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Writing Sample 4 - Sample Literary Essay - Fiction
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Sophia Brown
Professor Michael Smith
English 1010
February 23, 2005

Grappling with Canadian Multiculturalism in Rohinton Mistry's "Swimming Lessons"

      "The past," says Salman Rushdie, "is a country from which we have all emigrated" (12). In Rohinton Mistry's "Swimming Lessons," several characters remind the narrator of the past he has left behind. The apartment building where the narrator lives is a microcosm of Canada's multicultural society; the narrator is just one of many immigrants. Instead of identifying with the other newcomers, however, the narrator distances himself from them. Especially in his attitude toward the Slavic building superintendent, Berthe, he demonstrates his generally ambivalent attitude toward the Canadian cultural mosaic as a whole.

      Mistry has said that writing about his life in India is "part of dealing with unfinished business" (Smith 1). The narrator in "Swimming Lessons" appears to be driven by a similar motivation. Through the fictional stories he writes, he tries to join his past and present together. The narrative itself unfolds as a double manuscript, situated partly in Canada and partly in India. As someone living on the seam of two different national identities, the narrator experiences a fearful sense of dislocation, symbolized by his anxiety about learning to swim. He projects his own discomfort onto other immigrants in the story by turning them into unappealing, cartoon-like figures.

      The first immigrant we encounter in the story is the Portuguese woman who functions as "the communicator for the apartment building" (1074) and reminds the narrator of a similarly gossipy woman in his apartment block in India. The comparison does not, though, draw the narrator toward the woman. On the contrary, he alienates himself from her by objectifying her. He sees her as a fictional character from a movie, and, rather than learning her name, he refers to her as "PW."

      The narrator disassociates even more strongly from another immigrant, the Scottish woman he initially sees sunbathing and then encounters in the laundry room. From far away, he views the woman as sexually attractive, but when he sees her up close he realizes she is much older than he had thought, and he is revolted by the way his erotic vision has changed into wrinkles and varicose veins. Later, in the laundry room, when he first hears her Scottish accent, he depersonalizes the woman altogether, referring to her as one of "the two disappointments who were sunbathing in bikinis last summer" and as a "horny old cow" (1083).

      In India, cows are sacred, so it is remarkable here that the narrator turns a holy symbol into a vernacular insult. The insult shows the degree to which he has adapted to his new culture. He has become enough of an insider to view as outsiders other people with accented speech. Berthe, the building's superintendent, is one such person, and the narrator's view of her shows how he detaches himself from her immigrant identity.

      Berthe is obviously struggling to adapt to her new country and language. According the narrator, she "speaks a very rough-hewn English," and "her words fall like rocks and boulders" (1079). Berthe's clumsy, loud language makes her seem masculine and brutish. (The narrator describes her as a large woman with breasts like the "prows of two ice-breakers" [1084].) By the end of the story, her harsh tongue has apparently driven away her husband and her son.

      At first glance, Berthe and the narrator may seem to have little in common, as our storyteller speaks elegant English. However, the narrator, too, is in the process of acquiring Canadian English. Recognizing this, his father writes to him using both Indian words and their English translation. Through the father's awareness of the double-speech of his immigrant son, Mistry draws our attention to what Ajay Heble calls "the notion of language as a sign of cultural distinctiveness" (59).

      Even though he and Berthe have much in common, the narrator feels threatened by Berthe. In one encounter, he describes her as "dropping rough-hewn chunks of language around me" (1084). He is so determined to master the "lessons" of how to function in his new culture, that he's uneasy in the presence of those who have not yet left behind the tokens of immigrant status.

      This discomfort is part of one of story's chief ironies—that it is impossible for the immigrant to succeed in creating a single, unified Canadian identity because Canada is itself an expression of many cultural identities. As Neelam Tikkha comments in an article on Mistry's fiction, "Canada seems a strange land even to Canadians" (62). As he tries to find his own place in Toronto's multicultural context, the narrator of "Swimming Lessons" is still coming to grips with that unsettling national fact.

Works Cited

Heble, Ajay. "'A Foreign Presence in the Stall': Towards a Poetics of Cultural Hybridity in Rohinton
      Mistry's Migration Stories." Canadian Literature 137 (1993): 51-61.

Mistry, Rohinton. "Swimming Lessons." A New Anthology of Canadian Literature in English.
      Eds. Donna Bennett and Russell Brown. Toronto: Oxford UP, 2002.1074-89.

Rushdie, Salman,. "Imaginary Homelands." Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism
. Londno: Granta Books, 1991. 9-21.

Smith, Stephen. "There from here (Rohinton Mistry)." Quill & Quire 61.9 (1995): 1.

Tikka, Neelam. "Geophysical Imagination and History in the Fiction of Rohinton Mistry and
      Bharati Mukherjee." The Fiction of Rohinton Mistry: Critical Studies.
      Ed. Jaydipsinh Dodiya. New Delhi: Prestige, 1998. 23-31.

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