I borrowed Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters from the public library because I wanted to indulge in nostalgia and emotion. There is a certain claustrophobic beauty to Mistry’s works. His novels have a large canvas and are typically set against turbulent times of political upheaval in India’s recent history. But the narration is tightly focused on a group of close-knit people, whether it is family or friends or just a random set thrown together by circumstance.
Family Matters is even more dense than Mistry’s previous work. This is partly because of the backdrop in this novel. Mistry has set the arc of his main characters against the rise of Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundamentalist group that came into prominence during the early 1990s. But the party’s goons are bit characters; they move in the shadows. The novelist’s unwavering attention is on the lives and problems of three generations of a Parsi family and their complicated relationship with each other.
Seventy-nine-year-old Nariman Vakeel is a retired professor of English literature, who lives in a big house with his middle-aged stepson and stepdaughter, Jal and Coomy. Vakeel is afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. On a walk one day, he breaks his leg. The doctor advises complete bedrest for a month and prohibits any form of walking, including visits to the bathroom. Stuck to his bed and incapacitated completely, Nariman lapses into depression. Jal and Coomy, who do not have much experience in caregiving, hatch a plan to offload Vakeel onto Roxana, their younger stepsister.
Roxana Chenoy lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her husband and two sons. This change of residence and its effect on Roxana’s family as well as her relationship with her brother and sister forms the crux of Mistry’s story.
As the novel progresses and the disease takes control of Nariman’s body, we learn more about his past. Memories of a love affair resurface as he begins talking and crying in his sleep. The situation is made worse by Jal and Coomy, who invent excuses (even going to the extent of breaking the plaster on their ceiling) to prolong his stay at Roxana’s place. In the meanwhile, Roxana’s husband, Yezad, loses his job. A death in the family brings about a change of residences.
Just when you think that the events and incidents in Family Matters are careening towards a conclusion, Mistry inserts an epilogue which details events five years later. There is a conclusion; but it not a happy state of affairs. It is, as one would say of most things that happen in a family, not an unhappy one either.
Mistry has said that he originally wanted to invert Tolstoy’s quote about happy families being alike (at the beginning of Anna Karenina) at the beginning of his work. In essence, he wanted to show that all unhappy families are alike as well. But the novel is a labor of love to the Parsi community. As a Parsi himself, Mistry shines a brilliant light on this world. They are the sole focus of this novel. Through his characters, he criticizes and praises their eccentricities. And there are many of those for they are the most British of all Indian races. In fact, there is no historical record of their life before the British. As a result, their customs and rituals are an odd mix of Hindu rituals and Western culture. Even as they apply the sacrificial red dot with rice (a Hindu custom) on birthdays and eat spicy food that would bring tears to most Indians eyes (this one included), their tastes in music and language are almost totally Western. Their language is an odd mix of Gujarati and English. Western classical music (as opposed to Bollywood) is an essential part of their growing up years.
In its structure and scope, Family Matters resembles nineteenth century family sagas, except that its setting is modern Bombay. Family Matters is about unhappiness. Each character in the book is a bundle of sadness, weighed down by past and present circumstances. For example, Coomy harbors memories from years ago and, in unguarded outbursts, blames her father for their mother’s death. Roxana’s husband Yezad resents his father-in-law’s intrusion into their home and the added expense. Roxana, who is the most generous and understanding of all characters in the novel, also has misgivings about the arrangement.
But the novel is also about happiness and love. There are moments of quiet understanding and love. Yezad takes to cleaning after his father-in-law. Jal gives extra cash to Roxana’s family after Yezad loses his job. Roxana’s younger son Jehangir, a sensitive child, performs several acts of kindnesses.
That said, Family Matters does not have the fluid narrative of Mistry’s earlier novel – A Fine Balance. Frequently, Mistry digresses into long speeches and inside jokes about Parsi culture. He also uses language and references that may be unfamiliar to some readers.
(I am especially curious about how John Updike’s understood the numerous Gujarati words that pepper Mistry’s narrative. Though I suppose the problem is not new; several novels about Jewish identity have Yiddish words that may be unfamiliar to non-American readers.)But, all said and done, Family Matters is still a wonderful novel. It is a valuable snapshot of Parsi life and a novel about the complexity of love in large families.