The ‘white hairs’ are a symbol of age and death in Mistry’s story, from its in media res beginning to its closing words, shaping the young narrator’s discovery of mortality.
The gradual loss of natural hair colour and the encroaching grey or white are classic signs of advancing age; the reader understands the portrayal of the father’s vanity as he demands ‘Every-single-white-hair-out.’ The presentation is gently comic, but there is also an element of the grotesque. The young narrator admits that it is ‘unappetising work, combing through his hair greasy with day-old pomade’ and uses the frank adjective ‘repulsive’ for his task. The boy’s grandmother agrees, protesting that the job is a ‘duleendar thing’, suggesting it is almost taboo. She also refers to it as ‘An ill-omened thing’, communicating significant disapproval.
Mistry includes in the narration a number of other details about the father that confirm his advancing years and gradual decline. The boy is aware that ‘the elimination of the white hairs took longer than the last time’ and enumerates several other signs of ageing, such as ‘the lines on Daddy’s forehead’, ‘His thinning hair’ and the ‘stubble on his chin flecked with grey and white.’ All these details, as well as the narrator’s exclamation ‘How tired he looked, and how his shoulders drooped’, confirm that the father’s searching the newspaper for new jobs is one that is destined for failure.
Mistry’s style is satirical, creating a mocking humour by opening the gap between what characters think and what the reader realises. This becomes acutely apparent when those physical descriptions are weighed against the father’s enthusiasm for a job advertisement: ‘Yes, this is a good one. Sounds very promising.’ The reader already recognises the gulf between the job and the father, but Mistry takes it further to demonstrate his self-delusion with the grandiose wording of the listing: ‘A Growing Concern Seeks Dynamic Young Account Executive, Self-Motivated. Four-Figure Salary and Provident Fund.’ It may sound like a dream job, but ‘Growing’ is a key word to contrast with the ageing man; all the narrator’s observations have portrayed his father as the direct opposite of ‘Dynamic’ and ‘Young’.
It is also clear that this is a weekly ritual, which implies that he has found several such advertisements before and has not enjoyed success with any of them. It happens ‘week after week’ but the only result is ‘disappointment and frustration.’ The boy’s removal of the white hairs has played into the façade of the family’s belief in him, but this time there is a jarring note as mother comments that ‘Nothing happens when you plan too much.’ It seems that even the time for dreaming is coming to an end.
Mamaiji’s Thread of Life
Other signs of change surround Father’s whitening hair and fading dreams, and the boy’s grandmother has a significant role. Though she is a forceful, vibrant woman who cooks ‘fiery, ungodly curries’ to share with the narrator, she has an ‘infirmity that caused her to walk doubled over’, which masks her former self. The boy is aware that she ‘had been a big handsome woman, with a majestic countenance.’ The contrast is key, the language chosen emphasising the shift from the statuesque qualities of ‘majestic’ to the enfeebled ‘doubled over’.
It is tempting to see further symbolism in her spinning. She spins fine thread to provide the family with beautifully woven ‘kustis’. As she ‘twirled the spindle’, she resembles the Moirai, the Ancient Greek Fates who spin the thread of life. Mistry’s story includes a man who is on the verge of death, so the reader can recognise the metaphor when the narrator ‘watched, expecting… the thread to break.’ It is also significant that the thread which Mamaiji spins resembles ‘a lock of her own hair, snow white’, a recurrence of the story’s central symbol of mortality.
The game of cricket, so popular in India (the story is set in Mumbai), also has a part to play in this tale of decline, as the title indicates. The first reference to the game is a memory of success and joy, a vivid portrayal of ‘The ball’s shiny red fury’ as it hurtles towards the narrator in the outfield. There is the painful depiction of ‘the audible crack’ of the ball on his shin as he fields it inexpertly, but the pain is mitigated by the memory of his father’s praise, calling it ‘a brave thing’. The boy remembers that ‘Daddy had clapped’ and it is clear that it remains a high point in his relationship with his father, fondly remembered. Even at this point in the narrative, though, it is acknowledged that the event ‘was all a long time ago, many months ago’.
By including this reference first, the reader is aware of the cricket matches’ decline even as they read about their inception, so the games’ growth is always shadowed by this foreknowledge. The father is central to the boys’ cricket; he ‘took anyone who wanted to play’ and it became ‘a regular event for the boys in Firozha Baag’. It is a community activity, showing father lively and involved, but the reader already knows ‘It had been along time since we last played cricket.’
In this case, the narrator gives the reader the precise moment of collapse. It is not gradual, like the increase in the number of white hairs, but traced to ‘one Sunday, halfway through a game,’ when ‘Daddy said he was going to rest for a while.’ Again Mistry presents a direct contrast between past and present, as the narrator observes that his father suddenly ‘seemed so much older than he did when he was batting or bowling leg breaks.’ The plosives of ‘batting or bowling’ suggest energy to contrast with the way the assonance stretches and emphasises ‘so’ and ‘older’. And that is the moment that ‘the games ended.’
The key moment of recognition, or epiphany, in the story, is the illness of Viraf’s father. Mistry prepares the reader by the sudden shift from humour to seriousness in his account of another friend, Pesi. In true schoolboy fashion, Pesi tells comic tales of his father’s flatulence, complete ‘with authentic sound effects’ before the paragraph suddenly ends with the abrupt sentence ‘His father was dead.’
Viraf’s story is prefaced by the ominous presence of Dr Sidhwa, an early indication to the reader that there is significant illness. Again Mistry uses the gap between the character and the reader’s understanding, but the effect here is painful and poignant, with none of the earlier comedy. The narrative juxtaposes the reader’s recognition and concern with the narrator’s carelessness. The reader recognises the seriousness of the doctor’s visit, but the narrator accuses Viraf of ‘buttering up the doctor’ and asks him about the visit tactlessly, failing to read the signs when Viraf ‘turned away’ and ‘looked upset’. The narrator registers no concern even when Viraf’s ‘voice shook’. Mistry presents him as heartlessly imperceptive, especially when he accuses Viraf of being ‘such a cry-baby.’ The reader sees that in the gathering of neighbours there is the implication that Viraf’s father is very ill, possibly terminally, but the narrator suggests games, ‘Ludo or Snakes-and-Ladders.’
However, coming directly into contact with Viraf’s father’s sickness brings revelation, so striking that the narrator ‘sneaked’ away ‘without a word.’ The olfactory detail begins the shift as the narrator comments that the ‘smell of sickness and medicines made’ the room ‘stink’, but it is Mistry’s use of visual details which have the greatest impact, creating the image of a helpless man surrounded by medical paraphernalia: ‘a tube through his nose… a long needle stuck in his right arm’ which ‘glinted cruelly’. The personification in the final adverb suggests that the medical equipment is malevolent rather than beneficial, and the father’s ‘stone-grey face’ already suggests lifelessness.
This epiphany makes the narrator’s ‘face flush… with shame’ and with it comes the wider recognition of the inexorable process of ageing and the inevitability of death. The final paragraph of the story is a reflection not just on mortality, though, but the narrator’s own self-centredness and ingratitude. Earlier he dismissed Viraf as a ‘cry-baby’; at the end of the story he himself ‘felt like crying’. This admission is followed by a long sentence, each clause listing each of the signs of aging and mortality that have featured in the story, ending as the story began with ‘all the white hairs that I was powerless to stop.’
As well as the circularity of the story, beginning and ending with the ‘white hairs’, the ways Mistry has structured the story accentuate its concerns. The present and the past are intermingled throughout, gradually creating a full picture.
The full account of the growth and decline of the cricket matches, for example, develops through three separate sections. The first is placed towards the beginning as the narrator extracts the hairs from his father’s scalp; the second is prompted by the argument about the Criterion stove; the final one occurs as the narrator waits for Viraf during Dr Sidhwa’s visit. This last one is particularly telling, as it places the father’s fatigue and abandonment of the cricket games within the section about Viraf’s father, creating a direct link between them. Although Viraf’s father’s body is noted for its ‘rotundity’, while the narrator’s father is ‘slim and wiry’, they are linked by ageing and mortality.
The connection between the fathers is also made by the reference to the tweezers at the end of the story. When the narrator returns to his own apartment he notices that the tweezers ‘glinted pitilessly’, a close echo of the needle which ‘glinted cruelly’ in the arm of Viraf’s father. Cricket and white hairs are closely linked, and all fathers age and die.
Narrative methods to consider:
- first person narration