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A Reading of Rohinton Mistry’s “Swimming Lessons” Guest Post Cielo Festino


Cielo G. Festino (Universidade Paulista/ pós-doc UFMG)

In this paper I propose to discuss the process of literary creation from a cross cultural perspective through a reading of the short story “Swimming Lessons” by Rohinston Mistry. The singularity of his writing, to borrow a term from Derek Attridge (2004), is articulated in the fact that geographical dislocation is turned into artistic distance as the young writer’s Indian memories intertwine with his Canadian experiences to become a sea of stories which allow him to swim across cultural borders. Literature thus becomes the realm through which he can make sense of his own experience.

This story can be read as an example of cultural translation. Mignolo (2002:1) explains that cultural translation is more than a syntactic and semantic transaction between two languages. It implies both a geopolitical as well as a historical configuration because it has not only a linguistic logic but also a historical memory deeply rooted in the subjectivity of the individual. Cultural
translation or transculturation thus becomes a working concept to think and understand cultural, political and social relationships in a transnational world, such as the one proposed by Mistry in this short story.

“Swimming Lessons” is the last story in the collection Tales from Firozsha Baag (1989) that made of Mistry an internationally acclaimed writer.  The stories, written in Toronto, Canada, indirectly tell about Mistry’s own beginnings as a writer.

The narratives can be divided into three groups. The first ones tell about life in the building compound of Firozsha Baag in Bombay, with the fun and tenderness that childhood stories evoke, but also with the critical harshness that distinguish Mistry’s writing about India, thus deconstructing any element of the exotic associated with Indian Literature in English. Then, the story “Lend Me Your Light” tells in a very critical manner, the moment of physically crossing the ocean and starting a new life in Canada, when the young immigrant’s burden of “riddles and puzzles” about life in India is still unsolved. He presents himself as a “Tiresias, throbbing between two lives, humbled by the ambiguities and dichotomies confronting him” (192) this implies neither idealizing nor brutalizing life in India, from a Western perspective, but assuming it in all its difficulties and complexities. The last story of the collection, “Swimming Lessons” takes place in Canada, in another building compound, and as its name reveals, its narrator-cum-writer tells how, through the power of narratives, he learnt to swim across cultural borders and
find answers to his riddles. Among his new neighbors from different parts of the world – a Portuguese woman and a Yugoslavian superintendant – he learned to narrate, with great compassion, about the Parsi community in Bombay, which had had  to flee  from Iran due to religious  discrimination and later suffered from political intolerance in Post-Independence India.

The story depicts, then, the precise moment when he is being “borne across to the West” (Ghosh, 2004) and his new cultural identity is in a process of change. At another level, as it has happened with many postcolonial Indian writers in English, living in the diaspora, it shows the moment when the culturally dislocated person transforms himself from a postcolonial subject into a literary celebrity (Ghosh, 2004:20) and by extension through his new type of writing reformulates the way in which literariness will come to be understood from a post-colonial perspective.

The rest of the talk may be viewed here.

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