“Swimming Lessons…” is a collection of eleven short stories by the accomplished Rohinton Mistry. Being a Parsi himself, it comes as no surprise that he should choose a Parsi residential society as the setting. Although they can be read individually, the stories are interconnected through recurring characters and incidents – like Pesi padmaroo and his antics and Nariman Hansotia with his trips to the Cawasji Framji Memorial Library. Unlike the old, crubmling blocks of Firozsha Baag, the lives of its residents – adults and children, men and women, owners and servants – are rich and interesting.
Rustomji of Block A, a bitter old lawyer blessed with a thoughtful, caring wife much younger than himself, is called Rustomji the Curmudgeon – a name given by his fellow resident Nariman Hansotia. The children of the Baag, always in the shadow of his squabbles, lap it up. We see a slice of his life on the “Auspicious Occasion” of Behram Roje. The rather comical nature of the story, starting out with Rustomji trying to free himself of constipation and constantly being delayed in his visit to the fire temple that he finally has to abandon due to a ghati (a derogatory term, used by Rustomji, for people of the Western Ghats migrated to Bombay) spitting tobacco juice from the bus on his dugli, is punctured in the end with the murder of a priest. As he laments on the state of the world, we realize that there’s a tender, pensive side to the “tough exterior” of Rustomji that his wife adores.
“One Sunday”, Francis the homeless errand boy for many Baag residents turns into a thief. Driven to desperation by his hunger and poverty, he sneaks into Najamai’s flat in her absence – Najamai the widow gossip monger of the colony whose daughters study abroad and who is the sole owner of a refrigerator in Block C, exchanging favours from her neighbours in letting them use it. But is Francis really a thief? We wonder through Kersi, the young Boyce boy who lives downstairs and volunteers to catch the perpetrator, but feels guilty of turning in the hapless Francis. We have a hunch that there’s more to Kersi than merely smashing rats with his cricket bat. This turns out to be true when Kersi reemerges as the narrator of three more episodes from his own life and times.
Kersi is the voice of Mistry himself. This is evident in the last story from which the book derives its title. Here, Kersi, having immigrated to Canada, tells us of his experiences through various anecdotes – the tale tattling Portuguese woman(reminding him of Najamai), Berthe, their big Yugoslavian building superintendent with her son and husband, the suntanning ladies, racist slurs(“Paki, Paki, smells of curry”) and straying pubic hair at the swimming lessons. These are interspersed with third person glimpses of his parents in India. Through his letters they come to know of his life in Toronto. They are delighted on his becoming a writer and take turns reading his book sent by post, despite his father’s regrets that there were other more worthwhile subjects on Parsis than the weird lives of the Firozsha Baag residents that he could have chosen to write about. This is a nostalgic piece, where Mistry reflects on his own life.