As it reads on the book jacket, a classic violet Bena Sareen work, Passion Flower: Seven Stories of Derangement is quite certainly another triumph for Cyrus Mistry. The jacket also calls the seven-story-compilation ‘disturbing’, which one might find oneself in disagreement with, in parts. An odd theme of derangement runs through the seven stories, all of which are unsettling yet mildly comforting. Perhaps the comfort stems from the fact that the reader is attracted to the author’s insight into the grey lanes of an individual’s mind. Even ordinary people are constantly susceptible to emotions and thoughts that they seldom entertain brazenly, lest they disregard the standards of societal appropriateness and accepted behaviour.
The mood of Mistry’s stories, five of which have been carried in a host of publications earlier, ranges from being grim and morbid to challenging and euphoric.
First in order is ‘Percy’, a 34-year-old clerk living with his widowed mother, whose constant bullying aggravates him sometimes but he knows better than to express his resentment against her tyranny. Rendered helpless and impotent of cultivating any form of self-esteem at an early age owing to the bitter discord between his mother Banubai and his late father, the passivity of Percy’s monotonous existence finds an ecstatic release when he discovers his father’s handwound gramophone and thirty-odd shellac discs. Further, a misplaced postcard leads him to the Bombay Gramophone Society and during its twice-a-week meetings Percy begins to discern the difference of style, between Beethoven and Vivaldi, between Mozart and Mendelssohn. A visit from the ghost of his childhood friend is one of the many instances where Mistry skilfully employs elements which make it difficult to disengage fact from fiction.
A similar theme runs in the last story of ‘Bokha’, who fears succumbing to his mother, the savage and formidable Khorshedmai, as she tries killing his lover Serphina using black magic.
Preeti, a young mother suffering in the agony of postpartum depression dangles on the fringes of insanity and begins to harbour deep insecurities about her marriage until the ‘unexpected grace’ of a stranger causes her to discover the radiance of motherhood.
Mourning the loss of her youth to a man she was engaged with for eleven years but who abandoned her to marry someone else, Jacintha is now a cook at Domasso Villa and obsessed with the idea that someone is trying to kill her, for she knows more than she should.
Awaiting their daughter’s return from a New Year’s Eve party, an old couple bitterly reminisce an episode of twentyfour years ago that engulfs their lives in profound guilt and uncertainty.
Of the two never-been-published-before stories, one becomes the highlight of the book, also lending its name to the title, while the other seems to be an eager experiment on Mistry’s part, but one that fails to match the intensity of the other six stories.
Two Angry Men’ is a narrative of two colleagues (rather unlikely friends) in an advertising firm whose association goes back to being schoolmates but can barely mask their sharp judgements and rancour for the other. The employeremployee equation of the two broadens the chasm as an argument unfolds one evening over drinks.
Mistry’s gradual detailing and stronghold over characters, which was up until now his flourishing trait, is quite weak here.
Anand Mahendroo is a botanist who distances himself from his pregnant wife and seeks solace in the blinding pursuit of an extinct species of the passiflora, thus giving the name ‘Passion Flower’ to this fantasy fable. The story creates many serene moments of compassion, epiphany, innocence and self-realisation. The mystical tale is gripping throughout and a sense of desperation to read further lingers as it ends.
Mistry’s heroes are unlikely protagonists: they are spiteful, selfish, docile, regretful and disparaging, raging in agony and paranoia. But each one experiences an immeasurable sense of relief and freedom as the story inches to a close.
Mistry successfully established himself as a brilliant writer of the Parsi community with his magnum opus Chronicle of Corpse Bearer, for which he received the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014. So it isn’t much of a surprise to see Parsi characters doing most of the talking in Passion Flower but, his keen observation of intricate lifestyles and practiced rituals will not escape your admiration.