referential modesty to always mock at himself that could also be the sign of what might be a monstrous ego, a Promethean desire to defy the gods and steal the fire from them.
Or like, Percy who has been liberated by the death of his doting mother, dances in the empty flat, “his face flushed and strangely radiant.” When his neighbour announces that the hearse has arrived: “She was startled by the gleam in his eyes and the fact that he bowed when he saw her, graciously, as though he were — good God! — as though he were asking her for the pleasure of this dance!”
It’s a Mistry moment that is worth waiting for, the radiance of his gaze!