Whisky & Culture

Taking the Plunge

How to cope when you move into another culture
By Jefferson Chase
For the third and last installment of my mini-series on writers with ridiculously interesting backgrounds I had a look at the fine 1987 collection of stories Swimming Lessons by Rohinton Mistry. Mistry was born in Mumbai and emigrated to Canada, but as if that weren't multi-cultural enough, he also comes from the Parsi community.

The stories in Swimming Lessons are all set at least partly in the Firozsha Baag apartment building complex in a Parsi neighborhood of Mumbai. The funniest of the lot is a story called "Squatter." In it, a youth from Firozsha Baag named Sarosh holds a party to say goodbye before emigrating to Canada. His guests are divided about whether the young hero is doing the right thing in leaving, and to quell their squabbling, he issues a fateful promise: By and by, after substantial amounts of scotch soda and rum and coke had disappeared, a fierce debate started between the two groups. To this day, Sarosh does not know what made him raise his glass and announce: 'My dear family, my dear friends, if I do not become a complete Canadian in exactly ten years from the time I land there, then I will come back.

A decade is a long time, our hero thinks. How difficult can it be to assimilate in a friendly place like Canada? Harder than you'd think, it turns out. Sarosh finds himself unable to digest white bread, and even after he's acclimated to the local food, he simply can't get used to sitting upon, rather than squatting over toilets: Each morning he seated himself to push and grunt, grunt and push, squirming and writhing unavailingly on the white plastic oval. By the very latest at this point in the story, it's very clear that 'Squatter' is not about a group of hippies occupying derelict buildings.

Sarosh eventually succeeds in assimilating into this most personal and intimate of Western habits - unfortunately, only on the plane back to India on the day his self-imposed ten-year limit is up. In Mumbai, he's invited to a party to celebrate his return: Drinks began to flow freely again in his honour: Scotch and soda, rum and Coke, brand. Sarosh noticed that during his absence all the brand names had changed… Instead of Coke there was Thums-Up, and he remembered reading in the papers about Coca-Cola being kicked out by the Indian Government for refusing to reveal their secret formula.

So Sarosh is back home only to learn that, as the old saying goes, you can't go home again.

Notwithstanding the author's Parsi-Indian-Canadian background, Swimming Lessons greatly reminded me of Boccaccio's Decameron, another funny, scatological story cycle about people who've been forced to leave their homes. Often it's the banal details - door locks, electrical outlets and, yes, the plumbing - that prove most befuddling in a foreign environment. And when your 'native' habits come to seem bizarre and incomprehensible, you know you've left home for good.