Rohinton Mistry, the author of A Fine Balance, is in Norman to receive the Neustadt prize and I went to hear him give the keynote. The entire speech was an extended metaphor that ended with his statement that "a delinquent loan can be a blessing". That metaphorical explanation of why he writes was very good, so I'll share it with you.
Mistry grew up listening to Western music, reading Western books and imbibing Western culture. Part of this was because organizations like the British Library would loan out books to anyone who registered. Besides, the consulates were all airconditioned -- no small advantage in a city like Bombay. But any loan comes due and has to be repaid. The loans of books and music and theater and culture had to be repaid and it was repaid in terms of the minds and souls of all the impressionable young people who frequented these premises. That was why Mistry emigrated to Canada. India was never going to be enough for him. He would not be fenced in.
He was, however, too sophisticated to fall into the justifications that most immigrants fell into. He would not insist that he was going to spend only a few years abroad. He was not going to believe that he could ultimately take all this family and friends and connections with him to Canada. Mistry knew he could never go home again.
Not being able to go home was only one part of the paradox. The remainder of the paradox was that home never leaves you either. He was always going to be homesick. The way he resolved this was to recreate the home, the sights, the smells of the life he had left behind and scaffolded it with language. The loan, in other words, could be delinquent -- the West would not require a clean break, and would be quite tolerant of divided loyalties -- and that would be a blessing.
Writing was Rohinton Mistry's answer to the age-old immigrant's lament.
The audience was mostly young students, in their 20s, born into the cultural milieu they inhabit. I wonder how much of this keynote they really grokked. To me, it was moving, because the extended metaphor of a delinquent loan does capture my intellectual life, captures my desire to visit India every summer, to find ways to work in India when I can.
A delinquent loan, indeed.