From Translated from the Gibberish: Seven Stories and One Half Truth
The plot of Anosh Irani’s story “Mr. Molt” sounds like a low joke. A grieving mother in Mumbai becomes convinced that her dead son has been reincarnated as a baby penguin in the local zoo; she convinces her mob boss husband to organize a couple of goons to kidnap the penguin and bring it to her.
Told in this bare bones manner, the plot sounds like a romp and, indeed, Irani’s story is very funny. But the author – who is one of Canada’s most versatile writers – is not content to operate on one level only in his fiction. Thanks to Irani’s skill and attention to character, “Mr. Molt” also becomes a meditation on parental loss, an analysis of the permeable borderline between grief and mental illness, and a study of how far a husband might be willing to go to alleviate his wife’s pain.
The mother in the story is Reshma Gawande, whose young son Keshu died after contracting dengue fever from a mosquito bite. Reshma has been prescribed an anti-anxiety drug called Zapiz (“0.25 mg of some fairy dust that prevented her from tearing her hair out”) as a result of her ongoing distress over Keshu’s death. “In her case, loss had found a permanent home inside her,” Irani writes. “It had immigrated there, crossing the borders and walls of her heart, threatening to remain forever.”
The verb “immigrated” is an interesting choice here, given Irani’s preoccupation with the dual subjects of immigration and exile in his fiction. “Immigrants speak in fragments,” Irani writes in the essay that bookends his story collection. “This is their language of choice – or rather, this is the language that has been chosen for them. Incoherence. The inability to understand, to be understood.” It is perhaps worthwhile to ask whether something like this is going on with Reshma: does she suffer from an inability to comprehend what her grief is trying to tell her about the death of her beloved son? Is this immigrant to her heart speaking in fragments that appear incoherent to her? Is this why it is characterized as an interloper crossing borders uninvited? Is Reshma unwilling or unable to do the work required to carefully listen to what her grief is trying to tell her?
In any event, her evident malaise drives her to see signs and symbols everywhere, including a poster advertising a school of Humboldt penguins on display at the Byculla Zoo. After convincing her reluctant driver, Lalit, to transport her to the zoo, she catches sight of a baby penguin in a red T-shirt (indicative of the fact that the penguin is celebrating a birthday). Through a combination of coincidence and apparent magical thinking, Reshma convinces herself that this penguin, known as Mr. Molt, is in fact the reincarnation of Keshu.
What solidifies this belief in Reshma’s mind is Mr. Molt turning his backside on the gathered visitors in the zoo – the same action her son would perform if he was uncomfortable in a crowd. Reshma has also received council from the family purohit – a priest or spiritual adviser – who has assured her that Keshu would return to her. She accepts the purohit’s words as literal truth, which frustrates her husband, the local mob boss Bakul.
Much of the comedy in “Mr. Molt” arises from the disparity between Bakul’s reputation as a fearsome gangster (he has just overseen the murder of his rival in Mumbai) and his absolute failure to get his wife to back down from her delusion about Keshu and Mr. Molt. “It was the expression on her face that terrified him. Unlike the man he had killed, Reshma grew stronger by the minute. Stronger and calmer. So resolute in her intention, a general at war.” (This assumes, of course, that Reshma is in fact delusional. Some readers might have the opposite reaction and truly believe along with her that Mr. Molt really is her lost son Keshu.)
Irani highlights the disparity between the hyper-rational Baku and his tormented wife by zeroing in on Reshma’s single-minded devotion to her son’s memory, which she understands as a source of strength beyond what her husband is capable of. “A mother’s love is always deeper than a father’s. A mother will go to any length to save her child, to bring him back. Men are weak; they did not go the distance. If they could, nature would have endowed them with the ability to bear life, to carry it within the womb like a small planet.”
The irony here is that Reshma must rely on her husband and his two enforcers – Mohan and Tapas – to enact the kidnapping of Mr. Molt from the zoo. While she has the strength of a mother’s love for her child, it is the men of action who must physically steal the penguin from its enclosure. Bakul has Lalit stash guns in the zoo (buried directly under the ass-end of a mouse statue); the two bickering kidnappers will use the weapons to subdue the guards after the zoo closes and spirit Mr. Molt away.
The banter between the pair of kidnappers is inspired comic writing. “Look. … There’s the mouse.” “Is that Mickey Mouse?” “No. … It’s just some unknown mouse.” And the race through the city in a van with the purloined penguin screaming and thrashing around in the back is a scene of high physical comedy.
There is plenty to laugh at in “Mr. Molt,” but the central themes of the story are deadly serious and cut to the heart of how human beings deal with death and loss. Whether reincarnation is real or simply a psychological balm to soothe a fractured psyche, it provides a powerful driving force for Reshma, who will not rest easy until she is reunited with her lost son.
“I believe in reincarnation. But I pray it isn’t true,” Irani writes in his essay. “Life is so generous. and so bountiful in its pain. I do not wish to come back to this planet, to bask in its unforgiveness.” Reshma, like her creator, is no stranger to the bountiful pain this life offers. Her tragedy, if one may speak of such a thing, is her inability to come to terms with loss and find the mental fortitude that will allow her to move forward. This is a heavy, difficult subject, and perhaps one that a comic story is well positioned to treat.