'Squatter' by Rohinton Mistry
‘Squatter’, one of the stories in Rohinton Mistry’s first collection, is a simultaneously thoughtful and funny meditation on cultural differences and the experiences of migrants. Despite its toilet-related subject matter and wit, Mistry uses his story to reflect on the drawbacks of migration and offer a somewhat pessimistic view of the effects of cultural differences on one’s identity and psyche.
‘Squatter’ is a nested narrative that contains two stories told by Nariman Hansotia, to the boys of his Mumbai neighbourhood. The first of his tales is an allegorical story, featuring a polymath sportsman called Savushka, that warns against stretching one’s identity to incorporate several cultures, rather than fully embracing a single culture. The second tale features the eponymous squatter, a young Parsi man named Sarosh who migrates to Canada and who’s resolve to fully naturalise himself into his new culture is undermined by an inability to use Western toilets without squatting Desi-style.
The title of the story holds a double meaning: the first and most obvious meaning refers to Sarosh’s unusual bathroom technique, while the second carries undertones of being geographically displaced, of trespassing as a squatter does, attempting to make a home for oneself on someone else’s land. This duality foreshadows the fact that Mistry’s characters in ‘Squatter’ suffer a splitting of their identities, torn between new and previous cultures that both make claims on the individual’s sense of self. The story opens with the storyteller Nariman, a Mumbaikar who has been greatly influenced by Western culture and its material trappings: a Mercedes-Benz is the “apple of his eye” (a quintessentially American car and a phrase that comes from Shakespeare), and he whistles “Rose Marie”, the title song from a musical set in the Canadian Rockies. But as Nariman tells his stories, his audience and we the readers are offered more detailed analyses of the effects of migration on individuals, which are darker and less superficial than this first glimpse.
‘Squatter’ offers two views of migration, each represented by the two stories Nariman tells: in the first, Savushka’s talents as cricketer, pole-vaulter, cyclist, and hunter are never allowed to excel as he divides his attention between them and does not commit to one. This story advocates holding onto a strong, singular sense of self and resisting the urge to take on competing aspects of a new culture with those of the old. This tension is represented in the text itself, which is told in English yet is permeated with words from Mistry’s native tongue, a postcolonial literary technique that suggests resistance to subjugation by Western language. In the second story, the protagonist commits completely to his new identity, even changing his name from Sarosh to Sid, but his problem lies in the one particular bathroom detail he cannot control. This story is warning against the alienation that can result from being unable to integrate. Together, the stories seem to be saying that adopting fully one’s new culture will prevent isolation and alienation, and one should not attempt to merge cultures or hold onto elements of a previous cultural identity.
Mistry complicates then complicates this by raising the question of whether it is actually possible to fully embrace a foreign culture. Sarosh’s inability to adapt to Western toilets, so accustomed as he is to squatting, is a comical literary device used to demonstrate the difficulties some migrants face in shedding their past experiences and embracing the culture of their new homeland. Sarosh’s toilet troubles extend beyond the lavatory and affect other aspects of his new life, including causing him to lose his job, illustrating how profound the implications of even seemingly innocuous cultural differences can be. The daily, desperate exertion of sitting himself on the toilet “to push and grunt, grunt and push, squirming and writhing unavailingly” leaves Sarosh “depressed and miserable”. With this scatological element to the story, Mistry has identified not only the tension between adapting to a new culture and losing one’s identity, but also the tragicomic nature of this tension: even if the decision is made to conform to a new identity (Sarosh dedicates himself to achieving “complete adaptation to the new country”;), the most unexpected and seemingly insignificant ties to the prior identity (such as one’s method of defecation) can keep one “dependent on the old way”. Curiously and perhaps significantly, Sarosh finally manages to perform his bathroom duties in the Western manner that has evaded him for ten years only when he is on a plane, from Canada back to Mumbai, neither in one place or the other. This suggests the possibility that full integration is a utopic ideal, one that – true to the origin of the word ‘utopia’, which translates as ‘no place’ – exists nowhere in reality.
In one meaningful way, the bathroom represents in microcosm the experience of being a foreigner: in trying to hide evidence of his squatting (he uses toilet paper to prevent “telltale footprints on the seat”;), Sarosh acknowledges that “the world of washrooms is private and at the same time very public”. Similarly, the imperitive to integrate is both externally and internally imposed, and it is both public and private. The ability of foreigners to integrate into a society is a perennial hobbyhorse of public discourse, while the realities of it (such as Sarosh’s problem with toilets) are often kept secret and cause isolation from that society. In this sense, ‘Squatter’ can be read as redressing this segregating secrecy by exposing it to readers.
By the end of his story, Sarosh returns to Mumbai, and just as the city he once knew is now irrevocably altered – even the brand names of drinks have changed “during his absence” and the labels are “different and unfamiliar” – so is Sarosh himself: he cannot find “his old place in the pattern of life he had vacated ten years ago” and he becomes as a result “forlorn and woebegone”. Now, he is attempting to shed his Canadian culture, just as in Canada he was trying to shed the cultural identity of Mumbai. The outcome of his efforts in Canada doesn’t predict a positive result for this new effort.
‘Squatter’ appears to forewarn potential migrants of the difficulties and dangers that arise from cultural differences. The benefits of cultural exchange are limited in this story to material and superficial items such as Nariman’s car, catchy songs, and fizzy drinks, while the problems are more profound and long-lasting. Mistry has tapped into the commonality of migrant experiences of cultural differences, while telling a unique story; the totality of Sarosh’s difficult experience will be widely recognised, though the specifics of his misery are probably quite singular. ‘Squatter’ might therefore be summed up as a rephrasing of Tolstoy’s opening maxim in Anna Karenina: “Each migrant is unhappy and is unhappy in their own way.”