Swimming Lessons

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Swimming Lessons

Rohinton Mistry 1987

Author Biography

Plot Summary




Historical Context

Critical Overview



“Swimming Lessons” is the last story in the collection of short fiction that first brought Rohinton Mistry national attention in Canada and subsequently the United States. The set of eleven stories titled Tales from Firozsha Baag [retitled Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag when it was published in 1989 in the United States] was well received by critics in both countries. As “Swimming Lessons” is positioned as the last story in the collection, it has prompted many reviewers to give it particular attention. An important feature of the story is that its setting moves with the narrator from Bombay to Toronto and allows Mistry to draw deft parallels between the lives of the residents of apartment complexes in both of these crowded, multicultural urban settings. It also gives him an opportunity to explore the writer’s uses of memory and events of his past life using the commentary of the narrator’s parents, who discuss the manuscript he sends them after living several years in Toronto. While the other stories in the collection focus on the lives, foibles, and crises of the Parsi community in the Bombay housing complex called Firozsha Baag, “Swimming Lessons” shifts the focus to issues of the loneliness, racism, and cultural adjustment of Mistry’s Indian immigrant protagonist, a not so thinly veiled autobiographical character. While the two settings are literally worlds apart, the characters of “Swimming Lessons” in the end seem almost comfortably similar to their Indian counterparts in their sad, petty, and often humorous attempts to find dignity and human connection in the isolating circumstances of modern urban apartment living.

Author Biography

Rohinton Mistry was born in 1952 in Bombay, India’s largest city and the most densely populated place in the world. He grew up as a member of Bombay’s middle class Parsi community. His father, Behram Mistry, worked in advertising and his mother, Freny Mistry, was a housewife. He obtained a British-style education at the University of Bombay, studying mathematics and economics and receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in 1975. He then married Freny Elavia, a teacher, and immigrated to Canada, settling in Toronto. He worked as a banker to support himself while taking night courses at the University of Toronto and completed a second baccalaureate degree in 1984, majoring in literature and philosophy.

During this period, Mistry became interested in writing. He studied with Mavis Gallant, a writer-in-residence in Toronto’s English Department, and won first prize in a short story contest the university inaugurated in 1983. He won this contest again in 1984 and added two Hart House literary prizes and Canadian Fiction Magazine’s annual Contributor’s Prize to his list of accolades in 1985. He published in numerous literary magazines and was one of the new fiction writers featured in the 1986 volume Coming Attractions, 4, published in Ottawa by Oberon Press. The next year, Penguin/Canada published a collection of eleven of Mistry’s stories titled Tales from Firozsha Baag, which the American publisher Houghton Mifflin picked up in 1989 and retitled Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag.

This collection, the final episode of which is “Swimming Lessons,” centers around an apartment building in Bombay and showcases Mistry’s talent for sketching subtle, sympathetic, and often funny character studies of the tenants of the housing complex. It has received positive attention from reviewers, who have praised Mistry’s ability to evoke the atmosphere of the Bombay Parsi community and his skill in narrating his stories with wit and compassion.

In 1991 he published his first full-length work, a novel entitled Such a Long Journey, which won the Governor General’s Award for Canadian fiction and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Set in the early 1970s during the creation of Bangladesh from the former East Pakistan, it concerns an upper class Bombay man named Gustad Noble, who is drawn into the politics of this struggle and becomes unhappily involved with Indira Gandhi’s government. It was shortlisted (nominated and noted but not chosen) for the prestigious Booker Prize, won the W. H. Smith “Books in Canada First Novel Award,” and was quickly translated into several languages.

Mistry’s latest work, a novel published in 1995, combines the political themes of Such a Long Journey and the character sketches of the Firozsha Baag stories. Titled A Fine Balance, it focuses on four people who live in the same apartment in Bombay in the 1970s and describes the effects of the internal political turmoil of the times on their lives. As with his previous work, the critical response was good and Mistry’s reputation as one of Canada’s premiere young writers has continued to grow.

Plot Summary

“Swimming Lessons” is told from the author’s viewpoint except in the italicized portions that use the third person to depict Kersi’s parents’ responses to the mail he sends from Toronto. These are set in Bombay in his parents’ home as they read his communications, first letters and then the manuscript of stories, and discuss their son and his work. Otherwise, the story takes place in an apartment complex in the Don Mills suburb of Toronto, its elevator lobby, its parking lot, and, when the protagonist ventures out to take swimming lessons, the local high school pool.

But it is clear from the opening passages that there is another important setting for this story, namely the memory of the narrator. From the outset, he compares events in his new environment with those back in the Bombay housing complex called Firozsha Baag, where he grew up surrounded by his family and an assortment of quirky, colorful neighbors. In the opening scene, for example, the narrator describes “the old man” (he is never named) who waits for people in the apartment lobby in order to make small talk. As he plays a favorite conversational game, asking people to guess his age, Kersi is reminded of his own grandfather, who had Parkinson’s disease and sat on the veranda of their complex waving at anyone who went by.

After introducing the old man, the Portuguese woman in Toronto, and making the first italicized jump-shift to Bombay, the narrator begins to reveal things about himself. He is candid about his erotic urges as he describes spotting two women sunbathing in bikinis beside the parking lot and his attempts to get a closer look. When they turn out to be less than attractive at close quarters, he remembers the swimming lessons he has signed up for, saying he has that “to look forward to.”

He recounts a conversation with the attendant at the pool registration desk in which he explains his “non-swimming status” and she in turn explains why she never learned to ride a bicycle. After this there is a long passage of memory based on incidences of swimming, water, and religious festivals relating to water in the narrator’s life before immigrating to Canada. He also discusses his newly purchased swimming trunks and recounts a sexual fantasy about them that indicates his high hopes for an erotic encounter at the upcoming swimming lessons. This is followed by another shift to India where the narrator’s parents converse about their son in Canada as they write to him. The first section of the story closes with the introduction of Bertha, the building superintendent, who is yelling at her son as he tinkers with his van in the parking lot. The narrator describes her slavic-language tirades and the family’s general situation—Bertha’s hard work at the apartments, her husband’s factory work and occasional binges of “boozing,” and the son’s seeming lack of any work at all.

The second section opens with the narrator describing his first swimming lesson. There are some bigoted comments from white teenagers as he leaves the locker room. His erotic fantasy does materialize, but only in his mind. He describes his excitement as a woman in the group demonstrates floating face up and he watches her pubic hairs wafting in the water around the edges of her suit. That is the high point. The low point comes when he is asked to paddle to the deep end. He is terrified and almost goes under.

The second lesson is a great disappointment, since the floating woman has shaved her pubic area and no longer reveals anything erotic to Kersi’s imagination. He quits. The next italicized portion begins as a Kersi’s parents receive a parcel from Canada. It is a copy of the manuscript of stories Kersi has written. His parents are surprised to find that, while he is living in Toronto, the stories are almost all about Bombay. The exception is the last, which seems to be “Swimming Lessons” itself. Meanwhile time passes in Toronto. Bertha rakes leaves, her son stops working on his van when it gets too cold, the bikini ladies flirt with Kersi in the laundry room, the old man is given a ride in an Oldsmobile by his son, and the Portuguese woman (PW) keeps watch over it all.

As winter deepens the heat falters and then goes off entirely in the apartment complex. Bertha shovels snow, the old man has a stroke and is gone, Bertha’s husband and son leave her, the old man returns, and far away in Bombay’s Firozsha Baag, Kersi’s parents finish their reading of his stories. They like them and are proud, although the father thinks he has focused too much on inconsequential people and his mother thinks he must be homesick since he only writes about Bombay and not Toronto.

Kersi tells in great detail the process of his taking a bath in his apartment. He ruminates on water imagery and finally gets the nerve to go completely under the water, even though it is only in his bathtub. As he is submerging himself he decides he should find out the old man’s name. But just as he is looking on the mailbox labels, PW informs him that the old man died in the night. The story ends with an italicized passage, as Kersi’s parents are writing to tell him how proud they are of his accomplishment as a writer. They are looking forward to his next book.



Bertha is the apartment building superintendent. She is a hard working middle-aged Yugoslavian woman who spends much of her time trying to get her husband and son to be hard working too. She is demonstrative, loud, and unconcerned about how she is perceived by her neighbors when she yells at her spouse or son. Her husband works in a factory but occasionally yields to alcohol, which Bertha calls “booze,” one of her few English slang terms.

Bikini sunbathers

Like most of the characters in “Swimming Lessons,” the sunbathers are minor figures who serve primarily to reveal the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. First seen from a distance, they are objects of desire as Kersi ogles them. Later he comes to think of them as “horny old cows.”


See Narrator

Mother and Father

The narrator’s parents are the only major characters in the story other than himself. They are presented with complexity both as individuals and as a couple who have lived together for many years. The father at first will not answer Kersi’s letters because he dislikes their short and impersonal tone. But when he receives his son’s manuscript of stories, he becomes interested and writes to give him suggestions about writing and his subject matter. The mother is less interested in writing theory and criticism. She reads his work with an eye to how her son is feeling personally. The conversation Mistry gives these characters gives him the occasion to discuss literary themes, especially how a writer uses the experiences of his own life to create fiction.


The narrator’s name is never mentioned in the story, but he is clearly the same Parsi Indian character named Kersi who appears in several of the other stories of the Swimming Lessons collection. Although shy, Kersi is becoming progressively “westernized” and enjoys displaying his new cultural knowledge, such as the make and model of the old man’s son’s car. He is a keen observer of the people in his apartment complex and is beginning to write about them, as is evident from the manuscript he sends to his parents in Bombay. He lives an interior life full of memories of Bombay that he frequently compares to his new life in Canada. He characteristically notices and thinks about the thematic and symbolic meanings of the things he observes.

Old man

Another unnamed character, the old man will soon turn seventy-seven. He sits in his wheelchair by the elevator of the apartment complex and makes small talk with the tenants as they pass in the hall. He seems somewhat senile, but the apartment tenants indulge him and he engages everyone equally. He has a son who visits and takes him for rides.

Portuguese woman

The narrator gives her the designation “PW,” making her a blatantly two-dimensional figure. She is nosey and wants the narrator to know the extent of her information about all the goings-on in the apartment building. She is easily insulted when anyone gives her information, since she wants to be the one “in the know.”


Cause and Effect

In looking for the major themes of “Swimming Lessons,” it would be a mistake to take the narrator’s remarks about cause and effect too literally. It is a noticeable thread in the narrative, but Mistry makes it almost too apparent. The narrator mentions it when he considers his grandfather’s osteoporosis and a fall that broke his hip. Did the weakened bone snap and cause his fall or did his fall cause the break? This leads him to wonder if the Bombay Parsi community has the highest divorce rate because it is the most westernized or if it the most westernized because of its divorces. The theme comes up early in the story and continues as he wonders if the waters of Bombay are filthy because of the crowds or if the crowds gather because of the chance to pick through the filth and junk. Which is the cause, which the effect? After raising the question initially, Mistry’s narrator drops it. Readers are left with the thought, however, and it haunts other events in the story. Do Bertha’s husband and son leave her because she is always yelling at them, or does she yell because she knows they are going to leave? It serves to give an overall sense that life is mysterious and that one cannot figure out why things happen as they do. The theme arises significantly at the end when the narrator’s parents wonder if he writes about Bombay because he is lonely in his new home, or if he had to go to the new locale to find his subject matter back in the old one.


Any immigrant feels the weight of being “a stranger in a strange land,” as the saying goes, but an immigrant of color in modern western society must feel especially alone, lonely, and alienated. This is an important theme in “Swimming Lessons.” It is clear that the narrator is isolated and attempting to make connections with other people; but he is not the only character in this condition. The old man dies without anyone in the apartment ever getting to know him. The Portuguese woman (PW) makes her observations and retreats behind her door. The superintendent’s family disintegrates. And the narrator makes no acquaintance or friend; the bikini women devolve from distant erotic visions to “horny old cows,” and the swimming lessons work out no better. In fact, no character makes any significant human contact with anyone in the story.


“Water imagery in my life is recurring,” says the narrator as he contemplates Chaupatty beach in Bombay in his childhood and the pool where his swimming lessons occur. Usually water and filth are mutually exclusive symbols, but in this story they blend, both in the narrator’s present reality and his memory. The sea of his childhood is a grotesque mix of filth, religious symbolic purity, and raw sexual energy. He remembers pre-adolescent street urchins swimming nude with erections and masturbating as his mother tried to teach him to swim. This image is followed by a fantasy of his own erection showing through his trunks and attracting a lover in his swim class. Especially strong images of this mix of purity and impurity occur when the pubic hairs of a woman in the swim class arouse the narrator greatly and later a hair is caught in the drain of the tub as he tests his aquatic courage by submerging himself in his bath. He says he wants to see what is “inside” water. This works well as a symbol of the unconscious mind, an unregulated chaotic mixture of the sacred and the profane.

The Cycle of the Seasons

The artistic patterning of life’s experiences is a theme that arises out of the self-consciousness of the narrator in “Swimming Lessons.” He wants to know what “the equation” is as he contemplates whether he will experience a “watery rebirth.” As it turns out, his focus on water as the source of regeneration has been a false hope. Just as the water in Bombay was a compromised symbol because of the filth in it, so the pool of his swimming lessons fails as a symbol, presumably because he brought “impure” expectations to it. What finally works toward his rebirth in his new country is simply the passing of time. He is new to the phenomenon of the seasons, and pays close attention to it as the story develops. By the end of his narrative, when the old man has died, he has begun to perceive a sense of

Topics for Further Study

  • The Parsis of Bombay that Mistry depicts in his fiction are remnants of the Zoroastrians who came to India from Persia [now called Iran] after the Muslim conquest of that country in the seventh century. Look up the three volume History of Zoroastrianism edited by Mary A. Boyce and others (1991) and find out some of the basic tenets of this religion.
  • Bombay is the home of one of the most successful steel business families in India, the Tatas. Find out about this famous Parsi industrial family that the narrator’s father in “Swimming Lessons” mentions with such obvious pride.
  • Sociologist Werner Sollers’ 1986 book Beyond Ethnicity discusses the tension in the life of immigrants to America (or a big Canadian city like Toronto) regarding “melting,” or assimilating the new culture, versus remaining “unmeltable,” maintaining native habits and customs. Consider the narrator of “Swimming Lessons” as an immigrant struggling with these tensions.
  • The sociology of living in large urban apartment complexes has been studied and discusses extensively. One section of Nicholas Lemann’s The Promised Land focuses on the problems of African Americans in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes high-rise apartments in the 1960s. Compare the situation Lemann describes to that of the apartment tenants in “Swimming Lessons.”

the ongoing larger natural rhythms created by the cycle of the seasons in Canada.


Point of View

For most of the story, the narrator tells the events. When the typeface becomes italic, the story shifts to Bombay where the narrator’s parents discuss their son, his life in Toronto, and, after it arrives in the mail, the manuscript of stories he has written since he immigrated to Canada. One effect of this shift is to give a double vision of the narrator. He is seen as he displays himself and also as his parents see him from halfway around the globe. His self-revelation is sometimes very intimate; he talks about sexual fantasies and very private scenes from his life. But his parents’ talk about him also comes close to being embarrassing at points; it has the feel of parents discussing their children when they are not around.


The style of the story is realism; that is, the events in the story are things one would expect to happen in “everyday life.” The narrative dwells on encounters between characters in the apartment lobby and mundane conversations in the laundry room. The most dramatic event in the story is the narrator’s moment of terror at his swim lesson when the instructor is close by. In other words, there is no great drama, no supernatural agent, not even a direct confrontation between the characters, unless one counts Bertha’s bouts of screaming at her husband and son. This kind of low-key realism is often termed “psychological realism” because its focuses on the “inner life,” or psychology, of one or two central characters. In “Swimming Lessons” the focus is on the narrator, his human interactions, his sensitivity to social environments, and his perception of images and symbols from “the page of life itself,” as he puts it. Things happen, but they are subtle things that must be noticed by careful observation and interpreted by understanding their psychological and symbol significance.

Symbols and Imagery

When the narrator brings up a point about symbols, it reminds readers that he is a writer, the kind of person who thinks about such literary things. He says, “symbols, after all, should be still and gentle as dewdrops, tiny, yet shining with a world of meaning.” He has noticed that water imagery has been a constant in his life. His tone is almost that of an excuse—his actual life has handed him the symbol and he apologizes for how obvious it is. All this should also be a hint to look for more subtle symbols throughout the story. Of course, the most striking image pairing in the story is the pubic hairs of the woman in his swim class that arouse him and later the hair he sees caught in the drain plug of his tub. A psychological reading of this image set is that sexuality is under the surface of things. The narrator says, suggestively “The world outside the water I have seen a lot of, it is now time to see what is inside.”

The images of two old men, one in Canada and the other the memory of his grandfather in Bombay, are also important in the story. The story opens and closes with the old man and its most significant event is his death. A counterpoint between the ongoing cycle of the seasons and the limited linear time of human life is made clear by that death. And the narrator’s mother emphasizes this important symbol when she says grandfather’s spirit blessing him is her favorite part of his story.

This leads to a final feature of the story that should be noted. Notice that the mother is discussing the very story the reader is reading as he or she is reading it. The effect is often called “metafiction.” The narrator breaks the spell of the narration to draw attention to its “storyness,” to discuss it, to speak directly to the reader, to suggest changes, etc. In this case the writer’s parents do it, but the effect is the same. “Are you sure, said Father, that you really told him this [about the grandfather’s spirit blessing], or you believe you told him because you like the sound of it, you said yourself the other day that he changes and adds and alters things in the stories but he writes it all so beautifully that it seems true, so how can you be sure.” Metafiction discloses the artistry of fiction writing and invokes that very question—it seems true, how can you be sure?

Historical Context


Since the 1960s, and particularly since 1980, Canada has been embroiled in a series of disputes arising out of efforts to “patriate” and modernize Canada’s constitution. Quebec nationalists, provincial premiers, and, more recently, feminists and aboriginal leaders have sought and sometimes won major victories as Canadians have attempted to transform their constitution and move from a commonwealth based in British law to an independent republic.


An ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan after independence from Great Britain came over Kashmir in 1947-49. With independence and partition, the numerous states had to choose to join either Hindu India or Muslim Pakistan. Contiguous to both India and West Pakistan, Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu prince, but the majority of its population was Muslim. In 1947, Pakistan invaded Kashmir in support of an uprising by Muslim peasants. The maharajah fled to Delhi, where he signed papers giving Kashmir to India. Indian troops defended the former princely state, which drew the Pakistani army into the conflict. Fighting continued in Kashmir until a United Nations commission arranged a truce in January 1949. Kashmir was then divided along the cease-fire line, with India holding about two-thirds and Pakistan the remainder. Periodic fighting has broken the uneasy peace often since then and India and Pakistan remain bitter enemies.


Greater Bombay, of which the southernmost part is the island of Bombay, was formed into a metropolitan municipal organization in 1957, when it was officially renamed Mumbai. About two-thirds of the population is concentrated on Bombay Island, which has an area of 26 square miles. Bombay has one of the highest population densities in the world, in some areas reaching 1,500 persons per square mile. The city attracts a large number of migrants, particularly from the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. The principal languages spoken are Marathi, Gujarati, and Hindi. Of all of India’s huge cities, Bombay offers the greatest religious diversity. More than half its population is Hindu; the rest is divided among Parsis, Christians, Jains, Muslims, and others.

Critical Overview

Mistry’s “Swimming Lessons” is the concluding story of Tales from Firozsha Baag, the collection that first brought him critical attention, but most commentators initially ignored this particular story. Writing in Canadian Literature, Amin Malak, for example, chose to discuss “Squatter” and “Lend Me Your Light,” presumably to showcase both the Parsi Indian and Canadian immigrant elements of Mistry’s work. But he never mentions the last story. He does make flattering literary comparisons to Mistry’s work that later reviewers echo. He writes that “following the models of psychological realism set by Chekhov and Joyce, Mistry reveals a knack for generating humour in the midst of tragedy,” and concludes that he” adroitly blends tragedy with irony, cynicism with humour, skepticism with belief.”

When the collection was reprinted in the United States in 1989, two years after its Canadian debut, it was reviewed twice in the New York Times, first by Michiko Kakutani in February and then more extensively by Hope Cooke in the March 5th New York Times Book Review. Both reviewers discuss the final story, probably since the American edition retitled the collection, Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag. Kakutani notes that it was in the book’s last tale that the narrator is revealed as a fictionalized surrogate for the author, and Cooke points out that Mistry “steps out of the frame” in the final story to discuss issues of symbolism and metaphor in fiction and his artistic intentions as a writer.

Both reviewers are very positive. Kakutani stresses Mistry’s masterly evocation of his characters’ “epiphany” moments, those sudden flashes of understanding about the world and one’s place in it that were named and perfected in the stories of James Joyce. She concludes that Mistry’s best stories “pivot around incidents that reveal to the characters some unforeseen truth about their lives.” Hope Cooke, on the other hand, focuses on Mistry’s humor and compassion for his characters, attributes placing him more in the company of Chekhov than Joyce. She suggests that the light, life-affirming quality of his stories is “astonishing, given the horrifying, stunted lives he depicts.”

Janette Turner Hospital, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is less approving in her assessment of the collection. It is her opinion that:

There are weaknesses in the stories, moments when the reader is conscious that this is a first collection from a young writer. Mistry is imitative of Indian novelist Anita Desai in his depiction of sudden and grotesque incursions of violence into the community, but he has the habit of predictably and rather portentously foreshadowing these events (a splat of betel juice on a white cloth prefigures a murder; a rat bludgeoned with a cricket bat precedes the bludgeoning of a starving servant) and in general there is a tendency toward heavy-handed symbolism.

Her discussion of the story “Swimming Lessons” points out that, while the narrator alludes to racist remarks others make about him, he is unaware of his own sexist remarks about several of the women he encounters (or more accurately, stares at) in the course of the story. In general, she likes the stories set in Firozsha Baag more than the Toronto

ones, but she predicts that “significant” work about Mistry’s Canadian experiences might be yet to come.

In an interview with Misry in The Canadian Fiction Magazine, Geoff Hancock brings out interesting comments from him regarding his “double consciousness” as a resident alien Canadian, his sense of the difference between Canada and the United States (which he obviously sees as a very violent society), and his major literary influences. In this interview he confirms those who saw Joyce and Chekhov as important models for his work and adds V. S. Naipaul, R. K. Narayan, Bernard Malamud, and John Cheever to the list. He makes it very clear that the Kersi/narrator figure of “Swimming Lessons” is not himself but a fictional character. He notes that the parents in the story say they would like to learn more about how he lives in Canada; his next book did not fulfill that wish but returned to the Bombay Parsi community of the earlier stories. The interview is noteworthy as well for his insistence that both politics and religion are of minor importance in his work.

Finally, a long article by Keith Garebian in The Canadian Forum is worth mentioning because of its early, strong evaluation of Mistry as an important new writer based on his performance in Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag. In “In the Aftermath of Empire: Identities in the Commonwealth of Literature,” he says, “in short, Mistry’s is a tour de force first collection, on a higher order than V. S. Naipaul’s first collection, Miguel Street.” This is a robust endorsement and has certainly helped bring attention to Mistry’s work.


Thomas E. Borden

Barden is a professor of American Studies and the Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Toledo. In the following essay, he examines Mistry’s use of humor and symbolism.

Rohinton Mistry’s “Swimming Lessons” is not very dramatic. Very little actually happens in the story and the narrator seems to miss a lot of what does happen until other characters point it out to him. There are some minor social interactions, numerous finely-turned descriptions of scenes from the narrator’s daily life, and several cutaways to his memories and scenes of his mother and father in Bombay. But altogether, it is certainly not the short story as envisioned by Edgar Allen Poe, who invented the genre and thought it should focus on a single compelling dramatic event. Nor is it like the short fiction of James Joyce, whose addition to the genre was the concept of the “epiphany,” or sudden psychological realization on the part of a central character, as an alternative to Poe’s single effect.

Mistry’s closest historical model is the turn-of-the-century Russian writer and dramatist Anton Chekhov, whose “psychological realism” chronicled the ordinary lives of pre-revolutionary Russia’s middle class. While avoiding dramatic scenes, Chekhov gave readers insights into the hearts and minds of his believable and sympathetic, if shabby, characters. Likewise, Mistry explores the loneliness and anxieties of his modern ensemble of unremarkable people. His characters fill today’s sterile apartment complexes rather than estates on the outskirts of Moscow, but the feeling is the same. Nothing happens, sentences never quite get completed, even the title event of the story, the swimming lessons, don’t work out and are quietly dropped. Just beneath the surface, however, the characters lead lives of quiet desperation and make bumbling attempts to reach out to each other. They engage our sympathy because Mistry makes them real and likeable despite their pettiness and quirks.

One of the principal ways he does this is through his subtle use of humor. Like Chekhov, Mistry is essentially a comic writer. His characters’ unfulfilled longings and failures to communicate would be merely depressing if he didn’t convey their optimism, energy, and ability to endure life’s blows with dignity. One need only think of the large-bosomed, muscular Bertha’s overture to the reticent narrator figure to see how integral comedy is to “Swimming Lessons.” Kersi, who has already revealed to us his tendency to conjure up erotic daydreams, speaks to her about the heat going out in his flat. In a great flurry of thickly accented English she scares him with her broad sexual humor. “Nothing, not to worry about anything. . . . Radiator no work, you tell me. You feel cold, you come see me, I keep you warm.” His response is understated and yet precisely phrased in Mistry’s language. “I step back, and she advances, her breasts preceding her like the gallant prows of two ice-breakers.”

The image works because it is weird, funny, and symbolic at the same time. She will “break the ice,” as the cliche goes, and combine her business as apartment manager with pleasure. Mistry’s narrator then adds another detail.“She looks at the old man to see if he is appreciating the act.” We are left with two possibilities—that she is as repressed and frustrated as the narrator, or she is only joking. Or, and here we begin to rise to Mistry’s bait and psychoanalyze her, maybe she only thinks she is joking. The next thing we learn about her is that she was screaming loudly at her husband. Not long after this her husband and son leave her. Her complexity as a character deepens and she becomes both a stereotypical Eastern European comic figure and a realistic, suffering human being facing her coming old age alone.

Another example of Mistry’s comic touch in “Swimming Lessons” is the Portuguese Woman, whom he reduces to a two-dimensional cliche soon after introducing her into the narrative. She becomes “PW,” a hovering, snooping presence whose only joy in life is waiting by the elevator and keeping absolutely current about events in the apartment complex. In one of the few threads of the story

What Do I Read Next?

  • Such a Long Journey (1991) is Mistry’s first full-length novel. It is about an ordinary middle class man from Bombay’s Parsi community named Gustad Noble who becomes unwillingly entangled in the corruption of Indian national politics.
  • Dubliners (1914), James Joyce’s famous short story collection about the people of Ireland’s capital city, is a work Mistry has said was very influential on him. Like Mistry, Joyce was living away from the city he depicted when he wrote and relied heavily on his personal memories of his hometown.
  • Midnight’s Children (1981), which first brought Salman Rushdie a wide audience and won Britain’s Booker Prize, is an allegory about the birth of independent India. It is a good introduction to this important Indian writer.
  • The Things They Carried (1990), by Tim O’Brien, is a collection of interrelated short stories about a platoon of soldiers in the Vietnam war. This powerful set of narratives, like Mistry’s work, focuses on memory and the relationship between individuals and the groups to which they belong.
  • Alice Munro’s 1990 Friend of My Youth is a good introduction to a Canadian writer many critics have compared to Rohinton Mistry. Her short story collections depict the rich human connections of small town life in Ontario, Canada.
  • Starting in the 1930s, R. K. Narayan wrote tales of everyday life in the fictional South Indian village of Malgudi, often said to be his hometown of Mysore. Swami and Friends (1935), his first collection of Malgudi stories, is a good place to start reading Narayan, India’s best known English language writer.
  • The stories of Russian writer and playwright Anton Chekhov are similar to Mistry’s stories in their sympathy with the lives and struggles of unspectacular middle-class people. Some outstanding stories are “A Dreary Story,” “The Butterfly,” “Terror,” ” Lady with a Pet Dog,” and “In the Hollow.”

that builds to a climax, the narrator increasingly mocks her until she realizes she is being mocked. She is incensed because he is a member of a more recent and “less acceptable” immigrant group than her own yet seems to understand the chaotic scenes going on around him. When she tells Kersi two women were sunbathing in bikinis by the parking lot, he responds by saying “That’s nice.” When she tells him Bertha filled six big black garbage bags with autumn leaves in her frenzy of work that day, he responds with, “Six bags! Wow!” The finale of these exchanges comes when she informs him that the old man’s son came to take him on a drive in his big beautiful American car. “I see my chance,” he says, and shoots back at PW,“Olds Ninety-Eight.” His comment on this exchange reveals the power struggle that he knows has been occurring. “She does not like this at all, my giving her information. She is visibly nettled, and retreats with a sour face.” As with Bertha, the comic atmosphere takes a turn and we see a psychological reality behind the two-dimensional figure of PW. She yearns for some measure of respect, some position in the apartment complex. She wants to have something of importance, even if it is only the latest news.

One critic of the story took Mistry to task because he “frequently makes extremely sexist observations about women.” But the over-wrought political correctness of this criticism misses an important point. These observations are essential to the humor that permeates “Swimming Lessons.” Furthermore, they are indispensable to its psychological realism. It is true that the narrator is constantly ogling women, but it is always only from a distance and in his imagination. And things never work out for him in this area. The bikini sunbathers turn out to be middle-aged women with varicose veins and sagging bottoms. They become like the comic Bertha when they take on the role of sexual aggressors in the laundromat. Kersi has hesitated to remove their clothes, which have finished drying in the unit’s only two dryers, because he thinks it will offend them. When the women come in, they tell him he needn’t have waited, that he should have taken them out. When one of them suggestively adds, “You can touch my things any time you like,” the narrator is not pleased. This is not his idea of a good erotic offer. His disgusted response is to call her a “horny old cow,” not to her face, of course.

As this case illustrates, the humor in Mistry’s narrative is characteristic of the sort that Sigmund Freud noted in his 1905 treatise “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.” Freud suggested that the psychological sources of comedy are those things we have deep anxieties about, sex, nudity, violence, death, etc. This idea helps explain Kersi’s bumbling encounters and lonely fantasies, which are funny but also embarrassing and usually of a sexual nature. Akin to the bikini sunbathers’ daydream is his fantasy of meeting a sexual partner at his swimming lessons. When he buys new swimming trunks he worries that they will be too skimpy to cover him sufficiently if he becomes aroused at the lessons. With this thought he launches into a confession to the reader that he hopes he will encounter a gorgeous woman, become aroused, and thus attract a fantasy partner, who will be unable to resist his “delectable Asian brown body.”

This confession prepares the reader for his account of the swimming lessons. Knowing his high romantic expectations gives us a simultaneous interior and exterior view of the subsequent events. On arrival, Kersi is immediately disappointed that his dream lover is not among the students, but he quickly settles for a less than ideal substitute. His lovingly detailed description of her partially exposed pubis around the edges of her bathing suit (probably what the critic of his sexist observations was referring to) reveals his dreamy disconnectedness to the actual scene he is in. No wonder he doesn’t learn to swim! Later, the instructor has him go to the deep end helped along by a pole and net, but he is terrified, almost sinks to the bottom, and accuses the teacher of being “an irresponsible person,” again, not to his face.

When the object of his desire shows up at the next lesson having shaved her pubic area, he loses

“Just beneath, the surface, however, the characters lead lives of quiet desperation and make bumbling attempts to reach out to each other. They engage our sympathy because Mistry makes them real and likeable despite their pettiness and quirks,”

heart for the entire thing and drops out. Reality and fantasy do not seem to come together very well for the narrator. But from our reader’s perspective, we grasp the Chekhovian comic-sadness of this lonely but persevering immigrant. He is trying to have a life. These sad-comic scenarios suggest that there is both a surface and a deeper symbolic level to every character and every element of the story. The old man in the lobby playing his guessing game about his age is just a “slice of life” in the apartment complex; but he also becomes emblematic of a general human longing for company and communication. The narrator begins to realize this after he associates him with his own grandfather back in India and remembers his mother’s advice that one should be nice to old people because they can bestow blessings on people, even after death. But when he resolves to find out the old man’s name, it is too late. He has died.

Mistry discloses his view of symbolism in fiction early on in the story when his narrator muses aloud that “symbols, after all, should be still and gentle as dewdrops, tiny, yet shining with a world of meaning.” This is perhaps the best possible literary gloss on “Swimming Lessons,” since it comes from the author’s surrogate himself. The writer declares that he crafts his work to contain “worlds of meaning.” But his narrator immediately goes on to pose a problem by asking—“But what happens when, on the page of life itself, one encounters the ever-moving, all-engirdling sprawl of the filthy sea?” Beneath this beautiful sentence lies a defining issue of psychological realism. How does a writer depict “real life” as he or she sees it, but also provide the symbolic meaning essential for successful fiction?

The answer is to find those things in reality that innately function at a symbolic level. And then, of course, he/she must write so precisely that readers will not say, as Kersi puts it, “how obvious, how skilless.” Water as a symbol, for example, is important enough for the narrator to single it out for comment. Kersi says “water imagery in my life is recurring.” With a title like “Swimming Lessons” this should not be unexpected, but in choosing water, Mistry consciously plays with our symbolic expectations. Ordinarily, water equals purity. Going under the water, as in a baptism, symbolizes death to an old life and rebirth to a new one. These are standard western symbolic meanings, but Mistry blurs them and disrupts our expectations in subtle ways. In his symbolic lexicon, water is not only Judeo-Christian but also Zoroastrian, and he provides us with fitting analogs in the story. The squeaky clean high school pool in Toronto is juxtaposed to the filthy sea of Bombay. To the western mind water is pure. To the Parsi tradition only fire is wholly pure; water may be good and bad simultaneously, reflecting the ever-present struggle between good and bad that is the bedrock of the Parsi faith. Just as Ahriman and Ahura Mazda struggle at the cosmic level over good and evil, so water can be religiously clean but grossly polluted in actuality.

In fact, this water-borne struggle between purity and filth is woven through the story. Freud would appreciate how blatantly erotic images keep popping up and “dirtying” the situation whenever water is invoked in the narration. A telling example, and surely the most startling water image in “Swimming Lessons,” is that of the guttersnipes—the naked Bombay urchins who used to expose their “buoyant little penises” in the garbage-strewn waters of Chaupatty Bay when he was a boy. They would splash around pretending to masturbate as Kersi’s “Mummy” tried to teach him to swim. After such an image, the chlorine-clean pool and the female student’s out-of-place pubic hairs seem tame. Later in the story, when Kersi overcomes his fear of going under water and totally submerges himself in his bath tub, he finds a strikingly similar image to the one that excited him so much in the pool. As he opens his eyes to look around in his newly conquered underwater realm, he discovers a hair caught in the tub drain. He describes it in very similar wording to the student’s pubic hairs.

The numerous scenes that pit purity against dirt, the body, and sex lend an unmistakable Freudian tone to the story. The narrator drops hints about all of this, the most obvious being his concluding comment on the bath tub episode. Kersi says, “The world outside the water I have seen a lot of, it is now time to see what is inside.” This thinly veiled reference to the unconscious points the reader to the psycho-symbolism of the story and heightens reader interest in Kersi by presenting him in all his complexity, “inside and out.”

Of course, sex is not the only sub-text of “Swimming Lessons.” Although his frustrated libido is the most obvious facet of the narrator’s interior life, there are other things going on in there. As Freud’s student Carl Jung pointed out, there are human motivators besides sex. An important one in “Swimming Lessons” turns out to be the yearly change of the seasons. For writers from temperate climates, this has been a time-honored trope. James Joyce, for example, used winter to stand for dead-ness of the soul in “The Dead,” the final story of his Dubliners sequence. But to the immigrant Kersi (and in the hands of his immigrant creator Mistry), the symbol seems fresh and new. That the seasons anchor the story can be readily seen by noting how the first sentences of so many paragraphs remark on them. Kersi recalls that he read about snow and winter in British adventure books when he was a boy in Bombay (a tropical city on a parallel latitude to Jamaica). But in Toronto he experiences the real thing.

After taking us around a full year, through a rough winter, and to the symbolic end point of the old man’s death, Kersi blithely states, “The dwindled days of winter are all but forgotten. . . . I resume my evening walks, it’s spring and a vigorous thaw is on.” The elevator door has been oiled and no longer squeaks. He remembers that the spring class for adult non-swimmers will begin in a few days at the high school and, as hope springs eternal in the new blossoming year, he decides to sign up and try again. Here is a symbol readily available from, as Kersi put it, “the page of life itself.”

Source: Thomas E. Barden, Overview of “Swimming Lessons,” for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.

Elisabeth Piedmont-Marion

In the following essay, Piedmont-Marton compares and contrasts the two-halves of the “split screen” of “Swimming Lessons,” Toronto and Bombay, and the narrator’s perception of events in his life with reality.

In “Swimming Lessons” a young Indian immigrant, Kersi, describes his daily life in an apartment building in Toronto. Woven into his narrative, however, are imagined scenes from his parent’s apartment in Bombay. The story is constructed like a split screen, with the narrator’s life and story telling on one side, and his parents ten thousand miles away reading his letters and stories and commenting on them. The swimming lessons that the narrator signs up for are also a metaphor for his attempts to negotiate the foreign waters of his adopted country.

The story opens in media res, or in the middle of things. The narrator, whose name is not revealed but is recognizable from the preceding stories in the volume, is describing the cast of characters who live in his building, but he does not reveal his writerly ambitions. He mentions his family back in Firozsha Baag, in Bombay, but his attention is focused on his late grandfather. He does not reveal anything about his parents’ lives at the present or about his relationship with them. It’s the old man who sits in the lobby of the apartment building that brings the narrator’s thoughts back to his childhood in India: “He reminds me of Grandpa as he sits on the sofa in the lobby staring vacantly at the parking lot.” When he recalls his grandfather’s decline from Parkinson’s disease, osteoporosis, and finally lung cancer, the narrator expresses regret that he should have done more to ease his last days. Twice he says, ‘I should have gone to see him more often.” Visiting his grandfather would have been all the more important because, as his mother said,“the blessings of an old person were the most valuable and potent of all, they would last my whole life long.”

When the scene suddenly shifts to India, it is unclear whether Kersi is present in this memory, if he is imagining it, or if it is happening during the same time period when he introduces readers to his neighbors, like the old man and the Portuguese Woman. Soon though, it becomes apparent that the scene is Kersi’s parents’ apartment on the day they receive a letter from him in Toronto. The letter fails to live up to its promise however, and both of his

“For Kersi, swimming and water imagery are important themes in his life, and anticipating his first adult swimming lesson prompts him to revisit his attempts at swimming as a child in India.”

parents are disappointed that their son chose only to write about the weather and what his apartment looks like. Since readers have had a glimpse of Kersi’s close observations of the rich details of his life in Canada, they, too, may wonder why, as his father says, “everything about his life is locked in silence and secrecy.”

The dramatic contrast between Bombay and Toronto is underscored by another striking disparity. Kersi’s inner life is rich with detail and humor, while his outer life, to all observers, must appear lonely and isolated. His father isn’t the only one who thinks he lives a life “locked in silence and secrecy.” For Kersi, for example, an encounter with some women in the elevator is filled with heroic details and romantic possibilities. After watching the two women sunbathing from his window, Kersi races downstairs to arrange an accidental meeting. But the women are not what they had seemed to be from the window, and standing in the elevator with them, he is disappointed to see that they do not resemble the characters he has created in the ongoing story in his head. “The elevator arrives and I hold it open, inviting them in with what I think is a gallant flourish. Under the fluorescent glare in the elevator I see their wrinkled skin, aging hands, sagging bottoms, varicose veins. The lustrous trick of sun and lotion and distance has ended.” The women have no way of knowing what role they have played in, and have failed the audition for, Kersi’s inner life.

Another small episode also assumes unusual significance for the narrator. Kersi has signed up for evening swimming lessons at the local high school. When he registers he is struck with the friendliness of the woman at the desk, who, unbeknownst to her, gives him an opportunity to tell part of his story out loud: “The woman at the registration desk is quite friendly. She even gives me the opening to satisfy the compulsion I have about explaining my non-swimming status.” For Kersi, swimming and water imagery are important themes in his life, and anticipating his first adult swimming lesson prompts him to revisit his attempts at swimming as a child in India. When he explains that “The art of swimming had been trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea,” and that “water imagery in my life is recurring,” the narrator reveals his ambitions as a writer. It’s not just his failure to learn how to swim that bothers Kersi, what’s worse is his inability to interpret and arrange the images and connotations associated with water and swimming: “The universal symbol of life and regeneration did nothing but frustrate me. Perhaps the swimming pool will overturn that failure.” The narrator’s memories of swimming in the Bay of Chaupatty are inseparable from his fears and feelings of inadequacy, and these insecurities apply to swimming as well as writing and interpreting: “When images and symbols abound in this manner, sprawling or rolling across the page without guile or artifice, one is prone to say, how obvious, how skilless; symbols, after all, should be still and gentle as dewdrops, tiny, yet shining with a world of meaning.”

Kersi’s swimming lessons will require him to move from the familiar world of the apartment building and his own imagination to the frightening public world where he risks and encounters, failure, embarrassment, and racism. He arrives at the pool for his first swimming lesson weighed down with fears and unreasonable expectations, burdened with old stories from his past as well as the hopeful beginnings of new stories. Kersi’s memories of his childhood swimming excursions evoke the crowded, filthy, and vaguely menacing atmosphere of the public beach near his home in Bombay. Obstacles to swimming there included the filth generated by crowds of “street urchins and beggars and beachcombers,” and by all the “religious festivals [that] used the sea as a repository for their finales.” But for Kersi, the worst thing about trying to swim in the Bay of Chaupatty “was the guttersnipes, like naked fish with their little buoyant penises, taunting me with their skills, swimming underwater and emerging unexpectedly all around me.” Years later, in Toronto, he converts the sexual element of his memories into an erotic fantasy of his own about meeting a gorgeous young woman in the class.

The narrator’s adult swimming lessons are no more successful than his childhood attempts, but on the metaphorical level he makes more progress. Terrified after the first class, he returns only because he hopes to get another glimpse of “the straying curls of brown pubic hair” of one of the women in the class. When even this doesn’t happen, Kersi feels like “the weight of this disappointment makes the water less manageable, more lung-penetrating,” and he never returns to class. Though he has failed to learn to swim once again, the narrator may have made some progress in negotiating the deep waters of fashioning his solitary immigrant’s life, “locked in silence and secrecy,” into the writer’s life to which aspires. Back in the apartment in Bombay, his parents receive a surprise from the postman: not the usual bland and uncommunicative letter from their son, but a parcel, a book of stories. In this scene, the narrator imagines his parents’ joy and his father’s pride at discovering that their son is a writer. Imagining his parents as readers of his work keeps Kersi connected to his childhood in India while he struggles to find his way alone in a strange country.

Source: Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, Overview of “Swimming Lessons,” for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.

Peter J. Bailey

In the following excerpt, Bailey notes thatMistry has managed to “epitomize the important difference necessary to render fiction individual” and “distinctive.”

. . . The other stories dealing with the ambiguities of emigration follow Kersi from his childhood disillusionments with the Firozsha Baag residents through his move to Toronto, the dynamic of the collection moving the action progressively away from Bombay to Canada. By the closing story, “Swimming Lessons,” Firozsha Baag has been replaced by the grim “Don Mills, Ontario, Canada” apartment building where Kersi lives among strangers, watching alien snowflakes fall and indulging himself in sexual fantasies about the women taking swimming lessons with him at an indoor high school pool. The exotic, densely-consonated Indian words which lent such strangeness to the early stories have given way to the “gutang-khutang” sound the building’s elevator makes, and Bombay exists only as a truncated echo in Kersi’s parents’ letters, which admonish him to “say prayers and do kusti at least twice a day,” and which comment on the very stories the reader has come to the end of. Kersi must be “so unhappy there,” his mother concludes, because “all his stories are about Bombay, he remembers every little thing about his childhood, he is thinking about it all the time even though he is ten thousand miles away, my poor son, I think he misses his home and us and everything he left behind, because if he likes it over there why would he not write stories about that, there must be so many new ideas that his new life could give him.”

“Swimming Lessons” movingly dramatizes both the truth and error of Kersi’s mother’s opinion; Swimming Lessons and Other Stories from Firozsha Baag anatomizes the process which has left Kersi dreaming of one culture, living in another, and feeling himself a citizen of neither. In this stunning first work of fiction, Mistry manages to epitomize the “important difference” necessary to render fiction individual, distinctive, even as it affectingly enacts the protagonist/author surrendering up that “different viewpoint.” His book renders simultaneously what is saved and what is lost.

Source: Peter J. Bailey, “Fiction and Difference,” in The North American Review, Vol. 274, No. 4, December, 1989, pp. 61-64.


Cooke, Hope. “Beehive in Bombay.” The New York Times Book Review, March 5, 1989, p. 26.

Garebian, Keith. “In the Aftermath of Empire: Identities in the Commonwealth of Literature.” Canadian Forum, Vol. LXVIII, No. 780, April, 1989, pp. 25-33.

Hancock, Geoff. “An Interview with Rohinton Mistry.” Canadian Fiction Magazine, No. 65, 1989, pp. 143-50.

Hospital, Janette Turner. “Living in Toronto, Dreaming of Bombay.” Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 5, 1989, pp.2, 11.

Kakutani, Michiko.“Tales from a Bombay Apartment Complex.” The New York Times, February 3, 1989, p. C32.

Malak, Amin. “Images of India.” Canadian Literature, No. 119, Winter, 1988, pp. 101-03.