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February 2002

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Mistry Takes the Oprah Prize

 

 By Sushmit Sen

 

 

Rohinton Mistry is the first Canadian and only the second non-U.S. author to have his work selected for Oprah's Book Club.

 

Born in Bombay in 1952, Rohinton Mistry immigrated to Canada in 1975 and was employed in a Toronto bank. He began writing stories in 1983 while attending the University of Toronto.

 

Rohinton Mistry's first novel, Such a Long Journey, creates a vivid picture of Indian family life and culture as well as tells a story rich in subject matter, characterization and symbolism. It is set in 1971 Bombay, when India went to war over what was later to become Bangladesh. Mistry skillfully parallels public events involving Indira Gandhi with the misfortunes of the novel's principal characters.

 

When Such a Long Journey was published in 1991, it won the Governor General's Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, and the W.H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award. It was short listed for the prestigious Booker Prize, and for the Trillium Award. It has been translated into German, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Japanese. Such a Long Journey was made into a movie in 2000, starring Om Puri and Roshan Seth.

A Fine Balance won the L.A. Times Book Award for Fiction, the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, Canada's prestigious Giller Prize and was a 1996 Booker Prize Finalist.

 

None of the prizes has given him the kind of public exposure he received from Oprah Winfrey. Sales of his novel A Fine Balance, published in Canada six years ago, took off immediately and in the third week of January it was No.6 on the New York Times paperback bestseller list.

 

Winfrey is a near-mythic figure in the U.S. book trade, and her every wish is publishers' command. Her show is watched by an average daily audience of 26 million in the U.S. and by an average of 505,000 a minute in Canada, where numbers are measured differently. Over the course of a year she is responsible for the sale of an estimated 12 million books, totalling $160 million (U.S.).

 

Winfrey reads widely and personally chooses the novels she likes usually books about struggling, disadvantaged people from diverse backgrounds who somehow triumph over circumstances. A Fine Balance is the story of two Untouchable tailors, an impoverished widow and her nephew, who overcome caste differences and are welded into an accidental family during the bloody regime of Indira Gandhi.

 

Mistry flew to Mumbai (Bombay) in December, trailed by Winfrey's camera crew, to evoke the atmosphere of the setting for the book. And then in January, he was in Chicago to tape a dinner discussion of A Fine Balance with Winfrey and four others on a set made to look like the host's library.

 

"He said Oprah was wonderful and was impressed by the warmth of the occasion," says his agent Bruce Westwood, who plans to watch the show with Mistry and his wife today. Mistry did not appear on the live broadcast.

 

Winfrey's stardust has fallen on 43 other writers from the time she started her book club in September 1996. Toni Morrison, who has twice been among the chosen (for Paradise and Song Of Solomon), has said the experience is "not just a revolution, it's an upheaval."

 

Mistry lives with his wife in Toronto. His new novel Family Matters, will be released by Knopf in 2002.

 

About the Book - A Fine Balance

 

With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recalls masters from Balzac to Dickens, this novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism of India. Set in 1975 at a time when the government has declared a state of internal emergency, the story focuses on the lives of four unlikely people who find themselves living in the same humble flat in the city.

A widow whose refusal to marry has left her struggling to earn a living as a seamstress; two tailors, who come to the city searching for employment; and a student from a small hamlet in the Himalayan foothills, whose father has sent him to attend college.

Through the dramatic and often shocking turns their lives take, we get an intimate view, not only of their world, but also of India itself in all its extraordinary variety. As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.

 

(Source: http://www.oprah.com/obc/pastbooks//rohinton_mistry/obc_pb_20011130.jhtml)