Rohinton Mistry spent his youth in Mumbai, graduating in mathematics from the St Xavier’s College. The dominant influence in his life was the religion called Zoroastrianism which he followed as a Parsi. The city of Mumbai was another influence. His novels portray different facets of life in India, especially among the Parsi community.
Relevance of the Title
White hairs, in this story, are a metaphor for advancing years. Cricket as a game symbolizes the halcyon days when life was stress free and old age not a threat to happiness.
Main themes in the story are the insecurity that advancing years bring, the loss of happier times when life was carefree and the privations caused by lack of money. The narrator’s father is finding it difficult to get a job because he is no longer young; he tries to stop time by having all the white hairs on his head removed. The narrator longs for the days when he and his friends used go with his father for a game of cricket on Sundays.
The narrator remains nameless throughout the story. We see the happenings in the lower middleclass Parsi household through his adolescent eyes. The protagonist has immense love for his father but is tongue-tied when it comes to expressing his feelings. Viraf is his best friend but with him too he finds it difficult to say sorry. He has a nonchalant way of talking that is meant to mask his real emotions. He is a much loved younger son; see the indulgence Mamaiji shows him. At the end his remorse is not that things are changing fast in his neighborhood, friends are losing fathers disturbing the status quo that existed. His remorse is for not being able to cry his heart out, or for not being able to hug his father.
The protagonist’s father is one of those people who always look and sound positive even the cards are stacked against them. He knows that he cannot defeat time by having the white hairs of his head removed. He is jobless at the moment but hopes that something will come his way soon. He is a loving father who desperately hopes to provide for his family. He does not want Percy to be disturbed as he is in college now. He wants his younger son to be able to go to the US to study. He hides his disappointments so that his family stays cheerful. It’s only with his mother-in-law that he argues. Even with her there is no ill-will but he does not like the idea of living under the same roof as her.
The plot is a threadbare one. The protagonist spends a Sunday that is not materially different from any other with his family. The son is engaged in his usual chore of removing all the grey hairs from his father’s head. The father meanwhile scans the Sunday papers for promising ads for jobs. Every now and then, the boy’s attention wavers. The father keeps the banter flowing trying to amuse his wife and son. The maternal grandmother does not approve of several things in the house.
The Sunday removal of grey hair is one. Her daughter’s cooking is another. The boy suddenly loses interest in his task and walks off to read the comics that come with the Sunday paper. That done, he goes to meet his friend Viraf. But Viraf is in no mood for pleasantries as his father is very sick. The protagonist feels guilty that he had not sensed Viraf’s anxiety for his father’s health. He heads home acutely conscious of the sorrows and uncertainties around him. He wants to cry, he wants to hug his father, say sorry for walking away with the task of removing the white hair undone but he finds that though he is wrought by grief inside, he cannot express any of it.
This Sunday is no different from any other. The protagonist who is the fourteen year old younger son of a Parsi family is removing the white hairs from his father’s head using tweezers. While he does that, his thoughts wander. He notices the shabby room in which they are with its peeling plaster. There is not much money and they make do with old things.
The father scans the Sunday papers for job opportunities. He wants to appear young so that he might get selected for a job. That is why he does not want any grey hair visible. In spite of his hardships, the son and the father share a loving relationship. The arrival of the Mamaiji, the boy’s maternal grandmother sets off another diversion. She does not approve of her son-in-law. She thinks it’s wrong to have the boy pluck the white hairs from his father’s head; it will invite bad luck. The grandmother disapproves of her daughter’s cooking too. She feeds the protagonist, who is her favorite grandson, with spicy food which though he relishes, does not agree with his delicate constitution. This causes arguments in the family.
The mother, a long suffering individual, struggles with an old kerosene stove that flavors all the food with the smell of kerosene. His thoughts lead him to remember the days when his father took him and his friends to play cricket at the Chaupatty. Suddenly he abandons the hair removal and walks away to read the comics which come with the Sunday paper. His father wants him to continue but he walks away. Comics read, he saunters off to visit his best friend Viraf. But Viraf is busy helping the Dr. Siddhwa who has come to make a house call. The protagonist does not know why and he engages Viraf in casual banter. Viraf tells him that his father is sick.
The protagonist is guilt ridden at the flippant way in which he had spoken to Viraf when he father had been sick. He is filled with remorse at having abandoned his task of removing the grey from his father’s head. Though chocking with grief, his adolescence does not let him cry or express his love for his father and his friend.
The story begins and ends with references to white hairs. White hair is metaphor for old age and infirmity. The protagonist’s father had been fit enough to take his son and his friends to Chaupatty to train them in cricket. But those days are gone now. Everywhere there are suggestions of mortality. Viraf’s father is very sick and the family fears for his life.
On the other hand, cricket summons memories of fun-filled days when the boys played cricket at Chaupatty in the company of the protagonist’s father. Since the day the father felt a touch of discomfort while playing, cricket has been discontinued.
The story pans out following the memories that fill the mind of the protagonist. Written in first person, it weaves in and out following a stream of consciousness kind of style. The story is fleshed out by memories of various incidents and people who were significant to the protagonist.
1. I resented her speaking against Daddy and calling me a child. She twirled the spindle, drawing the fibres into thread from the scrap of wool in her left hand as the spindle descended. I watched, expecting – even wishing – the thread to break. Sometimes it did, and it seemed to me that Mamaiji was overcome with disbelief, shocked and
pained that it could have happened. And I would feel sorry and rush to pick it up for her.
The protagonist – a fourteen year old Parsi boy lived with his parents, elder brother and his maternal grandmother in a shabby old flat in Firosha Baag. Every Sunday, his father got him to remove with a tweezers, the white hairs that grew on his head. The father was trying to get a job and so it was important to look younger than he was. The grandmother disapproved of this practice, calling it base and unholy. She thought it would bring them bad luck. The boy did not like the task of removing the grey from his father’s head but did not like his grandmother criticizing his father. The grandmother spent much time twisting yarn into thread. When the boy was resentful he would wish for the spindle to fall from her hands. But when that he happened, he would immediately be contrite and make amends by picking up, with alacrity, the fallen spindle.
2. All this bothered me much more than I let anyone know. When the arguments started, I would say that all the shouting was giving me a headache and stalk out to the steps of the compound. My guilty conscience, squirming uncontrollably, could not witness the quarrels.
Though the grandmother lived in the same flat, she cooked separately as she found the food cooked by her daughter to be insipid. She would, on the sly, feed her younger grandson who was her favorite, some of the spicy curries she made. But the protagonist could not digest it well, and as a consequence suffer an upset stomach. This would lead to a war of words between the old lady on one hand and her daughter and son-in-law on the other. The boy, feeling guilty, as he was the cause of the unpleasantness, would escape to the compound until the altercation ended. He was too fond of all of them, and he hated that they were fighting because of him.
3. Daddy reached for a toast and dipped it in the tea, wrinkling his nose. ‘Smells of kerosene again. When I get this job, first thing will be a proper toaster. No more making burnt toast on top of the Criterion.’
The family is managing on very little money. The father is jobless at the present. There are two boys to educate. Life is not easy for them. The mother makes toast on top of a kerosene fuelled stove that imparts the smell of kerosene to the food cooked on it. The father is on the lookout for a job and that Sunday, there was a promising sounding advertisement in the paper. The father dreams of getting the job, and he makes plans for what he would do if he were to get the job. The mother, however, is not carried away like the father.
4. Something – remorse, maybe pity – stirred inside, but I squashed it without finding out. All my friends had fathers whose hair was graying. Surely they did not spend Sunday mornings doing what I did or they would have said something. They were not like me, there was nothing that was too private or too personal for them.
The protagonist, a boy of fourteen, is removing the white hairs from the head of his father as he wants to appear younger than his years for interviews for jobs. The boy does not relish this task. While he is at it, his thoughts wander. First, the arrival of his grandmother with her spindle and yarn creates a diversion. The boy rues the end of their cricket. His father used to take the boys of Firosha Baag to play cricket at Chaupatty. It is a cherished memory for the protagonist. But now his father feels tired after a game so cricket at Chaupatty has stopped. The protagonist feels depressed by the changes that have come to his life. Putting down the tweezers, he picks up the Sunday paper and goes out. His father wants him to continue with the white hair removal. He feels a pang of remorse but stays away. He compares himself to his friends whose fathers were also graying but did not have to do this. He is reluctant to discuss all this with his friends but they readily talk about their fathers.
5. Words to show concern were always beyond me. I spoke again, in that easy going debonair style which all of us tried to perfect, right arm akimbo and head tilted ever so slightly. Come on yaar, what are your plans for today.
The boy is going to meet his best friend, Viraf. He sees Viraf accompanying Dr. Siddhwa up to his flat. The protagonist signals to his friend but he does not respond. He waits for a while and then walks up to Viraf’s third floor flat. On the way up, he meets the doctor, going down. He does not know why the doctor has come on a professional visit. Viraf looks upset. The protagonist like many adolescents is not able to show emotion so he puts on a nonchalant attitude and speaks in a teasing way.
6. I wanted to weep for myself for not being able to hug Daddy when I wanted to, and for not ever saying thank you for cricket in the morning, and pigeons and bicycles and dreams and for all the white hairs that I was powerless to stop.
The protagonist, an adolescent, is tongue tied when it comes to saying anything emotional. He is wrought with grief inside but cannot express himself. He is grief stricken that his father is no longer the sprightly young man he once was, he shares Viraf’s concern for his father and he feels upset that his mother has to slave over the Primus stove but to none of them can he say a consoling word. He is guilty and wants to cry his heart out for the words he has left unsaid.
1. The Parsi family live in a shabby flat that desperately needs repair. Pick out three descriptions that tell the reader this.
2. The father is unemployed but does not appear at any time to dispirited. In fact he does not lose his sense of humor. From the story pick out two examples of this.
3. How is the protagonist the catalyst for the war of words between Mamaiji and his parents?
4. Cricket at Chaupatty is the protagonist’s fondest memory. Describe a typical Sunday when things were good in the household.
5. Later, the protagonist is guilty about the heartless way in which he spoke to Viraf. Why?
6. Why can the protagonist be called a typical adolescent?